Category Archives: Theory

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

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

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Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

In the reaction to England’s demise, a post-mortem that simultaneously went through the motions and was indulged with great joy (just listen to Chris Waddle’s almost gleeful “We will never, ever learn”), a general sense of proportion and perspective was missing. It is one we have a better chance of gaining now that the group stages are over and we can see in the cold reality of our wallcharts which teams have been successful and which haven’t.

Some, of course, were expected to do well, though it is notable how few of the fancied teams have had it all their own way. Germany, so impressive in the first game against Portugal, had to settle for a draw against Ghana. Only the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium have come through with 100% records, and of those the Netherlands were given a scare against Australia, Argentina needed a last-minute Messi wondergoal to beat Iran, while Belgium have not looked convincing in any of their games. Some of this might be the result of teams taking their foot off the gas for their final group game or making wholesale changes to the team – this was probably the case with France, who made six changes for their game against Ecuador. Of the fancied teams, Spain and Italy are out, Brazil have stumbled, Argentina have looked great because Messi is on form, but as the commentators in their match with Nigeria suggested, look “pretty ordinary” when he doesn’t play. Germany played a perfect game against Portugal and then slowed down a bit.

Allowing for the sparkle of the French and Dutch teams, perhaps the most impressive team thus far has been Colombia, who not only won all their games but have, at +7, the highest goal difference (equal with the Dutch). Their games finished 3-0, 2-1, 4-1. How have they been able to be this effective given they are missing Radamel Falcao, their best player? The answer, or at least part of it,  might be thought of in terms of dialectics. It’s worth roping in Chile here, who have been as remarkable as Colombia. Both of these nations have shown not only that they recognise the dialectical nature of a successful football team, but have been able to marshall the dialectic in different situations, of which Colombia’s loss of Falcao is the perfect example. Their ability to do this has been matched by England’s utter failure in the same regard.

Various reasons have been given for England’s failure: they’re not streetwise enough, they took too many young players, they were too attacking, they didn’t play Rooney in the right position, they couldn’t keep the ball properly, the central defence isn’t up to scratch, they didn’t do enough to entice John Terry back into the team, the Premier League isn’t allowing young English players to come through at the top clubs. All of these undoubtedly had some impact on the team’s showing, yet that very fact suggests that there’s something else, something larger, broader, more general, that they fit into. I think it’s England’s lack of dialectical understanding.

Not being streetwise enough is code for them not wasting time and disrupting the opposition’s rhythm by taking niggly fouls and slowing the game down. Yet this only works as a tactic if you have something positive to offer yourself in response. Being streetwise largely works to nullify an opponent, not give you the edge (unless you can con a referee into giving you a penalty). So while England clearly aren’t streetwise enough, for deeply embedded cultural reasons, they also weren’t brave enough. Some, though, said they were too brave, insofar as they went for an overly-attacking style that left their fragile defence too open. After the Uruguay game in particular, all the commentators seemed to have discovered that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka weren’t the best centre-half partnership. Chris Waddle suggested that England responded to criticism of their defensive play at Euro 2012 with attacking play at this World Cup. This is the lack of dialectics in a nutshell: one or the other rather than two in a mutually constitutive relationship with one another. Rather, then, than realising that a team can incorporate a certain streetwisdom (someone wondered why England didn’t try to kick Suarez’s dodgy knee) while also playing the direct, exciting counterattacking football that saw them score what was a pretty good goal against Italy, England half-heartedly concocted a plan to nullify Pirlo while hoping that Raheem Sterling could pull something out of the bag. If Sterling’s club manager, Brendan Rodgers, has displayed an admirable flexibility in altering his favoured possession game to better accommodate the counter-attacking prowess of Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, then England’s attempt to, in the words of one of the Radio 5 commentators, “copy Liverpool” says everything you need to know about the national team: rather than arriving at a game-plan based on the players available, the opposition, and a dialectical conception of a team, they’ll just Ctrl-C Ctrl-V thank you very much.

The argument about Rooney in between the first two games was also an example of un-dialectical thinking. Rooney is a great player, went one strand, so he can play anywhere. Rooney is our only world-class player, went another, so he should play in his best position. No-one, anywhere, talked about the team, at least not until it was too late. Yes, Rooney is a great player, but football is a team sport. This is something both Chile and Colombia have realised. We might have said before the tournament that Chile have a couple of outstanding – though not world-class – players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez; we would probably have said that because those are the two players we know from the Champions League. They have both been excellent, yet even if the Chileans themselves think of this pair in these terms, their game-plans suggest otherwise, or at least suggest that Vidal’s and Sanchez’s abilities can be best utilised – can, perhaps, only be utilised – as part of a coherent collective unit. Colombia offer an even more stark example: they lose their best player before the tournament, which you might think would force them to adopt a more team-minded approach, rather than just relying on Falcao, but what is most remarkable about them is that that team approach, which asks more of the collective in the absence of their main talent, has allowed for individual talent to emerge from it in the form of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. What made the Rooney debate such an infuriating one was its simultaneous proximity and distance to this kind of conception of team sport. Commentators talked incessantly of how Rooney should fit into the team but without a sense that the question involves not just what Rooney can bring to the team but also how the team can help Rooney. The debate is not about whether Rooney or Sterling is ‘better’ in the number 10 role, but how their respective individual-nesses and the collective relate to one another in service of the goal of winning the game.

Unfortunately for England, this lack of dialectical thinking is endemic and extends to the relationship between club and country and that between youth and age not just within the first team itself but between that first team, youth teams and youth development. You could argue it’s also present in patriotic politicians pulling funding for grassroots sports facilities while bidding for World Cups and Olympic Games. There’s a certain defensive rigidity that comes from constant failure and constant pressure, and I’m sure that has contributed to the failure of the national team at this tournament. Yet that pressure itself seems partly to exist to shore up the crumbling foundation of a national footballing identity. There has been quite a bit of talk about this in recent days, with references to the current Belgian team and other European sides who have decided on a way of playing and put that into practice at all levels of the game, from under-10s up to the adult first team. The problem, commentators say, with doing that in England is that those who would be tasked with doing so are incapable of settling on a way of playing. If we’ve finally accepted the antiquated nature of the old favourite 4-4-2, these commentators say, do we play 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or even three centre-backs? How can we answer that, they say, if we don’t know if we want to play a possession-based game or a counter-attacking game? And if we can’t answer that, they say, how do we put practical measures in place, like getting kids to play on smaller pitches to encourage their ball-skills and possession, or focusing on their first touch and movement for counter-attacking?

The attractiveness of those national set-ups where all levels of the game play the same way – Spain being the most obvious recent example – comes less from the methods themselves than the success they have engendered. I balk a little at asking someone at the FA to decide on how English national teams will play for evermore, and balk even more at then asking the same person to implement that plan across the country. I also suspect that the lack of loose, reflexive, dialectical thinking that I’ve been talking about here would be absent, and that a familiar rigidity would gain legitimisation with the addition of some sort of national blue-print; no matter how many times England lost in the group stages, there would be those pointing to the plan and advocating sticking to it. No, what English football needs to discover is a greater suppleness, something displayed the other night against Ivory Coast by none other than the Greeks, who have perfected the limited art of defending en masse and sneaking 1-0 wins since they one-nilled all the way to glory in Euro 2004. Not only do they play defensively, but they’ve been doing so for eight years! If ever there were an example of footballing rigidity, this would surely be it. What then, to make of the sight of Giorgos Karagounis smacking the bar with a thirty-yard pile-driver, or the attacking verve that led them to hit the woodwork in the first half, or the pressing that led to their first goal? I don’t know. It’s possible they’ll go back to their defensive ways in the next round against Costa Rica, and go home. But can you imagine a similar suppleness of mind and change of character in the England team?

Posted by Mark West

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

Football with the commentary off

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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.

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 Suárez’s Bite and Zidane’s Headbutt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Tristan Burke

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

Thrice Bitten: Suarez and Football’s Unspeakable Masochism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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.

 

A Historiography of Decline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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

Goals v the New Art History

Goals. So many of them. So many we’re wondering when it all stops and reverts to the type set four years ago in South Africa (as I put the finishing touches on this piece I’m witnessing Nigeria drawing nil-nil with Iran. Maybe it stops now). Good ones, excellent ones, scuffed ones, ambiguous ones, ghost ones with Giovanni dos Santos’ ‘offsides’ and Raheem Sterling’s near-miss, Only four teams out of twelve at time of writing have failed to score, a sign of their utter abjection in this tournament. I’ve just watched Germany and Thomas Muller put four and three past Portgual respectively. I’m getting used to the feel of writing “3” on my wallchart. All of this you know.

In White Angels: Beckham, the Real Madrid, and the New Football, John Carlin’s account of the first galáctico era at the Bernabéu, we are invited to share in the following fantasy:

Hundreds of years from now museum visitors will stand in reverent silence before the collected works of Zinedine Zidane. They will admire video sequences of goals the French master scored, supreme among which will be the volley from the edge of penalty area to roof of net that won Real Madrid the European Cup against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow. But connoisseurs of the ancient discipline, future footballing PhD’s, may form a more lasting attachment to the rarer points of Zidane’s art; they may be more taken by the subtleties of his cushioned first touch, more entranced by the great goals that never were.

As an Art Historian writing a kind of “footballing PhD”, I’m intrigued by the topography of this imaginary scenario. What would an academic discipline which took goals as its most sterotypical object of study look like? Carlin’s model is connoisseurial, like the model of scholarship which was rejected by the post-stucturalist inspired “New Art History” from the 1970s onwards (but not, it should be mentioned, by subsequent generations of students, who in 2014 still appear in the main to want to “rhapsodise over Titian”, as a nameless colleague put it). Carlin’s Football History seems to want to abstract goals from their essential context, though in this it is only following the contours of folk wisdom as far as goals are concerned: “goals” tend to be discussed in abstracted terms, for the sake of convenience.

Mario Balotelli’s scoring header against England on Saturday was, in the most expedient sense, Mario Balotelli’s goal, but to get a true measure of what transpired in that passage of play one would also have to consider the goal as in part “belonging” to Antonio Candreva, who was responsible for the ball occupying the particular area of space from which Balotelli plucked it, to the goalkeeper who didn’t make it across his line in time, and so on. But no, we’ll attribute the goal to Balotelli, because the “performative authorial focus” (this phrase is borrowed from Giampaolo Bianconi, who uses it in a quite different context) usually suffices as an explanatory principle. In this, goals are a lot like paintings – as Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood reflect in their book Anachronic Renaissance, the tendency to consider historic artworks which were the product of a master’s workshop, not to say the social and historic context of their time, as the creation of lone, named individuals ‘raises a protest against the powerful and perhaps finally irrefutable thesis that agency can never really be localized but is instead always dispersed across a field of persons and events.’ Here, for once, it’s Balotelli that gets to be Giotto.

One can critique all one wishes, but the fact is that when goals are flying in from all corners rhapsody is inevitable. What’s more, this World Cup hasn’t only seen a glut of goals, but there have been goals the likes of which I don’t feel I’ve ever seen before (there’s another tick on the New Art History’s list of critical canards – the myth of originality). Robin van Persie’s header against Spain is a given – the reproducibility of that “flying Dutchman” posture indicates that something unprecedented had happened, that van Persie had found a new way to get a looping header to rise and dip just so. Keisuke Honda’s goal against Ivory Coast is another treasure: I love the sense that slow-motion replays of the goal give of an absolutely precipitous sense of balance, the rag-doll physics of that strike. Haris Seferović‘s injury-time winner against Ecuador makes up my holy trinity of the tournament so far: the near-Benjamin Massing level of violence in that tackle on Valon Behrami, the way he rolls through it and comes out the other end as if nothing had happened, the whipped crosses and the roof-of-the-net finish: if Carlin’s fantasies ever come to pass, I hope this relative obscurity receives the scholarly attention it’s due.

Posted by Luke Healey

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Football: ‘The sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity’

Guy Debord, dead French drinker and theorist of the spectacular nature of contemporary capitalist society, never wrote about football, at least to any significant extent. He liked games, play and war, but it’s a pretty safe bet that, if he hadn’t shot himself in 1994, he wouldn’t be settling down in front of the TV with a multipack of Budweiser, a bagful of McDonalds, whistling Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull under his breath while readying himself for a month-long fiesta of sexy branded football. Debord, in fact, saw such high-profile competitive sport, even before the brand takeover, as merely propagating a meagre, but deeply addictive, distraction from the incessant march of the capitalist spectacle in which all relationships have been superseded, nay completely replaced, by their simulacra. In Debord’s slipstream, the World Cup can only ever be an insidious distraction or a false opposition, one that prevents radical play, critical thought and, ultimately, the possibility of real, practical change through revolution.

Maybe, though, we can lazily (drunkenly, even) extend Debord’s critique in La Société du spectacle, his distain for the spectacular nature of enormo-sport as an ‘interminable série des affrontements dérisoires’ [‘endless series of trivial confrontations’] to help us describe the state of commercial, international football as it exists today. What could be more appropriate as a description of the global football machine than his conception of the spectacle as ‘le mauvais rêve de la société modern enchainée, qui n’exprime finalement que son désir de dormir’ [‘the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep’]? We are consistently reminded that football is a ‘way of life’, one that ‘brings people together’ and, in particular that ‘the world celebrates as one at the World Cup’. This may well be the case, but the World Cup as an institution, or as a process, is also a clear assertion of football carnival as an acute symptom of the broader alienating contemporary spectacle.

Consider, for example, Debord’s famous aphorism that ‘Le spectacle est le capital à un tel degré d’accumulation qu’il devient image’ [‘The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image’]. The glitzy, mediatised entertainment showcase of grinning, family-friendly, expensive replica shirts, Lopez-jigging, exorbitant ticket prices and multi-millionaires in shorts running around after a ball is surely a perfect illustration of such compressed capital. I’m reminded of Daisy Buchanan in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby: just like her, football is purely distilled dosh. But, while it presents the collaborative participation of the rainbow nations of global peoples, just like the over-arching spectacle noted by Debord, it also engenders silent submission, it can again be pertinently described as ‘le soleil qui ne se couche jamais sur l’empire de la passivité moderne. Il recouvre toute la surface du monde et baigne indéfiniment dans sa proper gloire’ [‘the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory’], a system that could only produce a figure as hopelessly unironic and glitzily banal as Christiano Ronaldo.

Rather than uniting people, the World Cup as televised spectacle leaves us slumbering alone in our armchairs, or hunched over our computers in our alienated loneliness, scrabbling for shitty Internet streams. In turn, Sepp Blatter hunches over a succession of spreadsheets and marketing guidelines, litigiously threatening the big and the small who dare to even mention the hallowed words ‘World Cup’ without coughing up the wonga. There will be no free rides.

Can there be any hope in this age of immersive football spectacle where total submission to the paternalistic tyranny of Blatter and his drones is commanded, is there any alternative other than depressed, Debordian suicide, or at least nihilistically-hard drinking? The answer, gloriously, exhuberantly and brilliantly is a resounding ‘YES’ and it comes from deep within football itself. The way is pointed by writers and translators Jethro Soutar and Tim Girven, founders of the newly-launched not-for-profit publishers Ragpicker Press. Soutar and Girven’s first project has been to edit and publish The Football Crónicas, birthed via crowdfunding, a collection of writing about football from South America, bringing together both creative long form non-fiction (crónicas) and a gilding of short stories. It is a collection that rejects the tropical clichés imposed from abroad on football in the continent. As Soutar has suggested:

When foreigners write about Latin America, they typically succumb to cliché and hyperbole: ‘the whole country came to a standstill’, ‘kids playing with oranges in backstreets’ etc… Latin American writers don’t do this, though they are acutely aware of the power football holds over their continent; that football often throws up the best stories and that by writing about football they can tap into the good, the bad and the ugly of life where they live

Soutar is underselling his project a little here. As a collection, The Football Crónicas is about more than using football as a tool or to tell us about life in Chile, Bolivia or, say, Peru from where some if it writers hail. It is also a celebration of the capacity of football itself to do just that. Soutar and Girven have been careful to eschew explicit reference to the World Cup, perhaps through fear of being S.Blattered, but the collection is an intelligent and engaging riposte to what I have read above as Debord’s bad football dream.

What the most successful pieces here have in common is their insistence on some kind of community, one that challenges Debord’s idea of an ‘empire de la passivité moderne’. In ‘The Goal in the Back of Beyond’, a piece that recounts a crucial league match for Club Bolívar in the Bolivian league from the sidelines, Mario Murillo stresses the pseudo-spiritual togetherness of the players and speculates, ‘If I’m ever to find God, doubtless it will be in a football dressing room before a match’. In a similar, but very different manner, Alberto Salcedo Ramos, in ‘Queens Football’, brings to life Las Regias, a Columbian transexual football team whose members soccer brings together with an alternative to the preordained ghettoisation of prostitution and hairdessing, in doing so posing profound questions about queer rights in  Cali, the country’s third most important city. ‘The Goal-Begetting Women of the Andes’ sees Marco Avilés explores both women’s football, and the crucial societal role of the sport in a remote village in the Peruvian Andes, wondering if it is ‘the sport that best allows us to understand our world? Is the game capable of bridging the extremes of human experience, ironing out disparities and turning them into goal tallies?’. I also particularly enjoyed ‘Congressman Romário: Big Fish in the Aquarium’, Clara Becker’s consideration of Romário de Souza Faria’s unlikely trajectory from international striker to socialist politicition with a particular commitment to securing the societal inclusion of disabled people. Equally, Juan Pablo Meneses’s ‘A Grenade for River Plate’ (available here at The White Review), an insider account of a trip by bus with the Los de Abajo, the worst hooligans in Chile, to see their team take on the loathed Argentinian neighbours in Buenos Aries is a hell of a read. Tension is added, as the title suggests by the presence of a live hand-grenade on the bus.

There are three engaging short stories here as well, but these might have been better served in a stand-alone volume, and hopefully we will see a fiction-centric follow-up. As its name suggests, this collection is really about the crónicas. The crónica is a subversive genre, an implicitly rebellious one in the age of official World Cup tweets, santised soundbites and snappy, approved content. This collection is a reminder than football itself can be empowering, rebellious and life-affirmingly inclusive – recalling Debord’s beloved ‘play’ – and that we can use football against the overarching football spectacle as managed by Fifa. The way through football is football. Sepp Blatter doesn’t want you to read this book. Guy Debord, on the other hand, positively demands it.

Posted by Russell Williams

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

A Referee-less World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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