Category Archives: Ritual

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

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

The Ritual Which Is Not, or, Seaneen Molloy versus Dulwich Hamlet

Dulwich Hamlet, my local three-minute-walk-away team, agonisingly missed out on promotion yesterday in their Ryman Division One South playoff final away to Leatherhead. Leading 3-1 with seven minutes to go, they lost 4-3 in extra time.

I didn’t go. I had planned to. But I slept through it. Yes, I slept through a 3 o’clock kick off, like a total wastrel.

And I feel guilty. Very guilty! Which is absurd, and counter to much of this blog’s attempts to meander towards a more rationally aware controlled-irrational sporting consumption. I’m sat here wondering – could they have held on the few extra minutes with my voice joining the chorus of what I assume were increasingly desperate howls of “C’MON DULWICH!!”?

(I am aware that the most basic Beginner’s Guide To Chaos Theory suggests that the merest act of me waking up at midday, never mind catching the train, turning up at the match etc. would have altered the course of events and Hamlet could have been 5-o down at half-time whilst a tsunami destroyed Bognor Regis…)

I have clearly got myself a bit caught up with Dulwich Hamlet. I was warned about this, but I worried not. Me? The undercover researcher? A charmingly aloof football flâneur? What chance I’m going to get bogged down in what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz would no doubt label shallow play, in a regional sub-section of the 8th tier of English football?

Well, I seem to have. Bugger. And, indeed, it makes a silly sense that I should be feeling guilty.

But there is a limit to my guilt.

You see, football is not the ultimate ritual to me. There is one that I so adore, I so worship that even admitting it MIGHT be a sociologically definable language game is tantamount to stamping on a little deer’s face, repeatedly, whilst dressed like a Nazi stormtrooper…

Ladies, gentlemen & everyone else – I believe in Love! Courtly Love. Romantic Love. Heart-and-stomach-overflowing-with-aggghhhhh Love. I am told that reading Roland Barthes’ (whose Mythologies was a great influence on me starting this blog) A Lover’s Discourse can make someone stop using the phrase “I Love You.” Fuck that! I’m terrified of such a book! Bring me a copy of it and I shall bring you a glorious bookburning.

The reason I slept all of yesterday was because Seaneen, my girlfriend, and I had one of our impromptu all nighters of drink and fags and conversation. For about 12 hours we sat around, dreamily each others’, eyes burning madly at each other, hearts straining at ribcages. I don’t believe in Love so much as I believe in Seaneen. She is a magical goddess of a woman. Rationalism can go fuck itself. Religious nutters can blow up as many people as they like. Just let me and Seaneen survive. Thank you.

When it comes to Love I am as rabidly, simplistically, uneducatedly partizan as the average football forum user. And proudly so.

I feel almost dirty for mentioning Seaneen on a blog about sport. She is above it. And I certainly won’t be making any bloody football analogies*. I will not compare her smile (which is beautiful) to a not-forgotten moment from whichever World Cup is currently nostalgically fashionable. I will not compare her eyes (gorgeous, big, blue) with a monolith of a football stadium. I will not compare her intellect (quick, aggressive) with a deep lying foot-on-the-ball playmaker. None of it!

But I will tell you that, with the morning sun pouring down and Dog Kennel Hill Estate waking up, Seaneen walked out onto our walkway/balcony outside our flat. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to do.” She smiled, and pulled off her purple nightdress, and shook her knickers down. She turned slowly – vividly, perfectly naked. I melted inside. And now consist of 76% molten myself.

When we retired to bed at around 11am I had earnest but implausible notions of awaking an hour later to travel Surreywards for the Leatherhead game. I eventually got up about ten hours later. I missed the match. I possibly even cost Dulwich Hamlet promotion. But I woke up in the same bed as Seaneen (this name sends shivers down my spine) Molloy.

Oh, and she can write a bit too.

* – Apart from the title of this post. Ooops.

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Real-Barça-Windsor

How come the FT can today have the headline “Royal theatre captivates the world” whilst the far better – lurid, melodramatic, guttural, miasmatic, transpontine – spectacle of Real versus Barça is castigated?

If the tourist-friendly sterility of the Royal Wedding – or indeed a routine, incident free, overpowering, freescoring win for either Spanish giant in a regular Liga match – is the world’s best then I am happy to slink into my stinking underworld of sporting deviance. As the Notorious B.I.G. once said, It don’t make sense going to heaven with the goodie goodies… no sleeping all day, no getting my dick licked. That is how I view football, music, art. And I like it. Welcome to hell!

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By Far The Greatest Teams The Worlds Have Ever Scene

I’m pretty certain every English football match I’ve ever watched above a certain level (the lowest being Dorchester Town in the 6th tier) has included the chant, ‘We are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen!’

Which is problematic. They can’t all be, can they?

But football is subjective. That seems to be what I argue on this blog. It’s like music. One man thinks The Beatles are the best, another opts for Cannibal Corpse. Meanwhile, I loudly decry everyone as racist for overlooking Parliament/Funkadelic. But then we probably interject the debate with how we like the rivals.

But football doesn’t fit in like that. Or rather, that’s not the rules of the football watching game.

Even a 1990s vintage Manic Street Preachers fanatic, the real Cult of Richey types, would happily consume the music of other bands, of comparables. Could you imagine that dedicated a football fan allowing themselves to do that?!

And fans singing the Greatest Team song (ignoring boring elite clubs who stand a chance to reach what MIGHT be accepted as the Objective End of football, winning the Champions League)… Why do they make this claim? Are they aware of their own subjectivity? Are they ironically making a wild joke? Or do they actually believe it?

And if they are aware of their own subjectivity, why not escape the trappings of a rationalist winner-comes-first mode of football? Why still celebrate goals? Why cheer their team on to promotion? Why despair at failure? Why not go the whole hog and declare themselves the situationist hooligan wing of whichever economically castrated small club they support?

THIS IS NOT A FOOTBALL SCARF.

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Filed under Culture, Football, Rebellion, Ritual, Subjectivity

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

Death, Ritual & Missing Two Riots (Part One)

I missed the Dulwich Hamlet game yesterday, where it turns out they ran “riot” against Fleet Town, winning 6-0. I’d have loved to have seen the navy & pinks swarm over Town’s far more prosaic sky blue. Alas.

But I had always planned to miss the match. There was a far bigger ritual going on, and – dare I say it in the context of this blog – a far more “authentic” one… We brave South Londoners were to converge on Kennington Park, antiquarian scene of public executions, and march hubwards into central London to join the TUC organised (but very multifaceted) anti-cuts protest.

Protests. Probably one of my four favourite genres of ritual. But whereas with many others – especially football – I am very aware of the loose ends of logic, the pretentious suspension of disbelief required, protests are different, no? Even though I understand and accept new social movement theory, protests seem real, immediate, viscerel, objective. Public sector cuts – some at least – will increase inequality, sterilize urban spaces, even kill people…

They feel like the exact opposite of football matches. This isn’t chanting for a colour, a locality, a bizarre sense of “tradition” – it’s chanting to stop the dehumanization of Atos screenings, to keep higher education an arena of creativity, to allow families to live where they always have.

But protests aren’t solemn Sovietgrey events. They are colourful carnivals of raw energy. They are, for that moment, crowds, with the whiplashing hum of chaotic potentiality that comes with numbers and excitement. They are, in fact, what football consumption at its best is, or should be.

Greyfaced rent-a-quotes who dimlier-than-thou dismiss the so-called “madness” or (even more ridiculously) “premeditated” nature of either football hooliganism or protest violence have, simply, never LIVED, and I feel desperately sorry for any spouse they might have, for I doubt they’ve ever been FUCKED.

Numbers + Unity = Excitement

Of course, there may be a handful who come prepared (I dare say at least partly because they are addicted to the adrenaline after previous innocent experiences) but widescale violence comes from a proportionately widescale acceptance, a crowd go-ahead.

And the government had better beware. The kinds of people coming to these marches is indeed being increasingly drawn from from what Mr. Ed Miliband correctly spoke of as the middleground of society. People, nice people, bloody boring people, and they are appalled at the audaciously preemptive actions of the Metropolitan Police – who seem to think they are still dealing purely with a ragtag band of the usual suspects.

There is enormous subjectivity in protest, in political discourse.  And they are very much rituals. But as the current government is seen to be changing the rules, the etiquette of governmental/governed relationships, so too – at lightning speed – does the collectively agreed etiquette of protest. The Ritz, Fortnum & Mason – you simply wouldn’t have been hit a year ago.

We seem to be living in a moment where rules are being forged anew.

But not all rules. Some of the oldest still remain. Which leads me on to part two…

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