Category Archives: Club football

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.

The Aesthetics of the Slowgoal

With the start of the World Cup now in sight, Saturday’s continental amuse-bouche provided numerous questions for contemplation. Will teams adopt the furious pressing of Diego Simeone’s saveur du mois, or will the individual triumph over the collective as with Real’s neo-galactico ‘project’? Will the relentless narratisation of Diego Costa’s return ‘home’ be undermined by injury? And, most importantly, will a single goal scored at Brazil 2014 be as satisfying as Diego Godin’s lolloping header?

It may have lacked the physical dynamism of Gareth Bale’s extra-time leap or the risible histrionics of Ronaldo’s penalty but, make no mistake, the Uruguayan’s goal was a thing of exquisite beauty. Inching its way to the line at a testudinal pace, the heat and fury of El Derbi madrileño temporarily abated as the ball eluded Iker Casillas’ frantic efforts at retrieval – a rare, almost elegiac, hiatus in 120 minutes of relentless aggression and speed. Godin’s goal bore all the hallmarks of a classic of its genre; the glacial pace, the high loop and multiple bounce before reaching the line, and most importantly of all the fact that the strike failed to make the net twinge, let alone bulge.

Empirically, of course, all goals are identical – the “they all count the same” mantra trotted out by six-yard sniffers and last-man lurkers since time immemorial. And yet, once a goal is stripped back to its aesthetics, empiricism becomes the victim of a metaphorical heave into touch by an anvil-footed full-back. There are numerous more obvious candidates to transcend the status of mere notches on the scoreboard – the long-range howitzer, the intricate tika-taka bagatelle or Messi-esque slalom – but none, for me at least, can match the exquisite sight of a ball trundling apologetically over the line. The Slowgoal.

Previous World Cups have been littered with efforts like Godin’s, many of which endure as staples of the popular consciousness. Francois Omam-Biyik’s winner against Argentina in Italia 90’s fabled opener is perhaps the purest of its ilk; a header dribbling from the moment of impact, slowed even further by the fumbling of Nery Pumpido on its way to brushing the corner of the net. Here the genesis of an improbable World Cup story the Slowgoal can be divine, but it can also be diabolical. As a child, I had the image of Andreas Brehme’s deflected, looping free kick seared onto my memory for a number of years. 24 years on, I still flinch on recall – the slowness of the ball’s arc lending an unwelcome viscerality to a foggy memory.

What lies behind the beauty of such goals? What makes them so satisfying? There’s an element of schadenfruede, without doubt. Such goals inevitably – indeed, are required to – involve a degree of scrambling panic, usually on behalf of an unfortunate goalkeeper. This tempting of the ‘keeper – whose raison d’etre is to prevent the ball from reaching the net – offers up a teasing glimpse of fulfillment, before snatching it back. This fleeting offering lends the Slowgoal an existential grandeur to sit alongside the slapstick.

It’s not all reductive sneering, however. In the Epicurean model, two types of pleasure exist – the fulfillment of immediate or corporeal desire (moving pleasures) and the satiation of underlying or cerebral desire (static pleasures), commonly defined as the difference between eating a meal and lounging back full and contented following that meal. The inference is, of course, that the latter can be considered superior, existing as it does on a spiritual or philosophical level. Goals, ordinarily, are moving pleasures because they fulfill an immediate desire, with immediacy – the transition from foot to ball to net to joy taking place over fractions of seconds and before the full range of possibilities can be perceived. The phenomenon of the Slowgoal, on the other hand, can be rendered as an Epicurean static pleasure, the duration of time it takes for the ball to trundle over the line allowing sufficient scope for simultaneous contemplation of both the event and post-event satiation – a paradox fashioned from the deferred inevitability of what is to follow.

Finally, there is an element of satisfying counter-intuitivity at play. The spheroidal physics of the ball – dynamically attuned as they are to trajectory and velocity – lend themselves to force. Throw a child a ball, and their first instinct is not to caress but to pelt as hard and far as they can – an atavistic desire to demonstrate physical prowess of which the resulting inability to sublimate can be traced from the public school codification of the rules to the continuing failures of the England team at national tournaments. Flick through any football comic, and the narrative is exclusively comprised of veering top corner rockets by men with names like Hot Shot Hamish and Net Knack Norton (I made one of those up) that both play up to, and feed into this atavism. To see the ball fluffed into an unmoving net thus confounds our expectations and base desires – becoming less a ‘ghost goal’ than a ‘false goal’; a barely credible interpolation. This epistemological difficulty is compounded if the Slowgoal is performed deliberately, when it becomes an almost transgressive act by the attacker – a willful subversion of the norms in order to humiliate or deceive the opponent.

This offers up two additional fronts within this paradigm, the first being a particular favourite: the slow-motion lob. Over two decades on, a youthful memory of Peterborough’s Worrell Sterling equalizing at Leeds Road in a play-off semi final still stirs the embers, whilst Daniel Sturridge’s ludicrous goal against Everton this season – a lob so preposterous the ball brushed the lower troposphere before dropping back to earth – will doubtless remain with me for a further twenty years. On the world stage, one of the rare moments of genuine delight during the tepid 2010 World Cup came with Kamil Kopúnek’s slow and looping lob that put the seal on the Italy’s miserable attempt to defend their title, thought whether Gianluigi Buffon will look back with similar fondness is questionable.

The second, and perhaps most aesthetically enduring example of this sub-genre comes with the Panenka. Nearly forty years after Antonin Panenka sent his insouciant spot-kick spinning into the centre of a Stadin Crvena Zvezda net, the mixture of bemusement and delight the conceit provokes shows no signs of abating. That England’s exit from Euro 2012 failed to provoke any of the defining gnashing and smashing that customarily greets shoot-out failure was down in no small part to the fact a majority of fans were so befuddled by Pirlo’s penalty that the standard language of reaction ceased to be of use.

In a sport increasingly, and fatuously, obsessed with the neoliberal prototype of steroidal uniformity – a relentless effort to make every tournament more exciting, more important and more profitable than before – the Slowgoal provides a refreshing and levelling anti-narrative that enables us to glimpse the real allure of football through the pervasive sheen.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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

The Meaning of…Bailey Wright

One question that might legitimately be asked of this series of articles is, “for whom?” Although its implied demythologising intent is probably best read with tongue at least partly in cheek, any attempt to excavate the “meaning” of some thing or figure is deserving of scrutiny. There’s a force to the the which is apt to put any keen dialectician on the defensive: where are the lines of truth and error being drawn here, how do they map onto some wider picture of those who know and those who don’t? Who is claiming the authority to speak on behalf of Diego Costa or Edin Dzeko, to what end, and on what basis?

My aim here is not to derail a series which has produced some precise and luminous analysis over the last couple of weeks: none of the writing so far has in any case been so vain or joyless as to suggest that it speaks from some position of unquestionable truth. However, briefly pausing over the matter of the way that pieces like those mentioned above frame their inquiry and interpretations is worthwhile, not least as a preamble to an alternative angle which haunts the wings of those pieces and which entered the stage in the Steven Gerrard and Ross Barkley articles: that of the fan. Plainly, we apply different interpretations to individuals and situations when they concern our team. All too often these interpretations are merely groundless: in my lower ebbs, I have a keen sense that Rotherham cheated Preston North End out of a spot in this year’s League One Playoff final through some nefarious combination of financial doping and anti-football. Of course, my own personal account of the meaning of the Millers’ 3-1 home victory in the tie’s second leg diverges somewhat from the more popular account, which prefers such signifiers as “meteoric rise” and “Ben Pringle”. Strip away the anguish and the paranoia and the latter account is almost self-evidently of greater, more focused and more judicious interpretative value. But this is a hysterical example, premised on the kind of hypertrophied and intensely-focused negative affect that we all know is liable to cloud our judgements. What about the “meanings” that are produced in a similarly partial way, but in tandem with delight rather than despair?

“Delight” is the word for it. Although Preston’s season ended with an all-too-familiar whimper, it was a marked improvement on the past few years of relegation struggle, financial gloom and fleeting, alienating managerial appointments. Furthermore, its meaning will forever be fixed for me as the season that I rejoined the fold after over half a decade living too far away from Deepdale, without sufficient disposable income. I attended away games for the first time – two raucous victories over Tranmere and Oldham. I was in the Town End when Joe Garner scored that goal. I was also present for the dismal pre-Christmas defeat to Brentford, a match which, after a wave of optimism in the Autumn, sent a clear signal that there were teams in this division a great deal better than us. Reconciliation with tribal loyalty might not seem the most progressive move, but I maintain that this experience – and I suspect I’m not alone in this outlook – amplified rather than blunted my faculties as far as understanding football is concerned. In the sheer arbitrariness of the view it casts, the experience of tribal supportership can, when experienced with a modicum of self-reflexivity, act in a similar way to Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, which relegate aesthetic concerns as secondary to some determining rule – photograph every building on the Sunset Strip, say, or twenty-six gasoline stations. Levels of contingency ungraspable by less automatic modes of world-picturing creep in, and suddenly the dominant narratives around football seem woefully limited (again, I realise I am preaching guilelessly to the converted here). There is a key difference between the “auto-maticity” of Ruscha’s work and that of the football partisan, however: while Ruscha’s work is characteristically LA cool, the “work” pursued by the dedicated supporter is invested with hot, syrupy feelings of longing, loyalty and filial affection.

Enter Bailey Wright. After Graham Westley almost completely remodelled the Preston squad in his image between 2012 and 2013, and after incumbent Simon Grayson later added his own list of charges, Wright’s was one of the first names I learned, owing to the fact that I initially got it wrong (I read the two names as a double-barrelled surname). Before a slightly shonky run towards the end of the season, Wright was more-or-less dependable at centre-back, and what he might have lacked in individual appeal he made up for by being a weekly fixture in one of the more committed and likeable North End squads of recent years. Only, dig a little deeper and individual appeal was there to be found: Wright had come over from Melbourne, where he had played youth football for Dandenong Thunder and the Victoria State team, at the age of 17, and Preston is his only club to date. Whatever machinations lie behind the scenes, there is something cheering about the idea of a young centre-back halfway across the world eventually fleeing AFL-crazed Victoria and landing in – of all places – Preston.

It feels strange to be warmed by a career move which probably offers further reflection on the status of the “global footballing precariat” described by Joe in his piece on Edin Dzeko, but then again Wright’s foothold in English league football is less precarious than some: with nearly five years under his belt at North End, Wright is almost a naturalised Prestonian. So, by virtue of the cognitive and affective gymnastics characteristic of football partisanship, his inclusion in Ange Postecoglou’s 27-man squad for Brazil feels – against all better judgement – like a friend or cousin being booked to play an early slot at a festival, or in support for some bigger band. There’s a humble sense of grace; nobody else will turn up to watch them play, but they’ll be part of the big bash nonetheless. As a supporter of a habitually sub-top-tier team, major international tournaments provide a very small window for club-oriented participation. Those few players that do make it at international level tend to play for teams too small to make it to the finals: North End’s other senior internationals are currently gaining caps for Jamaica and Gibraltar. David Nugent’s one goal for England, lest we forget, came in a failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, in a match against Andorra. Assuming he makes the final cut then, Wright will join that pantheon of rare and unlikely World Cup stars that also includes his compatriot Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town), Iran’s Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic) and the suspiciously Caucasian Port Vale veteran Chris Birchall, who represented Trinidad & Tobago back in 2006. Once in Brazil, Wright might not make it into a single starting eleven, and he might be powerless to hold back Diego Costa and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar if he does, but his name and affiliation have made it onto a World Cup squad list, and one shouldn’t underestimate the meaningfulness of this to a select few thousand, chosen by some random accident of geography.

Posted by Luke Healey

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

The Meaning of…Toni Kroos

 

An old colleague of mine once remarked that, although Freudian psychoanalysis is supposed to bind sex and death together, in practice Freudians tend to emphasise either one or the other. In one camp, you’ve got the lusty gatherers of phallic symbols, the rigid Oedipussers; in the other, the thanatotic worriers over transience. I’ve never quite decided whether or not I properly constitute a Freudian, so I’m unsure as to what kind of Freudian I’d be or, if I am one, I am, but I think I tend to find the post-World War I Freud, the doomy, negating Freud of ‘The Uncanny’ and Beyond the Pleasure Principle slightly more engaging.

Toni Kroos plays for Bayern Munich. The city of Munich makes me think of doomy Freud via its dual iterary associations with the glum, bereft bit of modernism. It’s where von Aschenbach feels the onrushing death of desire – what Freud’s biographer Ernest Jones called ‘aphanisis’ – in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice; it’s also where those disinherited, displaced aristocrats faff around drinking coffee and fretting about the end of civilisation in Eliot’s Waste Land. This, of course, will be the sketchy justification I use to claim that the German midfielder, who I remain to be convinced by as a player, has of late allowed us to understand something about how tödlich-Freud might interpret a particular aspect of fandom.

Kroos spent the second half of the season just gone being ‘hotly tipped’, as they say, for a move to sporting-colossus-turned-professional-crisis-club Manchester United. He was, and it seems necessary to ontologise the idea through the use of capital letters, The Solution to United’s Midfield Dilemma. Last week, however, we learned that Kroos, who quite a lot of Reds were already tacto-grooming, did not want to join and would most probably remain in Munich to do civilised Central European things in the Hofgarten.

This, of course, is not the first time in recent memory that United fans have built an emotional relationship with a player out of nothing but transfer speculation, the pseudohard news of sport, only for the bride not to turn up for the wedding. Last summer, the protracted (TM) non-signing of Cesc Fabregas seemed to traumatise the club. In fact, in narrative terms and even perhaps in footballing ones, Fabregas was United’s most important ‘player’ in 2013-2014. His not being there intensified into a sort of negative presence, a glob of antimatter whose voidal obnoxiousness dictated how United played, namely appallingly.

Freud argued in his 1917 essay ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that the loss of someone or something loved – through their death, the end of a relationship, even the loss of a favourite pen – is responded to in two ways. Mourning involves a negotiation with the reality principle followed by the development of a new attachment – a new ‘cathexis’, in Freud-speak – which might be apprehended in more banal, pop-psychological terms as ‘moving on’. Melancholia, by contrast, is being ‘hung up’. No new cathexis occurs; instead, the lost object undergoes incorporation or ‘introjection’ in the fantasy life of the bereaved, acting as a drain inside the psyche down which libido trickles.

Having believed Fabregas was theirs for so long before the transfer became a non-event, United seemed to fall into a state of abject melancholia. The signing of Marouane Fellaini represented not a new cathexis, but the acquisition of a monumental representation of Fabregas’ loss, a Salfordian Taj Mahal. Now, United seem to be falling into a pattern, a compulsive jiiltedness which starts to look more and more like an elongated failure to properly mourn midfielders past. Perhaps, then, it’s time to roll out what may be the most niche pun in the history of joking and start talking about FCUM – Failed Cathexes United of Manchester.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

Sketches of Sketches of Spain

So, it’s the European Cup final tonight. I bought my Guardian and went down the cafe this morning, turning to the sport first in the way I do, clinging to my childhood. Obviously, I expected there to be a fair amount on the encounter between the Madrid teams in Lisbon, but not half as much as there turned out to be: the idea that an ECF between two non-British teams would have used this much ink in a UK broadsheet would have seemed pretty absurd even ten years ago, when Beckham was at Real and McManaman had just left, and completely implausible in the 1990s. The depth of coverage was also noteworthy: five or six hundred words on Diego Simeone, more than a thousand on Cristiano Ronaldo and, most eyebrow-raisingly, smatterings of untranslated Spanish football slang.

This, of course, is the year that Real Madrid hope to claim their tenth European Cup, La mythical Décima. Interestingly, the conservative papers with, one might expect, less football-hip readerships feel the need to provide context for this term, explaining why Real are so hypnotised by the prospect of a tenth title. The Guardian, however, which has spearheaded the boom in Spanish football analysis with the writing of arch-connoisseur Sid Lowe, seems to expect that its readers are fully conversant with the politico-emotional logic of Iberian football, presumably because they subscribe to The Blizzard and have Zonal Marking bookmarked and all that kind of thing. 

Anyway, the point here isn’t to cut down footballing Hispanophilia, so I’ll try and rein it in somewhat. I do happen to find the casual tossing of a lingo clearly designed to produce an ‘in’ group into football conversations irksome – and I say this as someone who used the word Gedankenexperiment in a post on here recently – but I’m also intrigued as to what exactly occasioned the ‘Spanish turn’ of the last six or seven years. Two explanations are typically tendered for this. The first of these, David Beckham’s journey to La Liga, seems banal and, in any case, inaccurate. It’s anachronistic, for a start, but it also overlooks the fact that the kind of people who will be rooting for El Atléti tonight in Dalston and Didsbury are also the kind of people who could write a mean tacto-dossier on why Beckham wasn’t really very good. The second explanation is the sensational, arguably revolutionary, football of Guardiola’s Barcelona, a beautiful style for a city whose edgy élan is hymned endlessly in this country, maintained by players who seemed in the main like people you’d enjoy going for a pint with – well, maybe this is just Xavi, but the point stands.

I don’t think the Barcelona explanation stands up alone, though, and I think the ‘beautiful style for a beautiful city’ component is the giveaway here. It seems to me that Guardiola’s tiki-taka and the general elegance of his team simply confirmed something that British people were starting to feel about Spain in general, and I make no apologies for labelling Barcelona as a ‘Spanish’ team here as, for all of our so-called knowledge of ‘Catalunya’, that’s essentially how they are perceived in the UK. I’m just going to try and sketch a couple of notes, then, about how the ‘Spanish turn’ in football mirrors a more general one.

Spain is caught up in a complex relation of othering with England. The two countries became inextricably linked in their early modern history and, ever since, Spain has served a peculiar role in its one-time adversary’s cultural imagination. Spain for England is, on one hand, brutality – Goya’s Disasters of War, the hilltop bombing scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls – and uninhibited eroticism. It seems to knot violence, tragedy, sexuality and aesthetics in a way which exceeds even France’s potential for doing this – and this knotting was, I’d contend, as much as a pull as the formally political one during the Spanish Civil war. Remember Auden’s orientalising lines?

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

There was a period, probably from the late sixties through to as recently as the late nineties, when middle-class Britain turned its nose up at Spain for the most part. Spain was Torremolinos and Magaluf; the Sagrada Familia and the Prado were exceptions that proved the rule. If you were going to Southern Europe, you went and faffed about in Provence or sampled Italy’s celebrated pavement culture so as to return to Britain and wonder why it wasn’t like that in Louth or Clitheroe. Something began to change, perhaps, as the Blair years wore on and people began to see Italy as a bourgeois cliche, a nice enough place to visit but one in which pleasure was a bit too forecastable. Come to think of it, I’ve been to Italy enough times to know that it can be strangely predictable so long as you’re sticking to the big cities – only Naples seems to carry with it the energetically uncanny feel of Barcelona, Bilbao or San Sebastian. Italy, in other words, lost its edge.

In the nineties, Spain also underwent an economic boom of sorts, and its regions – probably for some Europe Union-related reason I have no time to look up – acquired funding which allowed cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian, in synchronicity with fellow provincial ports Newcastle and Hamburg, to undergo culture-led regeneration programmes. Why would you want to go to some dusty old museum in Florence, full of antiquated statues of naked saints that provoke little but a deep anxiety of engagement, when you could go to a shimmering new gallery by Frank Gehry or Rafael Moneo with some gardening by Jeff Koons outside? Why would you want to eat pizza when you eat a fifteen-course tasting menu representing the zenith of Ferran Adrià’s gastroscience or the nouvelle cuisine basque? Fuck Chianti, mine’s a Garnacha.

 In other words, the Spanish Turn in football is an outgrowth of a broader fetishisation of Spain which has been taking place in Britain ever since people decided Benicassim was a bigger event than Glastonbury. I love Spain – I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it ticks the boxes of the less contrarian part of me – but it does seem useful to speculate as to why its football has been treated in such a particular way of late.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

There’s some p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ dogs on the pitch…

This, I suppose, is more me nudging the door ajar on the book I’m writing than a fully-fledged SotB post, but I’ve been inspired by some of the stuff I’ve seen (including by writers from this blog) on the excellent Everyday Analysis, who have their first collection out. It’s called Why Are Animals Funny? and is something you should buy if you’re interested in reading critical theorists outlining their ideas through the medium of stuff like airport queues and Kinder toys.

Anyway, my interest here is slightly narrower: why is it that, in the words of Half Man, Half Biscuit, ‘even men with steel hearts love to see a dog on the pitch’? The subsection of Youtube devoted to the canine pitch invasion seems to grow by the week, bringing together recent, mobile-captured examples of the genre with vintage VHS and newsreel images. To begin with, here’s a few examples.

This is the one I’ve written about at the start of the first chapter of my book, and I think it’s perhaps one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s footage from a mid-season friendly between Galatasaray and, for some reason, the German second division side VFR Ahlen. I can’t think of any particular reason for these clubs to be meeting in a non-competitive game, so we’ll assume there was a calendarial convenience and managers wanted to keep players fit during a winter break or cast an eye over some reserves. Unusually, given how Gala’s fans normally are, the stands are barren and the atmosphere flat. In the video, it’s just after half-time, and those who have bothered to come are yet to witness a goal. The visiting keeper punts a long kick up field and a centre-back rises to head clear, overcoming a half-hearted challenge. As the attack is repelled, two cream-white shapes appear on the bottom of the screen, moving towards the action. The camera quickly zooms in to focus on a pair of young Labradors, tussling over a discarded newspaper as they incur onto the pitch. The referee halts play as he spots the dogs, and the players begin to crowd around the animals, bending down to pet them. Stewards enter the field; a player passes a dog to one of them. The crowd, such as it is, applauds the interruption, and the camera follows the intruders as they are removed from the field of play. In the most touching moment of the film, the dog who holds the newspaper drops it in the course of being carried away, and looks ruefully back towards the object as the referee convenes a drop ball so play can restart.

Here’s another favourite. This time, we’re at Selhurst Park as Crystal Palace entertain a pre-Jack Walker Blackburn in a vital match during the 1988 Division Two promotion run-in.* Rovers’ Terry Gennoe comes out to claim a long free-kick, misses it, Palace shoot as the keeper is incapacitated, only to see the effort cleared off the line. As the replay comes on, the commentator draws our attention to a retriever standing inside the goal, next to the post. Fortunately for the referee, it was human, rather than animal, intervention which prevented the goal. Something interesting then happens as the commentator asks ‘Do you like me sometimes wonder why on earth people sometimes bring a fine-looking dog like that to a ground like this?’ and claims that ‘the fans just want him away’. The fans, actually, are palpably overjoyed about the dog, despite the fact that the home team have just been denied a goal. HMHB were absolutely right: if there is one way of finally settling the epistemological dispute about who are ‘real’ football fans and who are not, just put a dog on the pitch. Responding joyfully to this is an unmistakable signifier of authenticity, whatever TV commentators think.**

Here’s another clip, from Bootham Crescent, York, in the 1990s. There are several things I really like about this one. First of all, the dog has a great time – it’s not half-heartedly lurking, like its predecessor at Selhurst Park. Second, the players think it’s really funny, as proved by Dean Kiely’s theatrical dive at 0.45. Last of all, there’s actually a reward for the invader, as a spectator lures it to the sideline with, I think, some chips.

I’ve used the first example here a number of times in lectures and seminars to explain Jacques Lacan’s three orders to first-year students. The Imaginary is the field in which we gain a sense of possessing a coherent self, allowing us to believe in our purposeful, motivated individuality in the world. In football, this sense of purpose and identity emerges in competitions – what I identify with must beat what you identify with to win the trophy – in the form of kits, badges and so on. ‘Playing for the shirt’ exists more or less in the order of the Imaginary. The Symbolic is the order of language and sign systems, the field of rules and regulations into which we are thrown and to which we must adhere if we are to make our selfhood intelligible. In football, this would, obviously, correspond to the Laws of the Game, which must be respected in our pursuit of the goals defined in the Imaginary. The Real, meanwhile, is the ineffable order, that which eludes, but undermines, the Symbolic and traumatises the coherence of the Imaginary. It lurks in the impossible and the contradictory, and sings (or hums, I like to think) the inadequacy or incompleteness of the rules. In this example, the dogs running onto the pitch are the Real: they are covered only by hazy rules surrounding ‘foreign objects’, pointing to an aporia in the attempt of the rules to cover all eventuality. They also cut at the Imaginary, rendering the idea of footballing success absurd by collapsing the match into comedic farce.

One of football’s great paradoxes, as we’ve argued in the past, is that its Real – what can’t be dealt with fully by the rules and reminds us that the match, or the competition, is an incompletely closed system which can’t keep the world out – is perhaps its biggest draw. If football is escapist, a means of getting away from the world, it is unusual that it is intensified at those moments when it becomes incoherent or even meaningless as a way of separating from the world. Football is, for many fans at least, most purely football when it gets spooked by that which it is supposed to provide distraction from.

During the games of this summer’s World Cup, one may be drawn into Symbolic intricacies (which tactics will be most effective within the rules?) and Imaginary identifications with the shirt or the flag. But, perhaps more so than at any tournament in the last thirty years, the Real may intrude in the form of strategically disruptive political protests which will aim, specifically, to collapse the footballing aspect of the tournament into meaninglessness. What I wonder is if football fans en masse can only take so much of the Real: would a cancelled, or even simply interrupted, World Cup exceed the memorable, the circumscription of the ‘talking point’, or could it be a point for a genuine raising of political consciousness?

*I once saw a fox on the pitch at Selhurst Park in an otherwise forgettable game, but foxes somehow have less magic about them than dogs in this context.)

** I don’t agree with Nick Hornby about much, but his point that commentators are literally the only watchers of a game who are offended by a 22-man brawl is absolutely correct. Supporters are, at best, selectively Corinthian.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Benfica & The (Non-) Curse of Béla Guttmann

Benfica fan

Heartbreak again for Benfica on Wednesday night as two fluffed penalties by Rodrigo and Óscar Cardozo cost them the penalty shoot-out in the Europa League final, their second consecutive final defeat in the competition. As Águias coach Jorge Jesús might have thundered that his side was the better one and deserved to win, but it’s hard to begrudge Sevilla their victory. Even though they were on the back-foot for long stretches of the 120 minutes, they carved out a fair number of chances on the counter-attack themselves, with Croatian playmaker Ivan Rakitić majestic in the middle of the park, and Colombian Carlos Bacca could well have won the match for them outright in extra time  when he shot a bit too hastily with the goal to Oblak’s right gaping in front of him. The composure with which the Andalusians approached the penalty shoot-out also gave the lie to the old saw that penalties are a lottery –– nine times out of ten, it is the mentally stronger team that wins, and, after two hours, that was Sevilla on Wednesday. Unai Emery’s men, despite being in financial turmoil, have now capped off the club’s most successful period since the 1950s, having won the UEFA Cup/Europa League three times and the Copa del Rey twice since 2006.

But what of Benfica? The defeat in Turin was undoubtedly disappointing but the Lisbon giants have already sewn up a 33rd Portuguese title, the League Cup and face Rio Ave (whom they already beat 2-0 to win the League Cup) in the Taça de Portugal final on Sunday. When I was at the Estadio da Luz for the Europa League semi-final first leg against Juventus, friends and other Benfica fans were all saying that, once the league was in the bag, anything else was a bonus extra. Being top dog at home is what really counts but it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Benfica have lost eight European finals since becoming the first team to wrestle the Champions Cup off Real Madrid in 1961 and 1962.

The story goes that the Hungarian manager who led them to those two triumphs, Béla Guttmann, put a curse on the club when his demands for a bonus and a new contract were not met. More specifically, he said that no Portuguese team would again be European champions twice and that Benfica would never win a European competition again for 100 years. Porto’s triumphs in 1987 and 2004 have already proved the first half of the curse wrong but people still cleave to the truth of Guttmann’s malediction, given Benfica’s serial lack of success in eight finals. Eusébio once visited Guttmann’s grave in Vienna before the 1990 final against Milan and prayed to him to lift the curse.

Now, before embarking on a debunking of the ‘curse’, I suppose I should admit the ridiculousness of even having to do so, but belief in curses endures worldwide across numerous sports and these curses are usually a desperate attempt at rationalising something that is, for most clubs, the norm –– years without winning a trophy. Curses are usually indicative of entitlement among sports fans –– the Chicago Cubs, the Boston Red Sox, Clare hurlers and Benfica have all been afflicted by curses, but not, surprisingly, Rochdale Football Club, without a single trophy of note in its 107-year history. A dry run is not so uncommon, and Benfica’s should be put down simply to bad luck, and, in a wider sense, to a fairly shambolic organisation over the past two decades.

Guttmann was clearly not so fazed by his own curse, as he took the reins of the club again, for the 1965-66 season, which finished trophy-less but in between two European Cup final appearances. Benfica’s five Champions Cup final defeats would probably have more to do with the calibre of opposition they faced than any curse –– four times they fell to one of the greatest teams of the day, Nereo Rocco’s Milan in 1963, Helenio Herrera’s Inter in 1965, Matt Busby’s Manchester United in 1968 and Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in 1990. Only a shoot-out defeat to PSV Eindhoven in 1988 came against a more modest adversary. Had Benfica the fortune to face an internally squabbling Bayern Munich or a rather ordinary Monaco, as Porto did when they won their European titles, things might have been very different. The three UEFA Cup/Europa League defeats were all different –– a narrow aggregate defeat to Anderlecht in 1984, a last-minute loss to Chelsea last year after dominating the Londoners for much of the game and now this year’s defeat to Sevilla. The ‘curse’ may, naturally, have its psychological toll but all three finals were well within Benfica’s grasp.

If anything, Benfica should be grateful they have reached so many finals at all since their glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. The club’s domestic dominance came to be seriously challenged by Porto after the fall of the Estado Novo regime in 1974. Benfica, while by no means a club tied to the Salazar regime (Lisbon rivals Sporting were more popular with government bigwigs and the bourgeoisie) did enjoy a privileged status on account of its international success. That privilege was lifted after the Carnation Revolution. The club soldiered on well enough until the 1990s when a rot set in that has only really been tackled since the arrival of Jesús from Braga five years ago. He has won two of the club’s three titles since 1994 (Giovanni Trapattoni won the other in 2005). Benfica have played second and often third fiddle to Porto, and most humiliatingly, Sporting, in that time, with the nadir being a sixth-place finish in 2001. Sport Lisboa e Benfica was a byword for institutional incompetence and on-field calamity for the best part of two decades. Next to that, the curse of Béla Guttmann looks pretty harmless stuff. Jesús is also, amazingly, only the third Portuguese manager to win the title for Benfica –– Portuguese coaches boast only five championship wins for the club, compared to ten by Hungarians, of which there have been seven at the helm, including Guttmann.

Jesús, a former journeyman player, came to the club after impressing with Lisbon’s third club, Belenenses and Braga, and has restored it to both a level of functional excellence and credibility on the field. He is pretty much untouchable now, even if his Benfica side has shown a recurrent tendency to lack the killer punch to add to their frenetic but highly technical and entertaining game –– the 2012 Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and the Europa League final against the same opposition a year later are cases in point where Os Encarnados dominated without seriously troubling the opposition. Still, he has shown tactical nous –– the Europa League semi-final second leg against Juventus was a masterpiece of expedient defending –– and the way Benfica bounced back after losing the League, the Cup and the Europa League all to last-minute goals in the space of a week last year shows that he has instilled in his players a steel that has for long been missing at the Estadio da Luz.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Cardiff, the World Cup and Football’s Jouissance

I’m going to put my cards on the table straight from the off. I’m a Cardiff City fan. Yeah, go on. Go on. Laugh away. Ho ho. I’m ready for you. We waited for 51 years to reach the hallowed land of the Premier League only to go and screw it up. You’ve got to hand it to us, though, haven’t you? Things didn’t just go a little bit wrong: we shot ourselves in the foot in the most spectacularly hilarious way possible. Football fans the world over are belly-laughing. Even, I dare say, people in those far-flung corners of the globe where the game has barely penetrated are choking on their reindeer sausages as they try to stifle giggles at the fortunes of the ‘mighty’ Bluebirds.

It’s pretty painful to think about the season just gone, but it’ll do me good and help to explain where I’m coming from. The whole sorry affair started in 2012 when major club shareholder Vincent Tan insisted his investment was contingent on the unthinkable: changing the club colours from blue to red. Shamefully, both the fans and local press, if not showing unequivocal support, failed to stand up and say ‘no’. The long-awaited promotion to the EPL was subsequently tinged with the sensation that it could all have been so much better. That’s exactly how life in the top flight has left us feeling.

Vincent Tan

When the season kicked off, we were holding our own until, out of nowhere, news broke that manager Malky Mackay and chief scout Iain Moody were accused of both financial mismanagement and underperformance by Tan. The latter was suspended, the former, our most successful and most popular manager, was booted out following a protracted and cringe-worthy public slanging match and replaced by the nice, but ultimately ineffectual Ole Gunnar Solskjær. It was downhill from there. Our marquee signing, Andreas ‘Great Dane’ Cornelius, turned out to be a dud, Peter ‘Difficult’ Odemwingie played like he was learning the game. Ole’s signings, which included a trio of dainty Norwegians, Wilfried ‘Can’t be arsed’ Zaha and Kenwyne ‘Crap’ Jones just didn’t really cut the mustard. Everything was topped off by a series of unhelpful and inflammatory television pronouncements from Tan and his apparent desire for his smarmy face to be the centre of all attention. The club went into freefall.

To cut things short, after a bright start (a glorious home win against the eventual Premier League Champions, Man City) we ended up getting right royally roasted. While we could grind out results under Mackay, Ole wanted to attack at all costs and kept on reminding us he used to play for Man Utd, as if that would help in some way. Humiliating, nay, crushing defeats to the heavyweights Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Hull, and perhaps worst of all to the enemy down in west Wales ensued. It became pretty clear that multi-squillionaire Tan and even his perma-grinning chum Ole (who used to play for Man Utd, lest we forget) have got absolutely no idea about how a top-flight football club should be run off or on the pitch. The whole affair was a nightmare. Weekends were ruined by the club’s shambolic bumbling.

As a way of coping with the abject horror, and as opposed to walking away, I started doing the unthinkable: wanting Cardiff to be relegated. I saw staying up would be a vindication of Tan. Then, I tried to enjoy the absurd horror of the shambles through a bleakly comic veil, egging the club on to embarrass itself further. How I laughed when Vincent Tan launched a completely unprompted attack on Mackay, blaming him for the club’s relegation six months after he’d been sacked. It helped a little seeing Vincent Tan as a Clark Griswold-style character in a warped installment of National Lampoon’s Premiership Vacation. Then we finished bottom of the league, and its all been pretty flat since. I don’t know what comes next, apart from the gloomy prospect of trips to Millwall, Blackpool and, worst of all, QPR.

So, you can imagine why I’m feeling pretty low about the prospect of the global, grinning, samba-soundtracked festival of football that is just around the corner. It doesn’t even help that there’ll be a couple of (for the moment, at least) Cardiff City players at the tournament in the shape of Chile’s Gary ‘Pitbull’ Medel and South Korea’s Kim ‘Kimbo’ Bo-Kyung (more on them in a future post). But, I’m going to give it a go. I’m going to force myself to get engaged, involved and entangled emotionally in the whole World Cup. No mean feat for a Welshman. It isn’t only going to be a selfless gesture for the readers of Straight Off The Beach: I’m counting on it to restore my faith in the beautiful game and my optimism when it comes to football. Its supposed to be entertaining, right? I’m looking forward to seeing the greatest players in the world (and maybe Kimbo too) test themselves against each other against in a vaguely erotic display of masculine power, grace professionalism and skill: everything you don’t get in a capitulation of a relegation season, and everything that was absent from the Cardiff City Stadium this year.

There is, then a lot riding on the tournament, for me. I’ll be looking to Rio, dressing up in carnival costume in my front room and, as ever, rooting for the French (again, there’s probably another post there). Just as long as Vincent Tan isn’t doing the same, and stays far away from our TV screens for the summer at least, and as long as no-one rattles on about Man Utd, then everything is going to be OK. It can’t get much worse, can it?

Posted by Russell Williams

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