The Match That Never Was That Never Was

I was thinking, after my post on dogs and football and the (Lacanian) Real left loads and loads of questions unanswered for me, about what it means for a match to be interrupted or cancelled by events beyond the control of the football authorities. Of course, nearly all cancellations fit this rubric on some or other level, with unpredictable weather or traffic being the most banal and everyday reasons for games not taking place. But, I think, the weather can’t be the Real in the sense that I’ve been using the term, for it prompts no collapse in the Symbolic or Imaginary logic of the game, which is to say that it’s a form of providence which is completely accounted for and even, to some extent, resistable with technologies such as undersoil heating, 3G and 4G turf and pitch coverings.

Political interruptions, on the other hand, do constitute some form of Real as they undermine football’s Imaginary self-possession, an entitlement which represents the sport as somehow ‘more important than life and death’. They remind us that the game does not offer some kind of spiritual redemption within the white rectangle, that the idea that football ‘transcends’ the socio-historical is a lie which serves, precisely, to cover up the socio-historical. Undoubtedly, the 2014 World Cup will amplify the recital of the myth of transcendence for the exact reason that, as we’ve already said, this tournament takes place in a spirit of exacerbated political febrility on both the immediate – what’s going on right outside the stadia – and global levels.

Two World Cups this century have been lost to politics: 1942 and 1946. Brazil and, unsurprisingly, Nazi Germany had applied to host the first; there was no question whatsoever of the second being organised, let alone played. In the contemporary English sporting imagination, however it is a game that was not cancelled which enjoys dominance in the hierarchy of great World Cup cancellations, and it is a game which was not cancelled because it was never scheduled to happen in the first place. Recently, papers were released which showed that the government considered withdrawing the Home Nations from the 1982 competition in Spain as they were rattled by the prospect of England, Scotland or Northern Ireland meeting Argentina, a nation the UK was at war over the Malvinas/ Falklands.

Ossie Ardiles not playing England in 1982

I suspect that this non-non-game is something of a fantasy object for some England supporters, and perhaps – if we’re being realistic – for some Northern Ireland and Scotland fans as well, although England’s subsequent sporting rivalry with Argentina has been a lone crusade.* The fact that the match was never played allows the Three Lions types to imagine a deliciously vengeful victory over the sporting and military opposition, a chest-thumping Bryan Robson perhaps spearing a Cross of St George into the Argentinian penalty spot for good measure after completing his hat-trick. And yet the fact that there was no need to cancel the match in the first place, because it was never scheduled, means that the real exigencies of the situation – not least a possible FIFA punishment – don’t have to be considered. In this parallel universe, England win the moral victory by not turning up.

The retrospective nature of this complex wish constructs it as a kind of pre-emptive and multiple revenge for what many Argentinians saw as their revenge for the British victory in the Malvinas/ Falklands, the 1986 quarter-final in which Diego Maradona scored that goal and that goal. Such is the temporal weirdness of what happens when sport and politics collide in the space of fantasy.

* Terry Butcher’s threat to snub Maradona while the former was the assistant coach of Scotland pretty much disgusted me: he was using Scottish sport to play out a grievance about England’s World Cup misfortune.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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