Hidden amidst the twirling trapezes and tiresome tropes of last Thursday’s opening ceremony could be found a bona fide miracle, Juliano Pinto – a 29 year old Brazilian paralysed from the waist – taking the opening penalty clad in what is variously described as a mind-controlled exoskeleton or, more prosaically, ‘An Iron Man Suit’. The heavy-handed religiosity of the symbolism notwithstanding, this was a truly spectacular moment – hinting at either the redemptive powers of technology or first steps in humanity’s inevitable enslavement by rabidly sentient automatons, depending on your preference. It also suggested a wider point, that technology is an inescapable force within the narrative of Brazil 2014.
Less affirming, though no less discussed, has been the great technological innovation of this World Cup; goal-line technology. (For what it’s worth, I’m opposed – largely because shots that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce down should automatically stand on aesthetic grounds). Early coverage has been dominated by a rush of pundits and commentators desperate to give extensive vent to their predetermined stances on the matter. Jonathan Pearce’s very public meltdown during the France v Honduras game, when he became so overcome by his spluttering controversy-by-numbers métier that he failed to comprehend the most basic of scenarios, might be the most high profile example – but from the director’s first supercilious use of the GLT graphic in the opening game, it has held the limelight.
Of course, there has long been a historical suspicion of technological advancement – a deeply ingrained neo-luddism that gives rise to everything from The Terminator to Millennium Bug hysteria; the St Vitus’ Dance of the digital age. Indeed, I barely made it to the end of the first paragraph without a semi-serious reference to the rise of murderous robots – the omnipresent paranoia of a generation raised on a diet of post-Ballardian anxiety rather than Space Race-optimism. Football, as both prism for and mirror to wider socio-anthropological trends, is not exempt from this suspicion. Nor should it be. Whilst son-of-Hawkeye dominates headlines, the insidious way in which technology has fundamentally altered the way in which football is watched or, dare I say it, ‘consumed’, continues its unrelenting creep, shifting the sport from the communality that has been at its heart for a century and a half towards a bleak individualism in the process.
It could be said that this is the third age of fandom. My generation – those experiencing the first ungainly flushes of adolescence around the inauguration of the Premier League – were the first for whom regular match-goers found themselves outnumbered by the big screen hordes. Football in the pub became the new norm, whim to a thousand guileless bantverts for Carling and Strongbow. For all its manifold faults, football (or, more accurately, FOOTY) in the pub at least served a social function. A poor facsimile of the match, certainly, but a facsimile nonetheless. The psychological distance from events compensated by a reflective communality.
No more. The new technological paradigm is that of the laptop fan – a further atomisation of consumption that pushes the game ever further towards individualism. This is the first time-shift World Cup – the point where technological ubiquity and inconvenient scheduling bisect. Games can be routinely watched at a time to suit and on a myriad of handheld devices, 11pm kick offs eschewed in favour of timeslots less problematic for early commutes and screaming toddlers. The fun has even gone out of trying to avoid the score. No need to ape Bolam & Bewes when you can watch a re-run of Cote D’Ivoire v Japan on the toilet and fast-forward to the best bits. And that’s before we start on the unending ocean of tactical savants and their joyless blogs, twitter goal updates and multiple streams that combine to leave the ‘modern’ football fan resembling a disgruntled nightwatchman surveying a bank of blinking CCTV monitors. A delusion of omnipotence undermined by the atrophying effect of such saturation.
Football, as so often, is here at the frontline of a wider socio-political shift. After all, this is Cameron’s Britain, complete with its illusory and conceited “Big Society” – altruism reimagined as dinner party credits, whilst simultaneously the very nation of ‘union’ is bandied around Westminster as a pantomime barb by a party relentlessly devoted to an agenda of social stratification. Everywhere you look, corporate behemoths egregiously congratulate themselves on the level of ‘connection’ they’ve obtained – essentially a goading of punters into flashing their figurative knickers in return for retweets. We may eat alone, but as long as a Gaussian photo of our pulled pork and slaw is on Instagram before the remnants have been wiped from our ironic moustaches we retain the delusion of collective empowerment within an ersatz community.
Alarmingly, the prevailing traits behind this shift have seeped into the ‘regular’, resolutely analogue, matchday. Even on the Kop, still a searing mass of raw humanity at its best, the trend towards technology-inspired individualism is growing. It’s far from uncommon to be surrounded by those filming the match on phones or, worse still, iPads. The dissociative quality of the viewfinder here facilitates a retreat to a kind of televisual familiarity, even when physically in attendance – a perverse absurdity, like spending £400 on a pair of pre-ripped jeans. Several times this season I’ve sat next to people glued to their mobiles throughout – doubtless bantering merrily with other likeminded souls. Instructively, last summer the club installed Wi-Fi at Anfield – not in an effort to further wring cash from punters (the loathsome ‘brand monetisation’ we’re forever hearing about), but in direct response to complaints about the difficulty of obtaining a 3G signal within the hulking stands. It’s hard to conceive – fans sitting in the Kop, watching a team intent on reducing elite-level football to the chaos of a next-goal-wins kickabout, with their most pressing concern being an inability to see what meme the depressing cavalcade of #footybanter accounts have churned out about the referee’s performance.
The illusion of connection has, likewise, been central to the coverage of the World Cup so far. “Speak Your Brains” voxpops ensure the most hysterical opinions circulate like a virtual bush fire. Meanwhile, broadcasters implore us to show them our, ahem, #goalface or #worldcupseat, creating an unending and dissonant feedback loop in the process. For all their apparent triviality, what such conceits achieve is to reinforce the idea of football as a multi-platform experience best enjoyed alone. “Sorry, lads. Don’t fancy the pub tonight. Got to stay at home and send my #goalface to Robbie Savage”. Matters reached a new nadir during Brazil’s underwhelming draw with Mexico when Pearce – Crown Prince of football’s hyperbolised periphery – started reading out viewers’ texts on Dani Alves’ hairdo. The laughable sloganeering of Cameron’s early days in office, “we’re all in this together”, is here reimagined with equal superficiality, a de facto extension of the BBC’s Reithian remit to include “engage”. Pundits have been repositioned as the viewer’s co-banterers, lounging around the Copacabana in shades and occasionally breaking off from their everyman patter to announce yet another viewer poll (“Should Rooney play as number 10, or be melted down for hotdog meat? Only YOU can decide!”)
As disingenuous as it is depressingly inescapable, this artifice shows no sign of relenting. A dystopian future in which a holographic Chiles is beamed into living rooms nationwide to exchange bespoke witless banter with armchair viewers is surely not far away. Picture that, and judder.
Posted by Ron Hamilton