Monday, July 5, 2010

Writing Elsewhere

Following my trip back to the Sarrià of a month or so ago I was invited by Mark Fisher to join the UK-based World Cup blog Minus the Shooting. It’s been fun to write for a different forum and without some of the constraints I’ve imposed on myself over here, but mostly I’ve enjoyed the excellent company. In print publishing as in the academic humanities, practitioners are actively discouraged from working in groups, and my failure to meaningfully link up with other researchers - as opposed to just quote from their work - was one of the things I came to regret most keenly about my PhD. Blogs have a refreshingly different approach to authoriety and allow other options than just stamping your individual, true name on things, but my personal approach isn’t all that fresh, and whilst I’m a regular consumer of multi-authored blogs, I had never been part of one before.

It’s not like we’ve had editorial meetings or anything, but the simple act of working alongside others, of writing concurrently in the same space, can put into sharper focus the experience of like-mindedness that is common to many ordinary Web encounters. So for instance it’s not so much that I would like to have been the person who wrote about The Strange Persistence of Robert Green in the Memory (that would be Zone_Styx), or who relived the World Cup of 94 (Fat and Blood), but rather that I can see my own sensibility reflected in those pieces, and enjoy being part of that conversation. I’m keen to work on creating more opportunities for this sort of commonality - hopefully there will be an announcement soon, here and elsewhere - but in the meantime I’m going to borrow for this week’s offering a couple of short pieces I wrote over there, since they also fit in with some of the ongoing strands of this blog.


Midway through the first half of the first-round game between Switzerland and Spain, this happened.

When I was five or six years old sometimes with my mates we used to mark a goal - with sweaters or what have you - grab a ball and somebody would yell tutti contro tutti!, 'everyone against everyone'. I remember this call to arms very well, but quite frankly I don’t recall what happened after that. A melee of some kind, presumably. How do you even play football without someone to pass the ball to? Were instant alliances formed and broken on the field, so that a subset of the mob could get closer to scoring a goal? Did we even have a goal to aim at, or is that part of the memory spurious? Perhaps we just dribbled aimlessly, enjoying the inevitable collisions. I couldn’t say. I doubt that as a practice it lasted very long, we must quickly have switched to selecting the two fellows who would take turns picking players so we could get started with a proper game in short order. This I remember very well. It was done quickly because, especially during the morning break at primary school, each moment was precious, and every second that wasn’t spent playing football, wasted. And we kept score, unfailingly, I’m sure of that, although, since the make-up of the teams changed from day to day, it was only the personal stats that carried over.

I remember the first time we played against a team wearing a proper football kit. We must have been eight or nine years old, and they were kids from the area (but not from our school, I think) sponsored by the local pizzeria. They beat us nine to one. I’ll always maintain that they beat us because they had proper shirts. We were just intimidated by that. Some time later they agreed to play us again and this time we won by a goal. We had had a talk in advance about tactics and what we should do, and we remarked that their superior equipment wasn’t a reflection on their skills, or ours.

What is it that is so powerful about shirts, about the team’s colours? I used to think that it was a primal instinct, hardwired into us boys especially – my memories of kindergarten all revolve around belonging to a gang, and each gang had its own colour, matching the colours of the rooms at the school. (We didn’t actually wear those colours or anything like that, it was more of a symbolic thing.) But what about tutti contro tutti, then? Where does that fit in, where did it come from?

Gangs of adults form around professional football teams at all levels, each swearing to defend those blessed colours. Footballers become simulacra, heroic figures for as long as they wear the correctly coloured shirt. When national teams are involved, they even make you swear allegiance before each game, when you line up for the anthems. And us supporters at home or at the stadium quietly do the same - each siding with the team from our own country because it is the obvious, the natural, the non-dickish thing to do.

What intrigues me about the image above is that it that it makes it look as if Swiss central defender Philippe Senderos had somehow forgotten in a moment of folly that most fundamental rule of the game - it is us versus them, the white shirts versus the red shirts - and had tackled his team-mate on purpose, like in one of those Hobbesian childhood games of ours, where all that mattered was to gain temporary possession of the ball. Of course, it’s not really what happened, the full replay shows that the two defenders were both going for the same ball, and Senderos was quite oblivious of Stephan Lichststeiner’s run. Nothing to do with Senderos being half-Spanish, either, which was one of the insipid storylines on the eve of the game. It was just an accident.

You couldn’t even imagine what everyone against everyone would look like, with adult footballers, in a visual cacophony of differently coloured shirts, could you? Except I suspect it would make a good commercial.

The Game Never Ends

Speaking of commercials, one of the side stories of South Africa 2010 has been the early exit of most of the Nike stars, the chaps who were supposed to write the future. I actually didn't think that the campaign was has abhorrent as it has been made out to be. There was more than a little cheek in Ronaldo's dream of a colossal bronze statue to match the size of his ego and the sculpted iconicity of his Mussolinesque pout, and you wouldn't put it past that character to spit at a cameraman on his way out of the tournament if things didn't go to plan. It was always going to be either the triumph of the will or the fall of the ungracious.

The ad starring Cannavaro was genuinely funny, chiefly thanks to the brilliantly cast Bobby Solo, but I was intrigued by the extended version of Rooney's story, the only one to write in the prospect of failure. In this one the two alternative finales - with Roo either ending up living in a trailer park or bear-hugging the Queen and having all male boys of the realm named after him - was refreshingly open to the possibility that the future would be written (at least in part - digitalben had something to say about this) by the non-Nike-wearing anonymous player mob. I felt that you could do something with that, that it wasn't as tightly controlled and depressingly closed a text as most sports ads are at this level.

Not even hitching its wagon almost as an afterthought to Robinho'star allowed the Nike team to make it as fas as the semifinals. But by far the more emblematic tagline of the tournament to my mind belongs to this commercial.

Having resolved to catch all the fixtures of this World Cup if I could, I was reminded that there is a certain amount of labour involved in watching sport, let alone playing it, and this drudgery is captured here in a formulation that is a concise as it is soul-crushing: The Game Never Ends. And: Keep Playing. Moreover, it applies not only to professional footballers, but to the rest of us as well, who are left with no choice but to embrace that philosophy of sacrifice, that commitment to ever-lasting effort, even in our streets, in our parks, on our beaches. No more of that old “that’s it for me, I think I’ll be heading home” business. The game never ends.

Panning cleverly from one country and one culture to the next, the Powerade commercial paints a vivid picture of global joylessness. It is not so much the other side of top sporting events as it is integral, central to it; it is the very serious business of competing, which is the thing that sport has in common with the corporate world. Obvious as it is to remark, that’s why you’ll find motivational management strategies used in sports teams, and ‘team-building’ exercises and a whole host of sports metaphors, gestures and tics featuring prominently in the workplace. For capitalism to reach maximum efficiency, it is necessary that leisure and work be as indistinguishable as the transition between the two is seamless. Work is play, and play is work.

At the end of the recent, extraordinary 11-hour tennis match between John Isner and Nicholas Mahut, the Wimbledon crowd reportedly started chanting: “We Want More! We Want More!” They were literally asking that the game never end, that it become a substitute of life not just in spite of but in fact because of its failure to produce an outcome, a moment of resolution, somebody’s joy and somebody else’s pain. They just wanted it to be played more, to last longer. This put gladiatorial expectations on Isner and Mahut, the two people doing the toiling; their exhaustion-cum-pain became the thing that the audience fed off of. But it also made being part of that audience something of a mass endurance event.

I get why we are supposed to sneer at the Nike ads and at the cult of personality turned into commodity that they represent, to say nothing of the impoverished social relations and the brutal labour conditions that they conceal. But as we watch the stars of the tournament be eliminated one by one, to make room for the teams that play a better system, make more efficient use of their resources and boast greater productivity, the image of the player of South Africa 2010 becomes the race- and culture-morphing athlete who just won’t stop running of the Powerade commercial. He doesn’t care about winning. He has no dreams, no identity, no history. He just wants to keep playing, and for you to keep watching.

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