Category Archives: Disappointment

The Tears of Brazil

If this is the greatest World Cup, it is, for a certain type of fan at least, also the cruellest.

Football is awash with sentiment, yet it simultaneously admires those who can discard it. In fact there are a collection of sayings, phrases and unspoken rules that refer to and govern football’s supposed disdain for it. Commentators will praise a team selection for an important game because the manager has left out the half-fit fan’s favourite: “It’s no time for sentiment,” they say. But while the increasing professionalism and athleticism of football means that matches are no longer just sporting contests and occasions for local pride but also events upon which millions and millions of cold hard cash rests, football also repeatedly, pleadingly, imploringly calls out for sentiment. If Roy of the Rovers was a childhood comic full of wish fulfilment and fantasy, those dreams are not lost with age. We still want our hometown boy to lead our team to the championship – witness the commendations flying Steven Gerrard’s way for staying at Liverpool all these years, and the nationwide push for the club at the end of last season, the #winitforstevie hashtag. We still want the underdog to win, and we want the ‘right’ narrative to triumph. There are those set in advance that we want subverted by a Costa Rica, a Colombia, a Chile, a Nigeria, a Mexico, an Algeria; and there are those whose establishment before the tournament only seems to give them extra persuasiveness – Brazil should win on home soil (more on this topic later).

Seeing James Rodriguez’s tears the other night against Brazil, I was prompted to think about the role of sentiment in football. I relied quite a lot on Twitter for that game, as my ITV feed repeatedly crashed, and at the end of the game it was packed with tweets and Vines of Rodriguez crying, and David Luiz first hugging him and then pointing to him and leading a standing ovation for him. The accompanying comments centred on his youthfulness, his openness of emotion, his perceived victimisation by brutish Brazilian midfielders, and the ‘what-if?’ possibility now snuffed out: this boy, this innocent, this wonderful player, ‘should have’ been allowed to go onward in the competition. He somehow deserved it. The professionals in the audience would’ve dryly remarked (as Barney Ronay did, actually, on Twitter) that Rodriguez had only been fouled six times in the match, or that teams tailor their approach to nullify the opposition, or that the pressure is so great on Brazil that it doesn’t matter how they win, just that they do. And they would be right. At least in a sense. They would have looked at the game and accurately reported certain things about it. What they would have neglected though, was the emotional and narrative element of our experience of the game. Outside of Brazil, support seemed pretty unanimously behind Colombia, and this wasn’t just because they were the underdog but because they had arrived at the quarterfinals playing wonderful, exquisite football. A narrative thus built up, one very much reliant on sentiment, on a feeling for the game in which fantasy is real, is possible. In a recent review of Eduardo Sacheri’s novel Papers in the Wind, Tim Benjamin recalled an interview in which “Sacheri related that, ‘Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.’ Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms.” While they might not be synonyms exactly, they are certainly interwoven; in football, it is hard to have one without the others. I think we can add sentiment to that list.

That Brazil v Colombia game looks slightly different now, in light of the hosts’ semi-final against Germany. Sentiment, though, is ever-present. Around the Brazil v Germany game also swirled stereotypes, ones we are familiar with to do with Brazil’s history of “flair” and Germany’s of “efficiency.” How far those narratives are or were ‘true’ is not really the point. What is is that they have been operative in various forms. It’s fairly clear to everyone now that they are no longer so. Brazil played awfully against Colombia and were viewed as playing a cynical game, physically targeting Rodriguez. Germany played wonderfully against Brazil and were somewhere between nasty and sublime. The game itself, viewed as a whole, provided the perfect example of football’s conflicted attitude to sentiment. Midway through the first half, television pictures showed us images of Brazilians crying (a young boy followed by a woman; that should be a topic of discussion on its own) at the sight of their team being destroyed. It’s no good saying, like those who don’t like or understand football, that they’re crying over nothing; no-one cries over nothing. While they were crying because their narrative had been upset, they were also crying because that is the only possible response to a spectacle of humiliation and defeat, which is what the game was. In so excessively showing us one group beating another – with all the connotations of violence that word comes with – the game displayed the complete disregard for human frailty that comes inbuilt to competition of this kind. Sentiment forgives human failure. The German team’s performance effected a total destruction of sentiment, of the possibility for sentiment, which football requires as much as the verve and skill they showed. When sentiment is destroyed, we are left with awe and admiration. We shouldn’t have been surprised, though. If the group stages were bacchanals of sentiment, the knock-out rounds have given us cool displays of professionalism. But you can’t view them separately. We love this game, and the power of that love means that the stakes become higher and higher, and because the stakes are so high professionalism is prized because it gets results, and because professionalism is prized, emotions become suspicious because they are unpredictable and risky. But they always rise to the surface: the Guardian‘s front page after Brazil’s defeat featured a picture of David Luiz, eyes red with tears. David Luiz, who spent the aftermath of Brazil’s victory over Colombia comforting a crying James Rodriguez.

Posted by Mark West

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“Nice guys don’t win”, and other rhetoric

A fortnight on from the death throes of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, and the navel-gazing recriminations show no signs of abating. From the debilitating effects of Manaus, to the paucity of domestic talent in the Premier League (compared to the all-conquering set-up of, say, the Costa Rican or Chilean leagues) it has been the traditional quadquennial waft of hot air – achieving nothing bar further dissimulating Hodgson’s métier of cowardice repackaged as pragmatism. Yet amidst all this tired guff and hackneyed bluster, one cliché stood out as particularly egregious – Alan Shearer’s assertion that “we English are too honest.”

Of course, Shearer – less a talking head these days than a risible talking thumb – has form here, regularly championing the “diving is a foreign plague/not in our DNA” trope on Match of the Day. Yet, even if we selectively leave aside the dangerous pseudo-eugenics of this claptrap, the very notion that England’s increasingly habitual tournament failure is down to an innate superabundance of “honesty” is unambiguously ludicrous on two levels.

Primarily, empirically, theoretically, philosophically, whichever way you slice it, it is just not true. Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, for example, have never shied away from the rough stuff. Raheem Sterling contains more strength in one buttock than your average post-Soviet weightlifting team, and is more than happy to put it to malicious use. Gary Cahill has undergone so comprehensive a process of Mourinhofication that he would happily boot a toddler up in the air if it secured an opportunity to head something clear at the near post. The idea that the England squad spend their days listening to Belle and Sebastian whilst thumbing through Paolo Coelho’s latest simperings is as ludicrous as it is erroneous.

Secondly, if we take accepted wisdom that the two best players in world football are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the “too nice” theory is further undermined. Messi, in particular, has played up to his take-home-to-meet-the-grandparents qualities throughout his career – all floppy hair and bouncing off tackles like an enthusiastic toddler crashing into furniture. Likewise, Ronaldo who, for all his risible preening, could hardly be described as a hatchet man.

If, then, we accept the notion of England, or indeed any team, being too nice for success as a facile and inaccurate one, then what are we to make of it? What does it tell us about English football – and England’s – view of itself. Certainly, it speaks of the type of post-colonial smugness that still drips from every corner of the establishment – sporting, and political. An absolute refusal to countenance inherent flaws without viewing them through the prism of a presupposed moral superiority. Rubbish at football? Must be we’re too nice. Terminally in hock to a fundamentally flawed economic model? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit – nation of shopkeepers, and all that. Housing crisis? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit TOO! Nation of buy-to-letters, and all that. Phone hacking? Natural inquisitiveness. Establishment cronyism? Looking after old school chums. A veneer of ‘British values’ routinely lacquered over systemic faults, a watered down version of that loveable rogue Churchill’s addled justification of militarised imperialism based on moral superiority.

There is a further, wider, problem with such thinking, and that is that the notion that “nice guys don’t win” has increasingly become a cause célèbre for a generation of furiously embittered man-children. Witness the widespread social media pant-wetting about the striking mugshot of Californian convict Jeremy Meeks – which was taken by some (i.e. those whose agenda it suited) to be incontrovertible proof of a female conspiracy against them. “Why can’t girls be attracted to lovely soldiers” came much of the wailing – an absurd, and insulting, supposition of universality on both sides of the table. This “nice guys never win” notion has joined “I’m sick of being in the ‘Friend Zone’” as a go-to point for a prevalent and increasingly rampant passive-aggressive misogyny, the “nice guys” in question never stopping to wonder if their self-entitled tirades about “sluts” following each knockback compromises their self-image of shining armour. The self-pitying delusionality to the “too nice” trope here occurring on an individual, as opposed to national, level.

To unpack the semantics of the phrase, one must also ask what the supposed counterpoint is for this apparent niceness. What level of nastiness should our sportspeople aspire to? Just how shitty should they be in order to achieve success? Perhaps an answer can be found in the long-held theoretical Luddism at the heart of English football – a relentless harking back to the supposed glory days between the end of the Second World War and England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Whilst the reasons for this period establishing itself in the popular consciousness as English football’s Golden Age are as obvious as they are reasonable – post-conflict escapism, England’s solitary international victory, the dynastic narratives of Busby and Shankly and the first flushes of success for British teams in Europe – it’s hard to shift the sense that there has long been, more so now than ever, a fetishisation of the acceptable nastiness of the football that prevailed at this time. This was, after all, before violence was transferred from pitch to terrace; an age of granite-hewn men routinely booting lumps out of one another under the forgiving eye of lenient referees. Three decades of earthy nastiness sandwiched between the mustachioed Corinthianism of codified football’s first half-century and the “too-nice”, gentrified post-premiership generation. Although on the surface, Shearer’s protestations about England’s damaging niceness are superficially drawn as comparison to those dastardly foreigners, perhaps he is – subconsciously, at least – engaging in some casual retrogressivism.

What really constitutes ‘too nice’? What constitutes ‘too nasty’? Does such lazy moral absolutism even have a place in football? Shearer is, after all, not exactly uniquely qualified to act as the game’s moral arbiter – as Neil Lennon would doubtless testify. Ultimately, the issue is obfuscatory. England did not fail so miserably in Brazil because they were ‘too nice’, just as the Leeds United of Don Revie – to pick one example – owed their success to many and more complex reasons than their fabled ‘nastiness’. Neither an aspirational model, nor (a)moral exemplar, folk demons such as Revie, Maradona or, more recently, Luis Suarez, instead provide a necessary force in English football’s narrative. Through reveling in their notoriety and widespread opprobrium – a populist unpopularity, if you will – we facilitate the permeation of the facile assertion that we’re too nice, too decent, too honest to win.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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Del Bosque, Der Zorn Gottes

After the Spanish conquest and sack of the Inca empire the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon tributaries. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Pizzaro, set off from the Peruvian Sierra’s in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gasper De Carvajal…

El Dorado. Manõa. The legendary fabled “City of Lost Gold” that seduced Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century after the fall of the Inca empire. German filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicled this exploration in his landmark, fictionalised, 1972 account Aguirre, Wrath of God or Aguirre, De Zern Gottes, which paints a grim picture of one particular expedition fuelled by greed and the need to conquer, to spread the word of God to the ‘heathen’. This particular crusade ultimately led to horrific failure amidst utter chaos. It is a sad, sorry and pathetic sight.

Ever since Spain crumbled under the weight of expectation against a rejuvenated France in the last 16 of the World Cup in 2006, they have been spreading the tika-taka style all over the world via their dominance of international football and through Barcelona FC, all the while amassing a vast array of treasures. Yet their excursion into South America in 2014 has left them treasure-less this time. Of course, they never played in the searing heat of the Amazon: their capitulations versus the Netherlands and Chile occurred in Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova and Rio’s Maracanã. They would not have played in the Amazon had they progressed. Such is the unforgiving climate, Manaus will host no matches in the knock-out stages. Nevertheless, the metaphor begins with Spain’s ambition to conquer South America looking for gold, and ends with them leaving, like the conquistadors, with little more than a sense of nihility. This squad, conquerors of modern international football since 2008, have floundered in their attempt to bring home the gold they craved, which in this case is very definitely real. Their hegemony is over. They’ve possessed it before but will have to relinquish the crown. In the week Spain witnessed the coronation of a new King, they’ve had to realise that there will be no Spanish coronation at the Maracanã on July 12th.

It’s perhaps not quite the end, as France proved by dusting themselves off from the recriminations of 2002 and 2004’s mediocrity to reach a second final in 2006. Powered by a Zinedine Zidane rolling back the years magnificently, France achieved what many doubted. However, it is unlikely that one half of the Xaviesta axis, so brilliantly joined at the allegorical hip in recent years, will survive another major tournament. Xavi Hernandez’ days are surely numbered. Perhaps the Spanish demise of 2014 doesn’t quite symbolise the end of a footballing empire, but at the very least the tika-taka ideology has been shattered. Xabi Alonso, for so long the passer extraordinaire of the Spanish team, has retired. No doubt others will follow. Do Spain have a new breed of players who can carry on the same philosophy, or will they embrace the reimagined counterattacking style that saw them plundered versus the Netherlands? That will be decided by Vicente Del Bosque or his successor if his offer to leave is accepted. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod in the final game as it will very likely represent the future of Spanish football’s direction.

Spain performed like Aguirre, plugging away forlornly in desperate hope of achieving what last year’s performance against Brazil in the Confederations Cup suggested they could not. They obviously could not muster the spirit displayed by Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the character (based on events of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald) at the centre of Herzog’s equally majestic Fitzcarraldo. When faced with extreme adversity, aided by indigenous people, he managed to physically pull his three-storey, 320-ton steamer over the muddy 40° hillside portage, from one river to the next in order to overcome the harshness of the Amazonian environment with the intention of accessing a rich rubber territory. That endeavour ended in glorious failure. Spain exit the world cup with a whimper. Spain had no man with the single-minded determination to achieve such an epic performance. Unlike Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, who made untold riches, Spain’s final group game versus a tough, highly spirited Australia will merely be a dead rubber.

Posted by Grant Holdsworth

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The Doublethink of England

Change the manager, change the personnel. Change the training centre, change the conditioning. Hire a psychologist, phone Dave Brailsford or Clive Woodward. Hire their psychologists. Change the manager. Change the personnel again: make them younger, more humble. Change the mentality. Change the conditioning. In a darkened room in the Midlands, watch six years of Spanish, and Catalan, success in a silence broken only by gentle tapping on the Ipad touchscreen. Change the style. Be assiduous, like Shankly. Sweat the details. Brailsford tells you that the decimal percentages make a difference. Hire a media consultant, another psychologist, someone who’s worked with Andy Murray, someone from ‘Obama’s Camp’. Everything’s interdiscplinary, intertextual. Change the conditioning. Fly your men out eighteen months early to pick the hotel. Hire a colour therapist. Hire a music therapist. Hire a feng shui therapist. Change the style. Change the conditioning. The decimal percentages. The decimals. Your captain understands the project. The style, the conditioning, the mentality.

And yet: England stand, at the time of writing, on the edge of elimination from the World Cup Finals at the group stage, a fate they have not succumbed to since Walter Winterbottom unwisely left Brian Clough at home and took his Munich-wrecked squad to Sweden in 1958. Perhaps results will combine in England’s favour – and that combination does not strike me as impossibly unlikely – but there’s little doubt that the inquest has already begun.

I have no real interest in picking over the tactics or the team, save to give a brief account of what it feels like to watch England at this tournament, but not only at this tournament, as it has felt the same – with a couple of irreverent overturnings of the trend – since the 2004 European Championships. There is an embodied experience of watching an England international which I am sure is shared by many, and it’s one I can liken only to that of sitting on a bus in traffic, urging it to accelerate in the full knowledge that to do so in the space available is impossible. You’re grasped by a visceral perception of the chasm between the will and the reality principle; even the occasional surge forward, provided this year by Raheem Sterling, presents itself as an exception which adds to the weight of the general rule. The team look as if they’re playing it quicksand: this inertia metastasises from the game to the audience, a very real sense of deadweightedness.

What I think is interesting here is the way that this lethargy, which exists regardless of who is in the team and how they are set up to play, stands at a counterpoint to the rhetoric and iconography of leonine ‘passion’ which girds the national team. In the stands, fans display symbols of a putative English ‘indomitability’, Spitfires and – provocatively – Crusader outfits. Before the game, the coverage displays black and white headshots of the players, their faces fixed in an uncompromising grimace. If everything else changes, this extreme dichotomy between belief and the radical disbelief exemplified in the performances remains exactly the same.

There’s a kind of doublethink here which matches that of English life at large. Ron has already touched on this in his discussion of the national team’s affliction with market or capitalist realism, but we can perhaps put this in more Orwellian terms. To live in England now is to be asked to believe simultaneously that happiness is impossible – we must be ‘realistic’ – and that we are already, perhaps inherently, happy. Similarly, England must lose and cannot lose. Wayne Rooney must perform badly but he also cannot play badly. Perhaps the disorder which inevitably kicks off as history repeats itself once again is not a simple expression of disappointment but a confused articulation of what it is like to inhabit this contradiction in both sporting and political terms.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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A Historiography of Decline

A mere five days have passed since The Netherland’s riotous victory over a Spain side displaying all the acute symptoms of a team on the edge of implosion, yet the result has already taken on a sense of era-definition. Following years of astonishing consistency and success, Spain’s seemingly unshakeable occupation of the pedestal at the elite end of the game suddenly looks precarious. If indeed this is to be the end of the Spanish dynasty, the historical reverberations will be on a par with the breaking up of the Aranycsapat following the Hungarian Revolution, or the dismantling of a Brazilian team that secured successive World Cups in 1958 and 1962. Such epoch-defining events inevitably lead a scramble for the history books to try and make sense of what is unfolding. Should Friday’s result represent the genesis of a superpower’s terminal diminution, there is one that tells us everything we could need to know.

Ideologically problematic and historiographically flawed, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire nevertheless remains the exemplary text for the crumbling of any dynasty. Just short of two and a half centuries have passed since its publication, yet Gibbon’s attempt to rationalize the unavoidable cyclicality of history retains an extraordinary resonance. When attempting to untangle the dwindling of anything from global superpowers to corporate juggernauts, there is no better staring point.

Gibbon’s central thesis was that the decline of the Roman Empire – and thus, the archetypal factor behind the fall of any great dynasty – was a steady erosion of the moral character of the populace. Even leaving aside the failures of monocausality or Gibbon’s strained desire for an all-encompassing moral answer that fitted Enlightenment thinking, it would be tendentious to draw any links here with Spain. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso et al could hardly be said to have turned up for the tournament in the same shabby condition that England found themselves in at South Africa, after all. Nor has there been any collective eschewal of the necessary labour of sporting pre-eminence for the shambling hedonism of, say, 2006-vintage Ronaldinho.

Equally, whilst semi-spurious links can be drawn between the factors Gibbon cites as secondary to Rome’s decline and Spain’s current malaise – emergent enclaves of intrigue within military and political elites creating the kind of climate of self-serving perma-hostility that looks likely to define Spain’s fracturing along Real-Barcelona lines, for example, or the increasing reliance on foreign mercenaries sapping cohesion and morale (hello, Diego Costa) – history’s instructiveness is here structural rather than directly causational.

Structurally, Spain’s defeat felt at once brutally sudden and, paradoxically, incremental – as if an entire cycle of decline had been crammed into ninety minutes. From the moment of Van Persie’s equalizer, a Battle of Adrianople that, by virtue of its brutal simplicity, wrought realization about Spain’s vulnerability, the sense that history was starting to outrun Spain was palpable. With each Dutch goal, another notch along the path of decline was carved – beginning with a collective loss of Spanish nerve; division; self-immolative recrimination; and finally an abdication of responsibility. Throughout the final ten minutes, players wandered in a traumatized daze, unable to comprehend what had happened. The lackadaisical tragicomedy of Fernando Torres’ late miss set the seal on this incomprehension, Torres trying to impose an affectatious nonchalance on events that had long overtaken him. A ‘business as usual’ hubris that bore the airs of denial – a well-heeled senator strolling to the Forum, willfully oblivious to the Vandals at the Gate. (Holland, for their part, made for excellent Barbarians. The savagery of their early tactics hinting at a repeat of the 2010 final, before this gave way to a ferocious incisiveness staggering in its brutality as it exposed the dispirited flabbiness of Spain’s rearguard.)

Of course, the manner in which Spain’s defeat feels definitive is at odds with the ostensibly provisional nature of their cycle of decline. This was, after all, a first defeat in a year. And yet, with the sense of decline around a Barcelona that forms the ideological kernel of Del Bosque’s side, there has been a burgeoning end-of-empire feel around what might be casually called ‘the Spanish method’ throughout the season. A creeping sense of stylistic obsolescence, magnified by the success of the Madrid clubs and their ruthlessly-efficient, high-octane melding of the Bundesliga and high-functioning football autism of Jose Mourinho.

As in structure, so in tone. Coverage of Spain’s abject showing echoed the morose air that permeates Gibbons’ writing. As each Dutch goal was rattled in, the BBC’s commentary team frantically emphasized the historicity of what was unfolding; a totem crumbling before our eyes. Passing initially through pathos and on to disbelief, by the last five minutes Steve Wilson and Mark Lawrenson were giddy with jouissance at La Roja’s conformance to their own narrative conceit. Wilson and Lawrenson may lack the historiographical gravitas of Gibbon – though the latter’s 2006 observation that, “eeh, Paul Robinson looks like a big banana running at you”, comes a close second – but they certainly understood the emotional cachet of seeing a superpower hobbled. By the end, initial schadenfreude had given way to the type of unashamed emotionality that Gibbon had himself lifted from the great historical writers of the Ancient World. “It’s the end of the world as we know it” emoted Wilson, as slo-mo montages of Iker Casillas’ tear-stained eyes and Vicente Del Bosque fidgeting uncomfortably on the bench looped on the screen.

Playing up to the emotional aspect of such a result is as understandable as it is ubiquitous. From King Lear to The Sopranos, Oedipus Rex to Citizen Kane, the theme of personal decline and fall has been a well-worn narrative construct throughout history. Superimpose this on to a collective entity – be it politico-military monolith or generation-defining sporting colossus – and the effect is increased exponentially. The narrative of supremacy is unavoidable, and so the narrative of decline inescapably seductive, the fall of dominant entities providing a vicarious mirror to the inevitability of our own mortality – the most personal type of decline and fall.

Spain may recover sufficiently to obtain a result against Chile. They may – however improbable it may seem right now – even progress beyond what seems a likely (should they progress at all) Second Round clash with Brazil. Regardless, Friday night’s systematic dismantling of their aura cannot be undone. Every end must have a beginning. This was Spain’s.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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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

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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

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