I don’t understand cricket, and that’s become a problem


The Bangladeshi guy in the shop under our apartment in Rome is puzzled. He doesn’t understand why I keep pretending that I don’t understand the rules of cricket. My pretence has been going on for months and it’s starting to grate on him. I’ll pop in for another bottle of Bucanero and he’ll joyously proclaim, England are all out and Pakistan are 117 for 2!, to which my only response is, er, so who’s winning?

I’ve explained the social context for my genuine ignorance numerous times to no avail. I think he sees it as something shameful. Maybe it is. I certainly find it a bit embarrassing. As far as he’s concerned, I’m an educated person from the country that invented the sport, so even if I didn’t understand, I surely wouldn’t want to lose face by feigning a lack of knowledge (my evident lack of patriotism is also a source of some bemusement). One issue is that he prefers to speak about cricket in English rather than Italian, and while his command of my language is considerably better than my mastery of his (restricted as it is to a handful of food words that on reflection are probably Hindi anyway), his lack of basic grammar combined with the fact that his cricket vocabulary supercedes mine in any language gets in the way of effective communication.

So I explain again that in the UK only rich people play cricket (‘posh’ is a bugger of a word to explain), that I didn’t go to the kind of school that taught and encouraged an interest in the sport. Cricket isn’t the most popular game in Britain, football is. It’s a political thing. He’s not listening. After all, he spends all day every day around Italians, and he’s not a big fan of Italy. The Italians don’t even play, let alone appreciate, cricket! Whereas in me he has a full-blown, native-born cricket enthusiast to marvel at the game with. He loves talking about cricket with me, even though the only players I can think of are Geoffrey Boycott and Johnny Wilkinson, and I can tell you even that took quite a lot of effort.

Right now there’s a tournament taking place, which as I write has reached the semi-final stage. Pakistan are beating England (I think) and tomorrow India take on Bangladesh. He’s going to close the shop for half a day to follow the game. I’m genuinely excited to see his excitement – I’ve interviewed so many IELTS candidates from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for whom cricket is the driving force in their lives. But half an hour ago, having endured another failed attempt to explain the contorted relationship between class and sport in British society, I promised to him and to myself that I would go and study the rules. It is, in several senses, absurd that I don’t understand what the numbers mean, how wickets relates to overs and overs to whatever the other one’s called. If there even is another one.

The problem is that I came back up here, cracked open the beer and started writing this. Ever time I think about googling the rules of cricket or opening onto one of the few parts of the Guardian website I’ve never ventured onto before (although shouldn’t I really go for The Telegraph?), I start to feel slightly dozy and more than a little bit chippy. I could not give a flying fuck about cricket. I hope Bangladesh win. I hope they crush England 7,000 runs to love. Christ, imagine what a boost it would give Boris Johnson and Michael ‘fucking’ Gove if the English cricket team were to win the Cricket World whatever-it-is right now. The bloody Daily Mail would probably photoshop a picture of a triumphant-but-dour Theresa May with Will Carling (or whoever) and call her QUEEN OF THE ASHES. So here’s to Shakib Al-Hasan, Mashrafe Mortaza, Tamim Iqbal and even (if it’s not too late) Virat Kohli. Anyone but England. Forza! everyone else.

Ps. According to the Daily Telegraph website my beloved Pakistan have apparently beaten England, I’m off to buy some Pimms :-).

My daughter the footballer

After an almost impossible first night in a hotel with our three-month-old daughter I reassure my wife ‘we’ll get through this. We’re a team’. This analogy only goes so far, however, as one of the team members has no idea she’s part of a squad of players sharing a common objective. For one thing, she doesn’t respond to hand signals and whistles from the touchline and doesn’t even seem able to identify or even see the other players. She also, rather like certain actual footballers, responds to any potential slight, no matter how minor, as though she’s being tortured, and is in the unfortunate habit of screaming to the point of losing her voice when decisions don’t go her way. Also, unlike most professional sports people with a couple of unfortunate exceptions, she appears to exercise no control whatsoever over her bowel functions and will quite happily play on as though she did not have excrement visibly trickling down her legs. Then there’s the fact that at the end of the match she simply refuses to leave the pitch, insisting on staying in the centre circle proudly surveying the increasingly frustrated crowd despite how appallingly she’s perfomed. When she is finally persuaded to go to the changing room she embarrasses herself even more with her appetite for endless amounts of seemingly intoxicating liquid. She also has her equivalents of Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardner, although in her case the badboy mates who egg her on to even greater heights of excitability and subsequent disgrace go by the names of Mr Gweenewy and Comfy Wabbit. If you add in the fact that, as we’ve now discovered, her behaviour in hotels would shame even a Sheffield United striker, it’s pretty clear that although she may in some ways always be a valuable member of the squad, it’s certainly not her team-playing abilities that make her so. The whole thing makes me feel the deepest sympathy for David Moyes. At least given that she lives in Rome and has a British passport, we might be able to get a few quid for her out of Lazio. She could yet turn out to be the female equivalent of Ravel Morrison.

Of course football is a beautiful game…but maybe…

Football has been all over the front pages this week, and although I’m neither a huge fan nor a massive expert on the sport I do sort-of follow it and have some possibly useful/unpopular feelings on the subject which, partly in the spirit of Louis CK’s classic ‘of course…but maybe…‘ routine and also in my own tradition of writing provocative screeds about what the Guardian has taken to calling ‘soccer’, think worth airing.


1. Madrid. The sight and sound of Leicester fans rioting in the Plaza Mayor while shouting drunken nonsense about Gibraltar is to be roundly, squarely and triangually condemned. Of course. But maybe…a lot of the tabloids doing the condemning are the very sources of both the misinformation being yelled and the (sorry, Jeremy) momentum for such displays. In any case, given football’s relationship to territory, maleness and alcohol, a certain amount of violence is absolutely inevitable. When a few years ago in London the Evening Standard cleared its front page of foreigner hatred and upper class triumphalism to make way for a diatribe at how appalling was a bit of minor rioting by Millwall fans, I was left feeling a bit nonplussed. There seems to be a major and wilfull misunderstanding in some quarters of the media about the role that football plays in British life. For centuries the country sent generations of working class lads overseas in order to keep Johnny Foreigner in check, no questions asked. For the last few decades they’ve been tearing into each other at home and away instead. I don’t want to come across as all class tourist/reverse snob and I do hope that my feelings on this are not provoked by buried ancestral loyalty to our lads – personally I think it may not be a bad idea to put the whole of the UK mainland under the control of the Spanish in order to avoid any more Tory-inspired catastrophes – but I do think that it’s better that football fans beat each other up than have a go at people who happen to have been born elsewhere.

I say all this as someone who is, partly thanks to an accident of birth and barring possibly my mum, Sheffield’s least likely hooligan, and also a fan who, when I visit Bramall Lane (UTB), is no more likely to be welcomed as a member of the same species than a particularly bookish-looking antelope at a watering hole generally reserved for wildebeest. I don’t have the hair (or lack thereof), the accent and a brief conversation generally confirms that I don’t follow the team closely enough to qualify as a proper Blades supporter.


2. Sheffield United’s pitch invasion. Nevertheless, sometime in April or May 1982 I stood in the Junior Blades section and watched fans pour onto the pitch to celebrate winning the 4th Division championship, and I was pleased to see such scenes repeated last week as we (UTB) clinched promotion from League 1.  The football authorities hate pitch invasions and go to (sometimes murderous) lengths to prevent them, partly because they damage the grass but mainly because they (stern voice) ‘Bring The Game Into Disrepute’. The same is said of ‘excessive celebrations’, e.g. the moral stain left on the universe by a player doing a happy little I-scored-a-goal dance or lifting up his shirt to reveal a birthday message to his baby daughter. This in a game marked by genuinely shocking and blatant corruption, money- and reputation-laundering, tornaments held in slave states, the open feting of racists and rapists, club sponsorship of everything down to the official player’s undergarments, the official water everyone officially associated with the club officially drinks and the official brand of condoms that are optimistically distributed on the official team bus. Of course there are tasteless and impetuous things that individual players and fans do that serve as a distraction, but maybe it would be easier to identify things that bring the game out of disrepute. Football’s high horse is a pantomime one which goes clippety clop clippety clop across the stage and then gets sexually assaulted by a 22-year-old with a £125,000-a-week salary, a regulation hipster/Isis beard and a Hindi tattoo that (unbeknownst to him) means ‘twat’.

3. On the white stone of the beautiful bridge crossing the Tiber* round the corner from our house, some stronzetto has left prominent graffiti protesting against the reorganisation of territorial subdivisions in a football stadium**. This is not as arcane as it sounds. Over the last couple of years a large proportion of Roma fans have been on strike because the stand where they, er, stand has had some new barriers installed, separating them from each other. As a result they refuse to go and cheer on their team (they still ‘support’ it, but that’s a difficult concept to make sense of, even when the fans in question aren’t petulant arseholes). As a result, there’s no atmosphere at the matches and therefore no point going to see Roma. The couple of games I’ve witnessed have been desultory affairs, and given that the club with whom Roma share their Mussolini-obelisk-surrounded stadium (Lazio) are the chosen team of local fascists I’m very disinclined to lend them my support in any form. Of course not all changes that clubs make to their stadiums are to the liking of fans, but maybe if you refuse to go to the stadium as a result you weren’t really that much of a supporter in the first place.

4. Arsenal. Now, football deserves to be taken seriously. Supporting a team involves (and for some resolves) issues like identity, belonging and purpose, rather like a religious faith. Arsenal fans are angry because they haven’t won anything for years (except for the FA Cup, twice, which for the gooners means about as much as a fifth-round EFL Cup victory against QPR would to the Blades). Of course it’s fun to win things and get promoted (UTB), but maybe football has always been less about winning and more about the camaraderie that comes from not having lost. Really, there’s not that much to do when your team wins something big except drink, cuddle your fellow supporters, eat a massive burger and then go home and watch the highlights til you conk out. I can nevertheless understand the frustration with Wenger, as when asked why they haven’t won anything important for so long he tends to talks about how much money the stadium is worth nowadays, how many people work there compared to when he started and how pretty the grass looked before the football match, the one in which they were beaten 3-1 at home by Stoke, kicked off. Maybe they should just make him janitor and get someone else in.

5. Dortmund. I’ve been to Dortmund and it felt like Leeds: northern, working class, post-industrial. I can see how football is very important in such a place***. Of course the terrorist attack on the team is abhorrent. But maybe…In relation to the reporting of suicides there are certain conventions that newspapers adhere to in order to avoid contributing to copycat cases. It seems to me that in the salacious publicity that’s been given to the writer of the letter (presumably also the author of the crime) there’s an excitability which may encourage others to see football as a useful target. What responsibility does football have for this? As with so much else about the game, the way the media overhypes football involves an abdication of basic journalistic responsibility. Of course it’s a good thing (and a cheering story) that fans in France and Germany united in response to the attack. But maybe…there’s a distinct possibility that such reports play into the hands of the far-right, who are never far away from the sport and always keen to bring fans under their sway. The fact that the UK’s fascist movement takes so much of its form and focus from football is a cause for concern (fuck the EDL) and in a European context the media’s coverage of fans uniting against ‘Islamic’ terrorism rather than (for example) drawing attention to the many gestures of solidarity with fellow fans and players fleeing entire societies terrorised and brutalised by Isis doesn’t necessarily bode well. To return to those Leicester fans in Madrid, misinformed and motivated by Murdoch’s increasingly openly racist Sun**** into making absolute pricks out of themselves, there are malignant elements closer and closer to political power who will make the most of sporting loyalties and emotions as an organising tool for prejudice and violence. Of course football is a beautiful game, but maybe media coverage should be careful about encouraging young men to place territorial loyalties closely linked to violence at the heart of their identities at this particular point in history. UTB.


*Which, contrary to what you might hear, is not flowing with blood.

**Italians are great at frescoes but shit at graffiti.

***Obviously much more important than it is in Leeds these days (UTB).

****Why is Kelvin Mackenzie still alive?

Shame, Self-awareness and Zinedine Zidane

downloadWriting teaches you some salutary lessons about yourself, the world and the relationship between the two. Last week someone gave me an article about the ten phrases Italians most hate to hear in their own language, the equivalents of ‘literally’, ‘basically’, ‘shouldn’t of’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘going forward’, etc. One curious example of an infuriating phrase is ‘piuttosto che‘, which means ‘instead of’, but instead of using it to mean ‘instead of’ increasing amounts of people (particularly in the north) use it to mean ‘or’, which causes obvious confusion and widespread rage. I thought it would be fun to write something in Italian which contained all those expressions, partly as a laugh and partly as a means of exploring questions of language and identity: who does a langauge belong to, who has the right to make mistakes, who defines what a ‘mistake’ is, etc. However, I screwed up. I overestimated myself. I didn’t (get Chiara to) check what I’d written properly so it didn’t work, being full of my mistakes, the typical ones that foreigners make. The sixteen people who read it will not have been nearly as amused or impressed as I wanted them to be. Che imbarrazzante! – how embarrassing, indeed shameful. I exposed my pretensions, the gap between what I want to be able to do and what I am able to do, who I want to be and who I am, who I am on the inside and who I am to others.

This often happens when speaking other languages. In making a claim on another identity I risk being seen as an imposter, a fraud, an outsider. (I wrote about how this feels here). A language learner can use this to their advantage – shame can burn itself into your brain so you never make the same mistake twice. Hence self-consciousness can be a source of self-awareness, the former implying shame and the latter a sense of control. Interacting in another language partly comes down to learning one’s lines, knowing how to act in a given routine situation so as not to lose face.

One of the people who has best developed this metaphor is the sociologist Erving Goffman, particularly in his book ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. His ‘dramaturgical’ analysis of social interaction distinguishes between front and back stage behaviour. The goal of our performance as human beings is to be accepted by the audience.

As we develop we learn to play the role of ‘ourselves’. By the time we become adults we should, in theory, have become aware of who we are and how we should act. Hence being a teenager involves a lot of self-consciousness and shame. Teenagers shame each other, ridiculing each other’s pretensions and pretences. In my own cultural background (the north of England) ‘getting ideas above your station’ was scorned. A common source of shame is being exposed as fancying someone, wanting what you can’t have. Celebrating shame, enjoying one’s exclusion has long been a central element in youth culture, as the deathless popularity of figures such as Morrissey and Jim Morrison attests. Shut out of mainstream society, disaffected teenagers develop their own theatrical rituals and codes.

I have always admired people who surpass those fledgling anxieties about being who they want to be, who write their own scripts and improvise without fear. Two prominent examples died this year: Prince and Bowie. A less commercially recognised example is Momus, who has written very perceptively and eloquently about the English tendency to anticipate and thereby ward off shame by deprecating oneself*. The artist Grayson Perry, in his Reith Lectures of 2013, talked with his customary brazen wit and charm about the risks young people take in declaring themselves ‘artists’. Creating one’s own character can be a hazardous undertaking, but going off-script is essential for living a meaningful life**.

George Michael is a curious case. As he grew older he was notable for his total lack of shame in his private life but he remained conventional and conservative in his artistic endeavours, seemingly driven by fear of the market. Then there’s Trump, who appears to have no shame. It’s shameful to be completely shameless. It makes you look like a very bad person indeed.

Another very interesting case study of the absence of shame and self-consciousness is the documentary ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait‘, in which the camera follows the footballer throughout the course of an entire match, only very rarely cutting away to show the rest of the action. It shows him completely absorbed in the game, caught up in the flow. The footage (which mostly consists of him scratching his nose*** and looking a bit énervé****) is accompanied by his gnomic insights into the profound business of kicking a ball around some grass*****. On one level it’s a study of someone at work, a time-and-motion study of a global superstar. He doesn’t look at the camera; the world is a camera. What’s interesting about Zidane is not his skill but his visibility. His work is not so much trying to create chances and score goals as to be watched. The film is therefore more interesting as a reflection on spectacle and self-consciousness (and, given our awareness of his spectacular headbutt in the World Cup Final later the same year, on shame and its absence). How does it feel and what does it mean to be constantly observed, contemplated, regarded? What is it like to exist solely as an image? What does life as spectacle mean?

Sometimes, when I remember to, I like watching strangers out in public and imagining that they’re acting. People are simultaneously very good and very bad at playing themselves. What they are particularly good at is depicting self-consciousness. Cinema and photography (and now selfies) mean that we are constantly producing and consuming – literally and mentally – images of ourselves. I notice this in myself, when stepping off a plane, or leaving the cinema. Goffman called these ‘dramaturgical moments’. Images, particularly those in adverts, teach us how to act. When consuming products and services we are not just being watched on CCTV, we are also monitoring ourselves. We aspire to be images. We fantasise about being part of the spectacle. Hence the Zidane film is partly a voyeuristic morality tale, about how we are to behave as images of ourselves. It has elements of both going to a zoo and of watching pornography, and is also an anthropological study of spectacle that is itself spectacle.

There is a curious dimension to these issues, which is our use of smartphones. We increasingly use them to escape from awkward situations, ones that could cause us shame. Awareness and awkwardness are closely related, and conversation and eye contact make you vulnerable, potentially involve you in a tangled web of social obligations. Hence we employ our device as a shield and a screen to ward off psychic interference from others.

What does this do to our awareness of our actions? Are we self-aware when we’re online? Do we believe at some level that our devices render us invisible? What happens to our self-consciousness when we’re scrolling through our Facebook feeds on a bus? Does shame exist online? (There’s certainly shaming. One reason I stopped using Twitter is that the medium knows no shame when it comes to lying, being wrong and shaming others). It would be interesting for an artist to make portraits of people absorbed in using their mobile devices. When we do so are we on or offstage? Are we in public or in private? Does Goffman’s metaphor break down at any point? What would a film of someone famous texting for ninety minutes be like? Would a documentary featuring Kanye West playing with his iPhone 8, accompanied by a hauntological soundtrack and captions in which he reflects on fame and self-awareness, be a big hit?

I’m aware that these thoughts are not original. Perhaps I need to read some more Susan Sontag or Jean Baudrillard or something, or maybe just some more books about the joys and horrors of child-rearing. One point of writing these things here is to think things through. Another is to start conversations. I find it curious that people will occasionally praise what I write but rarely respond to the actual content. Maybe that’s because it’s boring, or not very well-expressed, or incoherent******, or blindingly obvious. It would be shameful, mortifying to be told that. But thankfully I’m 44 years old now, so I don’t have to worry so much about such things. Or at least, I shouldn’t. So why am I so excited about getting a new pair of spectacles? Is it about seeing better, or being seen better? Che presuntuoso.

* I would never do that, anyway I’m German.

** I feel very self-conscious about the fact that all of the people mentioned in this paragraph are men. I’m also aware that the last sentence sounds a bit like Alan de Button. I could change it but at the end of the day, Brian, I tend to write these things quite quickly so I can dedicate more time to thinking about what to put in the footnotes. 

*** Although not as much as Žižek, another supposed philosopher whose name also begins with Z and who also had a documentary which was just called by that surname, does.


***** I wrote about my somewhat ambiguous relationship with football here.

****** Eg. obvious criticism of this article: shame and self-consciousness are not the same thing.

How to help the USA beat the world at football

A good few months ago I posted a profoundly provocative anti-football rant, cunningly disguised as a 5-part autobiography of the last seven years of my life, or vice-versa, or something, in which I wrote the following:

There is something about football that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it is something that these days gets very little attention. It concerns women and football.

Now there are many reasons why lots of women watch football. Some for the same reasons that men do – to see the occasional bit of spectacle that the sport offers, or because watching and following the game is usually a social thing. Some, it has to be said, are Uncle Toms, showing or developing an interest in it in order to please men.

Some women play football too, but like women’s boxing the professional game exists as a side-effect of men’s football. We don’t see it on TV, and it’s no accident that the best known player is the ex-wife of one of football’s leading men. And, like boxing, when it does get some coverage it is often just for the titillation of men. Women footballers, unlike their male counterparts, have no visibility and no power.

The fact remains; football, in terms of the sport we see on TV, the thing that is so often cited as one thing that unites all the people and peoples of the world, does not involve women at any level.

Among the many people keen to prove that I was, you know, as I so often am, wrong, were a couple of posters who pointed out that actually, in the United States the women’s game has a lot more prominence than the men’s sport, and that most American people would be more likely to be able to name a female player than a male one. It seems that in the land of the freeandthebrave, ‘soccer’ is something of a girl’s game.

Which is presumably why the all-male US team have not quite swept all before them in the Soccerball World Series so far. But it did give me something of an idea, which might stealthily transform the sport into one that actually involves women at some level:

Very simply, the USA should be allowed to field an all-female team in the – until now – exclusively male World Cup. This would increase the appeal of football back home, and would even things out a little in terms of fairness. It would reduce the chance of the world’s greatest superpower being humiliated quite so hilariously by their global rivals, and it might, without wishing to offend anyone here, make what is ultimately a fairly boring spectacle into one which is actually fun to watch.

There is of course a potential nightmare scenario, in that they might become so successful they actually win the thing; I have a feeling that if this were ever to come to pass, the sport of football would very quickly lose a lot of its appeal for most of the world’s population. But for the moment I think it’s definitely an idea worth exploring. Go Team USA!

Come on Deutschland!

My New Favourite Person, Matthias Matussek, a journalist for Der Spiegel magazine, wrote recently in the Guardian’s Germany special:

It was after repeated futile complaints about the primitive image of Germany cultivated by the English (as Nazis and frozen-faced engineers), that a plan was hatched by a group of German politicians and diplomats, among them my brother, Thomas, who was, until March, German envoy to Britain. What if they flew in a few English history teachers and wined and dined them like little potentates at the government’s expense? If, after their stay, the teachers knew more about Heine’s poems, Claudia Schiffer’s golden tresses, Beethoven’s symphonies, Humboldt’s adventures, Willy Brandt’s biography and, ja, if we must, notorious “pop idol” judge Dieter Bohlen (Germany’s answer to Simon Cowell) – the good news would gradually filter down to the pupils.

Nearly two dozen teachers were invited to Berlin, Dresden and Bonn. They resided in five-star hotels, attended the opera, sauntered around the Reichstag, and – as emissaries of not just England but Britain – exchanged platitudes with representatives of the German nation. This red-carpet treatment cost German taxpayers some €52,000 (£35,000).

And what did the rotters do? They spurned all the attention as though it were some kind of indecent proposition. “It wasn’t a great experience,” a paper quoted one teacher, Peter Liddell, as saying. At the opera, the woman next to him nodded off, he reported. They went along for the ride. But that wouldn’t change the curriculum, which – after all – calls for Hitler, Hitler and more Hitler. A colleague summed it up for the record: “Nazis are sexy. Evil is fascinating.”

There are three simple lessons here. One: the British have zero interest in the new Germany. Two: the British have zero interest in the old Germany. Three: the British are interested only in Nazi Germany.

And that, I would say, is not a German problem, but a British one.

Gut gesagt! I’d imagine that in the Rwanda-Somalia-Cultural Revolution style chaos of the British Secondary School Classroom, amidst the shouting and the stabbing and the smoke, the teacher is comforted by the fact that there is always a magic word which will make the students shut up, sit down and pay attention. That word is ‘Hitler’.

If you denken daran it, many of our most common popular cultural references are about the war and not liking Germans – Fawlty Towers, Alo Alo, that episode of Monty Python and so weiter. Which is why the Guardian chose to illustate the Speziell about the New Germany with pictures from Fawlty Towers, Alo Alo. etc. There was a very interesting snippet about how Lederhosen are only ever worn in Munich for Speziell(e?) Occasions – which apparently have nothing whatsoever to do with Kristelnacht (which is not German for Christmas, as I once thought). The front page had a lovely picture of a couple wearing – Lederhosen.

The best thing about the article is that he makes absolutely no apology for being German, but tells us what he, after a couple of years living here, actually thinks of the place:

Nothing can reinflate the downtrodden British spirit more swiftly than the implication that it is an empire. That Germany is now faring badly affords momentary relief. As does the fact that Britain is doing so splendidly – if you ignore filthy, life-threatening hospitals, derailed trains, teenage alcoholism, impoverished senior citizens and absurd per-capita debt, of course. So splendidly, in fact, that it has adopted the same smug self-righteousness we saw in the Germany of the 1950s, the era of the economic miracle.

With their daily diet of car and homebuyer shows on the telly and Better Cooking, Better Living, Better Shopping programmes, the British, after long years of frugality, are now imitating the inane German Mercedes drivers and hungover boozers of caricaturist infamy from the reconstruction years.

Ah, das schmeckt sehr gut. Und now … unsere Weltmeisterschaft!

The F Word Part 5: In which I kinda get to where I was always headed

I’ve noticed over the last few days that people will go to all lengths and depths to defend their interest in football. Does this mean that football represents something essential at the core of their identity?

I don’t think it does. I think it shows that there are in the grip of an obsession.

I should say that I don’t really hate football; like ice-hockey or basketball, it can be great fun to play, but for anyone who doesn’t play regularly I think it takes a conscious effort of will to not find it boring to watch a whole game.

I’ve been told repeatedly, as if it was a party line for serious football fans, that it brings joy to millions. It is after all a cheap and unchallenging form of entertainment – cheap, that is, unless you want to see a game live or in the comfort of your own home. Nevertheless, I think the same claim could be made for Formula 1, which is obviously fucking horrible.

What I do resent is its increasing ubiquity over the last few years, and the fact that intelligent and potentially intelligent people – which means everybody – dedicate so much time to thinking and talking about it.

I want to give a couple of examples. In the few years leading up to Euro 2004 in Portugal, anyone arriving in the country by air was greeted by banners proclaiming ‘We Love Football!’ Now this is quite a claim to make on behalf of ten million people. If the same claim was made in the UK on behalf of cricket or rugby, I suspect people would not feel at all comfortable with it. Football, however, has taken on a status which somehow precludes a lack of interest.

For people working in even the most obscure of fields, it has become a quick way to associate their work and themelves with something universally popular, and a lazy metaphor for virtually any collective human activity. In an interview with the rock star-turned antiquarian megalith researcher Julian Cope, he draws the following analogy:

“Look at football worship,” he says. “All those people gathered in an unroofed stadium [is] not unlike what must have gone on in pagan sanctuaries. The goalkeeper is the ultimate shaman, guarding the gates to the underground, wearing the No 1 jersey in a different colour and not seeming to be part of the team. We’ve never lost it.”

That may be true to some extent, but I think it lets football off the hook by repeating the mantra that there is something primal about the sport that goes back to ancient human rituals. It’s a very easy and common claim to make, but that doesn’t make it necessarily true.

Football sells, and the vast majority of claims made for it are spurious. A quite astonishing example was the recent front-page headline of the appalling free Spanish newspaper Que!, which looked at the prospects for Spain and the world for 2006. The economy, it said, would go from bad to worse, salaries would remain low as ever, the cost of living would continue to rise exponentially; but there was hope and joy on the horizon, because in 2006 we will have a football World Cup to look forward to!

Someone somewhere did not think that that was a bit …mucho.

There is something about football that I haven’t mentioned yet, and it is something that these days gets very little attention. It concerns women and football.

Now there are many reasons why lots of women watch football. Some for the same reasons that men do – to see the occasional bit of spectacle that the sport offers, or because watching and following the game is usually a social thing. Some, it has to be said, are Uncle Toms, showing or developing an interest in it in order to please men.

Some women play football too, but like women’s boxing the professional game exists as a side-effect of men’s football. We don’t see it on TV, and it’s no accident that the best known player is the ex-wife of one of football’s leading men. And, like boxing, when it does get some coverage it is often just for the titillation of men. Women footballers, unlike their male counterparts, have no visibility and no power.

The fact remains; football, in terms of the sport we see on TV, the thing that is so often cited as one thing that unites all the people and peoples of the world, does not involve women at any level.

People, as the Ancient Romans understood, love any spectacle that involves competition. Create a pseudo-event to keep people’s minds and their free time occupied, and you can rule however you want. Franco and Salazar understood this perfectly with their promotion of football as the national cause and hobby. Under our present regimes, Berlusconi and the bastards in Beijing understand it too. And as our working lives become more and more competitive and challenging, the relentless promotion of football relates directly to people’s need for a free-time activity which involves no challenge whatsoever.

For all these reasons, people who profess to be football fans are extremely defensive about their beloved sport. Maybe one of the most taboo things that can be written these days is simply:

Fuck football.

var page_name = ”;
var invisible = ”;
function sE(){return true;}window.onError=sE;
var ui=’rwillmsen’;var rn=Math.random();var base=top.document;
var qry=ui ‘:3::’ escape(base.referrer) ‘::’ screen.width
‘x’ screen.height ‘::’ screen.colorDepth ‘::’ escape(page_name)
‘::’ invisible ‘::’ rn ‘::’ escape(base.URL);
document.write(‘website stats program‘);

website stats program
The Three Ts

The F Word part 4: In which I arrive in China

Any pretensions I may have entertained of Learning Chinese Through FootballTM would have quickly been doomed to failure. Although I had a good grasp of the basic numbers, the names of the world’s leading clubs and players are often unrecognisable and hellish to pronounce. I wouldn’t imagine that Paul Gascoigne found it particularly easy.

I did, briefly, try: in my first or second week I played my first game of football in quite a while. Disappointed to see the fruitless-yet-predictable results of my time-honoured technique of chasing-the-ball-all-over-the-pitch-and-then-kicking-it-straight-to-the-other-team, I turned to our goalkeeper and asked him how the Chinese say ‘Fuuuuck!!!’ He told me, I repeated it about ten times and then promptly mispronounced it catastrophically for the next ten months.

Chinese kids (male kids, that is to say, which is most of them) love playing football, especially in a curious 20-a-side variety. Nor is it unusual to have to share your tennis court with two or three other pairs. There are just so many young people with so much energy to expend. Now personally, as I may have mentioned somewhere around here, my own preference would be for them to devote their efforts to storming the bastions of power and making their country into a decent place to live, but what the hey. They prefer to direct their youthful frustrations elsewhere.

One of my students, faced with the question of which people he would least like to meet, surprised me by not offering the standard responses (usually ‘the Taiwanese President’ or ‘anyone from Japan’). His answer was that he would hate to meet the football players of AC Milan, given that he was a fan of their city rivals Inter.

How had this 20-year-old boy (as the Chinese like to say), no more from the north of Italy than I’m from Shanghai (I’m not), developed such a strong emotional attachment to Inter Milan? Well, he’d read about the team in officially approved articles in state-controlled newspapers and on the government-sponsored internet. These days, if Michael Owen fails to score for Newcastle of a weekend, or if the Chelsea manager suggests he may need to strengthen his right-back position, it is back-page news around the world – and in China (and probably in Japan, although for different reasons) it makes the front page.

This contrasts with a genuine lack of interest in home-grown football. In early 2005 the start of the soccer season was delayed for several weeks because a number of clubs didn’t have the funds to field a full team and to travel to matches. When I went to see China’s number 1 team Dalian Shide I saw a sparsely populated stadium witness the most desultory performance I’d seen since, well, my own a few months earlier. After what I think was the fifth goal (I wasn’t sure, as we arrived late, the result of a fairly unnecessary argument with my slightly irrational then-girlfriend over my paying almost three euros for two tickets), the players left the pitch five minutes early, presumably because they simply couldn’t be bothered to run around in the cold to such a lukewarm reaction any more.

In European football and American baseball, though, there is a huge amount of interest. The Government don’t mind; they seem quite happy to see their young people doped up to the eyeballs on this particular foreign opiate. And football and basketball are foreign imports – it is a form of cultural imperialism just as profound as Hollywood movies or McDonalds.

This Guardian article from two days ago, about the aspirations of a certain British football club to cash in on this new ‘goal rush’, reads like a grotesque and hilarious satire of the original Age of Expansion:

Sheffield United’s manager could become a household name in Chengdu after his club revealed at their AGM yesterday that contracts have been exchanged on a deal to buy the Chinese second division club Chengdu Five Bull FC for a “minimal” sum with completion anticipated early in the new year.

“We are taking the Blades global,” enthused Kevin McCabe, the chairman of Sheffield United’s plc, who already has extensive real estate development interests in China. “Chengdu city has a population of 11m and is the capital of Sichuan province which has a population of 100m. Although I don’t expect them all to become Sheffield United fans, this does represent a potential fan base which we can use to develop both the Five Bull and Sheffield United brands.”

Five Bull boast a 40,000-capacity stadium, but it represents virgin marketing and merchandising territory. Previously effectively under government ownership – the club was run by a collective of state enterprises – the Chinese government’s recent decree that the country’s soccer clubs can no longer be even indirectly state-owned dictates that Five requires outside investment.”We intend to establish a club shop at the stadium for the first time as well as a Blades Bar in the city and to sell branded merchandise, also for the first time,” McCabe explained.

The idea is that Five Bull fans will develop a twin affection for the Blades, their enthusiasm fuelled by the internet and satellite television transmissions of English football.

Now speaking as someone from Sheffield, there is little more absurd to me than the thought of someone from Sichuan province dreaming of visiting Bramall Lane. I’m aware that what might appear mundane to me could seem exotic to someone from China and vice-versa, but I can assure anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to see it for themselves that there is very little of the exotic or charming about that part of the city. There are, of course, many positive benefits of globalisation – the internet and being able to buy pesto in Dalian spring to mind – but this, while certainly not the worst thing about our brave new world, is definitely not the best.

The article put me in mind of William Gibson’s article about Singapore: a place where the past has ceased to exist. Forget about silk dresses, Mao suits and charming Sichuan tea shops – what the future has to offer China is a replica Sheffield United football top – made, in China, natch – and a Blades theme bar.

To me, it sounds uncannily like my particular vision of hell.

The F Word part 5

The F Word part 3: In which I leave Portugal

Summer 2000 in Portugal felt like a truly great time and place to be alive. The sun shone, the beer flowed and there was an atmosphere of alegria; where I was, people filled the praças of Guimarães to watch on the giant screens which the local council had kindly provided as the national football team swept all before them in the Euro 2000 football championship.

They didn’t prevail in the end, beaten by an only slightly superior World Cup-holding French side in a foul-tempered (semi-) finale. But the shouts of ´Port-u-gal! Port-u-gal!´ were to echo throughout my life over the following four years. And not only when Figo & Companhia were strutting and grunting their stuff on the pitch; occasionally I’d turn the corner on a sunny day in Lisbon to be confronted with a left-wing demonstration which would inevitably conclude with raised fists and cries of ´Viva Portugal!´ In fact, sometimes it seemed that a lot of the people gathered to hear someone speak were suffering patiently, hands clenched in readiness, in the rarely forlorn hope that they would have the opportunity to give vent to their frustrated nationalist impulses, regardless of any political affinities.

Portuguese nationalism, then, takes much of its form and energy from football, and the national devotion to football is partly a consequence of nationalism. After all, who are the best-known Portuguese people in the world? And just as football makes up a large part of the national discourse, nationalism tends to colour Portuguese attitudes to the rest of the world. People look to Figo, Christiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho to provide them with affirmation of an identity which is based first and foremost on not being Spanish, English, Brazilian or, while we’re at it, Welsh.

The continued promotion of football as a national project and as a projection of national self-esteem led to Portugal’s hosting of Euro 2004. Although a great success, especially for the Greeks, it led to problems. The people who own and run Portuguese football clubs are often, like Florentino Perez, also owners of large construction concerns and also, as their association with sport and money seems to dictate, very closely involved with the decisions of local councils. So when the lucrative contracts for the building of the not-entirely-necessary brand-new Euro 2004 football stadiums were being handed out, they tended to do rather well. As they often do – in 2004 itself, as part of an investigation called ‘Golden Whistle’, the Presidents of a number of clubs were put under investigation, kept under house arrest or, in the case of the President of the football league, sent to prison.

I want to make it clear here that I’m not suggesting that these problems do not occur in other countries. I happen to know more about Portugal because I lived there for five years. Professional football – and again I’m talking about the thing we see on TV, not the game played on the beach, in the park or, while we’re at it, on a football field – is all about corruption, whether it’s the odd case of match-fixing or dodgy politicians or tycoons looking to ingratiate themselves with the hoi polloi.

Here I have a bias to declare: I am no more a fan of dodgy businessmen or corrupt politicians than I am of football. I am also not a paid-up member of any nationalist organisations. For me, nationalist attitudes are generally inseparable from racist ones, and to say that football has in many places a problem with racism is a bit like saying that some Christians occasionally got injured as a result of gladatorial lion-feeding combats.

As I said, those cries of ´Port-u-gal! Port-u-gal!´ echoed throughout my life down the years in countless frustrating and depressing conversations with what were basically Portuguese nationalists, and on my very last night in the country, as horns beeped and flags were waved in celebration of the defeat of Holland in the semi-finals of Euro 2004, I couldn’t help but find it a bit nauseating and more than a little bit pathetic. Surely 10 million people could find some other way to identify themselves than with 11 men chasing a ball around a patch of grass?

Today’s conclusion, then: Professional football – and it should be made clear here that da da da in a park etc etc etc – somehow manages to encompass so many of the idiocies, injustices and cruelties of our modern age, that perhaps one day, in a less idiotic and more just world, it will go the same way as the games in the Coliseum.

The F Word part 4

The F Word part 1: In which I arrive in Portugal

They often say that at the time of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal there were three pillars of the regime: Fatima (or Faith), Fado and Football. And upon moving there in 1999 I quickly realised that if I wanted to learn to communicate with people, I would have to learn not just their language but also how to express opinions about a sport that, since the age of about 11, I had had no interest in whatsoever.

In fact in Portugal, football is such a ubiquitous topic of conversation that it really should be awarded the status of a second language. I soon discovered that I could hold a very basic conversation with taxi drivers and cafe owners by just making reference to different teams, learning the numbers from nil to five and chucking in a good few recently and proudly acquired swearwords. It was taken deadly seriously by some; the one club in town, Vitória de Guimarães, sometimes questionably claimed to be Portugal’s fourth ‘grande’, had two dedicated ‘claques’, something like a cross between a fan club and a ‘firm’ of hooligans, which existed purely as deadly rivals of one another. The head of one of the groups, the unfortunately named ‘White Angels’, kept a baseball bat behind the bar of his, well, bar, in case he spied any members of the enemy sect, the tragically named ‘Insane Guys’, trying to enter.

I took advantage of the conversational opportunities open to me by trying to ‘teach myself Portuguese through football’; one of the first sentences I taught myself to say was ‘A minha última ambição é falar melhor português que Bobby Robson’ (‘My ultimate ambition is to speak better Portuguese than Bobby Robson’, the English football manager who had trained two of the three big clubs in Portugal (inevitably someone, possibly hailing from Guimarães, is going to respond and claim that there are in fact four, which isn’t true) and whose Portuguese was very limited and the source of much mirth – and, it must be said, more than a little affection).

And at the end of five years in Portugal I could accurately say that I, in all probability, sei mais do futebol do que ele – I know more than him about football, or at least as much. In Portugal it is inescapable: the two biggest selling and most widely-circulated newspapers are football ones, it takes up most of the news bulletins, and it seems to be the default theme for casual and not-so-casual conversation. Everybody knows which team the President and the Prime Minister support, and it tends to colour people’s opinions of their politics. Everybody knows the affinities of each of their friends, families and workmates, and, oddly enough, in this women are not entirely excluded.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the banter, the name-calling and the pre- and post-match analysis (mostly, it must be said, of the performance of the referee), partly because it tends to exclude and take the place of other topics of conversation – and in this, I would argue, football plays exactly the same role as it did before the Revolution, stifling proper political debate with a populist call for unity behind the largely fictional entity of a football club. But also because it’s not in the end a very complicated thing to understand, and a small quantity of information combined with a large amount of irrelevant opinion added to a tiny amount of insight can lead to a very lengthy but inevitably boring conversation.

I must admit I got caught up in the swing of things. It provided a quick common denominator to start conversations with people – finding a Portuguese person who doesn’t claim to have a team to support and an opinion on the footballing issues of the day is like finding a Chinese person with no interest in food. But when I did occasionally meet someone like this, I’d realise I had crossed a line and was in very dangerous and disturbing territory.

Sometimes, faced with a stranger or acquaintance, I’d ask them what they thought of the previous night’s game (football in Portugal is often a seven-nights-a-week thing). And it was when they responded that they didn’t much care for the sport, that it would hit me with shame and horror that, at the end of the day, Brian, neither did I.

Which led to a confused spell during which I was struck by the insight that nobody actually likes football, they’re just pretending, because they think that everybody else does.

But that can’t possibly be true, can it?!?

The F Word part 2