Rabu, 11 September 2013

Grit and Determinism

John Foster waxes philosophical on the Pelé cliché, Tiki-taka aesthetes, and Tim Lovejoy's 'Ramones T-Shirt' approach to picking favourite players Football, like all sport, is a weighted random number generator that constantly asks the question “who is best?” and allows us to tell stories about the answers. Sometimes the answers are simple, so the stories are too. Real Madrid have just beaten Valencia, so let us now praise famous men. Sometimes the question is a little harder. “Which is the best club in England at football?” takes a year to answer; “Which is the best country in the world at football?” needs four. Other questions have ambiguous answers. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are easily comparable: they play in the same era, in the same league, and several times a season, on the same pitch. “Who is best?” is an obvious question. When numbers cannot provide the answer (and in an individual contest in a team sport, they generally cannot), authority steps in. FIFA ask themselves the question annually, and they usually reply that it is Messi, and give him a trophy to show it’s official. This does not end the debate. One can easily compare Messi and Ronaldo but it is harder to compare Messi with his predecessors — Maradona, of course, and Di Stefano, Beckenbauer, and Pelé. Who is the best of all time? So the narrative machinery grinds into gear. What will Messi have to do to be the greatest? What combination of records, trophies and cultural mass will add up to make Messi’s x worth more than Maradona’s y? The question is plainly unanswerable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. This is because the narratives are more interesting than the numbers that our random number generator produces. Not so much because of what they tell us about Messi, or Maradona — although as Brian Phillips points out, it’s an irresistible temptation to read players’ personal stories into their playing careers — but what they tell us about fandom and about our heroes. Our idols are less interesting than our idolatry. Just as Messi is anointed by FIFA to stand at the apex of our generation, Pelé is the official Greatest Player of All Time, a role he seems to have accepted with his customary post-retirement docility.

Photo of Lionel Messi © Joma/ActionPlus/Corbis In a wonderfully thoughtful piece, Richard Whittall notes that Pelé once compared himself to Beethoven, which is entirely apposite. How dull to say you like Beethoven, when there are so many more obscure and therefore interesting composers to choose from. Declaiming a love for Beethoven/Pelé is like announcing you enjoy fun. ‘Easier to sing paeans to the more troubled genius strikers of the analog age — Sindelar, Cruyff, Best, Garrincha, Maradona,’ Whittall writes. Pelé is ‘immune to any tortured genius psychoanalyzing.’ In other words, Pelé’s narrative, the narrative of perfection, is not as interesting. How much more thrilling to watch the acrobat who might as easily fall, or brawl with his colleague atop a high wire, than complete the tumble. It isn’t just players that we tell stories about, of course. Football is also a way of telling stories about ourselves, of subscribing to a particular group identity. A curious feature of this fan-identity is that fans rarely get to choose which team to support, and therefore which identity to assume. The game’s purists, by no means a minority, maintain that your football team is predetermined by where you are born and by who you are born to. The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his Ashton Gate. And if you do get to choose, that choice — usually made in childhood — is expected to stay with you forever. Changing your team is not done. You can change your job, your wife, your name, so goes the dogma, but never, ever your club. There is no greater perfidy than to be a glory hunter. And thus the lament of the man who curses God for condemning him to a life with Grimsby Town, and the guilt of the ex-Brentford fan who abandons the faith of his fathers and buys a season ticket at Stamford Bridge. Jokes about Manchester United’s Home Counties fan base — like death and tax evasion — will be with us forever. Of course, football is not simply about winning and losing. Basking in a club’s reflected glory is only a small part — for most of us, a very small part — of what it means to have a stake in that club. There are the minor triumphs of persistent, flinty survival against the odds (Fulham in the 1960s, Coventry City in the 1990s, Wigan Athletic today) and the wan solace that comes from playing ‘the right way’ (West Ham once upon a time, Arsenal now). Every club, indeed, has its light and dark. Juventus have their 28 titles, or 30, depending on who you ask, but also Calciopoli and Heysel. Every history is also one of boredom, disappointment and tragedy, and part of being a fan is embracing that. Or better: letting it embrace you. As a West Ham fan, you can distance yourself from the violent legacy of the ICF, but it’s a part of your club, and your club is a part of you. If our first loves are chosen for us, this is not the case for our dalliances, our ‘second’ teams. We can choose our second team, or teams, and change them at our pleasure. If our ‘first’ team declares something about us, our choice of second team — not being subject to the mystic sway of place and blood — is a way of declaring something about ourselves. Maybe a diplomatic concession to a loved one, or nostalgia for a place we used to live in, or a nod to the spirit of rebellion (Celtic, St. Pauli) or tradition (Reims, Genoa), or both (Athletic Bilbao).Celtic v Barcelona.

Photo © Matt West/BPI/Corbis Similarly, to champion a particular style is not so much an accident of birth as an attribute of character. Tiki-taka is for self-declared aesthetes, Route One for the proudly uncomplex, Totaalvoetbal for the doomed romantic, W-M for the steampunk aficionado. Tell me how you play, as Eduardo Galeano said, and I’ll tell you who you are. It’s possible to take this kind of analysis too far, of course. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes we just like stuff because we do. But when Tim Lovejoy, the archetype of the modern casual fan, names Johan Cruyff as his favourite player, while freely admitting that all he has seen of Cruyff is a few clips on Youtube, this — like his infamous Ramones t-shirt — is meant to tell us something about Tim Lovejoy. Perhaps Lovejoy is in thrall to the glamour of heroic failure. Perhaps in the slender, audacious Cruyff he sees the player that he, Tim Lovejoy, might have been in another life. Perhaps he chose Cruyff simply because everyone else says Maradona or Pelé, and it’s cool to be different (but not too different; you can keep your Preben Elkjaer, Rob Smyth.) Football, like all sport, is a way of telling stories. We care about the sport per se, of course we do. But when we care about a particular team, or player, or contest, we care too about the stories that surround them. That is why football, with its millions of engaged fans around the world and in history, has the universal cultural heft that other sports do not. And if all this is so much navel-gazing, a flatulent way of stating ‘it matters because it matters,’ that’s okay. As weighted random number generators go, there’s none more joyous to watch. But it’s the difference between coming to the theatre knowing nothing about the play, versus watching it having read it, studied it, seen it with a different cast and director, of knowing its subplots and context, knowing everything about it, in short, except the ending. Because football is theatre, tragedy, heroism, glory, failure — and football. And that is why we watch.

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