Looking back on the tournament, my favourite moment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was when Luis Suarez chose to manually block Dominic Adiyiah’s header, thus denying Ghana a certain goal and – in a slightly convoluted way involving a missed penalty and a shoot-out – sending his Uruguay side to the semi-finals. With an arguably typical lack of contrition, Suarez claimed to have made ‘the save of the tournament’ when asked about his actions after the game: he was aware, it would seem, of the severity of his rule-breaking but simultaneously ironised it. Why did he do this? I suspect that the tongue-in-cheek nature of his response arose out of an intuition that apologising would be inauthentic, and could in no way represent a genuine desire to have acted otherwise in the first place. His original calculation had been one that judged that his intended violation could incur no punishment severe enough to damage his team to a degree likely to gift the match to Ghana, a nimble application of game theory which reveals that the ‘laws’ of football have a hidden expansion pack which make the dimensions of the sport much more complex than they are generally claimed to be.
Along with many others, I wanted Ghana to win that game. It was a tough choice – Uruguay had also been one of the tournament’s more likeable sides – but the possibility of seeing an African team through to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever swayed me. Indeed, I was initially furious with Suarez for his indiscretion, and racked my brain for ways in which Uruguay might be adequately punished – perhaps the shoot-out result could be scrubbed, and a goal awarded to Adiyiah, I thought. After a little consideration, however, this began to make sense only within a rather particular sense of what ‘fairness’ constitutes. For the game’s greater good – or the greater goods that the game might bring about – it started to appear better that these unpredictable violations and errors of official judgement be maintained within football’s broader ontological structure.
Of course, that World Cup had already provided a significant example of how football’s essence can very often be glimpsed in those instances when the ontological blueprint is smudged. With Germany leading England 2-1 in the first knockout round, Frank Lampard’s shot came off the crossbar and landed behind the line. The referee and linesmen did not spot the ‘goal’; the rest – Germany subjecting their rivals to a humiliating lesson in pace and invention – is history. Of course, the English media cried out for digital technology to be used for making close line-calls, and laced their editorial with spurious objectivity by pointing out that the issue of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal in the 1966 World Cup Final could also be settled conclusively.
At the time, I didn’t agree with this (the denial of a goal to Lampard was actually pretty amusing), and the Ukrainian ‘ghost goal’ last night has failed to convince me differently. Football is, of course, on one hand a set of comprehensively-codified rules which dictate what can and can’t be done with the ball by the twenty-two men on the pitch. But this is a limited phenomenology. For the full effect of football to be appreciated, one needs to think about those moments in which an infraction is felt most deeply and why such an impression is made. Ghost goals are, as their name suggests, an uncanny experience: they’re neither of nor not-of the game, and problematise our somewhat neurotic attempts to describe sporting boundaries. The affect they bring about is strangely similar to that which comes about when a piece of fiction exceeds or rearranges the terms of its diegesis or narrative world, namely the ‘shudder’ that Theodor Adorno describes in Kafka and which is also one of the most notable responses people have to Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s also a staple of some forms of fantasy literature, and is linked fundamentally to the more self-reflective ontological jolts of postmodern literature and cinema.
Essentially, what I’m arguing is that much of football’s force as a public experience rests on the moments when it transgresses itself. There are obvious instances of this – every one of the game’s sociopolitical ramifications, to begin with – and there are those which are inscribed in its very fabric precisely because they are not the rules. Goal-line technology is, to cite a common and perfectly valid objection, yet another form of technocracy-in-action, and will deny the strange nobility of human error its part. More worrying, I think, is the threat that it will remove part of the ontological chafing that gives football, which is secretly always more than ‘just’ football and the rule-book, its real allure.
Posted by Joe Kennedy