The Imaginary World Cup

In her recent book The Problem with Pleasure, Laura Frost cites the following lament from film critic Iris Barry, described as ‘one of early cinema’s greatest advocates’: “I wish that the public could, in the midst of its pleasures, see how blatantly it is being spoon-fed, and ask for slightly better dreams.”  Frost’s intention in summoning Barry’s voice is to demonstrate that even in the most apparently hospitable of early 20th-century settings one could still find ‘modernism’s familiar double bind: [that] it must account for the fact that mass culture is enormously compelling but also a kind of false consciousness’. The escapist pleasures produced by mainstream cinema must not be dismissed out of hand as a mere instances of mass culture’s complicity with the status quo, for fear of doing violence to the historical specificity of this pleasure. All the same, critics like Barry saw in that popular escapism an ongoing dilution of the population’s imaginative faculties, suggesting a future of mediocrity and tedium for the new art of movies.

I have gestured elsewhere to ways in which the cultural politics of imagination as it relates to the game of football in its 20th- and 21st-century iterations might be broached. My thoughts on this subject were set in motion by a 1924 British Pathe newsreel, uploaded to YouTube as part of the archive’s recent grandstanding digitisation project, which depicts an edition of Alnwick’s annual shrovetide football game; and by the idea that this archaic branch of the football family might have developed along similar lines to its mass-mediatised brethren, visually and economically speaking. The critical force of this fantasy, I suggested, can be read in two conflicting directions: one can either imagine the sudden rambunctious arrival of flower-laden goalposts and carnivalesque stirrings into the world framed by a Ford Super Sunday broadcast, or one can picture the cosseting of subversive proletarian forces that would be required to fit the shrovetide game into the enclosures defined and maintained by the 21st-century capitalist image economy. The two imaginative scenarios suggest radically different fates, although it is quite possible to oscillate between the two, like the duck and the rabbit in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous illustration.

I was reminded of these ruminations when, trawling through my hard drive for some reason or another, I discovered a cache of documents related to a small pet project I had undertaken shortly after the close of the 2010 World Cup, and which to date I have only reluctantly shared with a select few. The project was this: I would simulate an entire World Cup, from the earliest qualifying rounds to the tournament final, using a random number generator to determine scores. I would, rather conservatively, input six as the highest possible value when setting the range of possible scores (I distinctly remember, on returning from Cub camp one summer, losing my shit over my brother and best friend after they decided to chalk up an 11-0 “win” for the fantasy team we all used to “play” for; ‘it’s just not realistic’, I told them), and would also limit my fantasy by retaining Brazil as hosts. I would draw groups using the same random number generator, following to the best of my knowledge FIFA’s protocols for seeding. I would not show any favour to England. My system was not as sophisticated as that of the titular protagonist in Robert Coover’s 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., but that was perhaps for the best. Coover’s narrative toggles between imaginative para-world of Waugh’s fantasy baseball league and the “real” grounding for these fantastical projections: Waugh is omniscient and ever-present in the comings and goings of his league but cuts a lonely figure rolling dice and poring over record sheets at his kitchen table. Though Waugh is able to sustain imaginative scenarios with admirable consistency and vividness, they are never extricable from the world outside his inner life: the novel’s events are in effect set in motion by the “death” of a promising second-generation rookie pitcher in a freak coming-together of rare dice rolls; the figure of the late Damon Rutherford comes to haunt the everyday fabric both of the Universal Baseball Association and the man who imaginatively maintains it. Coover’s novel stages a dramatic and increasingly knotty clash between chance, fantasy and “reality”, whatever one can say about that in this context.

My simulation would, in a more modest way, probe that space between the virtual and the real. Leaving aside the Waughesque chance derivation of scorelines, there is something about this project which is not too far removed from “real” football’s own negotiation of the virtual and the concrete. Behind the clashes at any tournament lies a definitively virtual, chance-derived act: the drawing of the groups. I have long found there to be a fascinating frisson in the coming-together of contingency and necessity that one finds at these events: as Frank Skinner once remarked when drawing identical black balls out of a bag to decide fixtures for some FA Cup round, “I’m deciding people’s travel plans here, aren’t I?” Tournament successes and failures, shifts in cultural narrative, the transfer of vast sums of money, all determined by a finger positioned an inch this way, an inch that way. The enjoyment of every tournament wallchart, I feel, rests on this  relationship between collective labour and the motiveless machinations of random fate. It is sweaty human effort that eventually compels us to put pen to paper, but until the tournament begins their blank spaces keep room open for imaginative projection. I can almost hear Clive Tyldesley’s portentious pronouncements as the green shirts of Cameroon emerge onto the field of the Maracanã alongside the red ones of Chile, and the ambivalent response of the largely-neutral crowd when the final turns out to be one of the most one-sided in history…

How Luke’s World Cup played out:

Luke Imaginary World Cup

Posted by Luke Healey

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

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