Monthly Archives: May 2014

Football’s Counterfactual Draw

So the local and European elections are over and we’ve all had a chance to digest, or perhaps indigest, the results. It’s been a victory for the politics of fear all around Europe. This in itself would, in some ways, not be so bad if these fearmongering politicians represented some kind of realistic point of difference, in as much as – from a sort-of accelerationist point of view – it would draw a line in the sand. Perhaps it would force people to take some kind of active political position rather than the incoherent status quo where most people would seem to prefer the policies set forth by the Green party and despise those proposed by UKIP, yet ended up voting for the latter in significant numbers for the local elections and by a landslide in the European elections, registering arguably the most mainstream-friendly political protest in history.

That we English lemmings falling off the cliff of neoliberalism appear to have voted en masse for a message that boils down to ‘leave us alone, we want to build a bigger cliff so ner’ is depressing, but it does lead us to the first minor what if…what if the Greens had received the same kind of publicity as UKIP? They’re a flawed party, for sure. Too middle class, too white and too bizarre in some corners. To touch briefly upon the football they are something like the Yeovil Town of politics. You’re glad they exist but ultimately they’re a little bit rural West Country – both club and party probably have beards and, you can’t help but suspect, genuinely and enthusiastically love folk music but feel deeply suspicious of hip-hop, even when it’s articulating their politics as well as folk ever has (with due apologies to west country, folk and Yeovil Town fans for my gross stereotyping here. Come and find me in Brixton some time and I’ll buy you a cider). But they have ideas, they have a positive vision for the future, and those two things alone make them a true alternative to the business-as-usual represented by the media-styled ‘big four’, and one that, like a St Pauli, could well attract a rather large following if only people heard about them on a regular basis.

All of which rambling brings me to the major what if I end up contemplating whenever I’m depressed by election results (i.e. every time there’s an election) or whenever I hear visionary statements in support of the working man and the future of our species from the Labour party such as  ‘we’ll try and freeze energy prices for a bit’. Epic. That what if is John Smith. What if he hadn’t died? Now I know older heads among you have no doubt lived through a number of disappointing Labour governments, but viewed through the lens of my life span those Labour governments seemed almost incomprehensibly socialist compared to the present collection. I was only sixteen at the time of New Labour’s election but even then it was apparent that Labour would have won regardless, and in John Smith they had one of the last of a dying breed – a non-career politician who appeared to have actual beliefs based on actual life experience, who had some understanding of the lives of the working poor and who didn’t see at least some aspects of socialism as if they were an electoral death sentence. While it’s entirely likely that he would have been a distinct disappointment to genuine socialists, it’s also hard to imagine him having embarked upon the orgy of privatisation-by-stealth initiated by Blair and Brown’s government, policies which laid the foundations for many of the coalitions most hated ‘reforms’ – privatising the royal mail, laying open the NHS and the transference of state schools into private hands via academisation.

Why do I indulge in this whatiffery time after time? Like picking at a scab it serves no useful purpose, it merely reopens old wounds. In this respect I am a typical football fan. Instead of the late Mr Smith, consider Wayne Rooney. The latter stands out more in the what if stakes. At 17 in those matches in that European Championship he was a genuine protégé. Those early glimpses were of a player fully deserving the hype being bestowed upon him, and, O joy for all true Englishmen, the French players were absolutely shitting themselves at his every touch. Then there were his breakthrough performances against Switzerland and Croatia. He went off injured early in the quarter-final against Portugal and, though we played reasonably well for the rest of the match, we had lost our catalyst, a player who in those early matches seemed capable of lifting England out of its grey backdrop of major tournament failure.

It is something akin to this whatiffery that Colombian and Uruguayan fans have tortured themselves with regarding their respective icons Falcao and Suarez. Both are phenomenal players who do possess that transformative power of the individual who can lift the whole team: Suarez in particular has shown consistently that he can lift the good to the sublime, bringing the best out of his teammates too in a way that Falcao can’t emulate. Realistically, though, Falcao would have been disappointing if he had made it and Suarez probably will be if does. Falcao has been out since January; even if he had made it there would have been no hope whatsoever of him being sharp. Suarez is a bit different. He is a physical phenomenon possessed of a peerless will to win, but no footballer can transcend human embodiment (except perhaps Erhun Oztumer). Injury, or a lack of fitness, prevents peak performance. The spirit will be there, no doubt, but the flesh will still be weak.

These are all, however, examples of slow burning, lingering what ifs. The causes and consequences play out over weeks, months and years, never subject to that sense of powerfully diverging pathways that create some of most memorable moments in life, for good or ill. Even in the case of John Smith’s death the factions of neoliberalism existed around him and would have had a part to play regardless. Even Thatcher needed her ‘vegetables’ – politics cannot survive on meat alone. No, the truly heart-rending or ecstasy inducing what ifs are those destiny-altering ones at which the paths of cosmic possibility seem to diverge – the chance-which-is-not-chance encounters which, in mythology or religion, tend to be taken as proof of fate or divine will. What if, for example, Steven Gerrard never does win the title? Well, then his what if will become a kind of ultimate, meta what if, a what if moment that other what if victims in footballing history will console themselves with, or perhaps tell younger players about as a profound warning to ‘buy some proper fucking boots, son’.

Thirty-eight games. Fifty-seven hours worth of football distilled into that fraction of a second where his boots went and Demba Ba started racing away and you could see the ball hitting the back of the net before he even touched it, where for a Liverpool fan the whole season flashed before your eyes and you knew, you knew for sure right then that it was over, all over, the dream gone, the dream dead, the dream killed by what Italians call ‘ironic destiny’ while,  if you were a Manchester City fan, your heart soared, you couldn’t believe it, this was ordained, this was destiny, this was God pointing his finger down on you, like in those shit old lottery adverts, a beam of light from the fucking sky assuring you that this time it’s yours, the rest is noise, this is where you won it, it all turned on this moment, a moment that will test the capacity of every replay function ever devised – your memory, your match report, your VCR and nowadays, joyously, your GIF of that moment plastered everywhere you could possibly post it. A what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin, the ultimate what if, and football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.

(Editor’s note – footballing counterfactuals are explored at some length in this episode of SotB’s sister podcast This is Deep Play)

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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The Aesthetics of the Slowgoal

With the start of the World Cup now in sight, Saturday’s continental amuse-bouche provided numerous questions for contemplation. Will teams adopt the furious pressing of Diego Simeone’s saveur du mois, or will the individual triumph over the collective as with Real’s neo-galactico ‘project’? Will the relentless narratisation of Diego Costa’s return ‘home’ be undermined by injury? And, most importantly, will a single goal scored at Brazil 2014 be as satisfying as Diego Godin’s lolloping header?

It may have lacked the physical dynamism of Gareth Bale’s extra-time leap or the risible histrionics of Ronaldo’s penalty but, make no mistake, the Uruguayan’s goal was a thing of exquisite beauty. Inching its way to the line at a testudinal pace, the heat and fury of El Derbi madrileño temporarily abated as the ball eluded Iker Casillas’ frantic efforts at retrieval – a rare, almost elegiac, hiatus in 120 minutes of relentless aggression and speed. Godin’s goal bore all the hallmarks of a classic of its genre; the glacial pace, the high loop and multiple bounce before reaching the line, and most importantly of all the fact that the strike failed to make the net twinge, let alone bulge.

Empirically, of course, all goals are identical – the “they all count the same” mantra trotted out by six-yard sniffers and last-man lurkers since time immemorial. And yet, once a goal is stripped back to its aesthetics, empiricism becomes the victim of a metaphorical heave into touch by an anvil-footed full-back. There are numerous more obvious candidates to transcend the status of mere notches on the scoreboard – the long-range howitzer, the intricate tika-taka bagatelle or Messi-esque slalom – but none, for me at least, can match the exquisite sight of a ball trundling apologetically over the line. The Slowgoal.

Previous World Cups have been littered with efforts like Godin’s, many of which endure as staples of the popular consciousness. Francois Omam-Biyik’s winner against Argentina in Italia 90’s fabled opener is perhaps the purest of its ilk; a header dribbling from the moment of impact, slowed even further by the fumbling of Nery Pumpido on its way to brushing the corner of the net. Here the genesis of an improbable World Cup story the Slowgoal can be divine, but it can also be diabolical. As a child, I had the image of Andreas Brehme’s deflected, looping free kick seared onto my memory for a number of years. 24 years on, I still flinch on recall – the slowness of the ball’s arc lending an unwelcome viscerality to a foggy memory.

What lies behind the beauty of such goals? What makes them so satisfying? There’s an element of schadenfruede, without doubt. Such goals inevitably – indeed, are required to – involve a degree of scrambling panic, usually on behalf of an unfortunate goalkeeper. This tempting of the ‘keeper – whose raison d’etre is to prevent the ball from reaching the net – offers up a teasing glimpse of fulfillment, before snatching it back. This fleeting offering lends the Slowgoal an existential grandeur to sit alongside the slapstick.

It’s not all reductive sneering, however. In the Epicurean model, two types of pleasure exist – the fulfillment of immediate or corporeal desire (moving pleasures) and the satiation of underlying or cerebral desire (static pleasures), commonly defined as the difference between eating a meal and lounging back full and contented following that meal. The inference is, of course, that the latter can be considered superior, existing as it does on a spiritual or philosophical level. Goals, ordinarily, are moving pleasures because they fulfill an immediate desire, with immediacy – the transition from foot to ball to net to joy taking place over fractions of seconds and before the full range of possibilities can be perceived. The phenomenon of the Slowgoal, on the other hand, can be rendered as an Epicurean static pleasure, the duration of time it takes for the ball to trundle over the line allowing sufficient scope for simultaneous contemplation of both the event and post-event satiation – a paradox fashioned from the deferred inevitability of what is to follow.

Finally, there is an element of satisfying counter-intuitivity at play. The spheroidal physics of the ball – dynamically attuned as they are to trajectory and velocity – lend themselves to force. Throw a child a ball, and their first instinct is not to caress but to pelt as hard and far as they can – an atavistic desire to demonstrate physical prowess of which the resulting inability to sublimate can be traced from the public school codification of the rules to the continuing failures of the England team at national tournaments. Flick through any football comic, and the narrative is exclusively comprised of veering top corner rockets by men with names like Hot Shot Hamish and Net Knack Norton (I made one of those up) that both play up to, and feed into this atavism. To see the ball fluffed into an unmoving net thus confounds our expectations and base desires – becoming less a ‘ghost goal’ than a ‘false goal’; a barely credible interpolation. This epistemological difficulty is compounded if the Slowgoal is performed deliberately, when it becomes an almost transgressive act by the attacker – a willful subversion of the norms in order to humiliate or deceive the opponent.

This offers up two additional fronts within this paradigm, the first being a particular favourite: the slow-motion lob. Over two decades on, a youthful memory of Peterborough’s Worrell Sterling equalizing at Leeds Road in a play-off semi final still stirs the embers, whilst Daniel Sturridge’s ludicrous goal against Everton this season – a lob so preposterous the ball brushed the lower troposphere before dropping back to earth – will doubtless remain with me for a further twenty years. On the world stage, one of the rare moments of genuine delight during the tepid 2010 World Cup came with Kamil Kopúnek’s slow and looping lob that put the seal on the Italy’s miserable attempt to defend their title, thought whether Gianluigi Buffon will look back with similar fondness is questionable.

The second, and perhaps most aesthetically enduring example of this sub-genre comes with the Panenka. Nearly forty years after Antonin Panenka sent his insouciant spot-kick spinning into the centre of a Stadin Crvena Zvezda net, the mixture of bemusement and delight the conceit provokes shows no signs of abating. That England’s exit from Euro 2012 failed to provoke any of the defining gnashing and smashing that customarily greets shoot-out failure was down in no small part to the fact a majority of fans were so befuddled by Pirlo’s penalty that the standard language of reaction ceased to be of use.

In a sport increasingly, and fatuously, obsessed with the neoliberal prototype of steroidal uniformity – a relentless effort to make every tournament more exciting, more important and more profitable than before – the Slowgoal provides a refreshing and levelling anti-narrative that enables us to glimpse the real allure of football through the pervasive sheen.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Meaning of…Bailey Wright

One question that might legitimately be asked of this series of articles is, “for whom?” Although its implied demythologising intent is probably best read with tongue at least partly in cheek, any attempt to excavate the “meaning” of some thing or figure is deserving of scrutiny. There’s a force to the the which is apt to put any keen dialectician on the defensive: where are the lines of truth and error being drawn here, how do they map onto some wider picture of those who know and those who don’t? Who is claiming the authority to speak on behalf of Diego Costa or Edin Dzeko, to what end, and on what basis?

My aim here is not to derail a series which has produced some precise and luminous analysis over the last couple of weeks: none of the writing so far has in any case been so vain or joyless as to suggest that it speaks from some position of unquestionable truth. However, briefly pausing over the matter of the way that pieces like those mentioned above frame their inquiry and interpretations is worthwhile, not least as a preamble to an alternative angle which haunts the wings of those pieces and which entered the stage in the Steven Gerrard and Ross Barkley articles: that of the fan. Plainly, we apply different interpretations to individuals and situations when they concern our team. All too often these interpretations are merely groundless: in my lower ebbs, I have a keen sense that Rotherham cheated Preston North End out of a spot in this year’s League One Playoff final through some nefarious combination of financial doping and anti-football. Of course, my own personal account of the meaning of the Millers’ 3-1 home victory in the tie’s second leg diverges somewhat from the more popular account, which prefers such signifiers as “meteoric rise” and “Ben Pringle”. Strip away the anguish and the paranoia and the latter account is almost self-evidently of greater, more focused and more judicious interpretative value. But this is a hysterical example, premised on the kind of hypertrophied and intensely-focused negative affect that we all know is liable to cloud our judgements. What about the “meanings” that are produced in a similarly partial way, but in tandem with delight rather than despair?

“Delight” is the word for it. Although Preston’s season ended with an all-too-familiar whimper, it was a marked improvement on the past few years of relegation struggle, financial gloom and fleeting, alienating managerial appointments. Furthermore, its meaning will forever be fixed for me as the season that I rejoined the fold after over half a decade living too far away from Deepdale, without sufficient disposable income. I attended away games for the first time – two raucous victories over Tranmere and Oldham. I was in the Town End when Joe Garner scored that goal. I was also present for the dismal pre-Christmas defeat to Brentford, a match which, after a wave of optimism in the Autumn, sent a clear signal that there were teams in this division a great deal better than us. Reconciliation with tribal loyalty might not seem the most progressive move, but I maintain that this experience – and I suspect I’m not alone in this outlook – amplified rather than blunted my faculties as far as understanding football is concerned. In the sheer arbitrariness of the view it casts, the experience of tribal supportership can, when experienced with a modicum of self-reflexivity, act in a similar way to Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, which relegate aesthetic concerns as secondary to some determining rule – photograph every building on the Sunset Strip, say, or twenty-six gasoline stations. Levels of contingency ungraspable by less automatic modes of world-picturing creep in, and suddenly the dominant narratives around football seem woefully limited (again, I realise I am preaching guilelessly to the converted here). There is a key difference between the “auto-maticity” of Ruscha’s work and that of the football partisan, however: while Ruscha’s work is characteristically LA cool, the “work” pursued by the dedicated supporter is invested with hot, syrupy feelings of longing, loyalty and filial affection.

Enter Bailey Wright. After Graham Westley almost completely remodelled the Preston squad in his image between 2012 and 2013, and after incumbent Simon Grayson later added his own list of charges, Wright’s was one of the first names I learned, owing to the fact that I initially got it wrong (I read the two names as a double-barrelled surname). Before a slightly shonky run towards the end of the season, Wright was more-or-less dependable at centre-back, and what he might have lacked in individual appeal he made up for by being a weekly fixture in one of the more committed and likeable North End squads of recent years. Only, dig a little deeper and individual appeal was there to be found: Wright had come over from Melbourne, where he had played youth football for Dandenong Thunder and the Victoria State team, at the age of 17, and Preston is his only club to date. Whatever machinations lie behind the scenes, there is something cheering about the idea of a young centre-back halfway across the world eventually fleeing AFL-crazed Victoria and landing in – of all places – Preston.

It feels strange to be warmed by a career move which probably offers further reflection on the status of the “global footballing precariat” described by Joe in his piece on Edin Dzeko, but then again Wright’s foothold in English league football is less precarious than some: with nearly five years under his belt at North End, Wright is almost a naturalised Prestonian. So, by virtue of the cognitive and affective gymnastics characteristic of football partisanship, his inclusion in Ange Postecoglou’s 27-man squad for Brazil feels – against all better judgement – like a friend or cousin being booked to play an early slot at a festival, or in support for some bigger band. There’s a humble sense of grace; nobody else will turn up to watch them play, but they’ll be part of the big bash nonetheless. As a supporter of a habitually sub-top-tier team, major international tournaments provide a very small window for club-oriented participation. Those few players that do make it at international level tend to play for teams too small to make it to the finals: North End’s other senior internationals are currently gaining caps for Jamaica and Gibraltar. David Nugent’s one goal for England, lest we forget, came in a failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, in a match against Andorra. Assuming he makes the final cut then, Wright will join that pantheon of rare and unlikely World Cup stars that also includes his compatriot Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town), Iran’s Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic) and the suspiciously Caucasian Port Vale veteran Chris Birchall, who represented Trinidad & Tobago back in 2006. Once in Brazil, Wright might not make it into a single starting eleven, and he might be powerless to hold back Diego Costa and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar if he does, but his name and affiliation have made it onto a World Cup squad list, and one shouldn’t underestimate the meaningfulness of this to a select few thousand, chosen by some random accident of geography.

Posted by Luke Healey

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Meaning of…Toni Kroos

 

An old colleague of mine once remarked that, although Freudian psychoanalysis is supposed to bind sex and death together, in practice Freudians tend to emphasise either one or the other. In one camp, you’ve got the lusty gatherers of phallic symbols, the rigid Oedipussers; in the other, the thanatotic worriers over transience. I’ve never quite decided whether or not I properly constitute a Freudian, so I’m unsure as to what kind of Freudian I’d be or, if I am one, I am, but I think I tend to find the post-World War I Freud, the doomy, negating Freud of ‘The Uncanny’ and Beyond the Pleasure Principle slightly more engaging.

Toni Kroos plays for Bayern Munich. The city of Munich makes me think of doomy Freud via its dual iterary associations with the glum, bereft bit of modernism. It’s where von Aschenbach feels the onrushing death of desire – what Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones called ‘aphanisis’ – in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; it’s also where those disinherited, displaced aristocrats faff around drinking coffee and fretting about the end of civilisation in Eliot’s Waste Land. This, of course, will be the sketchy justification I use to claim that the German midfielder, who I remain to be convinced by as a player, has of late allowed us to understand something about how tödlich-Freud might interpret a particular aspect of fandom.

Kroos spent the second half of the season just gone being ‘hotly tipped’, as they say, for a move to sporting-colossus-turned-professional-crisis-club Manchester United. He was, and it seems necessary to ontologise the idea through the use of capital letters, The Solution to United’s Midfield Dilemma. Last week, however, we learned that Kroos, who quite a lot of Reds were already tacto-grooming, did not want to join and would most probably remain in Munich to do civilised Central European things in the Hofgarten.

This, of course, is not the first time in recent memory that United fans have built an emotional relationship with a player out of nothing but transfer speculation, the pseudohard news of sport, only for the bride not to turn up for the wedding. Last summer, the protracted (TM) non-signing of Cesc Fabregas seemed to traumatise the club. In fact, in narrative terms and even perhaps in footballing ones, Fabregas was United’s most important ‘player’ in 2013-2014. His not being there intensified into a sort of negative presence, a glob of antimatter whose voidal obnoxiousness dictated how United played, namely appallingly.

Freud argued in his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that the loss of someone or something loved – through their death, the end of a relationship, even the loss of a favourite pen – is responded to in two ways. Mourning involves a negotiation with the reality principle followed by the development of a new attachment – a new ‘cathexis’, in Freud-speak – which might be apprehended in more banal, pop-psychological terms as ‘moving on’. Melancholia, by contrast, is being ‘hung up’. No new cathexis occurs; instead, the lost object undergoes incorporation or ‘introjection’ in the fantasy life of the bereaved, acting as a drain inside the psyche down which libido trickles.

Having believed Fabregas was theirs for so long before the transfer became a non-event, United seemed to fall into a state of abject melancholia. The signing of Marouane Fellaini represented not a new cathexis, but the acquisition of a monumental representation of Fabregas’ loss, a Salfordian Taj Mahal. Now, United seem to be falling into a pattern, a compulsive jiiltedness which starts to look more and more like an elongated failure to properly mourn midfielders past. Perhaps, then, it’s time to roll out what may be the most niche pun in the history of joking and start talking about FCUM – Failed Cathexes United of Manchester.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Nike, Adidas and the Sports Branding World Cup

Over the last decade, major tournaments have become as much a showcase for sports brands and product placement as they have for the sport itself. Billboards are adorned with new footwear, energy drinks and more as brands attempt to tap into the national anticipation of a World Cup. The marketing usually employs exoticism based on the host nation to lure in the public combined with recognisable footballers.  This year, Lucozade have added a Brazilian twist with a new guava flavoured drink, while Pepsi’s latest ad sees Messi, Aguero et al. joshing around to a backdrop of favela-chic.

However, the major battle for brand supremacy is always fought between the superpowers of Nike and Adidas. They want the World Cup winners to be wearing their shirts on the podium, and scoring goals in their boots. Nike’s advertising went through something of a golden age around 15 years ago and their new material is usually worth watching. It probably started with the Seleçao at the airport ahead of France 1998. In 2002, the Scorpion Football campaign ushered in a new era of the mega-advert. Terry Gilliam was given a multi-million dollar budget to direct the memorable promo using the concept of a knock-out cage tournament. Finally, Thierry Henry’s “Sorry Boss” ad had an element of humour that few adverts are really able to capture.

In their new campaign, both Nike and Adidas have used a similar premise; this is very much the individual over the collective and the idea that one player is capable of lifting his side to the next level. This is part of football’s “cult of self”, where the players with the greatest will to succeed to do through a combination of ability and selfishness. Oddly, this style is reminiscent of an old Guinness advert in which a hurling player is promised a “hero’s welcome” if he scores the winning points.

Nike’s 2014 advert is superficial at best. A group of boys playing a game of park football, transform into their idols (Ronaldo, Neymar etc.) whilst showing off the latest sports range. It’s fun, if a little ridiculous, but lacks the originality of their back catalogue. The short ends with one of the boys scoring a penalty while the world watches on, as we are told emphatically to “Risk Everything”, Nike’s slogan for this summer. There’s not much more to it than that, other than reinforcing Nike’s traditional mantra that the winner will take it all.

This is disappointing because their ad for the last World Cup managed to imply this same message a lot more astutely. Vacuously entitled “Write the Future”, the ad shows a series of imagined World Cup moments with two possible outcomes. It illustrates the dichotomy between hero and villain that is created from individual on-pitch moments and also brings in some of the wider political context in which the game is played.

For example, a misplaced pass from Wayne Rooney that results in a Franck Ribery winner against England not only leads to personal misery but national catastrophe as the stock market crashes. There are hints at civil disorder, eerily similar to the 2011 London riots that would take place the following summer. The alternative version sees Rooney sprint back to tackle Ribery and, we can assume, lead England to glory. Rooney is knighted, the economy booms and a generation of babies are named ‘Wayne’. Thus we are reminded that football is a zero sum game in more ways than one; a players’ action will simultaneously catapult his own name into stardom whilst ruining his rivals’ reputation but these events also have the capacity to influence the nation in a manner of ways.

Adidas’ latest effort is captivating for similar reasons. Artistically it pays homage to the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, where the camera followed the player for 90 minutes.  This focus on a single player emphasises the pressures that rest on their shoulders. The main man in the campaign is Messi and it is hard to think of a player with more expectation to deliver at this World Cup, other than possibly Neymar. The ‘cult of self’ is also reinforced by the soundtrack. A new track entitled “God Level” by Kanye West (perhaps one of  the greatest egoists ever), hints at an elevation to god-like status that a World Cup-winner would enjoy.

Despite these common themes, the Adidas ad seems more pertinent because it is framed with a measure of socio-political awareness. As Messi arrives in Brazil, he is greeted with abuse from a young group of boys and a gaggle of journalists; the reception from locals and the media alike will be hostile. As the beat in West’s track builds tension with a whining crescendo that sounds like a siren, a flurry of on-pitch clips flash across the screen until a brief scene shows mounted police keeping a group of Brazilian protesters at bay. It is this image that is most intriguing because it shows Adidas have acknowledged that this World Cup might be greater than what takes place simply in the stadia.

We go into this tournament with a sense of unknowing. To what extent will this undercurrent of unrest bubble over the surface once the World Cup is up and running? Would a Brazilian triumph be able to unite the nation and quell some of the protests? Neither Nike nor Adidas has an interest in making an overtly political statement ahead of the big event and their primary concern is market supremacy. However, these corporations are now able to garner so much influence through football as an ultra-globalized form of mass culture, they may feel some sense of paternalist responsibility. Judging by their latest efforts, it seems like Adidas have considered this to a greater degree than Nike.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Wilshere – Gove Axis

Most bank holidays don’t provide this much fuel for liberal outrage. Alongside the success of UKIP, and other far-right parties throughout the continent, in the European elections, Britain’s abysmal, wilfully and self-consciously retrogressive Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has deemed the presence of a number of foreign texts on the GCSE English Literature syllabus undesirable. In a proposed shake-up, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, all longstanding Key Stage 4 stalwarts, have been shown towards pedagogic Siberia by Gove, who favours reestablishing the nineteenth century novel and Romantic poetry at the core of teenagers’ literary education.

For me, Gove’s decision feels oddly like a callback to Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere’s attempted militations against the naturalisation of players such as Adnan Januzaj for his country. Wilshere’s argument seemed to imply that foreign-born players, particularly those with no determinable blood connection to England, would be incapable of grasping the significance of wearing The Shirt. Beyond the Imaginary bad faith of his remarks – it seems to me that being part of the team constructs loyalty to The Shirt, rather than The Shirt possessing any intrinsic meaning – Wilshere appeared to be indulging in a bit of bloke-at-the-bar Best of British Common Sense, gesturing towards some moment in the past where the Westphalian nation state (obviously a thorny issue in non-sovereign England’s case) meant more than it did today. Latent in his comments was the sense that the national football side is an aspect of the way in which the patria expresses and sustains itself, that patriotism is a good thing which can be reproduced by the success of a football team spurred on by an organically grown pride in the homeland. Gove’s conviction is similar: that literature is a fundamental part of maintaining a coherent sense of national purpose.

In each case – albeit far less in Wilshere’s than in Gove’s – the argument or belief has a chauvinistic motor. However, both of these apparent examples of petty nationalism contain, inadvertently, important points which get overlooked in what looks like a scrabble to avoid agreeing with the Daily Mail. Let’s begin by thinking about what might actually be useful in Wilshere’s resistance to naturalisation.

‘Naturalisation’ is the process of making something seem natural. In international sport, it refers to the process by which competitive rules are stretched in order to allow a ‘natural’ place of birth to be forgotten. The collective imagination, with its curious sense of propriety,  accepts some aspects of this forgetting. We’re therefore prepared – admirably, in my book – to make allowances for an athlete who represents a country they have been forced to live in as a consequence of political expediencies. In Britain, Mo Farah is a good example of a sportsperson whose naturalisation is, unless you’re the Daily Mail, not a matter for debate. It becomes more difficult, however, when athletes come to the country solely to pursue their career and are then brought into the fold of representative sport: to many, this looks like an attempt to get around internationally-agreed rules of selection.

When we’re thinking about ideology, ‘naturalisation’ is once again associated with forgetting: the forgetting of the social, economic, political and historical underpinnings of an idea. When something is ‘naturalised’, it becomes common sense, and we forget that it was ever any different. There’s a case that, in the field of football’s politics and economy, the naturalisation of players – the hypothetical cases of Januzaj and Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb stand out here – also function to naturalise in the other sense. Even if you object, and I do object, to the chauvinistic concept of ‘national identity’ which may well underpin resistance to using naturalised players, Januzaj or Bentaleb coming into the England set-up would serve to obscure the rapacious strategies of footballing recruitment used by the bigger Premier League clubs.

 

The recent debate around a possible League Three has thrown the issue of player stockpiling into the spotlight, making us aware of how the biggest clubs hoover up young talent not only from geographically remote areas of Britain but from all over the globe. There is clearly something unhealthy about this: it involves processes of aggressive accumulation which are deeply damaging to football in less wealthy areas of the world, as well as to smaller British sides. Januzaj is a beautiful player in the making – he has something of Johan Cruyff about him, even – but it troubles me to think of how few Manchester United fans stop to think about why the club’s developing stars come, very frequently, from abroad. Had Januzaj decided to become English for the purposes of international football, and had the FA allowed him to, it is possible that player naturalisation would have played a role in the further obscuration of the material realities which determine footballing success. Remembering where a player comes from, on the other hand, can serve to interfere with football’s attempts to appear mystically aloof from political and economic contingencies.

 

Gove, too, might be saying something which is of value, even if that value is something he is not aware of whatsoever. For all the outcry about dropping ‘great’ texts from the curriculum, the GCSE mainstays are a matter of ongoing despair for the significant proportion of literature lecturers in HE – I can talk about this with plenty of first-hand experience – who are exhausted by the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird is a ‘brilliant book’ because ‘it has a message’. The reduction of literature to a buffet of thematic soundbites is the real ‘achievement’ of the extant GCSE syllabus, a syllabus which seems to me to teach its students that being able to say ‘racism is bad’ is to possess a detailed understanding of the whole subject. Complexity is routinely dismissed on the patronising and, I think, elitist grounds that Dickens or Wordsworth are unmanageable for modern teenagers, who are apparently only able to ‘relate’ to moral obviousness.

What has long bothered me is that the texts used to serve up this moral obviousness are, on the whole, American. The effect of this is a kind of outsourcing of ethical and political strife: the United States becomes the place where racism happens, where intellectual deviancy is punished, where poverty disempowers and disenchants. Students become adept at deploring racial injustice in the Deep South or the excesses of McCarthyism, but they are also implicitly instructed by the selection of course texts that these things are not, or are not as much of, a problem here as they are there. Inequality is ideologically configured as a problem of another time and another place: it’s the same cultural logic that’s involved in Britain’s completely unearned self-congratulation over its part in ending the slave trade (a trade on which much of the nation’s subsequent wealth was based). The well-meaning, yet somewhat facile, humanism which rails at Gove for ridding the syllabus of ‘tolerance’ might, in fact, be overlooking the maintenance of structural inequality achieved by the presence of the texts in question. As with Wilshere, Gove’s patriotic bêtise might be unpicked to discover an unconscious specification of ideology’s workings.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

 

The Meaning of… Ross Barkley

On a cold night a couple of months ago my friend Jonathan and I climbed the many stairs of the Leazes stand at St James’s Park Newcastle and took our seats in the top corner, which, even though it was now past seven and was dark, had a clear view of the headlights and taillights of vehicles travelling up and down the A1 motorway as it cut through Team Valley. When I lowered my gaze, I could see the entire pitch below – players from both sides warmed up, but their numbers and even their physical characteristics were somewhat disguised by my distance from them. It was like watching the game from an airship – or, if you’re theologically-inclined, the kind of view God might have of a football game between Newcastle United and Everton.

The game kicked off. In the run up to the match, Newcastle had been doing badly and Everton well, but the home side dominated for the first fifteen minutes before being pinned back into their half.

A free kick was awarded to Everton outside the Newcastle penalty area. A figure in blue stepped up. ‘Oh no! Barkley’ a nearby Magpies fan muttered to himself. Sometimes a stadium is an amplification system for thousands of anxious internal monologues that, when externalised all at once, sound like a single voice: the roar of the crowd.

Except it wasn’t Barkley – it was Leighton Baines, and the free kick came to nothing. The nearby fan had, nevertheless, given voice to the growing buzz that surrounds Barkley. Barkley’s ability to turn a game was feared by opposition fans, even if there hadn’t actually been much proof of that potency. Barkley had had a reasonable season, and had started perhaps half of Everton’s games. But he was still more likely to tire or lose the ball than galvanise a victory – his uncompromising physicality had a tendency to burn itself out, and his individualism often blinkered him to the simple pass that kept possession. He had scored a handful of excellent goals and put himself about admirably. I was a little amused, however, by the way opposition fans anticipated his brilliance – it seemed, to me, a bit of an urban legend, like the way the children on the streets of Baltimore tell tales of the renegade stick-up man Omar in The Wire.

Then Barkley picked up the ball in the Everton half and ran two-thirds of the length of the pitch, dodging half-hearted tackles from the Newcastle defenders and ignoring his teammates’ invitation to pass before thumping it into the goal at the Gallowgate end.

As an Irish Everton fan, drawn to the club after the World Cup in 1990 because Kevin Sheedy played for them, I had seen a couple of friendlies Everton had played against League of Ireland sides over the years, the most recent of which was an August 2011 friendly against Bohemians. The game actually took place in the second week of the Premier League season – Everton’s away game against Tottenham had been postponed because of the riots a few days before. In Everton’s side was Jermaine Beckford, who had enjoyed a fairly indifferent 2010/11 season with the club, aside from a remarkable goal against Chelsea where his solo run from the edge of the Everton area ended with him hitting the net. He scored against Bohemians too, and even though the game was pretty dull and ended 1-1, Barkley impressed in midfield. The overriding impression I still hold of him was his raw, unfinished quality: he galloped around chasing the ball, he mistimed challenges – but his touch and control were generally very impressive. He was still 17 years old.

Ross_Barkley_Bohemians_V_Everton_(3_of_51)

In football, a sport where careers are short, youth is fetishized. Many Evertonians can reel off a list of players who started young for the club and went on to great things: Joe Royle made his debut for the first team in 1966 aged just sixteen. Wayne Rooney was the same age in 2002 when he came on at Goodison Park against Tottenham Hotspur. Some others who got their start young: Jack Rodwell, Jose Baxter, James Vaughan, Francis Jeffers and Danny Cadamarteri. (A couple of years before, I had seen Dundee United play a friendly against University College Dublin where Cadamarteri was an unused substitute for the Scottish side. He retired at the end of the 2013-14 season, having played for two years with Carlisle United.) The fetishisation of youth is in part a mania focused on potential – what a player could become, based on the possibilities projected onto the imagination by their every move, shimmy and shot.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s highly entertaining autobiography is particularly good at ignoring the relative importance of the kind of everyday drudgery most people know essential to football – instead, he concentrates on the pivotal, kinetic moments of his career. These transformative events take place largely when Ibrahimovic knows he must impress a scout or a potential manager. They are performed, in other words, when an opportunity – often financial – presents itself. Ibrahimovic conceives these moments – the memorable, often stunning passages of play where time appears to stand still and the crowd collectively holds its breath – as not just the product of the game on the pitch as it happens, but part of a larger game of contract negotiations and transfers to bigger clubs. (Although, this being Zlatan, there is also a persistent motivational factor of spite in some of his greatest performances.) Given Ibrahimovic’s contextualisation of these moments, one must applaud the contemporary player who creates a moment of undomesticated transcendence in a comparatively meaningless game – applaud him not least for his lack of self-control.

When Barkley picked up the ball in St James’s Park, I still had an idea of him as a raw player, full of potential. When the ball hit the net, I began to think about how that raw individualism – responsible for the kind of outlook that makes you elbow your fellow players off the ball and dribble eighty yards – might be educated out of him in the future. A few weeks later, he scored a spectacular long-range goal, struck from an angle against Manchester City, that was later awarded Everton’s goal of the season.

When Barkley was named in the England squad for this summer’s World Cup, manager Roy Hodgson echoed what Everton manager Roberto Martinez had been saying all year: it might be a little early for Barkley, but his potential makes him an exciting prospect. It remains to be seen whether his rawness – that which makes Barkley great, but also unpredictable – is harnessed or discouraged at international level.

Posted by Karl Whitney

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Sketches of Sketches of Spain

So, it’s the European Cup final tonight. I bought my Guardian and went down the cafe this morning, turning to the sport first in the way I do, clinging to my childhood. Obviously, I expected there to be a fair amount on the encounter between the Madrid teams in Lisbon, but not half as much as there turned out to be: the idea that an ECF between two non-British teams would have used this much ink in a UK broadsheet would have seemed pretty absurd even ten years ago, when Beckham was at Real and McManaman had just left, and completely implausible in the 1990s. The depth of coverage was also noteworthy: five or six hundred words on Diego Simeone, more than a thousand on Cristiano Ronaldo and, most eyebrow-raisingly, smatterings of untranslated Spanish football slang.

This, of course, is the year that Real Madrid hope to claim their tenth European Cup, La mythical Décima. Interestingly, the conservative papers with, one might expect, less football-hip readerships feel the need to provide context for this term, explaining why Real are so hypnotised by the prospect of a tenth title. The Guardian, however, which has spearheaded the boom in Spanish football analysis with the writing of arch-connoisseur Sid Lowe, seems to expect that its readers are fully conversant with the politico-emotional logic of Iberian football, presumably because they subscribe to The Blizzard and have Zonal Marking bookmarked and all that kind of thing. 

Anyway, the point here isn’t to cut down footballing Hispanophilia, so I’ll try and rein it in somewhat. I do happen to find the casual tossing of a lingo clearly designed to produce an ‘in’ group into football conversations irksome – and I say this as someone who used the word Gedankenexperiment in a post on here recently – but I’m also intrigued as to what exactly occasioned the ‘Spanish turn’ of the last six or seven years. Two explanations are typically tendered for this. The first of these, David Beckham’s journey to La Liga, seems banal and, in any case, inaccurate. It’s anachronistic, for a start, but it also overlooks the fact that the kind of people who will be rooting for El Atléti tonight in Dalston and Didsbury are also the kind of people who could write a mean tacto-dossier on why Beckham wasn’t really very good. The second explanation is the sensational, arguably revolutionary, football of Guardiola’s Barcelona, a beautiful style for a city whose edgy élan is hymned endlessly in this country, maintained by players who seemed in the main like people you’d enjoy going for a pint with – well, maybe this is just Xavi, but the point stands.

I don’t think the Barcelona explanation stands up alone, though, and I think the ‘beautiful style for a beautiful city’ component is the giveaway here. It seems to me that Guardiola’s tiki-taka and the general elegance of his team simply confirmed something that British people were starting to feel about Spain in general, and I make no apologies for labelling Barcelona as a ‘Spanish’ team here as, for all of our so-called knowledge of ‘Catalunya’, that’s essentially how they are perceived in the UK. I’m just going to try and sketch a couple of notes, then, about how the ‘Spanish turn’ in football mirrors a more general one.

Spain is caught up in a complex relation of othering with England. The two countries became inextricably linked in their early modern history and, ever since, Spain has served a peculiar role in its one-time adversary’s cultural imagination. Spain for England is, on one hand, brutality – Goya’s Disasters of War, the hilltop bombing scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls – and uninhibited eroticism. It seems to knot violence, tragedy, sexuality and aesthetics in a way which exceeds even France’s potential for doing this – and this knotting was, I’d contend, as much as a pull as the formally political one during the Spanish Civil war. Remember Auden’s orientalising lines?

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

There was a period, probably from the late sixties through to as recently as the late nineties, when middle-class Britain turned its nose up at Spain for the most part. Spain was Torremolinos and Magaluf; the Sagrada Familia and the Prado were exceptions that proved the rule. If you were going to Southern Europe, you went and faffed about in Provence or sampled Italy’s celebrated pavement culture so as to return to Britain and wonder why it wasn’t like that in Louth or Clitheroe. Something began to change, perhaps, as the Blair years wore on and people began to see Italy as a bourgeois cliche, a nice enough place to visit but one in which pleasure was a bit too forecastable. Come to think of it, I’ve been to Italy enough times to know that it can be strangely predictable so long as you’re sticking to the big cities – only Naples seems to carry with it the energetically uncanny feel of Barcelona, Bilbao or San Sebastian. Italy, in other words, lost its edge.

In the nineties, Spain also underwent an economic boom of sorts, and its regions – probably for some Europe Union-related reason I have no time to look up – acquired funding which allowed cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian, in synchronicity with fellow provincial ports Newcastle and Hamburg, to undergo culture-led regeneration programmes. Why would you want to go to some dusty old museum in Florence, full of antiquated statues of naked saints that provoke little but a deep anxiety of engagement, when you could go to a shimmering new gallery by Frank Gehry or Rafael Moneo with some gardening by Jeff Koons outside? Why would you want to eat pizza when you eat a fifteen-course tasting menu representing the zenith of Ferran Adrià’s gastroscience or the nouvelle cuisine basque? Fuck Chianti, mine’s a Garnacha.

 In other words, the Spanish Turn in football is an outgrowth of a broader fetishisation of Spain which has been taking place in Britain ever since people decided Benicassim was a bigger event than Glastonbury. I love Spain – I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it ticks the boxes of the less contrarian part of me – but it does seem useful to speculate as to why its football has been treated in such a particular way of late.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Meaning of…Steven Gerrard

O Captain my captain!

I love him and I hate him, I sing his praises and berate him.

He’s one of my favourite players yet one of the most frustrating I’ve seen. He’s one of the most complete footballers ever. How many others could almost single-handedly drag an inferior team back into a European cup final from three nil down as an attacking midfielder…and then help batten down the hatches as a right back? How many other players have put in match winning performances from every possible position in midfield? His completeness has almost been his undoing – he’s the epitome of trying too hard, of aiming for the impossible when the simple would have done, of taking  upon his own shoulders what needs to be delegated. And those slips! This does not slip – and then another gift at the crucial moment.

Ultimately, he personifies my experience of watching football – the frustration and the fantasy, the glory and the gory, the humble and the hubris.

I’ll be glad when he isn’t Liverpool anymore, but there’s never going to be another one like him, and I’ll miss him when

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Next season though eh?

Seb Crankshaw

I find it difficult to conjure any particular memories of Steven Gerrard.

When I think of Gerrard I recall two generic, largely unspecific images, both of which, to my mind, date from the Benitez era. The first is Gerrard, symbolic of the kind of berserker attitude that won Liverpool the Champions League, thumping his chest, shouting at team mates – running the side. This is the Gerrard of the popular imagination, I’d venture – typifying the ‘passion’ for the club that only locals can supposedly bring. This vision of Gerrard goes along with commitment – Gerrard the one-club man, a whey-faced, ghostly apparition of the lost figure of the local hero.

The second is the Gerrard of the through-ball and the looping pass to feet, head down, visualising accuracy like an earnest golfer, with a still-potent Fernando Torres ahead of him.

These visions of Gerrard have persisted, but been slightly worn through overuse. Under Rodgers, they’ve been given a lick of paint, rehabilitated in a side whose attacking threat recalls the best of Benitez, but whose defensive frailty reminds me of the 4-4 Merseyside derby that saw Dalglish leave the manager’s job for the first time and signalled Liverpool’s slump into the shadow of Manchester United.

The emergence of Gerrard in the late 90s promised a better future for Liverpool. His 2013/14 season at the club recalls both the best and, in his title-deciding slip against Chelsea, the worst of Liverpool’s last twenty years. The World Cup could well enable him to cast off the gloom thrown by his last few league games upon his successful year.

Karl Whitney

Aristotle once wrote that “A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall”. Last season, Steven Gerrard became that “hero”. In finally identifying that he was no longer capable of playing the gung-ho, box-to-box, Roy of the Rovers position, Gerrard found a new lease of life in a deeper defensive role. That this proved so successful is no real surprise as part of his longstanding allure is in his vital contradiction of being the second best player in every position.
 
It is interesting that Roy Hodgson has placed so much faith in Gerrard, given their brief and turbulent time together at Liverpool. In a wonderfully cinematic moment, Gerrard took his club’s future into his own hands against Blackburn. Stepping up to take a penalty, Gerrard rubs the Liver bird on his chest, takes one bitter look towards the bench, before blazing the ball over. A revolutionary act, but the only way he could stop the collision course on which Hodgson was taking Liverpool.

Hugo Greenhalgh

Having only rarely watched him play, and only having a vague idea of the essence of the man, I can only look at Steven Gerrard in terms of what how he’s described tells us about the glorious City of Liverpool, where I spent some fantastic years at the end of the 1990s. Equally, since I have a somewhat blinkered frame of reference, presently looking up from the nameless relegation void between the EPL and the old second division, I’m going to conduct my analysis by means of the complex but narrow prism of what we can learn about Liverpool by watching Cardiff City, which offers two valuable source texts.

Text one is Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s centre half cousin. Signed for Cardiff by Dave Jones in 2009 and sold by St. Mackay in 2012. Ant quickly developed a ‘bants-tastic’ reputation, was ‘great’ to have around the club and was a real ‘character’. As a result, Tony swiftly became somewhat of a ‘fans favourite’, mostly because he was often photographed pulling an angry face, pumping his fist as a display of his ‘passion’ or being caught swearing on television cameras. This reached a zenith when, after being dropped to the bench by Mackay, he spent his half-time warm-ups at away games taking potshots at the mascots:

Things, however, quickly slid and we all began to realise that being a real ‘character’ can also mean being a first class knob head. Gerrard started calling out fans on the Twitterverse, and being outspoken (and not a little vulgar) in response to their (justified) criticisms of the team. Fans also slowly began to realise that he wasn’t very good. It was, then, with particular trepidation that we watched ‘our Ant’, reportedly a lifelong Reds’ fan, step up to take the Bluebirds’ final penalty in the 2012 Carling Cup Final, playing against his big cuz. Of course he pulled it laughably wide: we all knew he would. As a result of his miss, the cup went to Merseyside. We all know he didn’t do it on purpose, but the nagging suspicion is still there with many fans (‘cheating scouser’), and the speculation that he celebrated with ‘the scousers’ on the bus home effectively put an end to his Cardiff career there and then.

Text two for consideration is Craig Noone. Soon after the Bluebirds signed the nihilistically-named tricky winger, we learned that (as well as a penchant for #bants) he was, in fact, an ex-roofer who came into the game relatively late and once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof. Since then, this factoid has been repeated ad infinitum by all football correspondents and commentators whenever he has made the first team to an extent it has become evident that there is some legal obligation for the media to follow every mention of Craig by the affirmation that ‘he once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof, y’know’.

So, what, then, do we learn about big Steve and the City of Liverpool by watching Cardiff City? Of course, Anthony and Craig’s repeated association with big Steve is as inevitable as it is lazy, due to his stature in the game. In many ways, though, Noone and the Gerrards (what an awful band name that would make) are made, in something approaching the social deterministic vision of Emile Zola, to propagate to at least some extent the myth of the ‘cheeky scouser’, loveable but none too bright, and possibly even violent, working classers for whom football offers the only chance of salvation from squalor. However, unlike Stephen, or so this logic goes, most Liverpudlians are doomed to never make it, destined instead to wallow, in resentment or spite, their ‘cheeky’ humour a vent for bitterness. In a similar way, Nooney represents the projected media ideal of the scouser ‘saved’ from his roofing hell by football but who ultimately cannot escape his destiny: he’ll never quite make it. Steven, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe this myth is also played out on a macro level with Steven G. as a perennial, and flawed, nearly man. There is certainly, if not precisely or explicitly, an anti-Liverpool discourse here, one that revels in the city’s ‘nearly’ status and its perennial failure to emerge, in footballing and prestige terms, out of the shadow of Mancunia. How we loved it when Livepool threw away the title. Will Gerrard’s trend be continued in Brazil? For this correspondent at least, it’s a shame cousin Anthony won’t be getting on the plane.

Russell Williams

The above picture, a still from Sky Sports footage taken after Liverpool more or less relinquished their claim to the Premier League title after a zany 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, emblematises Steven Gerrard’s sixteen-year professional career for me. The image shows him consoling a distraught Luis Suarez, shooing away a television camera attempting to film the tears of the Uruguayan striker. It captures Gerrard’s essential double bind, by which he is at once an astounding captain, a leader and motivator par excellence with genuine concern for his charges, and a simulacrum of that thing. As I wrote in 2012, Gerrard – like John Terry and Wayne Rooney – wears the ‘mask of indomitability’ masterfully; we’re left wondering constantly if there is any real to his ‘passion’ or if it is a pure mediatisation of that emotion.

As Gerrard wards the camera off, it’s possible that he’s also soliciting it. Protecting Suarez from the intrusive glare of the media is clearly the responsible thing for a captain to do, and one’s immediate response here is to think that the act denotes Gerrard’s fundamental human decency. However, a suspicion also lingers that he is comprehensively aware of this denotation, and that he needs to be seen not wanting to be seen.

Gerrard’s career is almost coterminous with the political episteme constituted by the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuum. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in precise counterpoint to a more generalised waning of affect: being seen to ‘care’, or to share in spuriously ‘common’ desires which have replaced genuine collectivity, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for it. Simultaneously with this, the tenor of branding has shifted fundamentally, with the governing maxim no longer ‘this product is great’ but ‘this product is invested with passion’. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want not to care? The ubiquity of passion is not something one can objectively decry; rather, it is key to neoliberal, or more properly late-neoliberal, interpellation. It would be too easy to say, then, that Gerrard has agency in a simulation of emotional investment: it is more accurate to admit, after Flaubert, Steven Gerrard, c’est moi.

Joe Kennedy

Ask any Liverpool fan eighteen months ago what their thoughts were on Steven Gerrard, and their reply would most probably have been a heavy-hearted assertion that the club’s captain was a player out of time. Gerrard’s subsequent late-career renaissance may force us to re-examine the term, but it does retain validity, albeit with a shift of context.

If Gerrard does remain a player out of time, it is because he is an anachronism. Not in style, per se, as much as in the disparity of his talent when viewed within the prism of Liverpool’s ailing aspirations throughout the breadth of his career. Posing the question “what if Gerrard had played in the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s” is a seductive counterfactual, and not just for the beguiling image of Gerrard churning through the mud – all elbows and waist-high tackles – another in the contemporaneous lineage of alpha-footballers. Those decades look now, societally and sportingly, a more collective age. A time in which The Team outshone The Individual, before the post-Thatcher cult of personality that would proliferate and subsequently define the pre and postmillennial decades. A time to which Gerrard, it is fair to speculate, would have been far more suited.

Liverpool and England’s captain is often accused of rampant egoism; assigned the banter-tinged sobriquet “Stevie Me”, and cast as a committed self-mythologist flaying ‘Hollywood balls’ into touch. Yet this is a fallacy, and a lazy one at that. Despite the highlights showreels, Gerrard – his perma-crumpled brow so often giving the game away – seemingly derives little pleasure from his enforced totemism. A self-confessed worrier, bearing the expectational weight of an institution mired in habitual mediocrity has, rather than fuelling a Big-Fish ego, served only to undermine Gerrard’s game. “Give the ball to Stevie” has been a cry heard endlessly throughout the last decade and half at Anfield, Gerrard coerced into a path of relentless individualism by the lack of faith in the likes of Phillip Degen. It’s no coincidence that the two managers who bowed to this populist desire to make Gerrard the literal focal point of the team, Hodgson and Dalglish, secured the poorest return. Meanwhile, any attempts to lift this burden – most notably Rafael Benitez’s characteristically wilful iconoclasm in shifting Gerrard to the wing for a season and a half – have been met with hostility from a press and fanbase resolutely determined on lurching into Jungian archetype.

For all the spectacular moments throughout his career, it is this aspect of Gerrard that is perhaps the most intriguing. Whilst his playing style fits the modern Sky Sports paradigm of superstardom, Gerrard’s personality – burdened by introspection – resonates more closely with post-war existentialism than latter-day individualism. That this pressure manifests itself in both club and international is a particular cruelty. Had Gerrard been born in Leipzig or Livorno, for example, then the encumbering responsibility would at least have been restricted. As England captain, however, he is both symptom and exemplar of that deeply-ingrained trait within the national, as well as football, psyche: the steadfast refusal to trust the collective in a crisis. The scrambling, knee-jerk messianism that has consistently undermined the England national team for all but a brief window of its history.

Already destined to be remembered as one of the defining players of his generation, it is hard to fathom quite what Gerrard could have achieved if freed from the shackling weight of individual expectation. The late-career loss of mobility, and much vaunted work of Steve Peters (whose counter-intuitive work with Gerrard seems increasingly about psychological deprogramming) may have gone some way to precipitating a degree of enforced recalibration, but the performative Sisypheanism of an England World Cup campaign will doubtless rekindle old habits. Reluctant yet recursive, Gerrard may not be the perfect player – far from it – but he is, at least, the perfect embodiment of the travails of this England team.

Ron Hamilton

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Brazilian mirages

While exotic othering is often referred to in terms of the systemically prejudicial discussion of Middle Eastern, African or Asian cultures, in British popular culture and particularly football the principle exoticisation is of Brazil. My dad’s generation got hooked on the ’58, ’62 and ’70 World Cup winning sides as the bossa nova wafted into their ears (ignore the coup, think of Ipanema!), then my own fell for Zico, Socrates (the iconic wafer-thin, underworked, chain smoking, socialist doctor), Eder and Falcao in Espana ’82. It didn’t matter that they didn’t win as our exposure to their glorious strikes and celebrations – in the first tournament to be given comprehensive coverage in a UK-friendly timezone – had done its job.
 
These Brazilians – if they’re any good they assume a one-word mnemonic, their real names left to the pub quiz master. They seem to play without restrictions, with a ‘smile on their faces’ etc. Well, any savvy member of the Brazil national team knows that the Seleção plays a unique role in the projection of the country’s uniquely ‘mulattoist’ self-image (the days of racial separation and exclusion long gone, officially at any rate), and has a complicated relationship with that projection. The Seleção and their continued adherence to the jogo bonito are vital in Brasília’s projection of soft power.
 
The myopic exoticisation has many knock-on effects, such as Pele still being seen as the world’s best rather than the stocky but wayward Argentine who was clearly better than him, the yellow jersey bearing the Ordem e Progresso legend being the most popular football top on our streets after the usual domestic and continental suspects, and a general willingness to ignore the reality of some recently stiff sides compared with the halcyon days of ’70 and ’82. It also extends to conveniently ignoring the parlous state of the Brazilian league system (with players still treated as import opportunities and mystification when a player returns to Brazil still in his prime or fails to leave early enough in his career), and the rampant hooliganism of the big clubs’ torcidas organizadas.
What is it about Brazil that gives it this primacy in our exoticising of Latin America? With the ethnic mix not as recognisably ‘European’ as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, maybe the westerner still thinks about Brazil with a colonist’s mind, able to take what he wants from the country while rarely putting anything back. Think Barry Manilow ripping off Jorge Ben’s Taj Mahal for Copacabana. And it’s in music where we find the other major lazy stereotyping towards Brazil. If one part of the dream of Latin self-liberation is to play football on the Copacabana, the other is to follow it up with Carnival! Here the ‘wild’ percussion and melodies act as cheap hedonistic shorthand for ‘PAAARRRTTAY’, as is evident in Norwich’s playing of the Heartists’ Belo Horizonti (with extra clappers at Carrow Road these days).
 
So: we generally love Brazilian music but know little of its specifics beyond Mas Que Nada and a few others. We love to lose ourselves in the generic brew but leave the specialists to ask for details. Such reluctance feeds the industry urge to throw the highly diverse Brazilian music world in with the even more generic ‘Latin’ category. And now, with the tournament upon us, advertising agencies are steaming in with outrageously trite ‘samba party’ clichés, as is evident in the Pot Noodle advert below and this one for M&Ms.

Now that the world cup is returning to Brazil, ironically the leagues of British exoticists will have a chance to place the deluge of samba stylings on TV shows and the interchanges of Neymar and co in the clear context of the problems confronting the nation: Rio’s programme of favela pacification (brutal, with many seeing it as a prelude to gentrification), a downturn after the consumer-led boom, and a quite unjustified overspend on infrastructure for this and the 2016 Olympics are driving regular protests at what many see as the country’s misplaced priorities. The pricing out of poorer groups from the shiny new stadia also tells its own story. [As an aside, the sporting bodies’ choice of Brazil follows some punitive bastard logic – two huge rounds of infrastructure investment – there is less overlap than might be imagined between football stadia and sporting facilities.] Among some highly conditioned Brits we know that the ongoing and social fissures are not likely to make much of an impression, yet it would still be one of Brasilia’s greatest soft power plays if it manages to damp much of the disquiet so we just ‘concentrate on the football’.
 
And if you are hosting a match and want to prolong the night with a potted history of Brazilian music from Elza Soares and Jorge Ben via northeastern Manguebeat to more modern baile and drum & bass stylings, then hit the playlist below. 
 
(props to https://twitter.com/ctzncorinthian for help in the compilation)
Posted by Murray W

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