Goals v the New Art History

Goals. So many of them. So many we’re wondering when it all stops and reverts to the type set four years ago in South Africa (as I put the finishing touches on this piece I’m witnessing Nigeria drawing nil-nil with Iran. Maybe it stops now). Good ones, excellent ones, scuffed ones, ambiguous ones, ghost ones with Giovanni dos Santos’ ‘offsides’ and Raheem Sterling’s near-miss, Only four teams out of twelve at time of writing have failed to score, a sign of their utter abjection in this tournament. I’ve just watched Germany and Thomas Muller put four and three past Portgual respectively. I’m getting used to the feel of writing “3” on my wallchart. All of this you know.

In White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid, and the New Football, John Carlin’s account of the first galáctico era at the Bernabéu, we are invited to share in the following fantasy:

Hundreds of years from now museum visitors will stand in reverent silence before the collected works of Zinedine Zidane. They will admire video sequences of goals the French master scored, supreme among which will be the volley from the edge of penalty area to roof of net that won Real Madrid the European Cup against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow. But connoisseurs of the ancient discipline, future footballing PhD’s, may form a more lasting attachment to the rarer points of Zidane’s art; they may be more taken by the subtleties of his cushioned first touch, more entranced by the great goals that never were.

As an Art Historian writing a kind of “footballing PhD”, I’m intrigued by the topography of this imaginary scenario. What would an academic discipline which took goals as its most sterotypical object of study look like? Carlin’s model is connoisseurial, like the model of scholarship which was rejected by the post-stucturalist inspired “New Art History” from the 1970s onwards (but not, it should be mentioned, by subsequent generations of students, who in 2014 still appear in the main to want to “rhapsodise over Titian”, as a nameless colleague put it). Carlin’s Football History seems to want to abstract goals from their essential context, though in this it is only following the contours of folk wisdom as far as goals are concerned: “goals” tend to be discussed in abstracted terms, for the sake of convenience.

Mario Balotelli’s scoring header against England on Saturday was, in the most expedient sense, Mario Balotelli’s goal, but to get a true measure of what transpired in that passage of play one would also have to consider the goal as in part “belonging” to Antonio Candreva, who was responsible for the ball occupying the particular area of space from which Balotelli plucked it, to the goalkeeper who didn’t make it across his line in time, and so on. But no, we’ll attribute the goal to Balotelli, because the “performative authorial focus” (this phrase is borrowed from Giampaolo Bianconi, who uses it in a quite different context) usually suffices as an explanatory principle. In this, goals are a lot like paintings – as Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood reflect in their book Anachronic Renaissance, the tendency to consider historic artworks which were the product of a master’s workshop, not to say the social and historic context of their time, as the creation of lone, named individuals ‘raises a protest against the powerful and perhaps finally irrefutable thesis that agency can never really be localized but is instead always dispersed across a field of persons and events.’ Here, for once, it’s Balotelli that gets to be Giotto.

One can critique all one wishes, but the fact is that when goals are flying in from all corners rhapsody is inevitable. What’s more, this World Cup hasn’t only seen a glut of goals, but there have been goals the likes of which I don’t feel I’ve ever seen before (there’s another tick on the New Art History’s list of critical canards – the myth of originality). Robin van Persie’s header against Spain is a given – the reproducibility of that “flying Dutchman” posture indicates that something unprecedented had happened, that van Persie had found a new way to get a looping header to rise and dip just so. Keisuke Honda’s goal against Ivory Coast is another treasure: I love the sense that slow-motion replays of the goal give of an absolutely precipitous sense of balance, the rag-doll physics of that strike. Haris Seferović‘s injury-time winner against Ecuador makes up my holy trinity of the tournament so far: the near-Benjamin Massing level of violence in that tackle on Valon Behrami, the way he rolls through it and comes out the other end as if nothing had happened, the whipped crosses and the roof-of-the-net finish: if Carlin’s fantasies ever come to pass, I hope this relative obscurity receives the scholarly attention it’s due.

Posted by Luke Healey

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