Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
The thinking man’s game
As most of Europe, as well as (hopefully) a good part of the rest of the world, attempts to forget its present economic concerns by indulging in all sorts of football related debauchery (score guessing, animated arguing with family and random strangers, hair pulling, beer drinking and other less edifying activities such as flag waving, face painting, and the Mexican wave), it seems a good moment to share (edited sections of) the following piece by Mark Eltringham, published in Stephen Foster’s excellent “The Book Of Football”.
Far from me to give prominence to a competition involving national teams, but somehow the mounting sense of excitement at the prospect of a gourmet diet of two games per day, following a fairly dull period of three weeks after the end of the club seasons, deserves recognition and some reverence. The occasion may not be a perfect one, but this is about a bigger issue – the general role and place of football in modern society. Therefore while this piece should certainly rub true fans’ sensibilities the right way like Johnny Gill, it is also and maybe especially aimed at rugby, basketball, cricket and other minor sports followers and non-believers, certain FB smart alecks who like to pretend like they are above it all, and tourist fans compelled to tune in because of a sense of obligation to the rising nationalist fervor (1) and the fear of being unable to participate in office and pub conversations. A message for you suckers: if you don’t get it even after this, stay off our jocks for the next month or so.
The fact is that there is undoubtedly something about football that speaks to people in a universal language. No other sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has more to say about what makes us human. I know that followers of rugby and cricket like to think that they occupy the intellectual high ground, but that is mainly a class thing. The fact is that the only decent quotation about rugby is a comparison with football (2), as you’d expect from a sport burdened with the inferiority complex of an overshadowed little brother. And cricket appears to have inspired very little in the way of original thought…
The working man’s ballet can even claim the moral high ground, because it is (or was) the sport and cultural focus of the working class. And, as John Rose demonstrates in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the working autodidact is a much more attractive figure than his or her advantaged and educated middle-class contemporary. Self-taught or otherwise, rough, straight-talking and passionate about their football, this was the crowd depicted by LS Lowry in Going to the Match, his famous painting that fetched £2m at an auction in 2000. These people formed the bulk of the crowd when I first started going to games, in what we now think of as a Golden Age, in the mid-70’s. This was the England and the game I knew, a million miles from the cosy, mythical Darling Buds England of John Major, yet no less poetic for that. Sure, it was a dark poetry most of the time and you had to tolerate unromantic things like toilets that swam with piss (ndrl. that reminds me of les Charmilles), but it was magical nonetheless. Something was lost to the game at the same time they sorted out the toilets and Man United started winning things again (3).
So profound is football’s fascination for intellectuals, that individuals positions have their own canon. Inevitably the goalkeeper has attracted most interest. Albert Camus was himself a goalkeeper before taking the tiny step to become an existentialist. Nabokov spoke poetically about the goalie’s unique role in the game (4). Wim Wenders went one step further by making a whole film about the existential angst that grips the custodian, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.
…. football’s place as a source of inspiration for observers of the human condition is assured. Now that the working man is an endangered species, its role as the working man’s ballet may be past, but it will continue to be the thinking man’s ballet.
(1) Though I am delighted that the so called nationalist fervor has been largely absent this time around, notably due to subdued expectations in both England and France, two very dominant media BS generators, as well as merciful absence of Switzerland this time around (I know I will get heat for that, but I stand by it).
(2) Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts. Henry Blaha, rugby player, 1972.
(3) This section is very UK-centric, but easily adapted to any other setting. For example, the very fact that most Americans (but not all – more of them are getting wiser with each Clint Dempsey goal) don’t even get what the fuss is about even when the World Cup is on, says it all.
(4) The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Less the keeper of a goal than the keeper of a dream. Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak, Memory, 1951.
(5) In a sublime yet totally unconscious (true dat) effort to sidestep any hint of Euro-centrism, the photos of two Latin American greats grace this extract. However, feel free to suggest other European greats that have been just as inspirational (except Cruyff please: not tolerated in these pages, in line with KGB Mou strict code of ethics).