Whatever else one might make of Italy at this World Cup, some part of their distinct appeal lies in a split at the squad’s core between two distinct media personalities. Prandelli’s azzurri is, on the one hand, home to a pair of “football geniuses” in the shape of Andrea Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon, veteran experts of the game who have taken strides both on and off the field to establish themselves as “philosopher footballers”. On the other hand, Italy’s greatest attacking threat is widely understood to take the form of Mario Balotelli, a youthful figure of impulse, rashness and irregularity, something or someone who can never really be “understood”. Far beyond the usual discussions of calculable proven experience versus mercurial naivety, the simultaneous investment we make in these two types of figure shows us a much greater truth about our cultural life.
In a 2005 interview with artist Maria Castillo Deball for Cabinet magazine (later included in the publication’s tenth anniversary anthology Curiosity and Method), Buffon is given an opportunity to wax reflective about his career, his performances, and what drew him to football. His wit – which seems genuinely a cut above that demonstrated by other supposedly smart footballers like Countdown‘s Clark Carlisle – manifests itself in a self-aware statement that, for him, ‘intelligence isn’t about knowledge’ so much as the ability to ‘take an aesthetic pleasure in an idea’, to appreciate ‘its form and shape, rather than its tendency to harden into a series of irrefutable facts.’ Pushed by Castillo Deball as to whether he regards football as a ‘pastime’ or as his ‘primary obsession’, Buffon is able to represent his career itself as something which arises directly out of this roving, inquiring, “intelligent” view of the world:
My approach to knowledge is playful. I am a Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. If I chose a particular discipline the charm would be gone, because choosing one means dismissing the others […] I tried to limit the possibilities, to find an activity in which I could keep the amusement, the pleasure, but within very specific rules so that I wouldn’t get distracted by everything. By choosing football, I killed two birds with one stone.
As if his mere presence in a publication like Cabinet weren’t enough to clinch honorary intellectual status for the azzurri goalkeeper, here Buffon adds to his credentials by painting himself as someone who is able to stand outside of the compulsion to play football; he is in a position to represent this compulsion as contingent, something which was chosen from among many other options.
What is established here, in a way that diverges somewhat from Buffon’s insistence on embracing equivocality, is a sense that Buffon is wholly in control of his own persona on the pitch. His contribution to the game is committed but fundamentally voluntary, and contingent on the mastery of “very specific rules”. As Buffon reveals elsewhere, even the apparently spontaneous elements of his performance are calculated and governed: ‘Many people don’t like the way I play; they think I am over-acting, screaming too much, trying to win the attention of the cameras, but I do that intentionally to maintain the link between sport and the notion that it is truly just a circus.’ Regardless of the preference for chaos voiced in this statement, Buffon hereby constructs himself as a footballing auteur; a cool, calm master of all his faculties. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that Andrea Pirlo also conforms to this type. Pirlo, nicknamed “the architect”, is consistently described as a player of astute self-possession, capable of remaining calm, focused and methodical while battle rages around him. In his vaunted autobiography, recently translated into English under the title I Think Therefore I Play, Pirlo goes as far as to describe himself as a philosopher; remarking, ‘being a philosopher is to think, seek wisdom and have principles that guide and influence what you do. Everything is thought through, there is no spontaneity.’ Clearly, Pirlo lacks some of Buffon’s tendency towards self-effacement, and his articulation is revealing: in this self-characterisation, Pirlo claims – not without some justification as far as raw talent is concerned – to be able to regulate what others cannot.
The “other” in this sentence is amply identified in the figure of Mario Balotelli. There are not one but three ways in which Balotelli embodies the opposite virtues to those with which Pirlo and Buffon more or less consciously align themselves. Firstly, there is the on-pitch Balotelli familiar to us from his time at Manchester City, governed not by rationality but by impulse, by spontaneity and outburst. During regulation time he might do anything; his game might just as easily be defined by a 35-yard curler into the top corner or a bite of someone’s ear. Secondly, there is less cohesion between the on-pitch and off-pitch versions of Balotelli than there is with his more senior compatriots: discussions of his career tend to position him as someone for whom football is a functional means of expression, in contrast with the dysfunctional means of expression that he chooses off the pitch – throwing darts at academy players, lighting fireworks indoors, buying Vespas instead of household essentials, and so on. Thirdly, there is the issue of class. Whilst Buffon and Pirlo are characterised as standing some way “above” the charms of football, able to step outside of it and make rational decisions about how to play and whether to play, we get a sense from Balotelli’s presentation in the media that he himself needs football, would be nothing without it. A millionaire and seasoned professional, Balotelli is still liable to be represented as a kind of mad street child who just manages to hold it together on the pitch (or, occasionally, doesn’t manage). Crucially, where Buffon and Pirlo are entitled to speak for themselves – extracts from Pirlo’s translated autobiography were reproduced as a column in the Guardian‘s sport section in April – Balotelli is always held up as something requiring narration, an enigma that demands to be interpreted. In Balotelli’s first interview for British television it was the voice of ITV’s Ned Boulting that predominated, along with that of the player’s biographer Raffaele Panizza, and other supporting cast. Balotelli makes occasional interjections to support, or obstruct, Boulting’s narrativisation of him. A remark made in a second interview, with Time journalist Catherine Mayer, shows Balotelli’s awareness of his own spoken-for-ness: in response to Mayer’s provocation that ‘we read all sorts of things about you, it’s quite hard to know what’s true and what isn’t true’, the striker remarks, ‘maybe they just enjoy talking about me’.
What we see here is something peculiarly psychoanalytic about the way we construct ourselves as subjects. It has long been thought that psychoanalysis is about delving into the deep human unconscious, implying internal subjectivity down there in the subject’s psyche. Since the 1960s it has been the biggest task of Lacanian psychoanalysis to demonstrate that (even in Freud) this is not quite so. Lacan stresses that the unconscious is not the unconstructed and disordered chaos within the individual but something that we socially construct and make appear as if it is disordered and unconstructed. It is something like this process that we see in the attitudes of Pirlo and Buffon. They want to see Balotelli as the unrefined and unregulated figure – even as more primal, with all the dangers attached to that. In doing so they affirm themselves in the tradition of Western philosophy that has been able to move beyond and control those impulsive behaviours; as Buffon says, even his impulses are deliberately performed, controlled; he is able to regulate his unconscious. Balotelli on the other hand, as if he has read Lacan, demonstrates to us that the unconscious was never unregulated, never in need of controlling. As a representation of the unconscious, he is exactly the figure that those philosophers need to affirm themselves as superior. He is spoken-for, made into the figure of impulse, in order to construct what impulse is and affirm those who control it.
Posted by Alfie Bown and Luke Healey