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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One thought on “Football’s Counterfactual Draw

  1. […] will loom large over this World Cup. Inevitably, if they don’t win it will be a case of what might have been but, looking forward instead of with hindsight, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise. Yes, in […]

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