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

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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

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Notes on Fallout

So, despite my making the cavalier declaration that the combination of results needed for England to survive in the World Cup post-Uruguay did ‘not strike me as impossibly unlikely’, the inappropriately nicknamed Three Lions are mathematically out of the tournament. After a weekend of press coverage which was, at least in the broadsheets, largely sympathetic to Roy Hodgson and his players, the recriminations are beginning. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst of spite has been Harry Redknapp, a man incredibly popular with tabloid journalists because he’s a bit like Terry Venables in his bloke-selling-perfume-on-Dagenham-market charm and also because he tends to answer their calls. Redknapp’s take on the weird – both enervated and over-hasty – performances in Manaus and São Paulo was that perhaps some of the team didn’t want to be there, a notion he backed up by claiming that, during his tenure at Tottenham, a number of his English players asked their manager to withdraw them from the national squad. The consequent uproar has offered us yet another insight into the intersection of football’s small-p politics and ‘real’ political ideology.

To begin with, there’s the story of what is happening beneath the surface of Redknapp’s apparently ‘helpful’ disclosure. The relationship between the QPR boss and Roy Hodgson could not be more Shakespearean if it were staged on a balcony in Verona, written in iambic pentameter and grossly misunderstood by the National Curriculum. In one corner, you have the incumbent leader, a benign if occasionally gauche man who reads European literature in his spare time and cheers his young followers with legitimate space tales. In the other, you have the (alleged) popular choice, his route to the throne blocked by what he takes to be conspiracy, consumed by the rage of his embittered sense of entitlement. With Hodgson having his job guaranteed by the FA in the wake of the Uruguay game, it is hard not to suspect that Redknapp is attempting a Iagovian coup-by-insecurity.

Hodgson and Steven Gerrard have responded intelligently to what might well be an act of provocation. Gerrard in particular has found a skillful way of walking the line between humouring Redknapp and letting him know that, however annoying it is to have him pissing into the tent, he’s not going to be given an opportunity to micturate out of it. By asking for the names of those who attempted to avoid England ‘duty’, the captain is, I think, offering up the suggestion that the would-be deserters simply don’t exist other than as fabrications in a more pernicious agenda. I have it on pretty reliable authority that some players find playing for England in friendlies a bit of an inconvenience at times, but this in no way proves Redknapp’s allegations. Moreover, why shouldn’t players find international games – particularly the utterly meaningless trips to shit-at-football-but-very-wealthy countries that the FA send the squad to as part of their interminable branding campaign and the games scheduled for no reason other than to repay the cost of rebuilding Wembley – tedious?

The assumption that Redknapp’s stirring will live or die by is that all footballers are unquestioningly patriotic. I’d dispute this. When we see them belting out the national anthem or doing one of those ludicrous pride-and-passion pre-match space-fillers, I suspect that patriotism is something which is used as a focal point for team-mindedness, a node for professional success. One does find the occasional Siniša Mihajlović or Zvonimir Boban for whom nation-love is clearly a very real and visceral thing, but I’d hazard a guess that for the average international footballer patriotism is a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch share their blood-and-soil mentality: for the most part, footballers focus themselves out of any formal political identification (it’s rarely pointed out as it destroys the depiction of players as asininely nationalistic, but the Mihajlovićs are outliers on the right just as much as the Graeme le Sauxs and Pat Nevins are on the left). Presenting footballers as purely patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about the politics of the working class from which they are almost unanimously drawn, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the proles as borderline fascists (which would make socialism into an illegitimate bourgeois charade).

This links tellingly to the stories society tells itself about the army. While the majority who join are motivated by the route military service offers out of poverty – hence the similarities in geographical origin between infantry soldiers and international footballers – the narrative is that they do so for the patria. In one fell swoop, the shame of Britain’s socio-economic inequality is masked and its ridiculous, disastrous post-imperial wars touched up with affective ‘credibility’. The logic is that war can’t be a crime against the poor because the poor like going to war, as if patriotism in the Forces isn’t largely a case of having to locate some structure for coping (this is implicitly shown to be the case in various works by reporters embedded in the US military during the War on Terror, notably Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and Sebastian Junger’s War. Geoff Dyer’s recent account of time spent on an American aircraft carrier drops heavy hints in the same direction. Clearly, you don’t have to be a Marxist hardliner to believe expediency is the basis for a significant proportion of enlistments.)

And so, having drawn my own analogy between football and the military, it’s time to turn to the terminally nonsensical – and that’s putting it politely – Ian Wright. If there’s a league table of footballers making inappropriate interventions in affairs, Wright would vie at the top with Paul Gascogine turning up at a siege with a can of lager and a fishing rod for ‘Moaty’. The former Arsenal striker and present-day useful idiot declared in today’s Sun that players who tried to dodge an international call-up should be forced to ring the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to shirk. There’s plenty of grimly funny imaginings of this doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, so I’ll decline the opportunity to add my own and simply point to the fact that this is yet more evidence of how football is being used as one vector in the increasing militarisation of British society. Most recent tournaments (those that have supplied a victory) have found their UK TV coverage adorned with cutaways to Our Boys enjoying the game with non-alcoholic beers at Camp Bastion as a respite from ‘holding off the Taliban’, and then there’s the way that the FA Cup draw seems no longer the preserve of a monotone Graham Kelly but of serving Forces personnel. You’re more likely to find discounted tickets being offered to soldiers than to the unemployed nowadays, which is pretty instructive if you want to think about how the Tories have capitalised on Blair’s wars to cloak their vicious-as-fuck austerity drive in a miasma of nationalistic sentiment. Remember the poppies-on-shirts debate and the EDL’s protest on a Zurich rooftop? It’s all that all over again.

As I’ve said above, I think Gerrard and Hodgson have played pretty cutely so far. There does, however, need to be a louder voice asking why a player should be asked to feel a certain way about representative sport and what it means ideologically that they so frequently are. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with a player taking pride in turning out for their childhood team than with them pontificating about the moral obligation to want to play for one’s country. Last year, my team Darlington won the regional Northern League, the first step – I hope – on the road back to the Conference, from which bankruptcy had exiled them. Forced to rely on cheap local talent, the Quakers fielded a Darlo fan, Steve Johnson, in a crucial top-of-the-table away match against Spennymoor. After a 3-1 victory, Johnson headed to the travelling fans to reveal a t-shirt which read, in an homage to and bettering of Mario Balotelli’s, ‘Why Always Us?’ That‘s solidarity.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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Germany and the Semantics of Position

Watching Germany v Portugal last Monday raised some interesting questions about our perceptions of positioning in football. This is not meant strictly in a tactical sense but more in the way we classify players. FIFA states that a final squad of 23 must be submitted for the tournament, with the only stipulation that it must include three goalkeepers. Beyond that, players are listed as “defenders, midfielders and attackers”. However, do we define this by their shirt numbers, their previous performances, the formation they are placed in or by the space in which they operate on the pitch?

Germany offered several good opportunities to explore these questions. Philip Lahm has been the tactical writers’ dream this year, a player who had made a career as a full-back capable of playing on the left or right before his redevelopment as a midfielder last season under Pep Guardiola. Such is Lahm’s versatility, we could label him a defender and a midfielder. He has become so competent in his new holding role that it no longer seems fair to describe as a full-back playing out of position. Thus, through time and a process of reinvention, Lahm has become Bayern Munich and Germany’s Renaissance man, whose sheer ability and intelligence have allowed him to retain his utility at the highest level. Lahm represents Leon Battista Alberti’s humanist maxim that “a man can do all things if he will.”

In the defence itself, Joachim Löw’s decision to field four centre-backs raised eyebrows. This is where the debate between past experience and future deployment comes into play. Here, Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng, who normally play as centre-backs, were placed on the left and right respectively. It seemed an odd line-up but as the game developed, Boateng showed great resilience in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo under wraps. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise as he has experience playing as a right back, but the extent which it does demonstrates the significance that is easily placed on primary positions.

Boateng has been typecast to a certain extent as more of a central defender and because we associate a particular set of attributes to that position (namely height, heading, strength etc.), it seems unusual that he should be able to deputise so well in another one. Löw would disagree though, as when Mats Hummels came off injured he brought another ‘centre back’ on in Shkodran Mustafi who filled in at right back, with Boateng moving into the centre.

Even Manuel Neuer stretches our perceptions of what a goalkeeper is. He is a great example of a ‘sweeper keeper’, often seen playing well up the pitch, and is a thoroughly modern footballer. Not only is he an expert shot-stopper, his distribution allows Germany quick and calculated build-up from the back. As mentioned above, the only stipulation within World Cup squad is that three goalkeepers are named. Here we have a slight complication. Neuer is different from the rest of his XI because as a goalkeeper he is allowed to use his hands; yet simultaneously he is a key part of Germany’s outfield play, the foundation from where many attacks begin.

In 2010, North Korea famously tried to manipulate the rules by naming an extra striker as a goalkeeper. The gamble backfired with FIFA ruling that he would only be allowed to feature in goal and not outfield. These rules seem a little draconian. Rarely is the third goalkeeper called upon and it would perhaps be fairer to consider the position as simply the man wearing the gloves rather than a fixed role. There are plenty of instances of outfield players going in goal, with some (like Glenn Hoddle) doing it on multiple occasions. Additionally, lest we forget, David James was thrown on as a target man under Stuart Pearce for Manchester City in 2005, while the likes of René Higuita and José Luis Chilavert were set-piece specialists who scored at international level. The boundaries between goalkeepers and outfield players needn’t be as concrete as they are often thought of as being.

Back to Germany though, and perhaps the most telling part of this performance was Löw’s use of the ‘false nine’ system. With a three-pronged attack of Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil and Mario Gotze, Germany looked threatening even when Portugal had 11 men, despite the absence of an out-and-out centre forward. As Seb Crankshaw points out in his recent piece on refereeing, football is a game and therefore, “nothing but a simplified system defined by rules”. As long as we adhere to these rules, the rest is up to the coaches and the players to interpret this system as they see fit. Whether Löw is an innovator or simply a pragmatist is open to debate, but his interpretation of the game certainly merits discussion.

What is particularly likeable about this increasingly popular Germany side is the emphasis on the whole over the individual. Indeed, it seems that they have finally transcended the era of the übermensch. At various points during Germany’s recent history, it has felt like the side has been carried by a supreme individual. Matthäus, Klinsmann, Sammer, Ballack and Klose have all assumed this role at some point and it was the ‘super’ qualities of these players that made Germany perennial challengers. Now Germany play like more of a team, emphasised by the egalitarian false nine system that does not place the focus on any one player but rather relies on a co-operative and fluid style to be most effective. This is of course in complete contrast to the Ronaldo-centric model of Portugal.

While Muller was in fact the star against Portugal, he is far less assuming than most cast in that narrative role are. His technique is an especially unique one; his beauty is in his graft, his effectiveness derived from his sheer relentlessness. He is not always pleasing on the eye but after Monday’s hat-trick he already has seven World Cup goals to his name at the age of 24. Last year, the German press dubbed him the Raumdeuter (‘space investigator’), a fantastic description of Muller’s distinctive capabilities. As the player most adept at finding and exploiting space on the pitch, he is the embodiment of this shape-shifting side. Mehmet Scholl commented after the game that he “is not a false 9, he’s a crazy 13”, a fitting tribute to Muller.

Spain’s dramatic exit has left a power vacuum in world football and Germany look like one of the strongest European contenders to fill it.  Built on the nucleus of the exciting 2010 side, these players are maturing together and should be reaching their peak at just the right time. Germany will always be there and thereabouts at International competitions, but Löw’s model of co-operative efficiency makes this World Cup an achievable target.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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Del Bosque, Der Zorn Gottes

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Grant Holdsworth

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The Doublethink of England

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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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

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‘The Last Game’: Nike’s simulated critique

I recall a comment made in a talk by Mark Fisher to the effect that if Capitalism doesn’t want to appropriate your cultural critique, it isn’t a critique worthy of the name. I was reminded of this line recently on seeing Nike’s World Cup-oriented promotional film ‘The Last Game’, produced by the communications company Wieden & Kennedy as part of a wider viral campaign. This 8-minute online animation, which features in the commercial breaks for World Cup broadcasts in truncated form – a trailer for an advert – contains and to some extent exorcises a prominent critique of modern football. Namely, that it is overly-reliant on an ideology of technological progression to the detriment of its fundamental accessibility and humanity, that its drive towards ever-increasing optimisation of elite performance is a betrayal of the game’s ludic spirit and critical proletarian open-endedness.

You’ll most likely have seen the clip by now, but just to recap: a Willem Defoe lookalike supervillain uses his presumably vast R&D budget to clone multiple copies of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, David Luiz and, more jarringly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribery and Tim Howard (saying nothing of Wayne Rooney’s persistent presence in these “world’s best” spots); the supposed superiority of these clones is based on a view of football which places undue privilege on analytics, like a hyperattenuated version of Billy Beane’s sabermetrics: real elite footballers take too many risks, so the reasoning goes, and need to be subjected to ruthless standardisation. Out go eccentricity, frailty and wilfulness and in come identikit pudding-bowl haircuts and grey bodysuits and a more economical rate of return. The result is a flat, drab, dystopian version of the ‘futuristic fantasy-land of zero-error gameplanning and cerebrative-calculationist techno-mastery’ that, for Ahmer Nadeem Anwer, represents one aspirational pole of football’s current historical situation. So Willem Dafoe goes on to reinscribe football in his boring image before, in a familiar deus ex machina scenario, the real Neymar, Rooney and so on are plucked from their new day jobs by “fat” Ronaldo and brought together for “one last game”, whose result will decide the fate of their sport.

It’s worth pausing a moment on the dystopian vision that the clip presents, and taking a brief detour into two works with which it is more-or-less comparable. A 1997 Reebok ad entitled Doppelganger: the true story of Ryan Giggs, hinges similarly on the idea of football’s future being stolen by cloning technology, only the aesthetics are markedly different. In an oddly prescient fantasy, Manchester City are controlled by a ruthless old moneybags with a knack for experimental financial doping (his cigar, top hat and name, Reginald Backhander, indicate that we’re dealing with a more tradition image of monopolisers here). Using spit from various legends of the game – George Best, Geoff Hurst, Lev Yashin – Backhander has produced a number of doppelgangers and signed them up to play in sky blue. In the ad’s syuzhet, Ryan Giggs has subsequently been captured and subjected to the same fate. What distinguishes this from the Nike spot is that the clones are monstrous idiots. When introduced to his original counterpart, the cloned Giggs stares gormlessly into space and farts. This sense of debasement is reflected in the animation’s lumpen clay textures. Biotechnology threatens football, but the stakes are construed quite differently.

There’s a similar sense of biotechnology’s capacity for, or perhaps tendency towards, grotesque results in Jon Bois’s two series of articles for SBNation, Breaking Madden and NBA Y2K. Here, the “edit” sections of popular American sports simulations – the Madden NFL and NBA Y2K series – provide a means for engineering freakish automata. In the finale of NBA Y2K, Bois constructs an oddly poignant scenario in which each successive annual draft from the 2013-14 NBA season onwards is peopled entirely with players whose stats and attributes are as low as the game will allow. The narrative that Bois constructs around the league’s subsequent dwindling fortunes over a twenty year period strikes a similar chord with The Last Game‘s depiction of football’s short, sharp slide into irrelevance, although it is much, much funnier.

Unlike Bois’s rather Beckettian piece, The Last Game ultimately has a happy ending, premised on Nike’s current strapline, “Risk Everything”. David Luiz’s risky goal-line clearance, Neymar’s dribble-with-selfie, Ronaldo’s rejection of a clear shot on goal with the quip ‘no, it’s too easy’: all these moments invite us to reflect on how football’s true appeal lies in its its lack of economy. Games are fundamentally wasteful, and the less terse the style of play, the closer football is to its roots. As Fat Ronaldo emotes to his charges, “you play like it’s a game; they play like it’s a job”. One could thus be forgiven for finding within this advert a critique of the game’s professionalisation (which critique would not – I say this as a fan of Rugby League – be unproblematic), before you take into account the spot’s central personages, its lingering glances at the latest Nike footwear, and this reading becomes less tenable. A critique which could serve to support interest in football’s grass-roots is instead mobilised as a means of reinvesting privileges in its moneyed stars. But it remains the case that The Last Game has assimilated or appropriated some of that sentiment which rails against excessive abstraction of football’s elements, against tactocracy, against the handling of football clubs as business ventures. And here Mark Fisher’s lines come into focus, alongside a passage from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 opus The New Spirit of Capitalism which beautifully explicates Fisher’s notion. Against all my academic better judgement, I quote them here at length, without comment, and by way of conclusion:

A second effect of critique is that, in opposing the capitalist process, it compels its spokesmen to justify that process in terms of the common good. And the more violent and convincing the critique for a large number of people, the more the justifications advanced in response will have to be combined with reliable mechanisms that guarantee a positive improvement in terms of justice. If those who speak for social movements make do, in response to their demands, with superficial declarations that are not followed by concrete actions (empty words, as they say); if the expression of finer feelings suffices to calm indignation, then there is no reason for improving the mechanisms that are supposed to render capitalist accumulation more in keeping with the common good. And when capitalism is obliged to respond positively to the points raised by critique, to try to placate it and maintain the support of its troops, who are in danger of listening to the denunciations, by the same gesture it incorporates some of the values in whose name it was criticized. The dynamic impact of critique on the spirit of capitalism here takes the form of a strengthening of the justifications and associated mechanisms which, while it does not challenge the principle of accumulation itself, or the need for profits, partially satisfies the critique and integrates into capitalism constraints that correspond to the points of most concern to its detractors. The price paid by critique for being listened to, at least in part, is to see some of the values it had mobilized to oppose the form taken by the accumulation process being placed at the service of accumulation, in accordance with the process of cultural assimilation referred to above.

Posted by Luke Healey

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Scotland, Independence and ABE

 

In years past, both Andy Murray and Gordon Brown have been placed into difficulty regarding the England national football team.

In 2006, Murray received hate mail on the BBC website after saying that he would be supporting “anyone but England” (ABE) at the World Cup in Germany that year. Coming from a sporting Scot, this is pretty unsurprising – most English people would presumably assume Scots don’t want England to win – but given Murray’s ploughing of the lone farrow of “British” tennis excellence, this worryingly rebellious (if honest) streak had to be quashed. One wit let it be known on the BBC’s website that they would be supporting “anyone but Murray” at Wimbledon (possibly before they realised the dearth of more unproblematically “British” players that had any chance of getting past the first round).

Then in 2007, Brown exhibited the anxiousness and clumsiness that was to accompany his prime ministership when he tried to pre-empt the kind of criticism Murray received by suggesting in a conversation about England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup that he’d like “the host” to win. As the BBC reported: “Asked then who he wanted to win the World Cup, Mr Brown replied: “I think the host.” When asked “Not Scotland?”, the Chancellor replied: “Well, of course, I want Scotland to do well, but let’s just see how it all works out.”” Potentially worried that this reflected a rather pessimistic attitude toward Scotland’s chances at a hypothetical tournament, and smarting from Alex Salmond’s accusation that he had “completely lost the plot,” Brown later clarified his “ideal scenario”: “Scotland play England in the final and Scotland win.””

These examples bespeak a closer and more ignorant – at least on the part of the English – relationship between England and Scotland, one hardly (then) thought about save on occasions of sporting rivalry like this. The relationship between the two countries seems a lot different now. England has been forced to learn – and think – more about Scotland, even if the prevailing attitudes are still imbued with faint bemusement; Scotland wants more and more to differentiate itself from England. If Scotland will hold an independence referendum in less than four months time, David Cameron’s Westminster government seems a lot more English than Blair’s Labour one did, which featured, in addition to Brown, the Scots Alistair Darling, John Reid and Robin Cook, among others. Cameron’s Englishness is so much the type that Scots dislike – loud-voiced, ignorant, un-self-aware, Southern – that differences which may be quite small (his cabinets have featured Glasgow Tories Liam Fox and Lord Strathclyde) are amplified. That’s not to mention the very real political differences between the Cameron government and the vast majority of Scottish people; the Scottish Government is actively engaged in sabotaging (or mitigating, if you prefer) some of Cameron’s most hated policies.

If in 2010 a shop in Aberdeen was visited by police on account of its reportedly “racist” ABE t-shirts, will similar sentiments arise at this World Cup, spurred on by the independence referendum in September?

It is hard to say. My immediate sense is that the referendum, rather than creating a space in which all sorts of nationalist blather can ooze out, is actually showing it up for the silliness it always was. My impression – cybernats and former Secretary Generals of NATO notwithstanding –  is that the debate about the referendum really has been about the issues and about politics, but also – and more inspiringly – about what sort of country we want to make and to live in. It is distinctly different to the drudgery and conspicuous lack of choice in a general election. In this context, in which the entire country is having a serious, engaged and optimistic conversation with itself about what it wants to be, ABE seems a remnant of a different age (just like those Labour governments). As my friend Ciaran said when I asked him about it, “my support for Independence comes less from a patriotic sense [than] a political perspective.” ABE has something of the pre-2008 crash about it, a negative (in the photographic sense) reflection of the boorish culture that surrounded the “golden”-WAGS-Eriksson (and, dare I say, it New Labour) generation of ten years ago. Today’s squad has largely moved on from those figures, and the ones that are left – Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard – are the more introspective and palatable members. John Terry has retired from international football, David Beckham from all football, and there is not a robot dance to be seen. Instead we have “the Studge” and a host of much more likeable players – Danny Welbeck, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain et al all seem like fine upstanding young gentlemen in comparison with the group that went to Baden-Baden in 2006.

That said, given that 2014 sees both the referendum in Scotland and a World Cup at which England – and not Scotland – will be present, one might be forgiven for expecting a resurfacing of ABE sentiments. While there are always going to be ironic cheers when this year’s Heskey hoofs a shot over the bar, I wouldn’t bet on an upsurge of nationalist-infused ABE. Part of the reason is because of the negative nature of the sentiment itself. As a friend said to me, “part of the reason that Scottish people often are so vehemently anti-English when it comes to sports is a perceived sense of entitlement and ludicrous degree of expectation that comes with every major tournament. Up until the last World Cup there was still a lot of talk about England being contenders. Now that expectations south of the border are so much lower, it’s difficult to generate as much bile – it’s just not as fun anymore.” No matter how many Clive Tyldesleys there are in the world, if the team they’re cheerleading are so conspicuously average, it’s hard to work up too much excitement about them.

The comparative muteness of ABE sentiment is also partly due to what Ciaran described as a “lack of general interest in international football.” Although he “can’t stop [himself] basking in their defeat,” his schadenfreude has “less vigour” because of this. If it’s always been the case for fans of the larger clubs, I think this lack of interest is increasingly the case for the average football fan too, for whom the international side of the game is pretty uninteresting and for whom a growing proportion of their football interest is devoted to worrying that their precariously-financed club gets its bit of the TV-and-advertising deal bonanza. This isn’t helped by the fact that the players themselves hardly seem bothered by it (no matter how many times they claim to be “proud to wear the shirt” and that “it’s a dream to represent your country”) and also by the impression that it is simply not the place where the best football can be seen. Fans support teams named after the city where their stadium is, but they watch a team made up of players from around the world. Globalization and capitalism are responsible not just for massive TV deals but also the decreasing importance of the nation state – and individual and collective identities connected to them – in general. If you don’t feel particularly English, then it’s hard to support a team whose whole identity is based on marshalling some sort of anachronistic Three Lions-St George sense of Englishness. And anyway, for many the Champions League is a better tournament than the World Cup.

Brief, unscientific research since the beginning of this year’s tournament seems to confirm at least part of this. If most pubs in Glasgow have put up flag bunting, like they do for every tournament, some have chosen a team to support, usually one of the favourites. I’ve seen Brazilian, Spanish and German ones displayed prominently in bar windows. Watching the opening Brazil v Croatia match in the pub the other night, there was a lot of investment in Brazil not embarrassing themselves (revealed in the strength of the cheers when Neymar equalised) but a similar amount who found the possibility of Croatia upsetting the narrative an appealing prospect. I’ve been in Glasgow for the 2008 and 2012 Euros, and the 2010 and this World Cup, and I’m always struck by the way these tournaments are here a way for people to become more internationalist, boning up on the rivalries between Central American minnows or how Bosnia’s political history translates into their midfield dynamism. This is obviously partly due to Scotland’s absence from those tournaments; if they’d been present, I’m sure much more focus would be on them at the expense of this welcome cosmopolitanism. I didn’t go to the pub for the England v Italy game, but you don’t often need to go that far to hear evidence of ABE feeling. Earlier this year, I could pretty much tell the score in the Six Nations matches featuring England because a particularly raucous neighbour would scream every time whoever England were playing took the lead. Watching Saturday’s game at a friend’s, the surrounding flats were dead silent. Of course this could be for many reasons, but it seemed apt.

Before this World Cup, there was perhaps a better occasion to gauge the current strength of ABE sentiments, when Scotland played England at Wembley last summer. In addition to the excitement of the game, with Scotland taking the lead twice and England pegging them back and eventually winning, the event was noteworthy for the pre- and post-game opinions of fans, players, and commentators, all of whom seemed to be on the same page, both Scottish and English. The overwhelming impression I got was that everyone was excited to have the fixture back on the calendar, and that it was fun to indulge in a bit of friendly rivalry. There was talk of a home nations tournament being revived. Even the result seemed to please everyone: Scotland didn’t expect to win, but gave a good account of themselves, while England didn’t risk fan invective by losing to a team who at the time were ranked 36 places below them. There wasn’t, to my knowledge, any violence outside the game, and it ended with all involved saying “this was nice, we must do this again sometime,” Scotland basically inviting England up to Hampden next year. It may be possible that I’m gilt-edging this, and that others might have a completely different impression. My assumption that both teams were happy with the result might smack to some of precisely the condescension Scottish football fans hate in the English, but it comes from talking to a co-worker, a member of Scotland Supporter’s Club who travelled to Wembley for the game. On his return it wasn’t the result he wanted to talk (or moan) about; instead he wanted to show me photos of the trip on his phone. He was looking forward to the return game at Hampden in 2015, and politely suggested that Scotland might win it.

Posted by Mark West

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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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