With the great Alan Latchley’s inspirational Dare to Fail philosophy ringing in my ears, I spent part of this week considering the similarities between top-level international football and television dramas. We are constantly being told that we are living through the latter’s golden age, and, if the quality of today’s opening games is anything to go by, the former is also in pretty fine fettle. In order to progress my deliberations, I began to imagine the main contenders for Euro 2012 as characters in one of the shows that illustrates television’s current cultural hegemony, AMC’s Mad Men. The show is feted for many things, including its style, the quality and diversity of its characters, and its general ability to arouse in the viewer an empathy for people they might possibly dislike (or even despise) in real life. In many ways, these are qualities we seek from an international football tournament. To bravely, and stupidly, contradict Latchley, football is nothing unless it is about something, and what it is about is ensemble drama.
Watching Russia last night, I was reminded of Roger Sterling, the WASP-ish co-founder of Sterling Cooper, the company where the bulk of the action in the show takes place. Sterling, like the Russia of recent vintage, is characterised by a sense of swashbuckling adventure that borders on self-destruction. Russia were brilliant last night, but it’s hard to imagine any other Euro 2012 contender continuing to play in such an attacking manner while two goals to the good. They were lucky that their Czech opponents could not convert potential opportunities into goals, just as Roger is so fortuitous to have been born with such wealth and affable charm. Also, based on the bizarre – and occasionally hilarious – posts on his website, it’s not hard to imagine Andrey Arshavin enjoying an LSD trip with his wife.
For many, the star of Mad Men is Peggy Olson, whose rise through the ranks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reflected the changing nature of American society in the early sixties. Her transformation is not unlike that of Joachim Low’s Germany. Despite sustained success at the highest level, (West) Germany were always respected rather than loved. Like Peggy, they initially got by on their organisational skills and sheer determination. In recent times, however (arguably since their successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup), the functional nature of their national team began to give way, as a new generation of technically brilliant young players emerged. Mesut Ozil’s eminent displays at the heart of the German team mirror Peggy’s development into a uniquely imaginative, more rounded contributor to the firm’s creative output. Like Germany, she now thrives on ingenuity as well as mental strength.
Pete Campbell, on the other hand, sees a different route to the top of the advertising world. While he is not lacking in creativity or technique, he prefers to rely on craft, guile and an almost ruthless will to win. In this, he resembles Italy. Euro 2008 is now remembered for the technical brilliance of the ultimate victors, Spain. However, if their semi-final penalty shoot-out had gone differently, we might have found ourselves speaking of champions who seemed almost as content to prevent others having fun as to have it themselves. Five minutes watching Campbell in action, and the similarities are impossible to escape.
‘We are playin’ Four, Four, F**kin’ Two!’
And what of Don Draper? One of modern television’s behemoths, the magnitude of his creative genius is often overwhelming. His character overpowers even the most self-assured of his colleagues and opponents. So he’s Spain, obviously. However, Don has a past littered with mistakes and personal disappointments, which often come back to haunt him at the worst possible junctures. Only six years ago, Spain started their World Cup campaign so brightly and brilliantly that a friend from Granada refused to listen to any counsel that did not foresee ultimate victory. Alas, their efforts were sabotaged by flaws that were all too recognisable. Will they continue to dominate the international scene, or will the mistakes of their past come back to haunt them?
There are many other parallels. Dutch football has had more than its fair share of creative yet outspoken individuals who have clashed, often publicly, with their colleagues. Stan Rizzo has a lot of that about him. Harry Crane must see himself in Ireland’s performances under Trapattoni; uninspired, lacking in imagination or genuine quality, but cute and organised enough to make a little go a long way. The decline of Portugal and Czech Republic, great teams from the past often more likely to embarrass themselves as they are to regain the love of the neutral with their swashbuckling performances, calls to mind the lowest point in Freddy Rumsen’s professional career.
However, beyond the teams and characters, there is another important connection to be made. Mad Men is known for the slick exteriors and stylish presentation. It is so fashionable that Don Draper’s silhouetted pose during the opening credits has inspired a pop-culture movement. However, the show is not great because of its style. It is great in spite of it. Beneath all the sharp suits, sexy skirts and uber-cool offices and apartments are the real strengths of the show; the great characters, the brilliant dialogue, and the constant surprises. On the surface, football has become so slick, so packaged and so bloated. Its commercialisation is not without its unpleasant aspects. However, no matter how many seats are sacrificed for bigger pitchside hoardings selling us stuff we don’t even really want, the hidden depths will never go away. Ultimately, football will continue to be all about people doing things you never expected them to do.
Posted by Flann MacGowan