07 November 2008

Earning it

As we sports fans know, the best drama is unscripted. (Of course, a lot of the worst drama is unscripted too, but bear with me.) The finale to the Formula One season proved this as Lewis Hamilton lost the World Championship on the penultimate lap and then won it again on the penultimate corner at Interlagos. As Hamilton crossed the line, the Ferrari garage celebrated what they thought was the triumph of their man, Felipe Massa, unaware that Hamilton had grabbed the all-important fifth position. Their joy was checked by one of their own engineers informing them of their error, live in front of millions of viewers worldwide. It was ridiculously entertaining TV.

But as much as I delighted in it, it was coloured by some envy towards the dedicated Formula One fan who has followed the entire season with intent. I was aware of the significance of the moment: I had vaguely followed events throughout the year; I'd had a good look at the standings going into the race; I knew something about Massa and some more about Hamilton; I had a good idea about how it all fit into the history of the sport. But that's just it - I knew all these things; the dedicated fan felt them. I could sense how special the moment was, and it would take an insensate fool not to have been moved by the drama. But switching on the movie as the final scene begins means that your appreciation is superficial compared to one who has been watching from the start, for whom the denouement has the cumulative weight of what has gone before.

This can also apply to football. I've noticed it ever more since one of broadband's tentacles finally slithered its way to this outpost. The internet's main purpose - ripping life into tiny squares which catch the draft and fly out through the open window - is served well by football. It isn't difficult to find yourself having been on YouTube for rather longer than you'd thought, watching stupendous goal after stupendous goal. This was, in fact, how I spent my first hour on broadband, starting with Dennis Bergkamp's goal against Argentina in 1998 and working my way from there through my memory and the Related Videos links. Some helpful souls save us the bother of all that clicking by lovingly compiling some great strikes, almost invariably accompanied by the strains of Linkin Park, or a band that sounds a lot like Linkin Park. Once you've turned the sound off, it can be addictive.

There is much beautiful in a great goal, or other display of skill, that is obvious to anyone watching it. It is a triumph of the game that it is so instantly accessible (aesthetically, to go along with the modern technological accessibility). But this type of appreciation, of something presented as if it were a discrete occurrence, can only ever go so deep. A lot of the beauty gets lost when a goal is taken out of its context. Its full meaning in only apparent to someone who has seen it as it happened, who has seen what went before it. Not knowing when the next goal is going to happen gives it a certain oomph when it does. Goals happen rarely enough in soccer for this to remain strong, yet often enough that we don't get too restless waiting for the next one to come along. The same is true on a larger scale for particularly great goals. It is hard to be surprised after a TV presenter's introductory "How about this for a goal?" or a YouTube video with 'GOLAZO' in the title. There is some anticipation in wondering exactly which of the infinite variety of possible goals you are about to see, but that is minor compared to not knowing whether you are going to see a goal at all.

In feeling the significance of a goal, it helps to know what impact it had on the game. If you're just watching a clip, you might know what the score was, when the goal was scored and perhaps the flow of the game until that point. Even if you don't know all this, any kind of experience watching football will tell you that it probably means something. But all you can do from this is piece together a replica. It is only an approximation of what the goal would have meant if you had seen everything leading up to it. The beauty comes not only from the simple fact, from the particular geometry of player movement and the flight of the ball, but from when, as a better writer than this one put it, "a clear intention emerges to triumph over the arbitrary swirl opposing it". There is no short-cut towards earning this: it only comes from watching the entire game.

Bergkamp's goal was beautiful not only for Frank de Boer's pass or Bergkamp's first touch, or Bergkamp's second or third touches, come to that. It was because of when it happened, because of the game in which it happened, because of the particular round of the particular tournament in which it happened, because of the history of the teams and players involved, because nobody could have foreseen it. If you saw it for the first time on the evening news, you didn't get the half of it.

I'm more than glad that sites like 101 Great Goals exist. I'm glad that the latest wonderstrike from an African Cup of Nations qualifier or a Copa Sudamericana prelim is but a URL away. I'm glad that if I want to - and I will - while away some dead time indulging my sweet tooth, I can. It's still just a half-truth, though.



ursus arctos 11/11/08 5:12 PM  

This is a brilliant post, and the only possible reason that I can think of for the lack of comments is that it is so difficult to improve on.

The Sportscenter* generation has become dulled by a continuous assault of context-free highlights, often drawn from regular season games that are very close to being actually meaningless in their impact on the final destination of the title.

That mindset also allows for the creation and popularisation of "internet phenoms" who rocket to chat room and message board prominence on the back of some nice tricks strung together to an almost always awful backing track.

We like to think that football is different, and even though it is harder to make that argument after the introduction of the Champions League group stages and the rise of Kerlon, some of us believe that it still is.

*Sportscentre if one is in Canada.

Fredorrarci 12/11/08 2:32 AM  

Thank you for your kind words, ursus.

Your comment is pretty much spot on, I think. I suppose I'm part of the "Sportscenter generation", (or whatever the Atlantic's-eastern-shore version is). The full-on Web 2.0 extent of it has only hit me recently, though.

I think that all this is a logical consequence of the initial development of TV highlights shows like Match of the Day. Here is an excerpt from the British Encyclopedia of Football from 1974 (ie. before my time) which talks about the primitive version of the YouTubisation of football:

But the tele-presenters are so skilled in their art that their edited weekend package can easily pass for the real thing - or, worse, become a more than satisfactory substitute for it.

On many weekends the dedicated viewer can see the goals and highlights of no less than five First Division matches. When the FA Cup is in its most intriguing stage sometimes six games reach the screen - all for the price of the electricity it takes to make the screen work.

Even more pernicious - and far more subtle - is the risk that the young fan, weaned on many hours of
Match of the Day and The Big Match, will be disappointed by the real thing when he is taken to the ground and discovers that goals do not arrive every three or four minutes, there are no action replays, that a place on the terraces is not as comfortable as the sofa in front of the fire, and that Brian Clough does not miraculously appear to explain the finer points.

ursus arctos 13/11/08 2:58 PM  


I have a copy of that book, having bought it soon after used copies had made the journey to the Strand in New York ('78 or '79, I'd guess).

There certainly is a link between MOTD and the current phenomenon, but I'm not sure that it is as logical a consequence as you do. The quote is an example of the kind of wrong-headed blather that was extremely popular among club chairmen of the day, who viewed televised football as a threat to all they held holy. Bill Wirtz of the Chicago Black Hawks would have fit in very well in the late 70s Football League.

MOTD highlights at the time were actually quite long (30+ minutes of the featured game, and 5+ of each of the others), whereas the kind of thing that I was decrying are often pastiches that reduce a player's multiyear career to a series of context-free vignettes (often repeated from different angles).

Just as I would argue that USA Today has more to do with CNN than the (old school) New York Times, I would posit that YouTube football clips owe more to Sportscenter and the FIFA line of video games than they do to late 70s MOTD.

Of course, the fact that the producers of the current MOTD take their cues from Sportscenter makes the entire exericse rather like a dog chasing his tail.

Just like on YouTube . . .

Fredorrarci 14/11/08 1:13 AM  

It's late and I don't know if this will make any sense, but...

I take your point about the quote. I do think that whoever first thought up of the idea of the edited highlights package changed the way we think of sport; though as I intimated in the post, it needn't necessarily be for the worse if you keep your wits about you and keep yourself from falling into the trap of believing that the bits you see are the whole truth.

I probably overshot the mark with the "logical consequence" bit. It's probably more of a technological consequence of the evolution from simple two-channel TV to 24-hour cable/satellite networks to YouTube et al, with football swept along like everything else.

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