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.

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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 2: In which I become an expert on Real Madrid

In summer 2001 I decided that, having honed my football conversation skills to the enésimo degree, it was about time I got myself an actual team to support. There were three, no wait four, reasons why I, although I was living in Lisbon at the time, didn’t want to choose a Portuguese team:

1)I happened to be holidaying in Spain at the time, and I had decided to Teach Myself Spanish Through Football.
2)Like, in my humble non-fish-or-seafood-eating opinion, Portuguese food, consisting as it often does in either Fish-&-Potatoes-&-Lettuce Combination or Meat-Fried Egg-&-Chips Combination, Portuguese football is Not Up To Much.
3)I am a contrary bastard.
4)It was clear to me that Real Madrid’s policy of buying up the world’s greatest players was going to be a disaster, and that what would follow would make quite an entertaining soap opera.

Why did I think this? Well, even someone as unkeen on sports as me could understand that a team is more than a collection of superstars. Even the most elementary knowledge of group dynamics can tell you that unless there is some team spirit and fellow feeling amongst the players, the group will not succeed.

As if to back this up, my copy of Marca told me that this, now my, new all-singing all-dancing superteam had just drawn their first match of the new era, with a team from Egypt, which is probably at the end of the day, Brian, one of those countries where it’s just too hot and possibly too interesting to waste time and energy playing football.

Another reason, and I will have to briefly revert to technical football language here, was that their defence was rubbish.

El tiempo pasó, and I watched proudly from afar as their policy of buying up the world’s most sought-after soon-to-be-past-their-prime players, while systematically getting rid of any good defenders, curiously failed to bear fruit. Any good defenders, that is, apart from Michel Salgado, presumably because Florentino Perez (a man who evidently knows and cares even less about football than I do, and who was re-elected President with a huge majority last year) didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of him. They resorted to fielding what were basically little more than local kids who, it was clear to me, had never played football in front of more than 200 people before. One of them, Ruben, was cruelly substituted 26 minutes into his debut, which they were already losing three-nil; he responded by, quite understandably I felt, crying a little bit like a girl.

And since then all my predictions have come true – they haven’t won anything for two years, and stand no chance whatsoever of doing so this year, and it is obvious that the players cannot stand the sight of one another. And as for the analysis and criticism filling the pages of the Spanish and foreign press: I could have told you the same information in a cafe in San Sebastian in ten minutes in 2001.

I’m not in the least bit proud to say this, but it would be difficult to say the least for anyone to tell me anything about the last four years in the life of Real Madrid that I don’t already know. I have to consider myself something of an expert, which is a shame because at the same time my Spanish is only Quite Good, and the game of football remains as boring as ever. Other people know and care a hell of a lot more about the sport, however; how was I able to predict with such accuracy what would unfold?

The reason was, I think, because understanding the world of football requires very, very little intelligence. It stimulates very few of your comprehension skills, and talking about it demands very few leaps of imagination. This remains true despite all the detailed coverage and analysis in grown-up newspapers and all the wordy ramblings of Nick Hornby et al. Once you take a step back from boyish enthusiasm and submit it to a good hard look, all analysis of football is a futile intellectual exercise which reveals little we don’t already know about the world.

Today’s conclusion, then: Football – and here 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 on the whole a sport followed by boring and notveryintelligent people, and choosing to dedicate your time to following it can make you a more boring and less intelligent person than you were before.

And neither is it a particularly effective way to learn Spanish.

The F Word part 3

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