I think anybody who saw France’s capitulation to Spain can agree that Florent Malouda, a footballer who is to footballing what Adam Mars-Jones and Philip Hensher are to novel-writing, should have made at least some effort to pick up Xabi Alonso as he burst forward to get on the end of Jordi Alba’s cross and score the first goal of the evening. ITV’s Jamie Carragher took very little time to highlight Malouda’s utter disinterest in shoring up his side’s flimsy defence during the half-time punditry, and – had I been born in Dijon rather than Darlington – I’d be pretty adamant that the Chelsea something-or-other should never pull on the bleu ever again. That said, I was astounded by Roy Keane’s contribution to the analysis. He began in typically Keanian spirit, saying somthing along the lines that any professional should have internalised the idea that tracking back when one’s team is in trouble is a fundamental part of the game. However, this swiftly turned into generalisation. ‘It’s human nature,’ he blurted, in his (arguably reasonable) concern to make sure that Adrian Chiles knew what he was talking about.
Is it ‘human nature’? There’s a Marxian approach to Darwin that says the wrong elements of Origin of Species were emphasised in Victorian Britain, as ‘competition’ was elevated above ‘mutual aid’ in an effort to naturalise certain basic principles of industrial capitalism. Certainly, evolutionary science might do well to play up the theory that we’re hard-wired to help each other out rather than to snipe, undermine, and generally look after our own ends. It might serve as a corrective to lunk-headed Mail blog commentary about ‘common sense’, at least, and we might begin to put to bed timewasting hair-splitters such as ‘altruism is really just another form of selfishness’. However, Keane – who I’m normally a big fan of – got under my skin tonight. The implication wasn’t that providing assistance to those in need of it is an inherent human trait, I think – it was that football-mindedness is something we’re all secretly given to. It was a claim for the game’s universality based in its alleged similarity to lived experience which, to me, demeans football’s particularity, cutting away the aspects that make it different from other team sports.
The claim that football is somehow a pure analogue of human experience in general doesn’t work for me. It might serve as a pathway into broader concerns, but its inital spark lies in its difference rather than in its similarity. By that, I mean that it produces a skewed image of what-we-do-the-rest-of-the-time which serves as a vantage point onto the everyday: that’s to say that modernist poetry or painting offer more valid points of comparison than realist fiction or drama. Every attempt to make football into a simile for day-to-day life falls short somehow, and I’d be willing to bet that we’d turn our backs on it pretty fast if a point-for-point metaphorical exchange was possible. Of course, social factors are huge influences on how football is played in a given location, but these are the starting points of tactical trajectories rather than objects of unimpeded mimesis.
By Joe Kennedy