Notes on the Epochs of Football

Caveat: This piece is some ideas quickly bashed together.
I do not mention Calcio Fiorentino or Tsu Chu. This is an anglocentric piece.
But, additionally, there is no direct correlation that I know of between these games and it's codification by the British public school system.
Second caveat: In truth, Public Schools, Cities & National/Imperial have much common ground and there is great difficulty in separating them.

Village

Mob football. One parish versus another. Limited rules. Church spires for goalposts. Banned several times by order of the monarch. Often descended (ascended, surely!) into riots. Deadly. Only played once or twice a year, on public holidays.

Public Schools

(Private, actually…) Increased – but varying – codification, different school rules i.e. Rugby. Establishment fetish for young muscular Christian boys. Team-building. Leadership. Amateurism.

Cities

Urbanisation. Industrialisation. Limited space. Establishment fear of gangs and mobs. Development of spectator culture/vicarious leisure. Growing hegemony of ‘Association rules’. Formation of Britain’s still dominant football clubs. Muscular Christian boys, again. Many fans supporting two local clubs (on alternate Saturdays).

National/Imperial

National teams. National competitions. Growth of professionalism and subsequent prominence of northern clubs. The accidental spreading of football round the world. We needed those muscular Christian boys to deal with the Imperial  Other, by the way.

International

World Cups. European Cups. International transfers. Television coverage. Beginnings of sponsorship. Fan travel to away games. National support for clubs (i.e. Manchester United, Liverpool) particularly in international competition. Hooliganism.

Transnational

Bosman ruling. Champions League. All-seater stadiums. Devaluing of national competition. The power of sponsorship. Globalised deregulation, BSkyB etc. Megaevents, Game dominated by Global Cities and most marketable players. Huge inflation is supporters’ costs (gentrification?). Soft power investments (Man City, PSG etc.) Beginnings of a ‘postmodern’ detached football consumption?

And so… what’s next? The epochs listed above do correspond with the evolution of capitalism – not neatly, for these things never are, but identifiably so. There was even a period of crisis over the 1970s and early ’80s (poor quality football, declining crowds, violence etc.) that coincided with the difficult shift from Fordist/modernist/industrial capitalism to post-Fordist etc. etc.

And so, given we live in deeply troubled times, one should expect a subsequent shift in the structure of football.

But to what? A postnationalism of the two most marketable footballers oiled up and one-on-one from every conceivable camera angle every other summer? A fully realised neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics model of state-negotiated dominance? Or does capitalism collapse – and what then for a game that exists in the form we understand it today as a sub-development of that system?

I have no idea what will happen, other than that something will. Something, no doubt, utterly humanity-shockingly debauched… but with just enough nipple tassel of wow! factor to keep us watching.

Economic history is far from my forté, but what little I understand comes from looking back at the profanity of football.

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Youth Football and Cocksucking, Part One: Mud and Grass

“For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually, it is men.”

Clifford Geertz, in his anthropological work Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight, writes a far better account of youth football than I can.

(In fact, it is a better account of sport in general than anything else you’re ever likely to come across. It deserves a fuller introduction than the one I am giving it here, and will do so at a later date. However, I strongly recommend you ditch me and read this pdf of it NOW!)

What am I on about then? Geertz’s account is, as the title suggests, of cockfighting in Bali. But it so captures essential details of sport, ritual, togetherness & competition that I genuinely believe this journal report of illegal 1958 bloodsport in Asia says far more about next Saturday’s football than next Sunday’s newspapers could dream of.

And in this post I want to draw very serious comparisons between what Geertz found in Bali with the equally bizarre ritual of youth football in this country.

ENTRANCE INTO THE FOOTBALL WORLD

And I have personal experience of youth football events (for that is what they are), as an ex-girlfriend of mine had a son. Now aged 12, I met him when he was a hyperactive “out of control” four year old.

To begin with, football was a welcome way to occupy him. Kicking a sponge Early Learning Centre ball round the lounge seemed far more constructive than bribing him with gifts or waiting for him to break something.

He took to it obsessively, diligently copying the moves (and, tellingly, the goal celebrations) of star players, particularly Ronaldinho, then in frighteningly good form at FC Barcelona.

He soon asked to join a local football team. After quite a struggle finding one (they had very little web presence, and even seemed slightly secretive, relying on knowing the right people) he joined one, who in the interests of anonymity (protecting the guilty!) we shall whimsically call FC YouVentUs.

And to begin with he enjoyed it very much. (Of course, from the pseudo-scientific viewpoint of what I considered myself to be back then – an “intelligent” football fan – I fashionably despaired at the undevelopemental football coaching: the muddy lopsided too-big pitch, the “hoof it!!!” play, the lack of individual ballwork, the emphasis on strength & speed over skill & intelligence etc. “This,” I would pseudo-sagely say, “Is why England will never win another World Cup…”)

GAME WITHIN THE GAME

Eventually the strangeness of youth football began to strike me (and irritate/upset my step-son). Slowly at first because, shamefully, I was myself a bit wrapped up in it all (as most parents are). But, creeping incrementally, an ethical question mark became prominent on my horizons.

Here’s my gambit: youth football matches often have a more highly charged atmosphere than most “real” adult football matches.

It seems an absurd statement, but believe me, I’ve been to both. I’ve felt the going-through-the-motions moribundity of, say, Plymouth Argyle v Hull City in the Championship, and I’ve felt the crackling electricity of twenty “my son will prove him[my]self” gutdeep mantras.

And when I say “youth” football I mean YOUNG! I’m talking about under 6s matches – at least.

I imagine most of you will have heard about the wilder extremities of youth football behaviour: rival parents squaring up to one another and/or hassling – even attacking – referees being the most infamous. And, yes, I’ve seen these isolated incidents. And I’ve seen red-faced-with-rage parents screaming in the face of terrifyingly young, sobbing kids for “not performing”. But this represents just the tip of a complicated ice berg.

The main body of youth football culture is one of a quite absurd desperately optimistic role playing fantasy. Coaches, with varying degrees of tragicomedy, acting out Shankly or Fergie or Mourinho tinged Napoleonic wet dreams. Parents, with varying grips on reality, sending their avatars out on a path – the path! – to unlimited glory. And children, oh yeah, the children – what of them? We find them bouncing around a pawn/consumerist continuum, in physical competition with each other, including (especially!) their own teammates.

Very few parents are entirely innocent. I know even I wasn’t. Most are sensible enough to hold themselves back from confrontation (at least publicly) – that is against the etiquette, against the rules of this particular sport. Much like cockfighting, all play must be through your avatar, your spawn-pawn (or in my case step-pawn).

But parents, like cock trainers, maintain their cocks (er, I mean kids) through relations far more complicated and nuanced than simply squaring up to someone, screaming artery-rupturing rage.

Parents give their children one-on-one attention. Pep talks. It’s just friendly man-to-son advice, what’s wrong with that? Just a little unqualified as-seen-on-BSkyB tactical advice, repeated to emphasize, repeated to emphasize,  repeated to emphasize, to make it stick in an 8 year old’s brain… And parents become vigilante physios, patching up their children from the many aches, bruises and depressions that occur. Gently forcing them out – even the most football-obsessed boys had to be sometimes cajoled into playing…*

“…The handler of the wounded cock has been working frantically over it, like a trainer patching a mauled boxer between rounds, to get it in shape for a last, desperate try for victory. He blows in its mouth, putting the whole chicken head in his own mouth and sucking and blowing, fluffs it, stuffs its wounds with various sorts of medicines, and generally tries anything he can think of to arouse the last ounce of spirit which may be hidden somewhere within it. By the time he is forced to put it back down he is usually drenched in chicken blood…”

FETISHIZATION OF EQUIPMENT

Everything was fetishized. And I mean properly fetishized – the kind Marx would understand (though that’s true for all commodities). Especially football boots. Now, companies like Nike, Adidas etc. plough millions into marketing these things. And they are, in a ridiculous sugarcoated way, absolutely beautiful, meaningful things – artefacts packed with aesthetics and science (or the image of science). Special tools to be carefully selected, and payed for at often wanton cost. (Let this website give you a taste.) Often you’d find yourself bumping into a fellow parent & child at the local sports shop, wandering awestruck around the mass of boots like tourists in a famous church.

And it was more than just boots. Parents stroking the team kit lovingly was a common sight. Debates over squad numbers. Obsessions with pulling up socks. Pretentious yet heartfelt punditry, as if a rain-sodden training session was the World Cup final. Little things so normal in mainstream football consumption, but suddenly discomforting in this context.

“The spurs are affixed by winding a long length of string around the foot of the spur and the leg of the cock. For reasons I shall come to, it is done somewhat differently from case to case, and is an obsessively deliberate affair. The lore about spurs is extensive – they are sharpened only at eclipses and the dark of the moon, should be kept out of the sight of women, and so forth. And they are handled, both in use and out, with the same curious combination of fussiness and sensuality the Balinese direct toward ritual objects generally.”

AVATARS

Other parents, coaches, even children will act like parent and child are a connected being, parentchild. I (me!) would be congratulated when my step-son scored: warm smiles, handshakes, well done, welcome to the club. Parents of players not quite as good as him would throw in the towel and pledge their support to me (not him!), whilst the parents of his comparables, the rivals looking for the plum positions in the FC YouVentUs first team would eye me with suspicion.

My step-son eventually began to fall out of favour with the team, however. The coaches were, quite frankly, obsessed with winning. With seemingly no wider self-awareness, both happily told me they would be depressed for weeks if they lost. It was their dream to win the local league at one of the more “glamorous ages”, maybe under 13, and were trying to construct a winning team from under 7s onwards to realise this ambition (this makes it a six year project, longer than many successful managers and head coaches stay in charge of a professional side!).

They were ruthless in player turnover, going to summer holiday training schemes and rival matches looking to “poach” potential players. Within a year, my step-son was the one remaining original player with any chance of getting into the first team. But their win-at-all-costs mentality meant they distrusted his desire to have fun, to play like his heroes, to try audacious flicks and tricks on the muddy pitches of some English wasteland. With stereotypical Englishness, he was viewed – aged only 7 – as too much of a luxury player. And most of all they didn’t like the fact he was, as a July birth, younger and smaller for that age group.

LEAVING THE CLUB

My step-son got sick of it, and I certainly didn’t see the point in it anymore. So, he left. Or, in the vernacular of youth football, we left.

And instead he would play – autonomous, independent of adults – in the park, do keepy-uppys in the garden, go to occasional lighthearted school holiday training days. It was a relief to escape that biweekly irritation – verging on child abuse – of organised youth football.

But then something unexpected happened. Playing football in a park one day, then only 8 years old, he had been “spotted” – a holy word in youth football.

A former England international, newly installed as head of the local Championship club’s youth department, got in contact with me to say the club would be signing my step-son up to their youth development program. “I’ve never seen a player that age with such good technique… reminds me of Gazza… as long as he wants it, he’ll play for England.”

The immediate reaction was pleasure, pride… and a strong indulgent sense of validation of my earlier mentioned pseudo-scientificism against the clowns at FC YouVentUs.

But what actually happened was an intensification of the suffocating organisation & over-the-top ritual that my step-son had only just escaped.

To Be Continued…

*= Of course, I am writing from what might be seen as an especially liberal, wishy-washy position of what parenting should be. On the other extreme, children are there to be told exactly what is good for them. Perhaps the competition is good for them, to prepare them for the war-like state of nature awaiting once they leave their not-so-loving family. But even I, as a committed football fan, can see nothing so especially wonderful about the game that a child should be forced into it. In fact, it is a sluice of the pettiest capitalism (see fetishism above) and I remain unsure on the value of introducing it to my own as yet hypothetical spawn.

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Filed under Cockfighting, Education, Football, Personal Memories, Ritual, Youth Football

Interpretations of the Port Said Riot

"That's the money shot!" roars the shirt sponsoring executive.

I’ve just bashed together a quick few incomplete thoughts on the way people are reacting to the Port Said riot after Al Masri beat Al Ahly. I assume you all already know the basics. My wotsits:
  • A lot of people have been waiting a long time for this grizzly spectacle – a major football event with very clear power and (seemingly obvious) political dimensions. This is what people wish Hillsborough had been.
  • I half expect Ian Taylor to burst out of his grave. Spare a thought for him, he spent a lot of time in the early 70s trying to interpret British football hooliganism in terms of class consciousness. He had one example to go on. One event, when some fans (my memory is fuzzy but possibly Sunderland?) remonstrated with the board.
  • Whilst football hooligan and/or Ultra culture outside of Britain does tend to be more ‘political’, I must point out that in every case I’ve seen political ideology is very secondary to the group identity of supporting a club. Politics is used as an extension and/or defence  of the collective sense of masculinity. I recall a lot of people I know were mightily impressed by the chanting of PAOK fans on the day of last year’s pensions strike. In a dreamy eyed utopian way they saw some sort of revolutionary potential in them. Which, yes there is in all football fandoms – but only if their group identity is challenged by, for example, austerity measures. Why were PAOK fans in London? To play a UEFA Europa Cup match against Tottenham Hotspur, a massive English club with institutional contempt for the riot-strewn neighbourhood kids that can’t afford to see the games played in the stadium they’ve grown up in the shadow of. It is revolutionary aesthetics at best.
  • And lest we forget that whilst our kneejerk utopian reactions may scour for crumbs of Hope Lies In The Firms what possibly seems to have happened in Port Said is that fandom, by chance or design, was harnessed to carry out counterrevolutionary dirty work. And, of course, more profoundly, many are dead.
  • This piece in the Guardian is definitely worth a read. The comparison between Al Masri and Millwall’s “no-one likes us” fan cultures is (a) interesting, (b) predictable, (c) probably quite extreme, and (d) shaped not unlike a convenient coat peg.

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Three Sided Football

UPDATE! A game of three-sided football will be going ahead (provisionally) at Saturday Feb 25th. 11.00am in Deptford Park. Get in contact via the comments if you want to join in, or even just observe.

 

This story begins with a triangle.

In outward appearances I seemed a fairly football-obsessed child. But, in truth, I must have got quite bored of it very soon. I was always daydreaming, drawing and writing of changes, improvements, implausibilities. Ranging from statistically anal fan fiction about goalmachines plucked from non-league obscurity to re-imaginings of the rules of the game, at the tender age of maybe 10 years I was already dissatisfied with the real-world limitations of the game (but clearly utterly enamoured with an essense of its form).

One of my idle fantasies was imagining a three-sided version of the game. I pictured this being played on a triangular football pitch, with goals on each equilateral side, with thrilling match-ups like Manchester United versus Sheffield Wednesday versus Wimbledon FC. I thought this could replace the much maligned League Cup! It was only the realisation that stadiums couldn’t be moved around for a midweek triangular game that killed the idea for me (yes, at that tender age my imagination was stuck with pre-existing organisations and a desire to make the fans pay…  a capitalist realist…)

Nearly two decades later, I have stumbled upon a three sided game that actually exists (as in, it is played by real life people).

It’s not a triangle, it’s a hexogon – as soon as my eyes fell upon the image, I realised the foolishness of the three sided pitch.

It’s not a new game either, and in fact existed whilst I idly daydreamed something very akin to it. Asger Jorn, the Danish situationist, apparently invented it (presumably before he died in 1973), to explain his trilectics (an upgrade of Marxian dialectics) and generally oooh-errr people’s view of football.

As a result, it seems to be mainly played by philosophy students, situationists, psychogeographers, lefties without too much of a stick up their arse et al. The Luther Blissett lot are involved. As is Stewart Home. But I have also heard mention of it being used as a training game for young players.

Interestingly it is the team that concedes the least goals that wins. Whilst in regular binary rectangular football that would probably lead to a horrifically negative game, in heterodox trinary hexagonal football it leads to (distrustful) alliances, i.e. the two teams losing (or likely to lose) can team-up against the superior team with a double man advantage – whilst it suits them.

I really want to play a game. Not really because of the intellectualism surrounding it, though that does indeed whet the appetite, but because I still have that greedy maximalism of childhood. I wasn’t daydreaming of three-sided football at the age of 10 to challenge the role of proletariat and bourgeoisie or the fucker and the fucked. I was doing it because, wow, an extra team, that would be amazing!

But, sadly, attempts to contact people involved with it have been unanswered. It’s as if I’m tring to blag my way into a situationist freemasonry lodge…

If you know of a game, or would like to set one up with me in sunny South London, get in touch. (Warning: I am rubbish.)

(Here’s Sid Lowe writing for Sports Illustrated about it…)

I want to play it oh-so-much…

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Filed under Art, Culture, Football, Personal Memories, Politics, Rebellion, Three Sided Football

Shit! God Damn! Shouldn’t Football Also Be Dead?

(With such a grandiose title this blog post feels far too short. But given I actually want people to read it, this blog post already feels too long…)

Why do so many atheists and agnostics demand rationality of the religious, but not of themselves? Why do they not apply cool logic to their romantic relationships, their proclamations of pop star genius and their sport loyalties?

Sport. And particularly fandom. Here we have something that fits so well with Durkheim’s elementary forms of religious (and, therefore, social) life that I see football fans like myself as inseparable from the dancing naked pagan. An ecstatic, orgiastic ritual. Totemic worship. Blind faith.

Football as the new religion was quite a fashionable line in the 1990s, purely as a hyperbolic catchphrase, something for a twat to blurb out at an advertising meeting (or whatever those shits do). I want to distance myself from that. I think sports were always rich in religiosity, or to give it a truer label, ritualism.

The big difference in Britain is that god has lost its authenticity for most, but sport hasn’t, as the Olympic state of exception we’ll collectively embrace later this year will show.

But the church buggers children senseless… Yes, very true in far too many cases, too much even for my debauched tastes… But in Britain today, based on my harrowing anecdotal experiences of aggressive fantasist football parents screaming in the faces of their children (in public, fuck knows what happens at home), I’d wager more children are abused under the unchallenged umbrella of sporting ‘authenticity’ than in the now-moribund religious sector.

Not that I’m particularly concerned, of course. I don’t actually want you to all necessarily see the (en)light(enment) and fuck off, leaving me the alone in the irrationality arena of the football stadium. The crowd dynamic, the ranting, the screaming, the caring about something not worth caring about – it’s a lot of fun, my head might know it’s meaningless but my viscera certainly don’t feel the same, and it might just be the essence of our social existence.

So why am I writing this? Perhaps I’m compelling you to be like me, embrace the knowingly-comfortable-with-one’s-own-irrationality position. It certainly sounds good doesn’t it? In fact I must sound like a smug self-congratulatory git. No, no, no. The trouble is, once it’s gone, that belief, that faith, it’s never quite the same. I haven’t felt the same about football since that bastard Sport & Society (SOC3052) module started in room 301 of Bastard Building in the Streatham Campus of the University of Exeter. I enjoy football still. Get happy. Get pissed off. But… there’s a gap. Something profound – sublime even – is missing. So don’t do what I’ve done (though obviously I’m playfully risking it, just to spitefully drag you down to my level).

I think what I am saying is… allow the loose-jointed Church of England wankers, at least. All they do is drink tea! (And I find it far more difficult to imagine a CEO of a corporation – a far more ‘rational’ set-up – doing what Giles Fraser did.) Honour killings are bad, viciously awful, but so will be the first under 8s poor performance familial killing when it comes. And it probably will.

(PS: just noticed retired referee and self-styled controversial talking head Jeff Winter has gone bonkers at the Catholic Church, though in more of a UDA manner than an Enlightenment one.)

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Filed under Football, Politics, Rationality, Ritual, Subjectivity

After FIFA? The Sluice Will Only Get Bigger

Just a quick one, but I felt I had to write on the topical issue of FIFA.

The corruption, the stink, the melodrama! The teetering real politic tower of FIFA is wobbling to a newsworthy degree.

Indeed it is a rotten representative for a rotten borough. Er, I mean, “The Football Family”.

But if it goes, what replaces it?

I fear it would be the further control of elite clubs, who have long collectively recognised international football as an inconvenience to their ability to strengthen their growing monopolisation of the sport.

I’m sure whatever takeover or propping up of FIFA would be dressed up in the finest hyperbolically altruistic aesthetics. For the good of the game… But in truth it would facilitate the further privatisation of the game.

FIFA is an utter mess which well deserves bloody execution. But, like revolutions before it, it will not be us without trousers who would take control but our new masters.

To use the language of sociologist Anthony King, this undead relic of the international era of football/capitalism would be removed and replaced by an evermore victorious transnational power bloc.

Expect a European League.

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The Vagina of Imogen Thomas v Seriously Debating Democratic Organisation

There are a lot of miserable old-before-their-time lefties who argue sport is part of a bread & circuses phenomenon of social control.

I like to disagree.

But consider this weekend:

AFC Wimbledon, a democratically run fan-owned football club born of a bizarre, clumsy & ultimately capitalist injustice, win promotion to football league… but low brow gossip and awful Twitter jokes about Ryan Giggs’ naughties continue to dominate the agenda.
Sure, there are principled nuances to the Giggs story in the ethical & legal debates surrounding the use of super-injunctions by the rich. But in AFC Wimbledon there is case study in people organising themselves, successfully so. But what reports of the Dons’ success I have seen have been so simplistic and unquestioning they may as well have not bothered.

Tittilation has won.

This is reason no. 1,527 why the miserable old lefties think football fans are dismissable cunts, and they are right.

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Filed under AFC Wimbledon, Manchester United, Politics