Category Archives: Personal Memories

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

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

Death, Ritual & Missing Two Riots (Part Two)

This is the second part of this post.

BUT! I didn’t go to the 26th March march either… After over a month of gradual excitement and being halfway through making a splendid protest sign (one side pink & blue, “THIS GOV’T IS SO BAD I’M FORCED TO MISS DULWICH HAMLET FC TO BE HERE TODAY“) I didn’t turn up.

Two days previously my mum had rung me to say my grandpa has been diagnosed with cancer. Pancreatic cancer. The “silent killer”. Undiagnosed, indeed, unnoticed, for a year or so, the black mass has taken hold of him from within.

I had the chance to be driven with family to visit him. On Saturday. The 26th. The day of the march. I had a second of “ahhh, shit…” A strange mix of selfishness and civic duty. But not for long. Of course I was going.

I’ve always viewed my grandpa as something of a great man. Strong. Quick-witted. Handsome. Humorous. Silly. Cheeky. Very very charming. (If I had half of what he has I’d have half of London following the ambitious guff I write here). And given certain family complications, he filled a fair few father figure roles.

This is a ritual. Another ritual. I didn’t go to the football. I didn’t go to the protest. But I did join my family in visiting my ill grandpa. There is a hierarchy of ritual. Some you only ever play with whilst some are so entrenched that they Simply Are. They feel natural, right, part of you. So much so that I feel deeply uncomfortable writing about dying and death in a knowing, rational way.

I fear I’m devaluing my experiences, those of my family and even grandpa’s own, with this Diet Roland Bathes decodifying…

But rituals aren’t a bad thing. They are a fact of life, a vital part of our existence as social creatures. Animals who live for meaning and the buzz of connection.

I feel ashamed to say family tragedies are rituals, but I should be even more ashamed at the thought of lying and saying they aren’t.

The undercurrent to this post, though I shirk from the agony of conclusively admitting it, is that the “realness” of the emotions surrounding death are as unessential, spatiotemporal and kind of pretentious as those of celebrating a goal at a football match… But two points:

(1) Without wanting to be too postmodernist, there is probably a lack of essential truth, and even if there is one, to adhere to it would be so Sovietgrey, so joyless, so rigid that I don’t think it would be living. What moves us is all important.

And (2) Death, “the cult of death”, is the most historic, the most enshrined, the deepest foundationed ritual of all. And therefore the least escapable (not that we should wish to…) Mircea Eliade noted that prehistoric burial sites, having lasted thousands of years for archaeologists or even passers-by have survived whilst the more practical day-to-day living quarters of those ancient societies do not. It “testifies to a very important cult of the dead.” Indeed it does. As does my family’s current activity.

In a thousand years time we won’t be discussing benefit cuts or even western liberal democracy. We certainly won’t debate goalline video technology or even association football. But we will go to funerals. And we will be funereal.

So, in the struggle of three rituals, one emerged gloriously triumphant over the others. I can put it in a league table:

1 Death
2 Politics
3 Football

And as football clubs’ fans tend to claim, but seems to be true in this case, the upper echelon of this table has more history, more tradition, and are – deep in your gut – more real.

I couldn't find a lovely picture of my grandpa holding me as a baby, so I've gone to the other, gratuitous extreme. Here's a Chinese funeral stripper. Enjoy.

Oh, and he votes Tory…

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Filed under Culture, Death, Dulwich Hamlet, Football, Personal Memories, Politics, Ritual, Sociology

The World Cup

There is so much awful about football. It is commercialised to a surreal but ultimately abusive degree. The partakers are far from the Cantona/Socrates ideal. The fans are sheep who don’t know what’s good for them (see: Manchester United fans campaigning against the owners dressed in official replica gear).

And the World Cup is the epitomy of it. A postmodern hypercapitalist slapgasm of mass-inescapability.

But it is also perhaps the biggest ritual in the world. Sorry to get all Durkheimian, but social life exists through and for these rituals. The point shouldn’t be to close off people’s participation in rituals, but to try to claim them, rebuild them.

I adore the World Cup – partly out of strong nostalgia, admittedly – but I hang a DIY glittered & sloganed St. George’s flag from my window, my skincrawls at every single “Official Butternut Squash Supplier to the England Team” type tie-in, I feel a strong sense of dislocation from many other fans.

But I refuse to give up my right as a social animal to this ritual just because it’s fucked up. Indeed, I feel a sense of both duty & fun in doing whatever little I can to deviate it, to Vaughanify it.

Every night I fall asleep dreaming of sporting deviance.

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Filed under 2010 World Cup, Cantona, Culture, England, Football, Manchester United, Personal Memories, Ritual, Sociology

The Glazer Takeover of Manchester United FC

Recently I’ve been cultivating the interesting habit of approaching strangers wearing green & yellow scarves and discussing the political economy & ontology of football fandom. Sort of. And this is a blog post about it. Time to address the elephant in the womb: the Glazer takeover of Manchester United FC and the various things it means, or could mean.

United. Fuck me. What an evocative word. United. United. I Love that word. United. United. United, United, United, UnitedUnitedUnitedUnited. A lot of snottynosed political correctionists erroneously claim that there are several clubs all with an equal claim to the name United. They are wrong. There is only one United. Admit it! As I wrote elsewhere, “The truth, the terrible thrilling dynamic truth, is that there is only one United. The others are wandering, aimless, undead. They’ve been fucked. And we stood back and watched it happen. Though I dare say it was so wrapped up with wider socio-economic transformations that the only way to save these (non-existant) golden years was a vigorous anti-capitalism over the entire post-war period. Too late. Absolutely too late.”

I grew up as a United fan. My mum had been a quite zealous fan since the late 60s, enticed by a decades-spanning crush on George Best. Nothing quite compares with something you learn to adore as a child. You mind is drunk on a nostalgic warmth since before you can remember, your own time immemorial. Wildly subjective, yes, but they did and do mean a lot to me, deep in my guts. My intestines slither like snakes for them.

But my manchild adoration of United hit enormous difficulties when the controversial takeover by the Glazer family finally went through in May 2005. I like many fans had been against it, and had campaigned against it. The takeover was financed by incredible levels of debt, and many of us had very romantic (and impractical) notions of the supporters “owning” the club… The Glazer takeover was a double insult.

Ever since the takeover I have had a lonely sense of detachment from my childhood sweetheart.

The green & yellow (or, gold – apparently) has been adopted as a visible sign of antiGlazerism, that simultaneously manages to be both challengingly subversive and highly traditionalist/conservative (green & gold were the original colours of the club, back in the 19th Century when they were known as Newton Heath). The best of both worlds. The authenticity of both progress and history. Well done! I would say this is the very epitome of what fandom desires. And I’m quite sure once the instability of Glazernomics are sorted out Nike will relish producing a green & gold commemorative kit to celebrate the passing of a regime they had happily worked with.

When I speak to these antiGlazerists in the scarves we talk inevitably about the takeover being “wrong”. No discussion. No question. It was wrong, we assume. But was it?

Of course, as widely predicted beforehand and coming to rotten fruition now, the takeover is bad on a basic level for United fans, in the simple sense that they want cheaper ticket prices (or at least less wildly rising ones) and team improvement.

But one thing that surprises me is that rival fans sympathised a great deal with the plight of United. Why? Why on Earth not take the opportunity to drive a hated rival into the dirt? Why not exploit this moment in the same way United’s former owners were so willing to (with the moves away from shared gate receipts, the formation of the Premier League etc.)? I think this is because, to use Foucaultian language, the discourse of Sport & Sportingness still dominates the more visible discourses of tribal loyalty (one club fandom.) But the fact remains United have historically been… economic… with this sporting ideology. And are thus very lucky to still have good will.

This is perhaps the result of skill media operation, both micro and mass, by the self-organised United fan pressure groups such as Shareholders United who campaigned very publicly against both the Glazer takeover and the earlier (defeated) Murdoch takeover attempt.

So… well done. And now that the tide seems to be turning, that the fans are growing more and more vocally antiGlazer as the oft-predicted financial difficulties seem to be becoming undeniable and affecting United’s sporting progress (i.e. the inadequate replacement of Cristiano Ronaldo)… I’m left wondering how I will feel if the Glazer family is indeed bought out and replaced with a more “fan friendly” (whatever that means) regime. Will I get rid of the sense of detachment? Will I flock back?

I fear not.

The years since the takeover have coincided with my own re-imagining of what sport is, what it means. In many ways this is liberating. Allows me to experience and enjoy things on various levels. I can be in and above the ritual simultaneously. But it also seems to have broken the link between me then and me now.

I write this blog floating deeper and deeper into sport space.

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Filed under Football, Manchester United, Personal Memories, Rebellion, Sport