Category Archives: Controversies

 Suárez’s Bite and Zidane’s Headbutt

Last night Luis Suárez bit Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s important match. It seems clear already that it will be one of the events of this World Cup which will remain in cultural memory the longest, and the immediate reactions to the biting incident on social media were particularly extreme. The key reactions I observed were comparisons of this incident to Zidane’s famous headbutt in 2006 (see for example here), and a sense of deep disgust at the idea of biting someone (to take a prominent example, Alan Shearer described the action as ‘disgusting’, but the words ‘Suárez’ and ‘disgusting’ will bring up endless results on Twitter’s search function). I want here to suggest some reasons why these may have been the two main reactions and how they are linked. Before beginning though, it’s important to stress that these are not the most important issues surrounding the incident. Most importantly it confronts us with the question, ‘Why does Suárez biting someone affect his marketability as a club footballer, and status as a player of international stature, so much more than the fact that he has racially abused other players?’ This piece will attempt to answer why this incident had such an affective charge; sadly the answer to why its affective charge is more potent than that of racism is probably more simple – that our culture, and particularly the big business of club football and its consumers, is still marked by racism. But it will also suggest a way in which Suárez’s racism can be thought of in relationship to his biting.

Both Suárez’s bite and Zidane’s headbutt were particularly striking because they took place outside the normal parameters of play. This is probably true of all fouls – they are interruptions, singularities, events, which disrupt the smooth flow of time within the match. Nonetheless, there is scale of the extent to which foul play takes on the status of a singularity or event which stems not only from how violent the event is, but how far outside the parameters of normal play the event is. Bad tackles act more like temporal punctuation than interruptions to the smooth flow of time within the match. Both Zidane and Suárez’s events though wholly alter the temporal experience of the match, and take on a marked meaning outside the structure of the match as a whole. They are temporally and semiotically superfluous to the game itself. Both incidents involved the head, which though a perfectly legitimate tool in the game, is immediately semiotically marked by its distance from normal play the moment it is used outside normal play, since it is as far away from the foot as possible. * Zidane’s headbutt occurred outside of the current locus of play, whilst Suárez’s bite was superfluous to any immediate object required by the game, and seemingly unprovoked by circumstances in the game itself, in contrast to a punch thrown during a break in play, or in response to a particular situation. Suárez’s object could have been achieved just as easily by a shove or shoulder-barge.

Both incidents then take on a particularly remarkable appearance as events, points of occurrence which take place outside both the normal parameters of play and normal experience of temporality in the game. They can be extracted from the match in order to make and reflect on wider points about the psychology of the players involved, and it is these psychological aspects that I believe make the events particularly fascinating to us, and in both cases, these two are connected with a sense of untimeliness. In his now classic essay on the aesthetics of football, ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’ , the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint suggests that Zidane’s headbutt in response to a perception that ‘the hours seem leaden, longer, slow interminable’, and that the act was, ‘a final flight from the finished work’. The act, in Toussaint’s terms, becomes not only an untimely event in the context of the match, but an untimely event in the context of Zidane’s whole life, an act of radical rebellion against the slowing down of all lived experience: an escape route in a space with no exit.

There can be no similar admiration for Suárez’s act, though in some way it follows the same temporal logic. Perhaps, at first glance it seems to be similar, but lesser, since Suárez was nowhere near the end of his career, an act born of the frustration of a stalemate at a point that demands winning, an attempt to re-enliven dead time. But this was not what it was, the affect it invokes though is very different: disgust.

When Toussaint speaks of the ‘final flight from the finished work’, he is quoting from Freud’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci, and it is Freud who can provide one answer to why Suárez’s untimely act might be found disgusting. Zidane’s act was untimely because it filled empty homogenous time with an instant of excitement, at the end, somehow already beyond the end, in a melancholy space of the afterlife which was for a moment redeemed. On the other hand, Suárez’s act, and biting more generally, is atavistic. It strikes many with the experience of disgust because it reminds them of the orality of their childhood. In his study of the study of the ‘Rat Man’, ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’, Freud relates that his patient was once beaten by his father ‘because he had bitten some one’, and that his patient was deeply shocked to learn this because he was ‘refus[ed] to believe that at some prehistoric period in his childhood he had been seized with fury’. It is in this particular instance that a more general cultural disgust towards biting is detectable: it reminds us both of our childhood orality, our erotic love of sucking (on our mother’s breast, or anything else to hand), and our childhood rages. In Dickens’s David Copperfield, that seems to have influenced the Rat Man study, David bites his step-father as he is being beaten, ‘I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it’.  When David relates this he is speaking as an upstanding bourgeois citizen (as is the Rat Man); as we consolidate our memories in adulthood, memories of this sort disgust us. That is part of our experience of becoming adult subjects in a bourgeois and patriarchal world.

It may well be that Suárez’s act then is a sort of rebellion against the patriarchal authority of the football business that made him what he is, but nor is Suárez some sort of political hero. Yet there is a problematic side in desiring to repress orality altogether. The repression of oral pleasure has historically been part of a project of bourgeois, patriarchal, racism. In the Southern United States, for example, women slaves were punished for pica, for taking pleasure in eating dirt. Nothing like this could ever be said of Suárez’s orality, and perhaps, in this case we are right to condemn it. Here our disgust at his biting perhaps suggests a more general disgust at his behaviour. In the Rat Man study, the memory of biting his father reminds Freud’s patient of his affinity with rats that ‘he himself had been just such a nasty, dirty little wretch, who was apt to bite people when he was in a rage’. Rats, of course, are noble creatures, but the characterisation seems apt for the nastiness of Suárez’s rage, of his attitude towards those without white skin.

* It is incidentally striking that so many languages adopt the English word for football, or, when they do not, such as in the Italian calcio, adopt words explicitly connected to the feet.

Posted by Tristan Burke

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Thrice Bitten: Suarez and Football’s Unspeakable Masochism

It’s almost a given nowadays that football fans indulge in a form of quiet masochism. Even supporting one of the behemoths of the club game offers more in disappointment than in satisfaction: a season like Manchester United’s Treble-winning campaign in 1998-1999 or Barcelona’s comparable feat in 2008-2009 constitutes nothing more than a rule-proving exception. Lower down, the situation is beyond parody. I’ve been watching Darlington for 24 years now, a ‘career’ of fandom that has seen two promotions and an admittedly astonishing last-minute FA Trophy win ‘balanced’ out by three relegations, three administrations, inane stadium moves, two play-off final defeats, countless plodding seasons in mid-table, injuries to star players, unimaginably disappointing signings, defeats in winnable cup-ties to opponents who then draw Premier League sides, corrupt owners, lying owners, deluded owners, a made-up sponsor and an attempt to solve drainage problems on the pitch by covering it with thousands of worms, all of whom died immediately to leave an un-drained playing surface decorated with an invertebrate version of Goya’s Desatres de la Guerra. I know, in other words, that I am going to be disappointed. This is the acceptable face of footballing jouissance.

However, in my efforts to find something to say about you-know-who doing you-know-what, it struck me that the masochism of disappointment is matched by something a little more disturbing. To begin with, watch (almost certainly ‘rewatch, come to think of it) the footage of Suarez’s bite of Giorgio Chiellini:

I watched this a number of times last night and this morning and, the more I did so, the less the bite seemed to possess an essential quality of, well, bitiness, if it ever did in the first place. A thought experiment here: which adjectives come to mind to describe the phenomenon of being bitten? ‘Sharp’? ‘Lacerating’? Both of these, for sure, but I’d also submit ‘acute’ to try and really get to the specifics of this form of pain (always bearing in mind Elaine Scarry’s argument that the semiotics of pain are necessarily lacking, that language stumbles at corporeality). Being bitten by, for example, a cat is an experience of strange acuity, a clarification or awakening to the fact of one’s own embodiment. Cod-psychology perhaps, but physical masochism is always, in one sense, a demand for visceral proof of the materiality of the world.

Every viewing of Suarez’s bite brings home its visual fuzziness, its lack of capacity to provide acuity. At no point have I found myself wincing in the way that staged violence in films provokes; I would say that this is actually quite standard for off-the-ball fouls in football. For all of the punches and headbutts and elbowings that occur, and must surely hurt substantially, few of them seem to be captured with any sense of tactility. To try and prove this to myself, I’ve been re-watching Duncan Ferguson’s headbutt on Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay, an offence deemed so far beyond acceptability that the Rangers striker was jailed for three months:

Now I’ve played enough football in my life – and spent enough time being a teenage boy in a British comprehensive school – to know just how much pain getting a head square in the face involves. It’s a lot, if you haven’t had the pleasure. And yet, once again, the video fails to convey any sense of violent pain’s immediacy. Compare Joe Pesci’s pen-stabbing scene in Casino to get an idea of how visual media can transmit the phenomenology of pain:

On one level, we watch the video of Suarez biting or Ferguson butting countless times because we want to try to position ourselves in the debate. However, I believe that this is not the whole story. After the first viewing fails to confirm physicality to us, we watch again and again and again, hoping for some of that acuity while paradoxically lessening the possibility of experiencing it thanks to desensitization. Eventually, the loop is just stuff happening banally on a screen, drained utterly of any guarantee of presence. It fails to provide what is ultimately the dark masochism of football, the desire to steal the pain from its on-pitch victim: perhaps the moral debate around Suarez is a way of sublimating the strange wish that it was us being bitten.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Technology and the Third Age of Fandom

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

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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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The Man in Black


There’s a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around”

Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around

A toast to Tofik Bahramov, Clive Thomas, Charles Corver, Ali Bin Nasser, Karl-Josef Assenmacher, Byron Moreno, Jorge Larrionda. And now to Yuichi Nishamura. Or to collectively name them, Ref. Or the more colloquially known ‘Fucking Hell Ref’. They’re homers, dodgy, on the take, visually impaired, a product of an unmarried union and occasionally more anatomical than that.

Most referees at international level have remained anonymous. They are merely ‘Ref’, representative of the laws of the game on the field of play. Unbiased, rigorous and committed, they are a dispenser of cards (and latterly, vanishing sprays), taker of names and blower of whistles. The highest praise they can receive is that they ‘let the game flow’, as if they are responsible for the tactical discipline and incision of the opposing sides. Or that they’ve not impressed themselves on the game, as though their mere presence has ensured a quality display from both teams.

Usually, if you know a referee’s name, it’s because they’re biased, obviously, against your side. Or they’ve dropped a clanger of such weight that it would shatter an ITV pundit box window. With the obvious exception.


Don’t mess with Pierluigi

But even the mighty Collina is an indication of the shifting role of the man in black, who is also now the man in red, green, blue, fluorescent yellow and most likely, trouble. Celebrity referees are the staple of Sports Entertainments like Wrestling, a product or commodity for furthering the ongoing narrative. I mean, it’s not like football has become just as packaged and plasticised as WWE, is it? An event designed for television, rather than the live event. A show, with advert breaks when financially agreeable.

The ‘speed of the game’ is the reason we’re given for goal line technology, for extra official on the lines – but only up at the very highest, the televised, levels. In the midst of all of this marches the referee, completely helpless to slow motion replays, reverse angles and the toolbox of the tiresome Tyldesleys and creaking ex-pros of the world. And while vanishing spray is seen as a welcome addition, it speaks of a decline in the respect for the official, the pacing of the 10 and the players willingness to do absolutely anything, anything at all, to gain an advantage. It also looks good on telly.

Football is the last great holdout against video replays, but the clamour grows ever louder with every pained post-match interview. The oft held example, in the UK at least, is rugby. Referees are miked up and the television viewer can hear the entire conversation, as can supporters through on-sale earpieces. But the replay option, once vaunted as a solution to messy line decisions, has come to bring groans from supporters as the game is stopped and restarted again and again and again. But while it’s almost infallible, it again relies on the referee requesting the service (except in the case of this year’s Rugby Premiership final, where the TMO intervened unbidden, an interesting and disturbing shift of power). And yet decisions are still missed, infringements unpunished, howls of dismay from both sets of supporters, bullet headed managers ‘refusing to criticise the officials’.

Mistakes are not a new thing, as the litany of referees made human by error at the beginning of this piece indicates. Referees, technology or otherwise, will always get some decisions wrong to the neutral, they will certainly get things wrong regardless according to opposing supporters. Tackles that were definitely a foul, an offside flag raised when he’s clearly five yards onside (says the man in the stand 100 yards away) and how was that not a yellow? Fucking hell ref.

But that’s the beauty of it, that hidden element of chaos inside every match official. That within the human incarnation of the cold, impassive rules there lies a spark of unpredictability as game changing as any Neymar. That there’s the fallibility of humanity at the heart of the game. It’s a mirror to their charges, the players. Ah players, unpredictable, inspirational, yet forced into rigid tactics (yes, even the Brazilians, playing with a smile) in order to win the game using the skills they have earned or have been gifted. All under the intense pressure of expectation from their supporters. Spare a thought though, for four officials under pressure from both sets of supporters, both teams, both dugouts, FIFA and a worldwide television audience.

Let them be wrong. Let them wear black again and be intimidating, respected presences on the pitch. And instead of trying to support them by slicing away their authority with cameras, sprays, replays, microphones, goal line technology, just make it simple. When they get it wrong, give them the authoritative power of a simple statement, “I’m the ref, you’re not. Now fuck off”.

Posted by Dutton Peabody

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Tagged ,

A Referee-less World

Why do we hate referees? It’s an obvious question to ask after the cruelty of Fred’s fall in the Croatia match and Spain’s ultimately Dutch-antagonising head start in their opener. I’m hoping this won’t become a theme of the tournament because griping about referees is tedious unless it’s done directly, pantomime style, at the match itself. Nonetheless it’s necessary because refereeing is crucial. Badly refereed games and tournaments leave a sour taste in the mouth, with even the victor being left strangely unsatisfied, like that feeling about half an hour after a McDonald’s meal where you get hungry again because, although your stomach is physically full, your body is completely devoid of any actual nutrition.

But in order to explore the original question we have to look beyond the physical figures of the referees themselves. What does a referee actually do? The referees are there to police the game. They are there to enforce the arbitrary set of binding rules agreed upon by all the contestants, the inherently limiting parameters by which any game defines itself, and makes itself meaningful as a contest, be it between teams, individuals or even a single individual against the system itself. From Starcraft to Solitaire, a game is nothing but a simplified system defined by rules.

Why do we play games? Why do we feel the need to parcel activities within these deliberately limiting systems? We do so for the same reason that scientists use controlled experiments. We limit variables in order to create a model which allows us to explore certain ideas or behaviours in relative isolation, allowing us to answer, or at least speculate upon, questions that real life obscures within its messy complexity. While life itself is undoubtedly just an incomprehensibly gigantic game – according to the definition of game set out above – there are so many interlinking rules and systems that the rules become incomprehensible. Any observer of any game or sport would, given time and inclination, be able to decipher the rules from the game as played. Of course in the sciences and social sciences we have indeed been doing this with the game of life itself, but while I was able to learn essentially all of the key rules within football after a match or two, in the grand search for knowledge we are, for all our progress, still only scratching at the surface of our functionally infinite ignorance.

In games, then, we create a kind of life garden. We territorialise, embody and/or abstract aspects of life that, for whatever reason, we want to explore further. We remove almost all the variables and create a system that, while it can produce incredible complexity, is nonetheless comprehensible in its entirety. I may not be able to win much at chess, or fully understand how the interacting rules influence good strategy, but nonetheless my terms of engagement with chess are utterly transparent. I know that my territory is an 8 by 8 grid, I know exactly how my pieces move and my opponent’s move, that nothing is hidden and that nothing within the game is decided arbitrarily – by rolling a die, for example.  Chess thus becomes a model for rationalism, or rationalistic debate. It seeks to create a contest defined by purely logical reasoning, the system needing to be sufficiently complex enough only to give a strategic depth to that logical reasoning, as opposed to noughts and crosses which could be seen almost as an easy introduction to the concept of logic, one ultimately lacking as a contest because there is not enough complexity to produce doubt – the correct move set for the opening player will win the contest every time.

So the system stands or falls only by the quality of its rules. If the rules are not seen to function, to be consistent or to be fair* within the terms of the game, the game ceases to be a game. It becomes worse than the absence of a game – which would be life – it becomes instead the nightmarish opposite of that controlled garden we sought to create, it becomes a representation of the worst aspects arbitrary, unknowing and randomly cruel nature of the universe, operating without transparency and dispensing rewards and punishments according to pure whim. The difference between a functional set of rules and a broken set is very much like that between the New Testament and Old Testament God, respectively. The New Testament God loves us and sent Jesus to make his rules very clear to us, to provide us with an accessible and understandable route to heaven. The Old Testament God is a vengeful creature of whim, punishing us for disobeying rules we either couldn’t have known or which God himself decided to change without our knowing.

The referee, then, is God. The twenty two footballers are merely playing the game. The referee is the game. Whatever it is we seek to discover or escape from within football’s glorious abstraction exists only at the whim of the referee. The Brazil Vs Croatia match defines this as clearly as any other. A fascinating contest shot through with rich veins of Golithian Narrativium destroyed by the utterly preposterous awarding of a penalty for, at worst, a mere slip. One that did not at any point resemble even the long lost memory of a genuine foul. Thus has the entire world’s faith in football, and thus their faith in games, and thus their faith in our ability to carve meaning and fairness out of life’s harsh rock face, have been undermanned by one man very possibly thinking about a long stay in Sao Paulo and just how much he’d like to see his wife and kids again. To be God is one thing when blessed with omnipotence, another thing entirely when fragilely embodied and surrounded by a hundred thousand baying enemies.

Ultimately, we hate the referees because when they fail, they instantiate that which we sought to avoid in creating the game in the first place. The referee reminds us of the fallibility not so much of the systems we create but rather the fallibility of ourselves and the universe we live in to live up to the elegant beauty of our own abstractions of it. A bad refereeing decision is a cosmic child’s tantrum, upturning the board, scattering pieces everywhere and irreparably destroying the world we were inhabiting within the game.

This hatred is hugely problematic when, as we currently organise football, there can be no game without the referee. However, the nature of the game makes it impossible for us to expect the consistency referees would need to apply to uphold our faith in that game. Referees are the paradox at the heart of football, without them there is no game but the game cannot allow them to exist within it. The best we can do with the current paradigm is to train referees extensively and allow them to rule as consistently as possible by giving them clearest possible parameters to work within, removing ambiguity and providing suitable examples wherever possible and backing this up with a certain amount of collective decision making – subjective judgements are likely to be (but only likely to be, history is littered with examples of the contrary) better when made by a committee of the informed than a single informed individual. But all this presupposes that the modelling effect of games only works in one direction. That we are only removing aspects of life to create a game, when in fact the model then produced has the power to profoundly change the way we look at and behave within the world, and thus change the world itself. In that sense while life is evidently a giant game it’s worth remembering that within that game each and every human being represents a set of rules that, unlike the rules in other games, are able to change themselves and therefore the parameters of the game itself as the game is being played.

Take chess as our example once again. How many idioms relating to contest or conquest to we derive from this board game? How many notions of sound military strategy? Perceptions of hierarchy? Taken to its logical conclusion we could imagine a game so complex and compelling that we use it to test ourselves, that we use it as the central ordering point for society itself, a concept thrillingly explored in Iain M Bank’s ‘The Player of Games’ – a game as a culture, a culture as a game, and the two shaping each other with absolute reflexivity.

How, then, can we imagine a different football? The game only has value when the rules are held to be fair. Who holds these rules to be fair? When I play football every Thursday we don’t have a referee. Fouls are called by the committee of everyone who happens to be there on the day, and the longer term consistency is adjusted and enforced in the weekly post-match conference centre known as the pub. Serious transgressions will be met with stern conversation, peer pressure dictates the norms and polices them very effectively, because the match only exists by virtue of us all turning up to it, and the rules only exist because of our continual consent to be governed by them. Religions are an excellent example of this model of social organisation, for good or ill. The choice to join the group – the ‘faith’ you have – is your affirmation of the agreed upon rules. These rules are policed by ‘referees’ but ultimately their power doesn’t rest in their ability to apply direct sanctions (the religious equivalent of yellows, reds and suspensions) but in the peer pressure applied by the group. This tends to be applied more explicitly and even violently the more cultish a religious group becomes, with questioners of the orthodoxy greeted with banishment and life-long ostracisation.

What would happen if, though, like in our Thursday football we removed this model of fear? The fear of retribution from some higher power? A match that only exists because people turn up, played to rules agreed upon by those who go regularly, and policed by their continual discussion and subsequent consent to those conditions and those changes?

Imagine a football without the referee. Imagine an understanding between footballers and fans that we really are in this together, that this contest before us only has meaning via rules that themselves can only truly be consistent and fair if they are defined and refined via the constant communication and consent of the group buying into them. The only consequence to breaking the rules is ostracisation, but when that ostracisation is from a group you want to be part of it can often be, as Banks points out, consequence enough.

Imagine, then, the model this would provide to society. A refereeless game, each team a canton and each fan and player a voter, changes agreed upon by referenda and implementable with enough of a groundswell. Among Dulwich Hamlet fans the chant of ‘Communism Is Inevitable’ has become a firm favourite ever since this moment of glory from Ian Daly and Robert Molloy Vaughan’s phenomenal celebration of it. This may well be true, but we will know when fully consensual world communism has truly arrived when we see football, at all levels, being played without a referee.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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The Match That Never Was That Never Was

I was thinking, after my post on dogs and football and the (Lacanian) Real left loads and loads of questions unanswered for me, about what it means for a match to be interrupted or cancelled by events beyond the control of the football authorities. Of course, nearly all cancellations fit this rubric on some or other level, with unpredictable weather or traffic being the most banal and everyday reasons for games not taking place. But, I think, the weather can’t be the Real in the sense that I’ve been using the term, for it prompts no collapse in the Symbolic or Imaginary logic of the game, which is to say that it’s a form of providence which is completely accounted for and even, to some extent, resistable with technologies such as undersoil heating, 3G and 4G turf and pitch coverings.

Political interruptions, on the other hand, do constitute some form of Real as they undermine football’s Imaginary self-possession, an entitlement which represents the sport as somehow ‘more important than life and death’. They remind us that the game does not offer some kind of spiritual redemption within the white rectangle, that the idea that football ‘transcends’ the socio-historical is a lie which serves, precisely, to cover up the socio-historical. Undoubtedly, the 2014 World Cup will amplify the recital of the myth of transcendence for the exact reason that, as we’ve already said, this tournament takes place in a spirit of exacerbated political febrility on both the immediate – what’s going on right outside the stadia – and global levels.

Two World Cups this century have been lost to politics: 1942 and 1946. Brazil and, unsurprisingly, Nazi Germany had applied to host the first; there was no question whatsoever of the second being organised, let alone played. In the contemporary English sporting imagination, however it is a game that was not cancelled which enjoys dominance in the hierarchy of great World Cup cancellations, and it is a game which was not cancelled because it was never scheduled to happen in the first place. Recently, papers were released which showed that the government considered withdrawing the Home Nations from the 1982 competition in Spain as they were rattled by the prospect of England, Scotland or Northern Ireland meeting Argentina, a nation the UK was at war over the Malvinas/ Falklands.

Ossie Ardiles not playing England in 1982

I suspect that this non-non-game is something of a fantasy object for some England supporters, and perhaps – if we’re being realistic – for some Northern Ireland and Scotland fans as well, although England’s subsequent sporting rivalry with Argentina has been a lone crusade.* The fact that the match was never played allows the Three Lions types to imagine a deliciously vengeful victory over the sporting and military opposition, a chest-thumping Bryan Robson perhaps spearing a Cross of St George into the Argentinian penalty spot for good measure after completing his hat-trick. And yet the fact that there was no need to cancel the match in the first place, because it was never scheduled, means that the real exigencies of the situation – not least a possible FIFA punishment – don’t have to be considered. In this parallel universe, England win the moral victory by not turning up.

The retrospective nature of this complex wish constructs it as a kind of pre-emptive and multiple revenge for what many Argentinians saw as their revenge for the British victory in the Malvinas/ Falklands, the 1986 quarter-final in which Diego Maradona scored that goal and that goal. Such is the temporal weirdness of what happens when sport and politics collide in the space of fantasy.

* Terry Butcher’s threat to snub Maradona while the former was the assistant coach of Scotland pretty much disgusted me: he was using Scottish sport to play out a grievance about England’s World Cup misfortune.

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

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

Predominant Colours


Much has been made lately – at least this is how this it appears from the comment threads on – of FIFA’s supposed “rule change” regarding monochrome kits ahead of this year’s World Cup. To wit: Germany, Spain, Argentina and Colombia – all Adidas nations – have over the past number of months unveiled kits which depart from recent models of the national colour palette. None of these kits are exactly monochrome: Germany’s features a large red and black chevron, Argentina retain their albiceleste stripes, and so on. The point of consternation is Adidas’s decision to do away with contrasting shorts for each of these nations – Germany’s and Argentina’s black, Spain and Colombia’s blue – leaving the outfits of the former two teams looking, it must be said, curiously anaemic. England (and Nike) have followed suit in unveiling an all-white home affair, which has been badly received by a subsection of fans who presumably missed both Euro 2012 and the last World Cup, when England also wore all-white home affairs.

Digs at strawmen aside, the Spain, Argentina and Germany kits are aberrations. Colombia have been through multiple colour changes throughout their history but for the former three the new designs break with a tradition that stretches back unbroken at least to the beginning of the post-war period. Germany have worn black shorts since 1908, and Argentina have never worn anything but. Answers are understandably being sought then, even if the “rule change” turns out to be something of a canard. Credit must be given to columnists like The Mirror‘s Sheridan Bird who, while ‘lament[ing] the monochrome revolution that has gripped our apparel manufacturers’ and fingering FIFA as ringleaders of said revolution, have at least taken the care to dredge up the actual passage of legislation which has seemingly triggered Adidas’s aesthetic departures. The passage, as many readers of this piece will already be aware, is found in a Regulations document drafted on the occasion of the World Cup, and requests that teams provide one “predominately light” and one “predominately” dark kit for the competition so as to avoid colour clashes. What many readers might not know is that this passage was also present in 2010’s equivalent document, although that year no drastic decisions seemed to be made by any of the sportswear giants on its behalf.

The responsibility for the decision to have Argentina, Germany and Spain trot out in non-traditional colours then falls squarely on the shoulders of Adidas. This becomes particularly evident when you realise that Mexico’s home kit – all tricolor and lightning bolts – is also made by Adidas. FIFA are presumably not intending on punishing nations who promote as their first-choice strip a mixture of lights and darks so much as requesting that they cobble together a suitable “predominately light or dark” ensemble should the situation demand it, as when Brazil wore white shorts and socks in last year’s Confederations Cup final against Spain. The three truly elite nations in Adidas’s stable – numbers two, three and four on the bookies’ favourites list at time of writing, no less – have had their attire conscientiously homogenised ahead of Brazil 2014, and it seems this decision cannot be explained exclusively through the language of rules and regulations.

Developments in football kit design may be driven to a certain extent by technical considerations and a vernacular sense of what Dave Brailsford once famously referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains” – players no longer sweat it out in woollen jumpers and caps, after all – but neither is the game exempt from the fashion cycle. There are presumably good reasons why most kit manufacturers have moved over to the tight shirt-capacious shorts look of recent years, but whatever these reasons are they are imprecise: there seems to be a sliding scale of opinion on just how tight shirts ought to be, with Puma’s recent African national team kits defining one end of the spectrum. Whether the shift from the aesthetic regime of the nineties, with its baggy shirts and short shorts, to that of the naughties, with its base layers and updated knickerbockers, had anywhere near as significant an impact on performances as, say the economic changes football underwent in this period is highly doubtful. So with both instrumental and legislative factors put to one side, what is there left to say about these kits?

Principally, that on the level of semiotics they are purist. To really buy into the idea of producing a “predominately light coloured” kit, in the manner that Adidas have done with their designs for Germany and Argentina, is to bracket the possibility that the players wearing them might get muddy, or even bloody (of course, players who bleed onto their shirts are required to change in any case). There is precedent for this in other areas of football design: the supposed demand for rounder and rounder match balls – this year’s Brazuca features only six heat-bonded panels, two fewer than South Africa’s infamous Jabulani – similarly voices an illusion that footballs are not designed fundamentally to be physically messed with. Were Adidas ever to engineer a single-panelled, perfectly-spherical ball, it would still be subject to all kinds of warping and distress on the basis that it is an object that is activated by being struck, forcefully and repeatedly. The outcry against the Jabulani’s unpredictability in the air also speaks to the ideological, as opposed to merely instrumental, basis of that ball’s geometric purity. Likewise, the radical new kit designs for Germany and Argentina, intended to be optimised against colour-clashes, speak more to a lofty, abstracted and utopic vision of football than to any direct and pressing need for visual clarification (there were suggestions that FIFA introduced the light-dark regulation to help viewers watching the World Cup in black & white, which rather begs the question how anybody managed before the invention of colour television).


There is another precedent we can draw on here, and it is simultaneously closer to home and much, much further away.  In 1923 Varvara Stepanova, a Russian Constructivist artist, ideologue and wife of Aleksandr Rodchenko, designed a series of sports outfits which she published in the journal Lef. Throughout this period Stepanova, in common with many artists associated with the Constructivist movement, took steps towards involvement in industrial design, seeking to promote a mass aesthetic which would transform its participants into liberated embodiments of the new society while avoiding any intimations of bourgeois comfort. To this latter end, Stepanova harnessed a visual vocabulary which belonged to an earlier moment in the Russian avant-garde: as Christina Kiaer notes in her excellent book Imagine No Possessions, the sports outfits are ‘drawn using the flat planes of circles, triangles, and rectangles from the pictorial lexicon of Suprematism.’ That is to say, the outfits are not only adorned with forms borrowed from Kasimir Malevich’s canvases (and here the chevron on Germany’s shirt finds an unexpected cousin) but are actually constructed along the lines of those forms. Malevich’s Suprematist movement had sought to capture pure, non-objective forms in one of the best-known utopian gambits of the early twentieth century, and here Stepanova attempts to tie those forms down to the gritty mundanity of sportswear. This was, as might be expected, an awkward fit: as Kiaer observes, a photograph of Stepanova’s friend Evegeniia Zhemchuzhnaia modelling one of the outfits gives testimony to ‘the ruin of these androgynous, geometric lines when they enter into contact with a real body that gives off heat and has rounded limbs.’ Something to bear in mind when it rains in Rio.

Posted by Luke Healey

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

Ghost Goals, and Other Ontological Problems

Looking back on the tournament, my favourite moment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was when Luis Suarez chose to manually block Dominic Adiyiah’s header, thus denying Ghana a certain goal and – in a slightly convoluted way involving a missed penalty and a shoot-out – sending his Uruguay side to the semi-finals. With an arguably typical lack of contrition, Suarez claimed to have made ‘the save of the tournament’ when asked about his actions after the game: he was aware, it would seem, of the severity of his rule-breaking but simultaneously ironised it. Why did he do this? I suspect that the tongue-in-cheek nature of his response arose out of an intuition that apologising would be inauthentic, and could in no way represent a genuine desire to have acted otherwise in the first place. His original calculation had been one that judged that his intended violation could incur no punishment severe enough to damage his team to a degree likely to gift the match to Ghana, a nimble application of game theory which reveals that the ‘laws’ of football have a hidden expansion pack which make the dimensions of the sport much more complex than they are generally claimed to be.

Along with many others, I wanted Ghana to win that game. It was a tough choice – Uruguay had also been one of the tournament’s more likeable sides – but the possibility of seeing an African team through to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever swayed me. Indeed, I was initially furious with Suarez for his indiscretion, and racked my brain for ways in which Uruguay might be adequately punished – perhaps the shoot-out result could be scrubbed, and a goal awarded to Adiyiah, I thought. After a little consideration, however, this began to make sense only within a rather particular sense of what ‘fairness’ constitutes. For the game’s greater good – or the greater goods that the game might bring about – it started to appear better that these unpredictable violations and errors of official judgement be maintained within football’s broader ontological structure.

Of course, that World Cup had already provided a significant example of how football’s essence can very often be glimpsed in those instances when the ontological blueprint is smudged. With Germany leading England 2-1 in the first knockout round, Frank Lampard’s shot came off the crossbar and landed behind the line. The referee and linesmen did not spot the ‘goal’; the rest – Germany subjecting their rivals to a humiliating lesson in pace and invention – is history. Of course, the English media cried out for digital technology to be used for making close line-calls, and laced their editorial with spurious objectivity by pointing out that the issue of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal in the 1966 World Cup Final could also be settled conclusively.

At the time, I didn’t agree with this (the denial of a goal to Lampard was actually pretty amusing), and the Ukrainian ‘ghost goal’ last night has failed to convince me differently. Football is, of course, on one hand a set of comprehensively-codified rules which dictate what can and can’t be done with the ball by the twenty-two men on the pitch. But this is a limited phenomenology. For the full effect of football to be appreciated, one needs to think about those moments in which an infraction is felt most deeply and why such an impression is made. Ghost goals are, as their name suggests, an uncanny experience: they’re neither of nor not-of the game, and problematise our somewhat neurotic attempts to describe sporting boundaries. The affect they bring about is strangely similar to that which comes about when a piece of fiction exceeds or rearranges the terms of its diegesis or narrative world, namely the ‘shudder’ that Theodor Adorno describes in Kafka and which is also one of the most notable responses people have to Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s also a staple of some forms of fantasy literature, and is linked fundamentally to the more self-reflective ontological jolts of postmodern literature and cinema.

Essentially, what I’m arguing is that much of football’s force as a public experience rests on the moments when it transgresses itself. There are obvious instances of this – every one of the game’s sociopolitical ramifications, to begin with – and there are those which are inscribed in its very fabric precisely because they are not the rules. Goal-line technology is, to cite a common and perfectly valid objection, yet another form of technocracy-in-action, and will deny the strange nobility of human error its part. More worrying, I think, is the threat that it will remove part of the ontological chafing that gives football, which is secretly always more than ‘just’ football and the rule-book, its real allure.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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