Football has many histories. For the recently deceased Eduardo Galeano, the history of football was "a sad voyage from beauty to duty". His book Football in Sun and Shadow is a lament for a game adrift.
In Sun and Shadow, the physical pleasure in playing the game is its very core. It's where true joy and freedom are to be found — "that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn". (The translation from the original Spanish is by Mark Fried.) And if you're not so good at playing, you can still feel the sympathetic resonance of a fellow unit of your species performing physical feats the urge to perform which lies deep within you yourself, grateful for a surrogate through which it can actually be expressed in flesh, bone and air.
In its parade of vignettes celebrating the enactment of this feeling throughout football's history, Sun and Shadow is shot through with nostalgia. The only stories more vivid than those that date from Galeano's youth (he was born in 1940) are those that date from before his time and passed through the hands of many master embroiderers before reaching his. Or perhaps they were distillers, boiling away the unwanted until a pure essence remained. The stories capture an innocence that diminishes from childhood until in adulthood it only occasionally flickers in the gloaming. It's a loss of innocence mirrored in football itself. The further it's pulled from that pure motive, the worse it gets. "Professional football," writes Galeano, "does everything to castrate that energy of happiness".
My own view on football, bless you for asking, is not so purist. There exists a duality aside from that of sun and shadow. One part of it is that instinct for play and the deeper-than-vicarious connection between the player and the spectator. The other is a collision of impulses and desires that one might call (with apologies to Bertie Wooster) serious purpose: a desire to fight and be fought, to confront failure and try to escape intact, to feel fear and anxiety so that relief may be pursued; individuals trying to find their way in a society; societies trying to find their way within a larger society; violence as the game's tell-tale heart. It stirs and awakens pride and other sinful virtues. Like any human endeavour that holds people's interest for more than a moment, this serious purpose exerts a tenacious pull. More than that: it's something people seek. Some people, anyway. It is as fundamental to the game as the weightless arc of a chip.
JB Priestley put this duality as "Conflict and Art". Arthur Hopcraft saw in football "conflict and beauty", the "art" being a product of the combination of the two. Whatever the terminology, football is such an apt medium for expressing the two sides that any attempt to account for the feeling of football must reckon with both. They may often be in opposition, but they also complement each other. One person's moment of sheer delight leaves another on his arse. Either way, they tumble on together, inseparable. Galeano's vision of a paradise lost renders one an agent of the dilution of the other and sometimes makes Sun and Shadow seem like an engine steaming down the railway of declinism, as quick and banal as Parkinson on Football.
Although it's simplistic to say the football industry kills joy, it is a harbour for those inclined to take serious purpose to a very serious level indeed. Those who operate on that level do a good job arguing that football is about either winning, finding ways to win, or naively wasting your time. It makes those successful at navigating the game's waters look better if they can amp up the choppiness in recounting the tales of their voyage. (The really dedicated invest in a good, realistic wave machine.)
The opposite of this kind of anxiety is probably contentment, but for some reason, contentment doesn't sit well with football. Lacks toughness, no doubt. So in a game on which a worldview of convulsion and flak-dodging settles heavily and isn't easily shifted, the view presented by Galeano is crucial. It's about moments of elation that arrive unexpectedly and can blow away like a feather. It's a view that needs tending and guarding. It needs to be continually proved, lest it be seen as just a lapse from a default sense of solemn gravity. In stacking these moments high — in creating a fiction — Galeano shows that the paramountcy of serious serious purpose is just a consensus. Football is made up of too many strands for one to be pulled out and held up as the golden thread.
Curse, you bastards, my cold concrete heart poured somewhere off the north coast of the north (and bless the Uruguayan Galeano's ability to turn on their sides the histories that proud European fools write for each other) but football has never existed the way Galeano dreamt it, and if it did, it would disintegrate and disappear into the blue sky. But Galeano's dreams are beautiful, and the history of football they tell is as essential to the overall story as South America itself. Whether Football in Sun and Shadow the best football book is an open question. (My vote would go to my forthcoming volume Are You Sure It's No Thicker Than Five Inches?: A Compendium Of Humorous Pitch-Marking Anecdotes.) But it might be the one that most needed to be written.
21 May 2015
24 April 2015
A film on George Best from 1970, written and narrated by Hugh McIlvanney. It contains this quote from Best:
I know players that try to hurt me. I've even heard trainers from the bench shouting 'Break the bastard's legs' ... They say afterwards that it's during the game, they didn't really mean it. But when they said it, they meant it. It makes me feel the only way to get back at them is to make them feel so inferior that they'll never want to play another game of football again in their lives.Uploaded to YouTube by Seb Patrick
17 March 2015
Footballers: you can't trust a bastard of 'em. Give them a ball and a yard of grass and they might well do something so extraordinary that you won't quite know what it is — but they probably won't. They'll probably fail to do even the ordinary. (Amongst other things, natch,) a game is a litany of failures: earnest attempts to perform those simple and difficult acts that everything complex and easy-looking depends on, not coming off. The spectator's hopes are repeatedly raised, giving rise to a basic constant apprehension. Even a really good player, someone who will be tremendously dear to you in a few minutes' time if he does something exceptional, as he may have been many times thitherto — even he's likely to screw this up and ruin it for you. If you know you might react to his endeavours with anything from a brush of regret to a sincere cursing of his bloody inept excuse for an immortal soul, it's hard to let him do his thing without at least a ventricle being in your mouth.
Sometimes, though, a player is far better than he actually needs to be, and your (your?) privileged position as the spectator who knows what should happen next; the idea that this is a hell-sent obstacle to your contentment rather than a craftsperson possessed of an expertise that really is beyond the last confused and embarrassed mutterings of your ken — that shite no longer applies. You're not going to succeed in second-guessing the really good stuff. There comes a stage when the only thing to do is to let a player be with no interfering from that poor forsaken heartlet of yours. When Sergio Agüero set off for the Bayern Munich goal, you had to trust him to take you wherever he was going. And if you didn't get it the first time, he repeated it for you a few minutes later. He's nice like that, so he is.
Watching Mesut Özil demands this trust. The typical Özil pass looks like it's been played too gently to reach its destination on time, but turns out to have the perfect weight; it makes every other player's passes look off, over-eager to be correct. He floats between positions no else can see. He creates passing angles that briefly seem like they can't be feasible, and yet.
Özil's game is full of personality, but has no charisma. It has no interest in selling itself — it just is. It says the most amazing things, but at such a low volume that you have to lean in to hear.
But a big fat transfer fee precedes him wherever he goes and barks a hype-crammed announcement of his greatness. It gives off notions. For that sort of outgoing, shouldn't he be more ... well, outgoing? Shouldn't he personally greet each supporter with a smile and a quip as they walk in? Why is he so reticent? Why is he playing that way? What's he hiding?
Alexis Sánchez can play badly (as he has done quite a bit lately) and still get a brilliant report from Generic Co-Commentator because of his workrate. Özil can play well and still get convicted on the evidence of his body language. Even television's Mr. Analysis, Gary Neville, can't help spiralling downward in his assessment of Özil before touching down on the feeling that he just doesn't look right.
Early on against West Ham at the weekend, Theo Walcott was put through on goal, and instead of shooting first time, he waited for something or other and was tackled. In the second half, Özil was put through on goal, inside the penalty area and outside the left-hand post. It looked like he was lining up to shoot, availing fully of the couple of minutes' worth of space he had. Instead, he played a high pass across the goal, and the chance was lost. It would have been the most Özil move ever had the pass been any good. After Walcott, I struck the furniture. After Özil, I laughed. That's our Meslington.
Image by MiikaS on Flickr (Creative Commons) Read more...
30 August 2014
25 October 2013
For Keeping It Peel Day, in honour of the Word spread by the Rev. John, thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded (ta, the British!), we present a special mix. Every second of every last track has been lovingly, tenderly, gorgeously hand-picked from the archive of sessions performed for Peel's programmes, spanning [counts] thirty-four years of broadcasting excellence? Bloody hell, even if we do say so ourselves. Our dedicated team of expert music-listening technicians has curated this unique blend especially for your aural delight and, possibly, oral ensquealment. (Side effects may vary. By reading this, you waive all statutory rights.) And because we have total faith in the quality of our product, we believe in being completely transparent with you, our trusted client, about the ingredients that have gone into this unique, one-off, unique, special and unique one-time unique podcast, including the date each was recorded:
(0:00) Ivor Cutler, "Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Volume II, Episode 10" (15/7/1985)
(0:35) The Delgados, "Last Rose of Summer" (16/10/2002)
(3:25) Dawn of the Replicants, "Windy Miller" (28/4/1998)
(6:01) David Bowie, "Moonage Daydream" (23/5/1972)
(10:52) Supergrass, "Pumping on Your Stereo" (23/7/1999)
(14:02) Dick Dale, "Surf Trip" (28/8/2002)
(16:47) Bhundu Boys, "Ndoita Sei" (17/1/1987)
(21:27) Dexys Midnight Runners, "Tell Me When My Light Turns Green" (26/2/1980)
(24:38) The Fall, "He Pep!" (7/12/1995)
(28:44) Public Image Ltd., "Poptones" (10/12/1979)
(33:12) The Auteurs, "Buddha" (20/2/1996)
(37:29) Eric Bogosian, "The Coming Depression" (10/8/1983)
(39:17) Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, "Give Booze A Chance" (5/5/1968)
(41:51) Super Furry Animals, "Fragile Happiness" (12/7/2001)
(44:10) Boards of Canada, "Olson (Version 3)" (16/6/1998)
(46:32) Half Man Half Biscuit, "Song for the Siren" / "Vatican Broadside" (3/9/2002)
(49:36) Young Marble Giants, "N.I.T.A." (18/8/1980)
The mix is 53 minutes long, and will take up no more than 49 of your hard-earned megabytes should, as we hope, you choose to load it down (or "download" it) to your digital datum storage unit. Sound quality varies because of the nature of these things and because what do we look like, some kind of professional Audacity users or something, geddouttahere.
Listen. Enjoy. Treasure. And sing along! The singer out of Slipknot went to Rome to see the Pope, everybody!, the singer out of Slipknot...
Visit the Keeping It Peel site for more Peel-related wondrousness from around the web.
16 October 2012
(The above in words here.)