Category Archives: Media coverage

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

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

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Football with the commentary off


It seems that the art of football commentary in Britain has been slumping towards a nadir over the last few years, mired as it is in blandness, (Phil Neville, Michael Owen) gibbering inanity (Townsend), cynicism (Lawrenson) and a kind of unhelpful will-to-soundbites (Tyldesley). Perhaps this diagnosis has something to do with Twitter. The site can act as an echo chamber for negative opinions, like the ones Phil Neville was forced to confront after his stint in the BBC commentary box for England’s game against Italy; it remains the case that some lower-profile commentators, like the Beeb’s Simon Brotherton, Guy Mowbray and Kevin Kilbane, do a fine job. In a strange way, though, reading Twitter for digs at Townsend or Lawrenson – the single worst offender, in my book – can actually ameliorate the situation of having to listen to their summaries; without the lightness that Twitter can bring to bear on their verbal stuplimity the experience might merely be disappointing and draining.

Of course, watching the World Cup should never be disappointing and draining, so solutions are sought – baiting Lawro on Twitter might be one way of getting around this problem, and seeking out foreign streams online might be another. But the idea of simply watching the game on mute is oddly under-represented in the chatter around commentaries and commentators. And it’s a singularly effective solution: not only are the depressing quibbles about foreign cheats and the “in and around”s dispensed with, but a whole new awareness of what’s actually transpiring on the pitch can be acquired. There’s something quite counterintuitive about this: usually we turn to commentaries for help in comprehending the actions unfolding on our screens, to keep in track of who is playing the ball to whom, and perhaps for the odd gesture towards some back-story or real-life context for a victory or defeat. Obviously, this is all lost when the sound is turned down. But, to borrow an argument from Timothy Bewes’ book The Event of Postcolonial Shame, this all belongs in any case to the ‘subtractive conscious of a being who writes.’ Bewes is here drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, from whose perspective, ‘insofar as we speak, write, act, or paint, insofar as we express ourselves in any form whatsoever, we do not add to knowledge of the world but detract from it.’ Experiencing the game with the commentary removed might, by this line of argument, and somewhat paradoxically, be to experience it in its fuller aspect.

To experience the game minus the commentary is also to experience football’s communication by means of a visual and embodied, as opposed to verbal and conceptual, language. Early film theorist Béla Balázs has a useful line on this: writing in the moment before talkies became cinema’s norm, Balázs was effusive about the possibility that silent film might allow society to reconnect with what he considered the ‘true mother tongue of mankind.’ In his 1924 book Visible Man, Balázs remarked that,

the situation now is that once again our culture is being given a radically new direction – this time by film. Every evening many millions of people sit and experience human destinies, characters, feelings and moods of every kind with their eyes, and without the need for words. For the intertitles that films still have are insignificant; they are partly the ephemeral rudiments of as yet undeveloped forms and partly they bear a special meaning that does not set out to assist the visual expression. The whole of mankind is now busy relearning the long-forgotten language of gestures and facial expressions. This language is not the substitute for words characteristic of the sign language of the deaf and dumb, but the visual corollary of human souls immediately made flesh. Man will become visible once again.

There’s a weird vein of white suprematism to Balázs’ argument about what form this visibility would take, and the writer would have rejected the application of his ideas to football, given his conviction that ‘while sport can make the body healthy and beautiful, it cannot make it eloquent, since it strengthens only the animal qualities.’ But bracketing these concerns for the moment, we can align those positive qualities that Balázs identifies with silent film with those that emerge when watching World Cup games on mute, where the only language on display, and the only language required, is that produced by movements of the body. Away from the blanketing influence of the media narrative produced by commentators, drifts, slippages and tightenings of tactical formations become clearer, efforts and strainings become more acute, sharp sequences of passes sing brighter. As Jennifer Doyle’s recent piece on last weekend’s USA-Portugal game asserts, ‘Soccer is a dialogic sport’. Turning down the volume on your television reminds you that this has nothing to do with the back-and-forth of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend.

Posted by Luke Healey

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


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

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


Nike, Adidas and the Sports Branding World Cup

Over the last decade, major tournaments have become as much a showcase for sports brands and product placement as they have for the sport itself. Billboards are adorned with new footwear, energy drinks and more as brands attempt to tap into the national anticipation of a World Cup. The marketing usually employs exoticism based on the host nation to lure in the public combined with recognisable footballers.  This year, Lucozade have added a Brazilian twist with a new guava flavoured drink, while Pepsi’s latest ad sees Messi, Aguero et al. joshing around to a backdrop of favela-chic.

However, the major battle for brand supremacy is always fought between the superpowers of Nike and Adidas. They want the World Cup winners to be wearing their shirts on the podium, and scoring goals in their boots. Nike’s advertising went through something of a golden age around 15 years ago and their new material is usually worth watching. It probably started with the Seleçao at the airport ahead of France 1998. In 2002, the Scorpion Football campaign ushered in a new era of the mega-advert. Terry Gilliam was given a multi-million dollar budget to direct the memorable promo using the concept of a knock-out cage tournament. Finally, Thierry Henry’s “Sorry Boss” ad had an element of humour that few adverts are really able to capture.

In their new campaign, both Nike and Adidas have used a similar premise; this is very much the individual over the collective and the idea that one player is capable of lifting his side to the next level. This is part of football’s “cult of self”, where the players with the greatest will to succeed to do through a combination of ability and selfishness. Oddly, this style is reminiscent of an old Guinness advert in which a hurling player is promised a “hero’s welcome” if he scores the winning points.

Nike’s 2014 advert is superficial at best. A group of boys playing a game of park football, transform into their idols (Ronaldo, Neymar etc.) whilst showing off the latest sports range. It’s fun, if a little ridiculous, but lacks the originality of their back catalogue. The short ends with one of the boys scoring a penalty while the world watches on, as we are told emphatically to “Risk Everything”, Nike’s slogan for this summer. There’s not much more to it than that, other than reinforcing Nike’s traditional mantra that the winner will take it all.

This is disappointing because their ad for the last World Cup managed to imply this same message a lot more astutely. Vacuously entitled “Write the Future”, the ad shows a series of imagined World Cup moments with two possible outcomes. It illustrates the dichotomy between hero and villain that is created from individual on-pitch moments and also brings in some of the wider political context in which the game is played.

For example, a misplaced pass from Wayne Rooney that results in a Franck Ribery winner against England not only leads to personal misery but national catastrophe as the stock market crashes. There are hints at civil disorder, eerily similar to the 2011 London riots that would take place the following summer. The alternative version sees Rooney sprint back to tackle Ribery and, we can assume, lead England to glory. Rooney is knighted, the economy booms and a generation of babies are named ‘Wayne’. Thus we are reminded that football is a zero sum game in more ways than one; a players’ action will simultaneously catapult his own name into stardom whilst ruining his rivals’ reputation but these events also have the capacity to influence the nation in a manner of ways.

Adidas’ latest effort is captivating for similar reasons. Artistically it pays homage to the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, where the camera followed the player for 90 minutes.  This focus on a single player emphasises the pressures that rest on their shoulders. The main man in the campaign is Messi and it is hard to think of a player with more expectation to deliver at this World Cup, other than possibly Neymar. The ‘cult of self’ is also reinforced by the soundtrack. A new track entitled “God Level” by Kanye West (perhaps one of  the greatest egoists ever), hints at an elevation to god-like status that a World Cup-winner would enjoy.

Despite these common themes, the Adidas ad seems more pertinent because it is framed with a measure of socio-political awareness. As Messi arrives in Brazil, he is greeted with abuse from a young group of boys and a gaggle of journalists; the reception from locals and the media alike will be hostile. As the beat in West’s track builds tension with a whining crescendo that sounds like a siren, a flurry of on-pitch clips flash across the screen until a brief scene shows mounted police keeping a group of Brazilian protesters at bay. It is this image that is most intriguing because it shows Adidas have acknowledged that this World Cup might be greater than what takes place simply in the stadia.

We go into this tournament with a sense of unknowing. To what extent will this undercurrent of unrest bubble over the surface once the World Cup is up and running? Would a Brazilian triumph be able to unite the nation and quell some of the protests? Neither Nike nor Adidas has an interest in making an overtly political statement ahead of the big event and their primary concern is market supremacy. However, these corporations are now able to garner so much influence through football as an ultra-globalized form of mass culture, they may feel some sense of paternalist responsibility. Judging by their latest efforts, it seems like Adidas have considered this to a greater degree than Nike.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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

The Meaning of…Steven Gerrard

O Captain my captain!

I love him and I hate him, I sing his praises and berate him.

He’s one of my favourite players yet one of the most frustrating I’ve seen. He’s one of the most complete footballers ever. How many others could almost single-handedly drag an inferior team back into a European cup final from three nil down as an attacking midfielder…and then help batten down the hatches as a right back? How many other players have put in match winning performances from every possible position in midfield? His completeness has almost been his undoing – he’s the epitome of trying too hard, of aiming for the impossible when the simple would have done, of taking  upon his own shoulders what needs to be delegated. And those slips! This does not slip – and then another gift at the crucial moment.

Ultimately, he personifies my experience of watching football – the frustration and the fantasy, the glory and the gory, the humble and the hubris.

I’ll be glad when he isn’t Liverpool anymore, but there’s never going to be another one like him, and I’ll miss him when

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Next season though eh?

Seb Crankshaw

I find it difficult to conjure any particular memories of Steven Gerrard.

When I think of Gerrard I recall two generic, largely unspecific images, both of which, to my mind, date from the Benitez era. The first is Gerrard, symbolic of the kind of berserker attitude that won Liverpool the Champions League, thumping his chest, shouting at team mates – running the side. This is the Gerrard of the popular imagination, I’d venture – typifying the ‘passion’ for the club that only locals can supposedly bring. This vision of Gerrard goes along with commitment – Gerrard the one-club man, a whey-faced, ghostly apparition of the lost figure of the local hero.

The second is the Gerrard of the through-ball and the looping pass to feet, head down, visualising accuracy like an earnest golfer, with a still-potent Fernando Torres ahead of him.

These visions of Gerrard have persisted, but been slightly worn through overuse. Under Rodgers, they’ve been given a lick of paint, rehabilitated in a side whose attacking threat recalls the best of Benitez, but whose defensive frailty reminds me of the 4-4 Merseyside derby that saw Dalglish leave the manager’s job for the first time and signalled Liverpool’s slump into the shadow of Manchester United.

The emergence of Gerrard in the late 90s promised a better future for Liverpool. His 2013/14 season at the club recalls both the best and, in his title-deciding slip against Chelsea, the worst of Liverpool’s last twenty years. The World Cup could well enable him to cast off the gloom thrown by his last few league games upon his successful year.

Karl Whitney

Aristotle once wrote that “A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall”. Last season, Steven Gerrard became that “hero”. In finally identifying that he was no longer capable of playing the gung-ho, box-to-box, Roy of the Rovers position, Gerrard found a new lease of life in a deeper defensive role. That this proved so successful is no real surprise as part of his longstanding allure is in his vital contradiction of being the second best player in every position.
It is interesting that Roy Hodgson has placed so much faith in Gerrard, given their brief and turbulent time together at Liverpool. In a wonderfully cinematic moment, Gerrard took his club’s future into his own hands against Blackburn. Stepping up to take a penalty, Gerrard rubs the Liver bird on his chest, takes one bitter look towards the bench, before blazing the ball over. A revolutionary act, but the only way he could stop the collision course on which Hodgson was taking Liverpool.

Hugo Greenhalgh

Having only rarely watched him play, and only having a vague idea of the essence of the man, I can only look at Steven Gerrard in terms of what how he’s described tells us about the glorious City of Liverpool, where I spent some fantastic years at the end of the 1990s. Equally, since I have a somewhat blinkered frame of reference, presently looking up from the nameless relegation void between the EPL and the old second division, I’m going to conduct my analysis by means of the complex but narrow prism of what we can learn about Liverpool by watching Cardiff City, which offers two valuable source texts.

Text one is Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s centre half cousin. Signed for Cardiff by Dave Jones in 2009 and sold by St. Mackay in 2012. Ant quickly developed a ‘bants-tastic’ reputation, was ‘great’ to have around the club and was a real ‘character’. As a result, Tony swiftly became somewhat of a ‘fans favourite’, mostly because he was often photographed pulling an angry face, pumping his fist as a display of his ‘passion’ or being caught swearing on television cameras. This reached a zenith when, after being dropped to the bench by Mackay, he spent his half-time warm-ups at away games taking potshots at the mascots:

Things, however, quickly slid and we all began to realise that being a real ‘character’ can also mean being a first class knob head. Gerrard started calling out fans on the Twitterverse, and being outspoken (and not a little vulgar) in response to their (justified) criticisms of the team. Fans also slowly began to realise that he wasn’t very good. It was, then, with particular trepidation that we watched ‘our Ant’, reportedly a lifelong Reds’ fan, step up to take the Bluebirds’ final penalty in the 2012 Carling Cup Final, playing against his big cuz. Of course he pulled it laughably wide: we all knew he would. As a result of his miss, the cup went to Merseyside. We all know he didn’t do it on purpose, but the nagging suspicion is still there with many fans (‘cheating scouser’), and the speculation that he celebrated with ‘the scousers’ on the bus home effectively put an end to his Cardiff career there and then.

Text two for consideration is Craig Noone. Soon after the Bluebirds signed the nihilistically-named tricky winger, we learned that (as well as a penchant for #bants) he was, in fact, an ex-roofer who came into the game relatively late and once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof. Since then, this factoid has been repeated ad infinitum by all football correspondents and commentators whenever he has made the first team to an extent it has become evident that there is some legal obligation for the media to follow every mention of Craig by the affirmation that ‘he once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof, y’know’.

So, what, then, do we learn about big Steve and the City of Liverpool by watching Cardiff City? Of course, Anthony and Craig’s repeated association with big Steve is as inevitable as it is lazy, due to his stature in the game. In many ways, though, Noone and the Gerrards (what an awful band name that would make) are made, in something approaching the social deterministic vision of Emile Zola, to propagate to at least some extent the myth of the ‘cheeky scouser’, loveable but none too bright, and possibly even violent, working classers for whom football offers the only chance of salvation from squalor. However, unlike Stephen, or so this logic goes, most Liverpudlians are doomed to never make it, destined instead to wallow, in resentment or spite, their ‘cheeky’ humour a vent for bitterness. In a similar way, Nooney represents the projected media ideal of the scouser ‘saved’ from his roofing hell by football but who ultimately cannot escape his destiny: he’ll never quite make it. Steven, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe this myth is also played out on a macro level with Steven G. as a perennial, and flawed, nearly man. There is certainly, if not precisely or explicitly, an anti-Liverpool discourse here, one that revels in the city’s ‘nearly’ status and its perennial failure to emerge, in footballing and prestige terms, out of the shadow of Mancunia. How we loved it when Livepool threw away the title. Will Gerrard’s trend be continued in Brazil? For this correspondent at least, it’s a shame cousin Anthony won’t be getting on the plane.

Russell Williams

The above picture, a still from Sky Sports footage taken after Liverpool more or less relinquished their claim to the Premier League title after a zany 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, emblematises Steven Gerrard’s sixteen-year professional career for me. The image shows him consoling a distraught Luis Suarez, shooing away a television camera attempting to film the tears of the Uruguayan striker. It captures Gerrard’s essential double bind, by which he is at once an astounding captain, a leader and motivator par excellence with genuine concern for his charges, and a simulacrum of that thing. As I wrote in 2012, Gerrard – like John Terry and Wayne Rooney – wears the ‘mask of indomitability’ masterfully; we’re left wondering constantly if there is any real to his ‘passion’ or if it is a pure mediatisation of that emotion.

As Gerrard wards the camera off, it’s possible that he’s also soliciting it. Protecting Suarez from the intrusive glare of the media is clearly the responsible thing for a captain to do, and one’s immediate response here is to think that the act denotes Gerrard’s fundamental human decency. However, a suspicion also lingers that he is comprehensively aware of this denotation, and that he needs to be seen not wanting to be seen.

Gerrard’s career is almost coterminous with the political episteme constituted by the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuum. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in precise counterpoint to a more generalised waning of affect: being seen to ‘care’, or to share in spuriously ‘common’ desires which have replaced genuine collectivity, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for it. Simultaneously with this, the tenor of branding has shifted fundamentally, with the governing maxim no longer ‘this product is great’ but ‘this product is invested with passion’. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want not to care? The ubiquity of passion is not something one can objectively decry; rather, it is key to neoliberal, or more properly late-neoliberal, interpellation. It would be too easy to say, then, that Gerrard has agency in a simulation of emotional investment: it is more accurate to admit, after Flaubert, Steven Gerrard, c’est moi.

Joe Kennedy

Ask any Liverpool fan eighteen months ago what their thoughts were on Steven Gerrard, and their reply would most probably have been a heavy-hearted assertion that the club’s captain was a player out of time. Gerrard’s subsequent late-career renaissance may force us to re-examine the term, but it does retain validity, albeit with a shift of context.

If Gerrard does remain a player out of time, it is because he is an anachronism. Not in style, per se, as much as in the disparity of his talent when viewed within the prism of Liverpool’s ailing aspirations throughout the breadth of his career. Posing the question “what if Gerrard had played in the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s” is a seductive counterfactual, and not just for the beguiling image of Gerrard churning through the mud – all elbows and waist-high tackles – another in the contemporaneous lineage of alpha-footballers. Those decades look now, societally and sportingly, a more collective age. A time in which The Team outshone The Individual, before the post-Thatcher cult of personality that would proliferate and subsequently define the pre and postmillennial decades. A time to which Gerrard, it is fair to speculate, would have been far more suited.

Liverpool and England’s captain is often accused of rampant egoism; assigned the banter-tinged sobriquet “Stevie Me”, and cast as a committed self-mythologist flaying ‘Hollywood balls’ into touch. Yet this is a fallacy, and a lazy one at that. Despite the highlights showreels, Gerrard – his perma-crumpled brow so often giving the game away – seemingly derives little pleasure from his enforced totemism. A self-confessed worrier, bearing the expectational weight of an institution mired in habitual mediocrity has, rather than fuelling a Big-Fish ego, served only to undermine Gerrard’s game. “Give the ball to Stevie” has been a cry heard endlessly throughout the last decade and half at Anfield, Gerrard coerced into a path of relentless individualism by the lack of faith in the likes of Phillip Degen. It’s no coincidence that the two managers who bowed to this populist desire to make Gerrard the literal focal point of the team, Hodgson and Dalglish, secured the poorest return. Meanwhile, any attempts to lift this burden – most notably Rafael Benitez’s characteristically wilful iconoclasm in shifting Gerrard to the wing for a season and a half – have been met with hostility from a press and fanbase resolutely determined on lurching into Jungian archetype.

For all the spectacular moments throughout his career, it is this aspect of Gerrard that is perhaps the most intriguing. Whilst his playing style fits the modern Sky Sports paradigm of superstardom, Gerrard’s personality – burdened by introspection – resonates more closely with post-war existentialism than latter-day individualism. That this pressure manifests itself in both club and international is a particular cruelty. Had Gerrard been born in Leipzig or Livorno, for example, then the encumbering responsibility would at least have been restricted. As England captain, however, he is both symptom and exemplar of that deeply-ingrained trait within the national, as well as football, psyche: the steadfast refusal to trust the collective in a crisis. The scrambling, knee-jerk messianism that has consistently undermined the England national team for all but a brief window of its history.

Already destined to be remembered as one of the defining players of his generation, it is hard to fathom quite what Gerrard could have achieved if freed from the shackling weight of individual expectation. The late-career loss of mobility, and much vaunted work of Steve Peters (whose counter-intuitive work with Gerrard seems increasingly about psychological deprogramming) may have gone some way to precipitating a degree of enforced recalibration, but the performative Sisypheanism of an England World Cup campaign will doubtless rekindle old habits. Reluctant yet recursive, Gerrard may not be the perfect player – far from it – but he is, at least, the perfect embodiment of the travails of this England team.

Ron Hamilton

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The Meaning of…Diego Costa


Diego Costa seems a good bet to join fellow SotB profilees Edin Džeko and Olivier Giroud in the Premier League’s elite band of big strikers at big clubs. He has just played a prominent role as hipster fetish object and occasional football club Atlético Madrid claimed their first La Liga title since the halcyon days of Jesús Gil, a chairman who, for all his political shortcomings, remains the only one in world football to have had a song written about him by grouch-rock pacesetters Prolapse:

Sorry. That took absolutely no time at all to stop being a post about Diego Costa and start being a post about Jesús Gil and Prolapse. What I meant to say is that Costa looks set to become a familiar face in English football: José Mourinho seems determined to sign the Atléti target man, having apparently decided, for reasons I can’t fathom, but then I’m not a football manager, that Romelu Lukaku isn’t up to the task. As a result, the Brazil-born Spanish international will be one of the players who the English commentators will demand we ‘keep an eye on’ during the World Cup, and he will be one of those which the tournament’s not-quite-official spiel insists spectators must have an opinion about.

In any given international football competition, particular players are set up as receptacles for narrative that is still to come into being. Certain lines along which this narrative may develop are cultivated: while all players have a modicum of what one might call ‘legend’ for stumped commentators to fall back on, a select few are positioned as reservoirs of memory-to-come. They are not necessarily the anticipated stars of the tournament – it’s far more convenient in a para-literary sense if a star of the tournament is, in the manner of Schillachi or Platt in 1990, perceived as essentially ex nihilo – but those who will provide some image or event which will capture the grain of the competition.

Costa works in this sense on multiple levels. Firstly, there is the issue of his nationality. This is set to be the most – to alleviate a term slightly, but only slightly – deterritorialised World Cup of all time in that there will be more players representing nations other than the ones in which they were born than ever before. Nationality and naturalisation issues surrounding the likes of Adnan Januzaj have been one of the dominant footballing stories in the last few months, a factor which is indicative simultaneously of increased fluidity of movement and accelerated globalisation. The story is no longer that a player has been naturalised – as was the case with Italy’s Argentinians in the 1930s – but that they are representative of a general trend towards both naturalisation and other forms of extended eligibility. Costa’s prominence as the likely leader of Spain’s attack will give him the status of an avatar. To accentuate this, he will be playing in the country of his birth.

A second possible narrative path will centre on his playing style. Costa has already been pre-figured as something more than a ‘handful’, and carries with him a reputation for both aggressive and passive-aggressive unpleasantness. The moment of the 2010 tournament was arguably Luis Suarez’s handball, and the media myth-makers will be prepared, and eager, for something similar to happen this time around. A strangely wonderful video of Costa’s ongoing war with Sergio Ramos primes us for him to provide on this front (Costa’s spit-in-the-hand-and-throw-it-at-the-opponent move displays a Suarez-like level of baneful invention).

The point here is not that he will necessarily fulfil either of these roles, but that he embodies narrative potential in a purely formal sense. In the mass-media age, as Alfie pointed out with reference to Alain Badiou yesterday, tournaments are not simply driven but exist on the basis of this contentless possibility. Players have been commodities as long as the sport has been professional, but their commodification does not depend solely on their ability to play football or even their ability to, pace David Beckham or Dong Fangzhuo, ‘sell shirts’. That’s to say that they are not solely commodities for their parent clubs but, in a more general and abstract way, for a media which seeks to preconceive their competitive role. The player-about-whom-an-opinion-must-be-had is not simply a vector for sociable chat, but a ‘real life story’ masking or normalising the transformation of life into pure narrative possibility.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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World Cup 2014 Live!!! and Alain Badiou’s Event

The emphasis on the ‘live’ nature of football coverage, particularly on Sky Sports, has become something of a joke lately in football circles. Before each kick-off, official ‘commentator of the decade’ Martin Tyler, now with an emphasis so great it’s as if he’s trying to outdo last week’s performance in a kind of parody, shouts ‘and its LIVE!!!!’ to the delight of everyone watching.

The appeal of ‘live’ coverage is of course not only relevant to the football world; there is a cultural appeal to the idea of experiencing the event ‘in the moment,’ which stretches as far as Saturday Kitchen emphasising that its cooking and mundane chat, believe it or not, is going on absolutely LIVE in front of our eyes.

Saturday Kitchen

This World Cup will be an extreme example of this cultural phenomenon; all channels will advertise their LIVE coverage not only of the games but of the draw, the interviews and the injury updates. Live feeds will abound across the internet allowing the viewer to feel that they are always involved, there experiencing the moment when some news breaks, some man kicks a ball, someone turns an ankle or has an argument in training. We want to see everything LIVE.


What this seems to involve is an exciting experience of the moment which happens outside the mundane and predictable chronology of the normal course of events.  It appeals because of the excitement, the unpredictability, the randomness not just on the field of play but everywhere in the game. The pleasure seems to come from something like a breaking of chronology; the ‘normal’ flow of events can be interrupted at any point, in game or out, changing the futures involved in the tournament and the way things will pan out.  We want to be there at these moments, to see them LIVE, to see the future diverted.

On the contrary, what I argue here is that this involves not an instantaneous ‘live for the moment’ attitude of experience outside chronology, a pure moment of instant enjoyment which breaks the  narrative and takes it somewhere new, but the absolute opposite. In fact, we enjoy the moment precisely because we feel that its future is known and predictable.

Alain Badiou’s concept of ‘the event’ sheds new light on these ‘events’ we experience ‘live.’ The idea probably originates in Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, often translated as afterwardsness.’ Nachträglichkeit is not just a later reaction to an earlier event but a recognition that the first event is invested with a new significance which turns it into that which it will then always-already have been. So the moment is constituted by what happens after, challenging the idea of chronological time because the past is influenced by later events as much as later events are influenced by the past.  Badiou develops the concept, arguing similarly that ‘the event’ is not the culmination or result of something but rather that ‘a site is only evental insofar as it is retroactively qualified as such by the occurrence of an event.’ In other words, all events exist only in relation to later events which turn them into what they are.

In football terms this can be easily demonstrated: a goal scored in the last minute of game 1 becomes something completely different when that team goes on to win the trophy in game 64.  It will become an event that always contained the potential to contain its own future.

We are under the illusion that event A seems to contain within it the possibility of events B, C and D, etc. This means that every event that occurs must contain within it all the possible ‘future’ events which may or may not occur subsequently.  This is at the heart of the appeal of ‘being there’ at this moment of possibility and witnessing something which leads off into the future.

But this is a structure which is easy to believe in football terms and more difficult to believe in when it comes to the bigger question of life outside football. Perhaps it can be connected to the ‘big bang theory’, another linear narrative in which infinite possibility comes from one moment. Whilst we might consider this scientific theory ‘true’ we do not, at least for the average subject, feel that it is evident and clear.

This is because it is only in a system in which the possible outcomes are limited and mapped that this illusion can maintain the strength of its hold. One of the 32 teams will win the World Cup, retroactively turning everything that has happened to that team along the way into the path that led to victory. If we witness all the LIVE moments – we can be sure that one of them will become what we project it to be.

Badiou shows that in life outside of football the future, never determinate, can change our present into something which we have no idea (from our own moment) that it is.  In football, we have a comforting feeling of predictability which we enjoy, which might appear to us as the charm of randomness and unpredictability but is in fact its opposite.  The feeling is one that gives us something we don’t feel outside of football, that when we experience our own ‘live’ moment, we can enjoy it because we know what it will become, not because we don’t.

Posted by Alfie Bown

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Ola Ola – A Song for a Roiling World

The official tournament song is an oddly uncelebrated art form that is utopic in theory if usually risible in practice. Back in the days when the pop single was one of the most lucrative artefacts known to late capitalism, these folksy bagatelles must have made simple commercial sense as a way of drawing in extra revenue to a not-yet heinously wealthy sport. Before replica shirts, before sponsorship even (I learn to my astonishment that the first official World Cup song was released to coincide with Chile 1962 – that is, before the Beatles), tournament songs were both a bit of a joke and a primitive form of merchandise that made a few extra quid for the organisers. Before consumerism’s viral infiltration of leisure and lifestyle, there was the simple memento, the novelty keepsake, the guileless souvenir.

Nowadays, the function of the tournament song is subtler. No doubt they still generate considerable revenue, but in the neoliberal period – post-Band Aid and ‘We Are the World’ – World Cup anthems have also become central to the quasi-ethical propaganda campaigns of the globalised economy.

Hence, titles like ‘Let’s Get Together Now’, and eclectically orientalist collaborations across borders and genres (Toni Braxton and Il Divo, R-Kelly and the Soweto Singers, Jean Michel Jarre and Tetsuya Komuro). Increasingly, these (probably intentionally) forgettable songs hover in the background of tournament PR campaigns, faintly hinting at the notion that the World Cup has the potential to be an important internationalist statement, dangling the prospect of global solidarity while reducing that concept to an enervated marketing slogan with a half-life of four weeks.

To an extent, ‘We Are One (Ola Ola)’, official song for Brazil 2014, slots relatively easily into this established tradition of watered-down Fukuyaman idealism. But there are a handful of things that make it a bit more interesting than that. For starters, like much recent pop music, the melody is pleadingly melancholic and cautiously hopeful – quite a contrast from the airy triumphalism of nineties and noughties ballads.

The vigorously strummed guitar chords are mostly in the minor key and never quite resolve. The tempo is fast. The segues between singers and styles are abrupt, bewildering, and at times (J-Lo’s cameo, Claudia Liette’s interlude from 2:38) kind of brilliant.

Okay, the title is parodic and the lyrics never manage to be anything other than pitiful. But in its best moments ‘We Are One’ conveys a sense of something bubbling under the surface, of incipient voices clashing against each other in a crowded room underground, of multiple ideas fizzing and just failing to catch alight. This is the sound of a roiling, incongruous energy that hasn’t quite found its outlet yet – the urgent, nascent sound, in fact, of the world in 2014.

Posted by Alex Niven

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anti-football meme of the week: if football was archaeology

As Karl’s post on banter implies, football becomes unpleasantly ubiquitous during the World Cup. ‘Unpleasantly’? Why would a football fan find it ‘unpleasant’ for their sport of choice to be prominent in the media? One answer would be that ubiquity also means dilution, with the consequence that we don’t hear about ‘football’ so much as ‘footie’, that abstracted version which lends itself all kinds of dismal exercises in masculinist and nationalistic identity formation. Watch the footie on telly last night, mate? Well, no, I went to the football last night. Although I’ve promised to (over)analyse all aspects of the game here, there’s an atavistic part of me that wants to assert a qualitative distinction between what I do with my Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and The Support Group.*

I tried to say something about how football fans can come to feel completely alienated during the big international tournaments at the start of this Quietus article, published at the beginning of Euro 2012. A number of people I know who spend substantial amounts of their time watching, playing, thinking about and discussing football often slip into disavowal mode as the themed ladvertising begins and the Sun call a Council of Elrond for jingoistic headline writers. So, you may expect some of us to have sympathy for those people who just outright dislike football, particularly around the World Cup.

And we do, I think. That is, until things like this meme turn up. This has been doing the rounds over the last few days, and has been presented on too many Facebook and Twitter TLs I’ve seen as the definitive cri de coeur of the non-believer, the document which will finally articulate to football fans just what it’s like to be on the outside of it all. Now, the people I’ve seen sharing this have been people I like and respect, but I have to say that I’m not remotely able to identify with its content, even though I can imagine what it’s like to be bombarded with The Footie all summer long for the precise reason that as a football fan I feel the same.

We get something like this every time there’s an international tournament, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where the argument is so macerated in – and sorry for insisting on the mot juste here, but ‘stupidity’ simply doesn’t cut it – bêtise. Hiding behind its Nicetwitter affability and a skilled deployment of an affectation of evenhandedness, this is a piece of writing which rests upon a particular set of assumptions about football, football players and football fans, all of which are ultimately ideological.

Let’s think, first of all, about why ‘archaeology’ replaces ‘football’ in this seemingly harmless, wryly amusing Gedankenexperiment. Why not, say, ‘shopping’ or ‘military history’? I have no problems with archaeology – who does? – and appreciate the discipline’s enormous, if not entirely politically and ethically unproblematic,** contribution to the sum total of humanity’s understanding of itself. One of my best friends is an archaeologist, no joke. However, the field does have certain connotations which are useful in a particular presentation of the self. Archaeology carries with it an image of wistful past-gazing, of laudable knowledge-foraging, of being the kid who ignored football in the playground because they were too busy digging away in the corner looking for clay pipes. For all of its fascinations, it’s also a realm in which the humblebragging, self-anointed geek enjoys a considerable amount of social capital.

In other words, it’s just the kind of thing that would appeal to that constituency of the internet who I’m pretty sure Lacan forecast when he said that thing about how les non-dupes errent. The idea that it is the not-fooled, the people who ‘see through stuff’, who are the most taken-in ideologically has always had a considerable degree of internet appeal, but never more so than in the age of Facebook atheism and I Fucking Love Science. Lovely archaeology coming on as a substitute for aggressive, alpha-male, avaricious (and, though the piece would never dare mention it,  largely working-class) football seems to me the kind of notion that would really speak to the aren’t-bees-more-fascinating-than-Jesus, calling-Valentines-Day-‘Hallmark Holiday’ crowd who’d consider their life to be complete if they ever got a retweet off Graham Linehan.

But let’s look at a bit of the text itself, lest we fail our Practical Criticism 101:

Even when it isn’t archaeology season, the media follow noted archaeologists. They drive fast cars, date beautiful women, advertise fragrances, and sometimes they go to nightclubs and act in the worst possible way. Scandals erupt as the tabloids follow these new celebrities when they’re not searching the past for answers.

The point of the exercise, remember, is to induce some kind of artificial parity between football and archaeology – just imagine if archaeology (valued neutral) and football (also valued neutral) swapped places in the cultural imagination. But the writer cannot resist the opportunity to do away with this parity almost as soon as it has been established, finding subtle ways of embedding value judgements. Here, it’s imagined that archaeologists acquire the same, ‘worst possible’, behavioural traits that the media at large attributes, with consummate dishonesty, to all footballers. The rationale for doing this is not, as it purports to be,to get us to imagine archaeologists on the piss in Chinawhites acting up, but to remind us that football players are uncouth (working-class) louts who provoke ‘scandal’.

Then there’s another dig. Having hypothesised an archaeologist who would ‘act’ like a footballer, the writer reminds us what an archaeologist would be doing when they’re not up to no good, namely ‘searching the past for answers’. That’s to say that their professional activity would still be of enormous value, inviting an implicit comparison to the ‘pointlessness’ of football. That putative pointlessness is a classic canard of a hypocritical utilitarianism which locates value (or ‘point’) in, to pick my own straw men, Scandinavian crime dramas or Hilary Mantel novels or BBC4 documentaries about archaeology, but not in competitive sport. This, I suspect, is an aspect of that classic piece of political equivocation by which utilitarianism is good for the working-class goose but not appropriate for the middle-class gander, and seems to be applied particularly to football.

As most football fans – as opposed to footie fans – are aware, our game is riddled with absurdities and contradictions. We don’t need to have them pointed out, and we are also aware of exactly how irritating the saturation coverage – except I don’t mean saturation-level football, I mean saturation-level soft nationalism and saturation-level heteronormativity – is during the big competitions. For many of us, the mediascape during a World Cup or European Championships is borderline intolerable, and we’re not so bad at producing our own critiques of it. All of this huggable ‘just imagine everyone was an archaeologist’ stuff does nobody any good.

* We talked about this atrocity in one episode of This is Deep Play. If it resurfaces for the World Cup, I’ll write something about it.

** The Indiana Jones portrayal of Nazi archaeology arguably conceals, rather than reveals, the hegemonic functions of archaeology through history.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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