Gareth Bale reinvents the interview; how Cicero influenced modern fan culture and what’s the point of international sport? 

28th September, 2019

I went to Crystal Palace vs Norwich at Selhurst Park today. Palace won 2-0. The highlight of the day was after the game at the home fans’ pub The Cherry Tree. The DJ, a husband and wife duo wearing full kit, played ‘Sweet Caroline’ three times in a row, though nobody seemed to notice. Red and blue disco lights were projected onto the ceiling and men stood on the tables holding their pints aloft. Imagine the scenes if Palace had beaten someone good; imagine if they’d beaten Brighton! The younger men – almost everyone in the pub was a man – regularly ducked into the toilet cubicles. Palace fans take the most drugs at matches, according to the Fan Survey. The security on the door happily timed their cubicle checks to coincide with the rare moments that nobody was in them. 

14th October

Shockingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, England’s black players were subjected to racist abuse in Bulgaria during a qualifier for the EUROs. One fan held up a jumper that took had UEFA’s logo but instead of ‘respect’ it said ‘no respect’. The worst offenders all wore black and grouped together. Some gave the Nazi salute. 

Why is it that some football fans – in this case a section of Bulgaria fans – seem determined to live up to, and even surpass, the worst expectations society has of them? In the build-up to the game, there were suggestions that there might be racist abuse. These fans took this as a challenge. It reminds me of Millwall fan’s infamous mantra ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’. Both a lie and a self-fulfilling prophecy. A lie, because for many fans it seems precisely to be the sense that they are persecuted that inspires their worst behaviour. A self-fulfilling prophecy, because it is only with the worst excesses that fans can maintain the impression that they don’t care.  

20th October

In the days after England’s awful night in Bulgaria, a number of other qualifiers have begun to provide a gloomy backdrop to football’s uneasy relationship with international politics. France’s contest with Turkey became a forum for a number of Turkish players to outdo each other in patriotic fervour as the nation’s troops marched into Kurdish territory. On the Korean peninsular, North and South met in a historic game in Pyongyang. South Korea’s players returned grateful not to have been injured and describing the match as ‘a war’. No fans or media were permitted at the game, though FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, did fly in to watch the game.

Most would accept that football’s adversarial format doesn’t lend itself well to nuanced foreign policy positions. However sportingly a game may be conducted, however pure the spectacle, both teams are playing to win. Pride is at stake. Certainly this isn’t limited to international games. Spain’s El Classico has often been portrayed as a barometer for Catalonian independence. But the potential for conflict is inevitably raised in the international sphere. Sure, having a neutral sphere for nations to meet and compete is an admirable aim. But when that neutrality is so flagrantly flouted by racists, nationalists and warmongers, what really is the point? 

All these qualifiers seemed to do was undermine the viewer’s confidence in international diplomacy and call into question the motives of those leading the game. Infantino expressed disappointment at the North Korean handling of the game. He was also ‘surprised’ at fans being prevented from attending and the lack of media coverage, as if ‘surprised’ at everyday conditions in an authoritarian dictatorship. Greg Clarke, chairman of the FA, started well in an interview with ITV, making all the right noises on the racist chanting and nazi-saluting, before suddenly swerving into a defence of UEFA’s grave concern for tackling discrimination.

Perhaps Infantino and Clarke are really just sleeper agents, bringing down North Korea and diffusing racial tension from the inside. I suspect not. What seems more probable, especially when FIFA is involved, is that a call for political neutrality is really just a plea for politics not to get in the way of any market expansion. Certainly this seems to be the battleground for many sports in their quest to expand. The NBA has been forced into its own soul-searching recently when a general manager decided to express solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong and the Chinese threatened to end the whole tour of the region. 

Having a neutral sphere for nations to meet and compete is an admirable aim. But when that neutrality is so flagrantly flouted by racists, nationalists and warmongers, what really is the point? 

It is striking that when backed into a corner on the issue, many figures at the apex of the game simply abandon the idea of sport as something that brings us together. No longer is football a neutral platform for people to meet but a mere reflection of the societies we live in. If there are racists in your own backyard then what do you expect, they say. You were foolish to have such high expectations about a game. All this despite the game being marketed as exactly that.

Just now, the Asian Football Confederation has decided to pull the final of the Asian Cup from North Korea. There were concerns from commercial partners, apparently. If only these communists would allow a little advertising.

25th October

I finally bit the bullet and watched one of Amazon’s new documentary series: This is Football. Like their Manchester City series, it still feels like an extended advert, rather than a documentary. I watched the one called ‘Wonder’ about Messi. He walks around the pitch. It’s a classico. He plays a pass or two. Later he scores a goal. 

‘He is an artist’, everybody in the documentary says. ‘Everything he does will last forever.’ But it also happens in a second. His decision-making and unpredictability are indescribable. But this mathematician, this neuroscientist and this coach will have a go anyway. He dances the tango. He is the most efficient football robot there is. Interesting angles are raised and then dropped in favour of platitude and montage. 

Most hilariously, the youth coach plays clips of Messi to the current crop of aspiring Barca players. Or at least, notionally to them. It becomes abundantly clear that they are not being addressed in any way. It’s merely another vehicle for someone to lose themselves in Messi rapture. This time, a rather dubious, pseudo-scientific point is made about Messi keeping his feet very close to the ground, even when running, so that he can change direction. The boys look around glumly. ‘Will this be in the test, sir?’ 

I think this is the true organising metaphor for the film. Information is irrelevant. You don’t need to know anything about Messi, you just need to consume him. Fans from across the world are introduced, not to provide any insight or depth, merely to gawp in wide-eyed amazement. The Argentine is presented like a car or a perfume: a perfectly built magical dream player. Yours for €700 million. 

So do Amazon deliver? Not in this documentary. I’ll still probably watch the others though.

31st October

Gareth Bale does an interview with the Telegraph in which he admits that he does not know who the UK Prime Minister is. ‘I follow the golf’, he tells the interviewer, before adding hopefully: ‘I can tell you who’s No 1 in the world?’

A panicked Bale, presumably realising that setting his own questions was not considered normal interview etiquette, offered instead the revelation that he follows ‘stuff financially’. This, Bale’s internal algorithm seemed to think, would neutralise the risk of appearing disconnected or stupid. However, it sounded more cynical, as if he filtered out the human carnage going on around him but checked his bank statement regularly. He’ll be off to China soon, no doubt.

11th November

Armistice day and the moment when football clubs go all USSR and attempt to outdo each other in patriotic fervour. I read somewhere that Arsenal’s press room featured a metal First World War soldier and a cake adorned with pastry poppies and filled with red jam. That’s respect that is. At the weekend, Leicester had a poppyman (man in dark green onesie with a styrofoam poppy head) doing the rounds outside the ground. Perhaps they went around threatening non-poppyclad fans. The outfit certainly looked like an alien lifeform or one of those corals that capture fish and shove them through their poppy-shaped mouths. Tranmere, too, wheeled out a poppy mascot who was fitted ‘appropriately’ with clown shoes, no doubt for balance (it was a touch breezy). If that doesn’t prove these clubs bleed poppies I don’t know what will.

The symbolism of the poppy has been contested almost from the outset. John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘In Flander’s Field’ invokes it to push for others to ‘Take up our quarrel’ and threatens that those who don’t, ‘break faith with us who die’. Others point out that the flower grows in disturbed ground and is a symbol of regeneration and reconciliation after the horrors of war. The Royal British Legion, who sell poppies in the UK and are the driving force in linking the poppy to today’s armed forces, have even trademarked the symbol. In the UK, then, poppies can only be sold by them on behalf of their ‘Poppy Appeal’. Football has become their great cheerleader.

The FA and Premier League seem to have fallen for the ‘war heroes’ approach to remembrance. Indeed, in the UK as a whole, the day has taken on an aggressive edge. Not ‘We Shall Remember’ but ‘You shall or else’.

15th November

Jeremy Corbyn is on the campaign trail talking about football being too pricey. It makes perfect sense that he would do so: a general outrage at the price of season tickets, the availability of an alternative model (German fan ownership) and the fact that none of his rivals can really fight him on the same ground. I imagine Johnson probably calls the game ‘whiff-whaff-and-spaff-ball’ or something and has spent the week trying to explain why he initially included a joke about masturbation in a speech when he might have been helping those who lost their homes to flooding. A quick google search provides no information on Jo Swinson’s football views or if she supports a team. My shit-hot election prediction is that the public will remain in ignorance. The Green Party claim that they had Corbyn’s idea first. An online memo from 2010 states that they had already passed a motion for moving football clubs into co-operative ownership schemes and ‘where the Greens lead, others follow’.

But might Corbyn’s everyman, season-ticket stand actually be further evidence of his London-centric approach? When you look at the most expensive season ticket prices across the Premier League for 2019/20, the top four clubs are all from London (source: statista.com). Though clubs offer a range of prices, Tottenham have the costliest season ticket of £1995, followed by Corbyn’s Arsenal at £1768, then Chelsea (£1250) and finally West Ham (£975). That’s not to say that football is affordable in other places. Some Sheffield United fans will still be paying £513.50, but that is still 25% of their Tottenham counterparts. Sheffield is actually a key battleground in this election, but I’m not sure fan-ownership will give Corbyn the edge there.

1st February, 2020 

The memory palace is an ancient method for remembering large amounts of information. Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, recommended it in his dialogue De Oratore, written in 55BC and it’s still thought to be one of the most powerful techniques for aiding memory. It works by relating the memory of a space – often a familiar building –  with ideas or images that one wants to commit to memory: each image or idea has its own room in the imagined palace.

At Crystal Palace vs Southampton in January, the Palace fans booed when James Ward-Prowse’s name was announced over the tannoy. Initially confused – what possible issue could fans have with someone seemingly so unthreatening as the Southampton midfielder?  – I remembered that Ward-Prowse had played a minor role in getting Wilfried Zaha, Palace’s star player, sent off in an inconsequential fixture between the two sides the season before.

On this evidence, Palace fans are well versed in classical theories of memory enhancement: if Selhurst Park is the imaginary palace housing fans’ shared antipathies, the minor tiff with James Ward-Prowse probably occupies a physio room in the bowels of the stadium. Mark Goldberg lurks in the galleries of the Arthur Wait; Steve Bruce in the Directors’ Box.

The pitch area is reserved for the club’s feud with Brighton and Hove Albion. The rivalry that nobody outside of the two clubs understands (and few inside them) dates back to the 1976-77 season, when a series of FA Cup replays culminated in Brighton’s manager Allan Mullery throwing change onto the floor and shouting at nearby Palace supporters, ‘That’s all you’re worth, Crystal Palace!’ What might seem a relatively minor slight has been inflated into one of English football’s most intense rivalries. Mullery’s actions would have major consequences, not least for the police, who now classify games between the sides as ‘Category C’, reserved for matches with the highest risk of violence and disorder.

The M23 derby at least has its origins in living memory. Football fans, and especially British football fans, combine a unique imagination for conflict with an impressive memory for historic slights. Listening to the chants of fans at the Old Firm derby between Glasgow’s Rangers and Celtic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a rivalry spawned during the Reformation, the schism of the western church that occurred some 350 years before the laws of football were first codified.

 

13th February

A number of social media posts today celebrated the sixtieth birthday of Pierluigi Collina, the retired Italian referee. Famous for his thousand-yard stare and severe looks –  alopecia deprived him of his hair in his early twenties –  Collina was the first celebrity referee: he remains the only official to appear on the cover of a video game, Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer series.

Our celebration of Collina seems as much a response to the anxieties of football’s present, as a genuine a celebration of his brilliance.

Colina’s celebrity, though not yet matched by any current referees, has set a precedent. Today, referee’s private lives are reported on and scrutinised almost as much as the players they officiate. Referees now publish memoirs; Mike Dean’s flamboyance has made him a cult hero (or villain, depending on your point of view); Mark Clattenburg has a regular column with the Daily Mail.

The irony is that referees’ celebrity is growing at a time when their authority on the pitch is most under threat. The introduction of VAR has undermined the notion that the referee is always right.  The official is no longer the ultimate source of truth; instead it’s VAR that provides authoritative decisions on the game’s critical moments.

Collina retired from refereeing in 2005. In the intervening period, a lot has changed in football. Our celebration of Collina seems as much a response to the anxieties of football’s present, as a genuine a celebration of his brilliance. Collina reminds us of a simpler time when the referee was right, and the acronym VAR didn’t send shudders down every fan’s spine.

23rd February

Several adverts on the tube recently caught my eye. They all seem to promise a revolution of some sort, my favourite of which alleges that by renting a property through said website I will be committing an act of ‘rebellion’. I suspect that giving the rentiers more innovative ways of parting me from my cash is not quite what Marx has in mind. Then there’s the Football Index, a trading platform where people can gamble on the performance of players through notional shares in those players. This, too, their ads suggest, will be sticking it to the man. Why just bet on the result or corners when you can bet on how other people perceive those results and corners? One thing football didn’t need was more crowd mentality.

 

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: