“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.”
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.