There was a disturbing incident towards the end of England's game against Denmark on Wednesday. With Wembley already wreathed in traditional low-season friendly gloom and the match meandering to a close, two men sitting near the press seats suddenly stood up and started punching each other. Not that this was odd in itself. In fact at first there was almost something comfortingly old school about the sight of lumpen middle-aged men garbing and panting and hurling their useless wrist-flapping haymakers. Going to watch football as a child in the 1980s this tended to happen quite a lot, the whole experience shot through with lurking certainty that at any stage it could all "kick off". In fact, as a natural coward I've noticed I still carry around with me at all public gatherings the conviction, buried deep down, that "it" could still end up kicking off. Work Christmas parties. Parents' evenings. The affordable art fair in Battersea Park. Stay close, I'll be growling out of the corner of my mouth, checking the exits, sweatily scanning the crowd. This could kick off. Seriously. Just kick off. Any second.
If there was something unusual about this particular punch-up it was perhaps just the sense of worlds colliding, the spectacle of everyday senseless violence set against Wembley's familiarly soft-pedalled family-schmaltz backdrop. As the fists flailed a pair of passing buffoons in George Cross jesters' hats tried vaguely to break it up. A row of hospitality-packaged faces looked around for a steward or a waiter or a tour guide to intervene. Where was David Beckham? Do we sing Jerusalem now? In fact there was a weird, nightmarish aspect to the whole scene, like an Evensong service where halfway through Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending the vicar starts rolling up the sleeves of his surplice to show off his tattoos and insisting on selling you a knocked-off bag of meat.
Looking back both major football matches staged at Wembley this week provided a reminder of how things have changed inside our stadiums, and how profoundly controlled and interventionist the staging of large sporting events now is. As ever Sunday's Cup final was overwhelmed at both ends by the usual jabbering amplified voices, those blaring interruptions and nudges and shoulder-taps – an exploding mega-trophy, a giant plastic football, a modern dance trapeze artist whirling the Capital One Cup around in a state of apparent sensual ecstasy – while in the background, peeking through the sheen of managed fun, Sunderland and Manchester City fans simply got on with the business of already being excited about football.
Elsewhere the Six Nations has experimented this season with a more theatrical staging, most notably the England team's new ticket-shifting gladiatorial pre-match Twickenham car-park walk. Even Test cricket has fallen for the bombast, the Ashes series last summer marred most notably by the unusually upbeat rendition of Jerusalem before play each morning, William Blake's finely-wrought, oddly ambiguous poetical preface – the entire first verse a series of questions, the answer to all of which is "no" – as reinterpreted by a particularly jovial bingo caller. Somebody please give that man his arrows of desire. He's been asking for weeks.
Of course, English sport has a grand history of this kind of thing. It was at Euro 96 that television first turned its cameras decisively on the crowd, crystallising the notion of the new participatory face-painted mega-fan, no longer a mob on the fringes but cajoled centre-stage as part of the product. For the first time sport and its trappings could be retailed more broadly as a kind of soft-focus lifestyle option, the football supporter completing an unlikely re-branding from outcast skinhead vandal to dutifully gurning replica-shirted footsoldier of the new leisure economy, a place where suddenly everybody is a fan, where the self-contained operetta of the Premier League fills the skies, where the natives speak banter, and where naturally everything, everything – mate, everything – is awesome.
It would be easy to argue that this is all harmless enough, but there is plenty that is cheerless in the commodifying of our sporting periphery. It is easy to forget how controlled and managed every single public space in which top level sport takes place has become. At the end of the 1981 FA Cup final replay, as Steve Perryman waggled the Cup around on the royal gantry, a random Spurs supporter leapt up out of the crowd, grabbed the Cup, stood there for a bit, and then just wandered off again. Try that today and you'd be shot by snipers and then repeatedly tasered while the TV cameras cut to an emergency Newsnight special.
Not that things were necessarily better – or safer or less full of hate – in pre-modern times. Football in the 1980s had the feel of an unloved affair on the margins of things, ill-fitting, abandoned, played out in crumbling corrugated grounds. Odd as it seems now there was a real fear that football might simply die out altogether. Instead something else happened, a complete consumer-led transformation at the top end, to a degree that the immediate experience has been irrevocably transformed, altered – some might argue – into one giant conjoined strobe-lit homogenised assault of incoherent corporate sales-fart.
Some things have undoubtedly been lost along the way. "Get ready for more live international football action from England and DENMAAAARRRKK!!" the stadium announcer barked at the start of the second half on Wednesday night, destroying at a single stroke the sense of ancient, soothing listlessness that had begun to droop over Wembley, a quality of unmanaged tedium that remains, for all the noises off, a part of the game's enduring appeal, its deep footballing soul.
Nobody will mourn the disappearance of the hateful herd or the lone middle-aged scrapper. But there is still a rare kind of freedom to be found in the crowd, sport's own vanishing wild frontier. Resistance to the managed fun of the mega-stadium era may be futile. But it should still be resisted, if only for the bad old days' sake, and for the memory of all that terribly mismanaged and unprofitable freedom.