Category Archives: Memory

The Turnaround

The first round of group games is over and everyone has had their go. The narratives, the destinies and the epitaphs have all begun to take shape. Some teams ––  Costa Rica, the Netherlands –– have exceeded their expectations; others –– Spain, Uruguay, Portugal –– have suffered crushing setbacks, while others still –– Brazil, Belgium, France –– are happy everything is going to plan.  Fourteen teams have lost their opening matches, meaning that a further slip-up will almost certainly end their World Cup for them, leaving only pride to play for in a third game that will be academic for them, if not their opponents.

In most cases, the die is already cast and the tone set –– since the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in 1998, and the possibility of progressing as a third-placed team done away with, only 8.7% of teams (four in total –– including eventual winners Spain in 2010) have gone through to the knock-out stages after losing their first game. If you have already shipped a defeat, you had best have something seriously good in reserve to turn things around or have the luxury of two straightforward games coming after a tough first one –– you would expect Bosnia & Herzegovina, after a promising performance against Argentina, to take care of Nigeria and Iran handily enough. Some teams have the might and character to win the necessary games –– for instance, I would not be surprised if Spain are still with us in ten days time, their 5-1 hammering at the hands of the Netherlands notwithstanding. Portugal do not have quite the pedigree, nor the strength in depth, of their Iberian neighbours but they too are strong enough to reverse their heavy opening loss, though only two wins will do that. The importance of the first win in that group dictated Jürgen Klinsmann’s pragmatic approach in the USA’s match against Ghana –– a bit depressing given the general openness of play in the tournament so far but Klinsmann probably figured it was his team’s best chance of three points in the Group of Death.

The USA are one of those teams whose euphoric start may be reversed and come to naught, in much the same way six teams have had their leads overturned in first round matches. Ivory Coast, 2-1 winners against Japan, still face their toughest game versus Colombia and a potential banana skin against Greece. Costa Rica also face two tougher matches, against Italy and England, after their opening win over Uruguay. Still, 84.8% of sides who won their first match have made it through since 1998 so even a drop in form can be weathered if you manage to add a point to your tally in the final two group games. The few teams that failed to progress after first-game wins in recent years include Argentina, dumped out by England and Sweden in 2002 after beating Nigeria 1-0, Russia the same year, eliminated by hosts Belgium and hosts Japan, and the Czech Republic, who walloped the USA 3-0 in 2006 but then meekly surrendered to Ghana and Italy. Further back, when third-place qualification spots were still up for grabs, Portugal (1986) and Norway (1994) faltered after winning their first game.

And then there is Scotland, perennial World Cup catastrophists (younger readers might be surprised to learn that Scotland once regularly appeared at the World Cup finals). Twice Scotland failed to go through after winning their first match –– in 1974 after beating Zaire 3-0 and eight years later in Spain after beating New Zealand 5-2. Both times it was too narrow a victory over the weakest team in the group that did for them (though, to be fair they did have otherwise tough groups, including Brazil, each time). In eight World Cup appearances Scotland failed to make it past the group stage –– the most unsuccessful efforts in World Cup history (South Korea have passed the group stage twice in their eight finals to date and Cameroon once in six). Scotland own the World Cup failure narrative –– and they can testify more than most to how a fatal slip, even when winning a match, can dash your hopes of making it to the knock-out stages.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Forgotten Goals and the Slippage of Memory

Though I have a few memories of España 82 –– and even a brief ticker tape-strewn flicker of Argentina 78 is lodged in my unconscious –– Mexico 86 was my first ‘real’ World Cup. An unwritten rule generally dictates that one’s first World Cup is the standard all future ones are measured against (and all will inevitably fall short of –– for this reason I pity anyone, even Irish people, whose earliest memories are of the wretched Italia 90), and Mexico 86 was a stormer of a tournament. Maradona’s single-handed yanking of an average Argentina side to win their second World Cup; the greatest, most brazen act of cheating in footballing history (Thierry Henry is but a petit tricheur next to Diego); all the matches involving the USSR (including the body blow from which Hungarian football has never recovered), Denmark and Belgium; France v Brazil; Josimar’s insouciant missile of a shot that sailed over poor Pat Jenning’s outstretched hand; Morocco’s destruction of a highly-fancied but squabbling Portugal; and one of the best finals ever. I am fully aware of the dross in that tournament, of course –– Morocco v England, Morocco v West Germany (this is probably why the Moroccans are not remembered as well as they might otherwise be), Uruguay v Scotland and Joël Quiniou’s dismissal of José Batista, the fastest sending-off in World Cup history, and the drab semi-final between the French and the Germans, which so cruelly failed to live up to the same game four years earlier. But Mexico 86 was a great tournament. I know this because I remember everything in it. I can remember almost all the goals. Maybe this is because I just paid more attention as a ten year old or because I was just unconsciously absorbing so much more in unfamiliar surroundings, like how a toddler sponges up the complexities of language.

All the more remarkable is the fact I didn’t see the final. A storm the night before put the whole village’s illegal TV deflector service out of whack and attempts to restore it in time for kick-off were in vain. I was forced to follow it on radio instead, which, in pre-Premiership, pre-Champions League days, was not so rare an occurrence. I did see the same later, and saw the five goals enough times for them to be burned onto my retina like the outline of an image on a poorly maintained computer screen. And such is the case for many goals, in the World Cup and elsewhere –– these are the goals that are inescapable, the ones that journalists call ‘iconic’. The movements –– the feints, the jinks, the turns –– are so familiar that you can recognise them even when stripped of their physical surrounding, like in Richard Swarbrick’s beautiful animations. These goals will be with you till your dying day.

 

 

But there are other goals that are harder to recall, or, if you do recall them, your mind has distorted and refracted them for some unknown reason –– re-watching the other day Joe Cole’s superb volley against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup, I was struck by how I remembered seeing it at a different angle. I also seemed to have some recollection of the pitch in Cologne being slightly muddy, like a mid-season Football League pitch in the late 1980s. It was, of course, a vibrant green sward, but my mind had seen it differently.

Since Mexico 86, my capacity for forgetting goals, sometimes even whole matches, has grown steadily. Most of the goals scored by France on the way to winning on home soil in 1998 are hazy in my mind (though not those in the semi-finals or final) –– all I seem to be able to remember is Stéphane Guivarc’h stumbling when trying to hold the ball up for Petit and Zidane. I can remember Roberto Baggio’s equaliser against Nigeria in 1994 but not his two goals against Bulgaria in the semi-final. I can remember Saeed al-Owarain’s full-length run to score against Belgium that year but I can remember practically nothing else Saudi Arabia have done in their subsequent three World Cups. Such slippage is inevitable of course when you gorge yourself on more football in the space of four weeks than you would normally watch in half a season. There are also the circumstances –– some games I watched in snatches from behind a bar when I was serving pints, some in the side bar at wedding receptions, others you don’t see at all: they might be the ‘other’ match in the third round of group games, played simultaneously, your exposure to which is limited to the half-time and full-time round-ups.

 

 

 

Thus some games disappear down the rabbit hole of your conscious. Sometimes even whole teams’ participations vanish –– China in 2002, Poland the same year and in 2006 too, the UAE in 1990, Austria in 1998, Angola in 2006, Denmark in South Africa four years ago, all of which I can barely remember. I watch the hour-long compilations of all the goals from past tournaments that you can find on YouTube and occasionally I get an arresting jab –– goals, teams, players I had forgotten about. Even players I already knew of and who I was looking out for throughout the tournament. This chasm of memory is a product of the parallax view we have of the World Cup. It looks so big from the outside, so long, so bloated and rich. But for most teams –– 50% of them –– it’s over as soon as it begins. They are on their way home after ten days. Since the tournament was expanded to 32 teams, it is only in the knock-out stages when it really takes off, when your mind is supple and you register things. By then, three-quarters of the games have been played. The cliche has it that the World Cup is a feast of football but beneath the excitement and the munificence, there is the dullness of mundane consumption and trying to summon up the memory of some of the goals you see is like trying to remember what you had for lunch the same day.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Preview 13 – England

I probably don’t need to remind you that it’s something of a miracle we even made it to Brazil 2014. Since the Iraqi nuclear attacks on London in early 2003 (who besides the late dictator Tony Blair thought those WMDs were actually real?), England and its football culture has, understandably, been in a state of some disrepair. With Zone 1 of the capital reduced to a toxic crater, and with infrastructure dispersed throughout the nascent Quatropolis of the British Republic (Stratford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow), we’ve been forced to think in unusually strenuous terms about history, collective identity and the place of football within it.

Quite aside from the difficulties most of us now have with the mere concept of “England” – a name that we now tend to associate with the recherché world of monarchy, pastoral myth and capitalist belligerence that has mostly evaporated since the destruction of London and the Home Counties just over a decade ago – it is extraordinary on a logistic level that a team from the Republic exists at all.

Post-2003, after the world economy was thrown into turmoil by the attacks on London and New York, and Britain’s inordinate reliance on finance capitalism and the tourist industry came to an abrupt end, we have faced material hardships on a biblical scale. Over the last ten years, as we dealt with the humanitarian fallout from nuclear catastrophe and tried to slowly rebuild our economy as a hub of manufacturing and the creative arts, sport has been the last thing on most people’s minds.

But there is also, of course, a sense in which the birth of the Republic has revitalised English football, and vice versa. Before the bombings, the Premiership was in a bad way, and there were signs that it was about to get even worse. After an initial honeymoon period, the alliance between global capitalism and the big English clubs that deepened from the early nineties had created a disaffected, apathetic climate, one in which both supporters and young players had begun to lose faith that the game was anything more than an elaborate marketing spectacle.

Domestic competitions had come to be dominated by a handful of mega-wealthy clubs, ticket prices were rising at an alarming rate, and heavily overpaid players were starting to become objectionable characters who displayed increasing detachment from the underlying moral and aesthetic imperatives of the beautiful game. There were even signs that the FA Cup was losing its importance, and that the same 5 or 6 teams would be able to effectively monopolise domestic football long into the future by way of a de facto plutocratic super league.

2003 changed all that. With Chelsea and Arsenal consigned to the history books after central London was razed to the ground, and with the steady withdrawal of corporate money from both the Premiership and the British economy as a whole, a newly egalitarian game began to emerge in a landscape blighted by a combination of (man-made) ecological disaster and severe economic depression. With player wages only slightly above the average rate for British Republic citizens, and with English teams unable to take part in European competitions, our stratified, hierarchical domestic league was completely overhauled. Between 2004 and 2013, 8 different teams won the (newly unsponsored) league title, and the FA Cup was won by a different team each year.

At Everton in 2006, Wayne Rooney and John Terry (a refugee from west London) spearheaded a glorious league campaign that ended with a dramatic last gasp victory over Hibernian on the final day of the season. Andy Caroll scored 42 league goals as Newcastle won the Cup in 2010, narrowly losing out on the league title to Preston. In 2011, Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson led Villa to a spectacular title victory. At resurgent, supporter-controlled Sheffield Wednesday, Gary Cahill, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge were the backbone of an exceptional team that won the double in 2012. After a steep decline from their nineties heyday, Man United fought successive relegation battles, but their cup victory in 2013 over Rickie Lambert-led Leeds was perhaps a sign that the good times will soon return.

With this difficult yet emboldening recent domestic history behind them, I can’t help but feel that the 2014 England squad might be capable of pulling off an unlikely triumph in Brazil. The last decade has been difficult, but we now have a renewed sense of what this whole venture means. We are a lot closer now in background and worldview to the rest of the world, much more in tune with our working-class heritage, much less blinkered by myths of greatness and a mingled feeling of inflated superiority and nagging inferiority. Above all, we have something to prove – namely the fact that we are part of a democratic new country that is moving slowly but inexorably into a brighter, more passionately felt future. If power corrupts, then disempowerment can humanise, and this is a truth that Roy Hodgson and his idealistic young team must keep close to their hearts in the splintering sunlight of Manaus.

Posted by Alex Niven

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Preview 11 – Croatia

Those that remember as far back as Euro 2012 will know that much debate about Croatia’s role in the tournament will surround the racist chants, banners and attitudes of the nation’s travelling supporters. Last time around the Croatian FA were twice fined for their fans’ actions.

The usual approach to such racist behaviour is to state that these acts are ‘outdated.’  Of course, this criticism almost always comes from a good place, asserting that we have no time in the modern age for behaviour that we (largely) universally condemn as unacceptable.  However, there is a strange distancing of our age and ourselves from the issue here.  Can we say these forms of expression are outdated whilst we witness them taking place in 2012, and under the threat of seeing them again in 2014?

First, we must acknowledge that racism (in most of its forms at least) is closely connected to nostalgia.  This is a point that hardly needs demonstrating; racism is almost always couched in a language of ‘the old days,’ ‘traditional values,’ and the ‘great past’ of the nation or race being celebrated.  This can easily be demonstrated in the case of Croatian football; the banners shown in 2012 contained military images and a web address of a political site dedicated to ‘the promotion of Croatian heritage and culture around the world.’  Its motto is ‘Pravda je izgubila ravnotežu,’ which is translated as ‘Justice has lost her way;’ the language of nationalism is one of nostalgia for a ‘lost’ past in which things we on the right track.

Second, and more complexly, nostalgia operates or can operate where there is nothing to be nostalgic for.  Or rather, that which we are nostalgic for is often an imaginary space created from the present and projected onto the past which we conceive of as answering the problems we are faced with in modernity.  As Svetlana Boym notes, nostalgia is ‘an affective yearning for a community with collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.’  This once more is perfectly demonstrated by the place of Croatian nationalist culture.  A fantastic article by Gordana Crnkovic on Croatian nationalist and non-nationalist culture demonstrates that whereas Croatian culture was historically very diverse, containing Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and other cultural influences from the region, after the war and independence a new demand for a cultural identity ‘truly its own’ was borne in Croatia.  Whilst it had a diverse history, it needed a singular one; the history it searched for was one that it never had.

Croatian cultural commentator Jurica Pavicic put it another way, saying, ‘we traded away our identity because it stank of our neighbours, and for that we got corporate goods, faceless global trademarks to whom we bow.’  The point again here is that what is missing now – a truly Croatian identity – never existed; it was always a miscellany of various cultural influences.  It is racism that creates an imagined time in which justice had not lost its way, in which we had an identity truly our own.

Does not the criticism of this racism as ‘outdated,’ whilst we see it around us in more forms than we would like to admit, not risk allowing this belief to maintain its hold?  It asserts the existence of a time in which it was legitimate to believe such things, and distances our modern world from this ancient and backwards day (even the language celebrates the ‘progress’ of modernity).

Thus, this criticism of racism as ‘outdated’ gives racism the very thing it needs to lament: an imaginary world in which its unacceptable beliefs were permitted.  In placing racism in the ‘outdated’ past we give it the very thing that it needs; an imaginary space in which racism was not only allowed but believed in.  We simultaneously avoid dealing with the very modern presence of these problems by distancing our own world from them when in fact it can be our own modernity which creates this dangerous nostalgia for a different and even racist past.

What we see here is the danger that the World Cup functions as a celebration of modernity which actually benefits from the appearance of its ‘backwards’ past – since it is that which it celebrates itself as having progressed from – but which does not deal (except perhaps by a measly £65k fine) with its continuing role in our present.

Posted by Alfie Bown

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The Aesthetics of the Slowgoal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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The Imaginary World Cup

In her recent book The Problem with Pleasure, Laura Frost cites the following lament from film critic Iris Barry, described as ‘one of early cinema’s greatest advocates’: “I wish that the public could, in the midst of its pleasures, see how blatantly it is being spoon-fed, and ask for slightly better dreams.”  Frost’s intention in summoning Barry’s voice is to demonstrate that even in the most apparently hospitable of early 20th-century settings one could still find ‘modernism’s familiar double bind: [that] it must account for the fact that mass culture is enormously compelling but also a kind of false consciousness’. The escapist pleasures produced by mainstream cinema must not be dismissed out of hand as a mere instances of mass culture’s complicity with the status quo, for fear of doing violence to the historical specificity of this pleasure. All the same, critics like Barry saw in that popular escapism an ongoing dilution of the population’s imaginative faculties, suggesting a future of mediocrity and tedium for the new art of movies.

I have gestured elsewhere to ways in which the cultural politics of imagination as it relates to the game of football in its 20th- and 21st-century iterations might be broached. My thoughts on this subject were set in motion by a 1924 British Pathe newsreel, uploaded to YouTube as part of the archive’s recent grandstanding digitisation project, which depicts an edition of Alnwick’s annual shrovetide football game; and by the idea that this archaic branch of the football family might have developed along similar lines to its mass-mediatised brethren, visually and economically speaking. The critical force of this fantasy, I suggested, can be read in two conflicting directions: one can either imagine the sudden rambunctious arrival of flower-laden goalposts and carnivalesque stirrings into the world framed by a Ford Super Sunday broadcast, or one can picture the cosseting of subversive proletarian forces that would be required to fit the shrovetide game into the enclosures defined and maintained by the 21st-century capitalist image economy. The two imaginative scenarios suggest radically different fates, although it is quite possible to oscillate between the two, like the duck and the rabbit in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous illustration.

I was reminded of these ruminations when, trawling through my hard drive for some reason or another, I discovered a cache of documents related to a small pet project I had undertaken shortly after the close of the 2010 World Cup, and which to date I have only reluctantly shared with a select few. The project was this: I would simulate an entire World Cup, from the earliest qualifying rounds to the tournament final, using a random number generator to determine scores. I would, rather conservatively, input six as the highest possible value when setting the range of possible scores (I distinctly remember, on returning from Cub camp one summer, losing my shit over my brother and best friend after they decided to chalk up an 11-0 “win” for the fantasy team we all used to “play” for; ‘it’s just not realistic’, I told them), and would also limit my fantasy by retaining Brazil as hosts. I would draw groups using the same random number generator, following to the best of my knowledge FIFA’s protocols for seeding. I would not show any favour to England. My system was not as sophisticated as that of the titular protagonist in Robert Coover’s 1968 novel The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., but that was perhaps for the best. Coover’s narrative toggles between imaginative para-world of Waugh’s fantasy baseball league and the “real” grounding for these fantastical projections: Waugh is omniscient and ever-present in the comings and goings of his league but cuts a lonely figure rolling dice and poring over record sheets at his kitchen table. Though Waugh is able to sustain imaginative scenarios with admirable consistency and vividness, they are never extricable from the world outside his inner life: the novel’s events are in effect set in motion by the “death” of a promising second-generation rookie pitcher in a freak coming-together of rare dice rolls; the figure of the late Damon Rutherford comes to haunt the everyday fabric both of the Universal Baseball Association and the man who imaginatively maintains it. Coover’s novel stages a dramatic and increasingly knotty clash between chance, fantasy and “reality”, whatever one can say about that in this context.

My simulation would, in a more modest way, probe that space between the virtual and the real. Leaving aside the Waughesque chance derivation of scorelines, there is something about this project which is not too far removed from “real” football’s own negotiation of the virtual and the concrete. Behind the clashes at any tournament lies a definitively virtual, chance-derived act: the drawing of the groups. I have long found there to be a fascinating frisson in the coming-together of contingency and necessity that one finds at these events: as Frank Skinner once remarked when drawing identical black balls out of a bag to decide fixtures for some FA Cup round, “I’m deciding people’s travel plans here, aren’t I?” Tournament successes and failures, shifts in cultural narrative, the transfer of vast sums of money, all determined by a finger positioned an inch this way, an inch that way. The enjoyment of every tournament wallchart, I feel, rests on this  relationship between collective labour and the motiveless machinations of random fate. It is sweaty human effort that eventually compels us to put pen to paper, but until the tournament begins their blank spaces keep room open for imaginative projection. I can almost hear Clive Tyldesley’s portentious pronouncements as the green shirts of Cameroon emerge onto the field of the Maracanã alongside the red ones of Chile, and the ambivalent response of the largely-neutral crowd when the final turns out to be one of the most one-sided in history…

How Luke’s World Cup played out:

Luke Imaginary World Cup

Posted by Luke Healey

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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.

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

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

The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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

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Violence, Misery and the the Paradox of the Netherlands

It became visible, arguably, in the 2006 World Cup and that mad match with Portugal, and it seemed to have reached its greatest intensity in the modus operandi employed by the Netherlands to counter tiki-taka four years later in Johannesburg. Last night against Germany, however, the Dutch national side offered the greatest example to date of how their tradition of fluid, disinhibited football isn’t so much contradicted by an occasional resort to spoiling tactics and backroom squabbling as it is, conversely, sustained by those things according to a logic that’s weirdly similar to that of Slavoj Žižek’s notion of ‘objective violence’. That’s to say that Total Football is like so many other apparently progressive formulations of the sixties and seventies: the promise of openness, the vaunted dissolution of rigid positionalism into a semiotic free market of identifications, in fact opened the door to a different kind of deregulation premised surreptitiously on division and depression.

When there’s a spanner in the works with the Netherlands – when, for whatever reason, the fluency is arrested – a ‘true’ nature beyond the pseudoliberated football of Cruyff and Gullit is revealed. People talk about the Dutch tendency to ‘self-destruct’ as if it’s a mystery, but there’s also a good argument for saying that this occurs with such regularity precisely because of the pressure exerted upon them to be free and easy, to perform as hedonists. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner points out that the flair the great Netherlands sides are recalled for was actually always enforced – there’s a Jaap Stam behind every Dennis Bergkamp – but doesn’t, in his celebratory talk of the relationship between Total Football and postmodernist architecture, arrive at the realisation that there’s an absolute correlation between the giddy rush of decenteredness and the maintenance of hegemony.

In 2010, there was an element of self-loathing in the violence the Netherlands exerted in their efforts to claim the World Cup. This could be thought of as similar to the ethical ‘dilemma’ of the rebooted Bond movies with Daniel Craig: the kicking and shirt-pulling, the nudging and bodychecking, was all a means to achieve victory on behalf of the ‘better’ aesthetic of Total Football, just as Craig’s tormented Bond tortures and murders in the service of the conceptually-associated virtues of love and neoliberal ‘freedom’. It isn’t really them, but the content of that them can only be delivered through recourse to its opposite.

Last night, as in the dreadful perfomances they delivered in England in 1996, the other component of the occult part of the Netherlands’ footballing identity could be seen. Although Mark van Bommel and Jetro Willems both tried to invoke the niggling spirit of Johannesburg, the defeat to the Germans was more indicative of the incoherence – with its consequences of isolation and depression – that can emerge when an ideology is so heavily based around the release of the individual from restrictive systems. Wesley Sneijder’s pre-game statements of intent regarding bringing malcontent colleagues into line were rather undermined by the fact that, as is so often the case, he played much of the match in a Gerrard-like mindset dominated by the anticipation of reliving personal achievements. Every crack at goal seemed to be motivated by a desire to be able to spend a future looking back on heroics, rather than ability to provide for the team in the present of the match. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, played with his usual brand of troubled careerist aestheticism: once again, his talent seemed to be compromised by an overwhelming desire for its recognition.

In all likelihood, the Netherlands will go home at the end of the group stage. They face Portugal, a nation with a reasonably similar footballing identity, in a game they must win while hoping that Germany ease up against Denmark. Even if that does happen, they’ll need a swing in goal difference too, something which the resignation on Dutch faces come the final whistle last like suggests is unlikely. Once again, it feels like a contradiction, but their probably failure in the Ukraine is of exactly the same substance as many of their most admired triumphs.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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Group B: Raconteurs Reconvene

Almost exactly one hundred and ninety-six years ago, a good forty-seven non-seasons before the codification of the Laws of the Game, Percy and Mary Shelley were staying with their friend Lord Byron and physician John Polidori in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva. Due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year, 1816 was, to all extents and purposes, summerless. With the dismal weather making it impossible to hike or sail, the companions took to sitting around listlessly indoors, occasionally easing their frustration by reading aloud to one another. One night, inspired by excerpts from Tales of the Dead, they decided to hold a competition to see who could write the best horror story over the next few weeks. Reconvening eventually on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Mary dazzled the men with the skeleton of Frankenstein, and Byron told a tale about a vampire which – thanks to an act of gratuitous plagiarism by Polidori – evolved throughout the nineteenth century to become Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And Shelley? Well, according to the version I’ve heard, Shelley started telling a story about a woman who had eyes where her nipples should have been, then ran screaming from the room having frightened himself too much.

You’ve probably guessed from the title that this preamble is a slightly convoluted analogy for Group B. In a tournament arguably overstuffed with the competing football narratives of various nations, the Group of Death perhaps stands out in its surfeit of modern-day sporting mythologies. Germany, as SM pointed out at the weekend, come to Ukraine seeking to convince the world that its new story – of how the ugly winners of old deserve to become the world’s second team – has currency beyond the borders of the Bundesrepublik. Amongst other motivations, Portugal are desperate to demonstrate both that there is life beyond their (slightly staggered) Golden Generation and that Cristiano Ronaldo won’t become yet another of those great players who fail to claim a major international trophy. The Dutch want to correct the image of themselves the World Cup final of 2010 imprinted on the world’s footballing imagination and, as ever, need to add another successful instalment to their long-running saga with Germany. Denmark, as in every competition they’ve reached the finals of since 1992, unsettle opponents with their none-more improbale underdog tale.

After the weekend’s opening games, there’s a real chance that tonight could see eliminations in Group B. With this in mind, I feel I can stretch my metaphor a bit further. Germany are the Mary Shelley of the party. Youngest and with the best long-term prospects, their story is all about an internal antagonism between technocracy and expressiveness, and seeks some form of synthesis to its dialectic of science and nature. This resolution seemed some way off against Portugal, as a much-fancied team laboured to produce the aggressive counter-attack expected of them. In that match, there was something Byronic in the Portuguese performance – a moody railing against history overcast somehow with imtimations of the inevitability of doom. Harold Bloom would have been proud of them but it feels right now as if their story is destined to be heard only by its first audience.

Who, then, are Portugal’s Polidori? Denmark seem the obvious candidate. When the groups were drawn, it seemed as if they’d be the ones sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes as their more talented friends battled to create the perfect Märchen. However, there’s a good chance that the Danes could take those notes and produce something with far more longevity than the Portuguese fragment or the Dutch…well. The Dutch are Shelley, aren’t they? Not for the first time, they bring some spectacular talent to the tournament, but seem to have spooked themselves somewhere along the way. Given the number of chances they made on Saturday against Denmark, their failure to score is scarcely believable, and there’s now enormous psychological pressure on them to perform against their old rivals in Kharkiv tonight. Sadly for Van Persie and co, there appears to be a good chance that they’ll be the ones running out screaming.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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