09 February 2009

Falling into fancy fragments

As I intimated in my half-baked Soccerlens piece (though the Party of Five line was pretty sharp, I feel), the Arshavin deal is stupidly exciting to me, even if beyond reason. You can spin all manner of pretty webs out of it, all ready to snare the idiot fly. You could take his first two games at the European Championships and transplant the damn-near-transcendent spectacle to your future hopes for the Arsenal. You could see it as a furthering of Arsenal's New Tradition. You could see it as a bold new departure, buying the finished product instead of the half-assembled one. You could look at it in simple military terms: we got a new toy, motherfuckers.

Honestly, the main reason the transfer makes life effervesce so is because it's a good thing. That is -- for all that Arshavin is but a thought experiment for now -- it stands in contrast to the rest of Arsenal's season. (I know -- dry those tears.) The comedown from the first two-thirds of last season has been brutal and is still being endured, which means that something like this feels like opening the curtains. (Amy Lawrence wrote in the Observer, "Not since Dennis Bergkamp walked into Highbury in 1995 has a transfer been so important to the fabric of Arsenal", and though she was talking about the off-field Arsenal, it may turn out to be true on the pitch as well. Or Arshavin might be the next Alex Hleb. Who the hell knows?)

The whole Premier League season has been a washout. Note that: not just Arsenal's season, but the whole wretched thing, because to me, they are one and the same. My favourite football season is 2001-'02: a properly glorious Arsenal Double, with a Cup Final win against Chelsea and a league-clinching win at Old Trafford (and a Champions League exit too pathetic to spoil things). In 2002-'03, the football was often just as astounding, but the season was defined by the 2-2 against Manchester United at Highbury. Again, not Arsenal's season -- the season; because that is ultimately how I see the Premier League. When you're paranoid about Man Utd and Chelsea, it's hard to derive any pleasure from their brilliance. (Liverpool just make it hard for anyone at all to derive pleasure from watching them.) And, as we all know, the rest of the league may as well have been a different league altogether for much of the last decade, meaning that for the too-hardened partisan, it's shut off from the fevered reality of the Exaggerated Parallelogram, serving as so many attendant lords. Relegation battles become knife fights between recently unemployed stockbrokers: gleefully compelling, but still knife fights.

Last week, following the furthering of the Federer-Nadal myth (the good kind of myth), I noted: "who wins is now only a part of the matter; it almost seems a shame to reduce it to a simple zero-or-one question." The problem with seeing sport by way of the travails of a particular team is that it shifts the balance so far towards the binary that it overshadows everything else. The whole thing becomes about the outcome; process, with all it entails, be damned. Almost everything gets stripped away bar the catharsis of victory or the dejection of defeat. The teams you despise exist solely for the extraction of ill-earned schadenfreude or bitter frustration. It's like getting your kicks from a coin flip.

This blog was fortunate enough to be born in time for last summer's Euros. Though we were too callow to properly make hay with the tournament, it was a beautiful thing to be allowed to behold. The key to this -- besides the majesty of the football itself, which was kind of important, like -- was being able to just sit back and allow the thing to happen without fretting about how a certain team was going to do. I don't even mean Ireland, in this instance. It's easy to be wrapped up in Ireland's progress through a competition and know that it's not going to affect the fabric of reality too much. (Case in point: Ireland 1-0 Italy in Giants Stadium in '94 didn't prevent Italy reaching the final.) More's the point, England's absence freed up the time otherwise set aside for angsting about the possibility of 'Three Lions' being played on a loop on all BBC stations forever, and instead allowed it to be used to just drink in the goodness. It showed that angst up for the silliness it is. Similarly with the Wimbledon final: it was too big and too good for it to be about tying your enjoyment solely to the success of one participant. For me, the Premier League doesn't have that.

It's not that results don't matter. The hours I've lost here, wading through tables from leagues I have no connection with, are innumerable. To quote myself again, shamelessly, "the beauty may be in the struggle but the struggle is for victory, after all." But stressing the payoff dismisses the rest of the sketch which, as any Monty Python fan will tell you, is often the best part. The fetishising of the result is strengthened by each game being isolated and transformed into apparently universe-defining events. Each moment -- each contentious decision and scuffed shot and questionable substitution -- is magnified beyond its rightful significance, beyond its place in the narrative. It is significant, but modestly so. When a well-turned out yet discernibly smarmy gentleman knocks on your door and tells you he's conducting the Last Judgement, something ought to tell you he's lying. Whatever the truth is in sport, I'd wager that I saw more of it at Melbourne Park last week or in Austria and Switzerland last year than I do on any given Premier League weekend.


Steve 11/2/09 4:09 PM  

That was one of your semi-serious, thought-provoking pieces, wasn’t it? In any case, I liked mulling over a few of your arguments. The one that found most intriguing was your point about binary outcomes. I started out thinking I’d devastate you with a forceful rejoinder making you rue the day you dared counter the near-sacrosanct words attributed to American football coach Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” I was all ready to point out how coin flips are random and therefore uninteresting. It’s not like the opposing forces in the flip were vying for superiority through better preparation, force of will, cagier tactics, or more dogged endeavor. In fact, it’s the lopsided honor and reward to the winner that brings about the competitive juices we so enjoy seeing in the pursuit. If contests gave style points, “equitable” payouts, and fine gradations of hardware to everyone, the do-or-die element of it all would disappear. But then I saw that you made largely the same point in your last paragraph.

I also think that the American obsession with winning has waned a bit. Our military history at one point was a proud standard bearer. Then came Vietnam. As Otto said, “It was a tie,” but giving up points at all, even at the away pitch, was something of a come-down.

Fredorrarci 12/2/09 2:20 AM  

That was one of your semi-serious, thought-provoking pieces, wasn’t it?

Aren't they all?...

As one of Brian's recent posts shows, there is real value in sport even if you remove the competitive element (or maybe it's just shifting the competitive focus -- the goal is not to outdo someone else but, in part, to outdo yourself and to conform to certain etiquette). But for me, competition is very, very important to sport, whether for its own sake or for the significance it lends to the beauty of the thing. I would disagree with Lombardi only because I'm looking at it as a spectator and not a multiple NFL title-winning coach.

(To be frank, if the World Coin-Flipping Finals were on the telly, I'd probably at least tape it.)

On some level, I guess this post is a repeat of a post of mine on Run of Play a while ago. Basically, I expressed my being pissed off with the Premier League, yet being unable to shake myself free from its clammy grasp because of being too deeply involved in its storylines. I should probably stop being such a wuss and just watch more Bundesliga.

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