Category Archives: Injuries

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

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

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Football’s Counterfactual Draw

So the local and European elections are over and we’ve all had a chance to digest, or perhaps indigest, the results. It’s been a victory for the politics of fear all around Europe. This in itself would, in some ways, not be so bad if these fearmongering politicians represented some kind of realistic point of difference, in as much as – from a sort-of accelerationist point of view – it would draw a line in the sand. Perhaps it would force people to take some kind of active political position rather than the incoherent status quo where most people would seem to prefer the policies set forth by the Green party and despise those proposed by UKIP, yet ended up voting for the latter in significant numbers for the local elections and by a landslide in the European elections, registering arguably the most mainstream-friendly political protest in history.

That we English lemmings falling off the cliff of neoliberalism appear to have voted en masse for a message that boils down to ‘leave us alone, we want to build a bigger cliff so ner’ is depressing, but it does lead us to the first minor what if…what if the Greens had received the same kind of publicity as UKIP? They’re a flawed party, for sure. Too middle class, too white and too bizarre in some corners. To touch briefly upon the football they are something like the Yeovil Town of politics. You’re glad they exist but ultimately they’re a little bit rural West Country – both club and party probably have beards and, you can’t help but suspect, genuinely and enthusiastically love folk music but feel deeply suspicious of hip-hop, even when it’s articulating their politics as well as folk ever has (with due apologies to west country, folk and Yeovil Town fans for my gross stereotyping here. Come and find me in Brixton some time and I’ll buy you a cider). But they have ideas, they have a positive vision for the future, and those two things alone make them a true alternative to the business-as-usual represented by the media-styled ‘big four’, and one that, like a St Pauli, could well attract a rather large following if only people heard about them on a regular basis.

All of which rambling brings me to the major what if I end up contemplating whenever I’m depressed by election results (i.e. every time there’s an election) or whenever I hear visionary statements in support of the working man and the future of our species from the Labour party such as  ‘we’ll try and freeze energy prices for a bit’. Epic. That what if is John Smith. What if he hadn’t died? Now I know older heads among you have no doubt lived through a number of disappointing Labour governments, but viewed through the lens of my life span those Labour governments seemed almost incomprehensibly socialist compared to the present collection. I was only sixteen at the time of New Labour’s election but even then it was apparent that Labour would have won regardless, and in John Smith they had one of the last of a dying breed – a non-career politician who appeared to have actual beliefs based on actual life experience, who had some understanding of the lives of the working poor and who didn’t see at least some aspects of socialism as if they were an electoral death sentence. While it’s entirely likely that he would have been a distinct disappointment to genuine socialists, it’s also hard to imagine him having embarked upon the orgy of privatisation-by-stealth initiated by Blair and Brown’s government, policies which laid the foundations for many of the coalitions most hated ‘reforms’ – privatising the royal mail, laying open the NHS and the transference of state schools into private hands via academisation.

Why do I indulge in this whatiffery time after time? Like picking at a scab it serves no useful purpose, it merely reopens old wounds. In this respect I am a typical football fan. Instead of the late Mr Smith, consider Wayne Rooney. The latter stands out more in the what if stakes. At 17 in those matches in that European Championship he was a genuine protégé. Those early glimpses were of a player fully deserving the hype being bestowed upon him, and, O joy for all true Englishmen, the French players were absolutely shitting themselves at his every touch. Then there were his breakthrough performances against Switzerland and Croatia. He went off injured early in the quarter-final against Portugal and, though we played reasonably well for the rest of the match, we had lost our catalyst, a player who in those early matches seemed capable of lifting England out of its grey backdrop of major tournament failure.

It is something akin to this whatiffery that Colombian and Uruguayan fans have tortured themselves with regarding their respective icons Falcao and Suarez. Both are phenomenal players who do possess that transformative power of the individual who can lift the whole team: Suarez in particular has shown consistently that he can lift the good to the sublime, bringing the best out of his teammates too in a way that Falcao can’t emulate. Realistically, though, Falcao would have been disappointing if he had made it and Suarez probably will be if does. Falcao has been out since January; even if he had made it there would have been no hope whatsoever of him being sharp. Suarez is a bit different. He is a physical phenomenon possessed of a peerless will to win, but no footballer can transcend human embodiment (except perhaps Erhun Oztumer). Injury, or a lack of fitness, prevents peak performance. The spirit will be there, no doubt, but the flesh will still be weak.

These are all, however, examples of slow burning, lingering what ifs. The causes and consequences play out over weeks, months and years, never subject to that sense of powerfully diverging pathways that create some of most memorable moments in life, for good or ill. Even in the case of John Smith’s death the factions of neoliberalism existed around him and would have had a part to play regardless. Even Thatcher needed her ‘vegetables’ – politics cannot survive on meat alone. No, the truly heart-rending or ecstasy inducing what ifs are those destiny-altering ones at which the paths of cosmic possibility seem to diverge – the chance-which-is-not-chance encounters which, in mythology or religion, tend to be taken as proof of fate or divine will. What if, for example, Steven Gerrard never does win the title? Well, then his what if will become a kind of ultimate, meta what if, a what if moment that other what if victims in footballing history will console themselves with, or perhaps tell younger players about as a profound warning to ‘buy some proper fucking boots, son’.

Thirty-eight games. Fifty-seven hours worth of football distilled into that fraction of a second where his boots went and Demba Ba started racing away and you could see the ball hitting the back of the net before he even touched it, where for a Liverpool fan the whole season flashed before your eyes and you knew, you knew for sure right then that it was over, all over, the dream gone, the dream dead, the dream killed by what Italians call ‘ironic destiny’ while,  if you were a Manchester City fan, your heart soared, you couldn’t believe it, this was ordained, this was destiny, this was God pointing his finger down on you, like in those shit old lottery adverts, a beam of light from the fucking sky assuring you that this time it’s yours, the rest is noise, this is where you won it, it all turned on this moment, a moment that will test the capacity of every replay function ever devised – your memory, your match report, your VCR and nowadays, joyously, your GIF of that moment plastered everywhere you could possibly post it. A what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin, the ultimate what if, and football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.

(Editor’s note – footballing counterfactuals are explored at some length in this episode of SotB’s sister podcast This is Deep Play)

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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