In 1945 the Dynamo Moscow football club toured Great Britain, including a game against Arsenal. The Russians won and in so doing sparked a mini-controversy. Their supporters and Russian sympathizers more generally claimed that Arsenal was in effect an English national team, so good where they in an age that predated foreign imports. Anglophiles said that Arsenal, whilst the best club side in the land, where not a national select eleven – they denied that the Russians had or could defeat such a team.
This episode prompted George Orwell to write an essay concerned with the question of why, after roughly 15 centuries – the majority of known human history, sports had remerged a significant, widespread, and unifying cultural phenomenon. The period he was writing in meant that he, almost inevitably, focused upon nationalism. That such a diagnosis may not be appropriate now does not mean that it was incorrect then. For my part I think Orwell overstates the case slightly, “it is war minus the
shooting”, but only slightly for his time.
Times have certainly changed both for football and the world it is posited in. reading about the Kaka soap-opera this week should have bought that home, for the former at least. Grimbo has written what I think is an excellent piece on the financial ramifications of this, so I will leave that well alone. Toe treading aside, as a hippy I am woefully unqualified for those sorts of matters. What struck a chord with me was the implication of what it means to be a fan in a modern context. This is something I have been thinking about since the summer, due to a scandalous outbreak of treachery that needn’t be regurgitated again here. So, what does the fiasco with Kaka in Manchester – sounds like one of Rio´s parties – tell us about the point we have arrived at?
The obvious difference from the setting Orwell was writing in is that now in place of an age of nationalism is a cult of consumption. Just look at the American sporting experience to see this in its starkest form, in the country that is at the vanguard of the modern culture. How does this broad, perhaps meaningless, generalization relate to being a fan?
At some point in time football was a local concern solely. Teams were formed regionally of native people, which were then organized under a league system to facilitate the playing of matches in an organized competition. One can probably see the logical step towards Orwell’s thinking here. Or this legacy lingering on when my mate Fenn, the only scum fan I have any sympathy for the poor sod, vehemently argues that all Arsenal’s success is fatally undermined by our south London origins. At some point near conception the game itself was intimately bound up with provincial then national tribalism.
My argument here is that whilst being a fan can mean many different things to many different people, there are 3 broad groupings that cover nearly all, probably with something of all 3 within each of us: fanatics, purists, and conventionalists. The origins of the former, I think, can be traced to the games provincial roots. For people of such a persuasion, even accepting that the geographical element has largely faded, their attachment to their team operates as a form of bigotry, more or sometimes much less wholesomely.
This need not be seen as anything verging on the violent or racist, but rather as a state of mind that willfully rejects rational thought in regards to its thing of preference. It is the unshakeable prior assumption of some inherent superiority, the burning desire of concrete evidence of this, and the rejection subconsciously of anything that undermines this belief. For my part I have always understood my devotion to my football club as soothing the same mental chords as religion might; certainty is a pleasant thing, even if there is no cause or proof for it, so being blind has its gratifications. Put another way: despite a decade and a half of truly staggering dominance against our north London rivals, Fenn still tells me we are a shit bunch of cleaners. He would never concede our dominance, but if he did, lost respect aside, I doubt we would have any common ground from which to discuss football.
Purists are similarly irrational, but with a slightly different focus. They, like nationalists, invest an amount of emotion in the game that is hard to justify against logic, but are able to see something in it beyond the stark, cold summation of results, glory, or prestige. Hugh McAlveny in last Sunday´s Times wrote about the depressing specter of Kaka moving to City, it was that article that prompted me to write this, in it he writes about:
“The demand commonly made by sport that we suspend recognition of everyday reality and temporarily embrace an invented, more dramatic version. The exciting illusion that a mere ball game can be momentous, worthy of stirring us to the marrow, is unsustainable without a commitment of belief from millions…If they (players) aren’t persuaded that the talent to which they are devoting the prime of their lives is something more than an earning tool, we have no right to condemn their judgment but we are entitled to be sad.”
It is the talent that produces the aesthetic appreciation of football as something possible of the truly artistic. It is the struggle to harness this within the players that gives the game its humanity. Purists may be passionately devoted to a team, as much as anyone else, but they can derive a satisfaction from the beauty, humane and emotional or visual and poetic, that not everyone sees. This instinct possibly transcends individual sports, even whilst coexisting with vigorous team affiliations. The best example I can think of is watching Ali box, the grace, skill, and heart are genuinely moving.
So what of conventionalists? There is clearly something of the conventionalist in all fans. I am an Arsenal fan because my Nan beat it in to me at a young age that this, more than any other community affiliation, was my cultural history. What, in my opinion, separates fanatics and purists from those who watch football or claim fan allegiance purely as a social norm they conform to –
it is normal and hip to be a footy fan now in a way it was not 20/30 years ago – is the irrationality. To some people it makes sense to be a fan; you do it for a reason and see things in a way that seems logical. But there is no f**king logic. If it made sense you wouldn’t bother, or perhaps not being a fan would be the sensible thing to do. You could just watch the games and not give a toss who won or lost.
So, to return to the start and the point of this blog, how does this relate to Kaka and what does it have to do with Arsenal?
To my mind, the more players treat their talent as a tool to exploit for financial gain, rather than as a gift to be explored for its own inherent worth, the less the game appears a sport and more as a show. Tarted up in Sky Sports hyperbole and manipulated in the press to fit convenient storylines from poor quality hacks and analysts it will verge more and more towards pantomime. It
will never be WWF wrestling, baring serious rule changes, or a lot of Juve style rigging, but I can’t help but think some charm will die. Personally I cannot believe that all this will be of long term benefit to English football. Eventually paid mercenaries looking for a lifestyle rather than athletic excellence will succumb to more dedicated leagues built on firmer foundations. Just look at Chelsea
now, struggling under the weight of their own indifference, Drogba a poster boy for their malaise, saddled as a club with debt and little to show for it all. Eventually I think we may come to see this period of toy club investment from rich, flash fleas as an anomaly – financial doping as Wenger described it – and history will record their achievements with an asterisk, just as Baseball
Barry Bonds records.´
The fan experience looks set to deteriorate even further, baring a collapse or exodus of the status fans that appear to conform. Players will increasingly be resented, a trend that I find very shocking but also very widespread at Arsenal now, but not for financial reasons. It will be because the bond of dedication between fan and player, one to his talent the other to his passion, will disintegrate. Instead of support that runs both ways in our common goal players will be seen as performers who if incapable simply should not have bothered trying and deserve no encouragement. We saw, maybe heard is more appropriate, the first signs of this with Eboue getting booed: an act that I find unthinkable, but the nature of the game has changed. This deterioration is not due to money as some would have it, if that were the case we would not revere our heroes success either, but because most, many at least, do not feel any sort of affiliation with the game anymore as a pure entity.
I can see why some fanatics want money spent say, why should the spuds, our useless, ugly neighbor be the only one acting like a big time player. I can see why purists have no qualms waiting on the youth, watching that flower, and indulging in dreams of potential. I can see that these are contradictory views and that both can be held by devoted and passionate fans of Arsenal. What
I cannot see is how some wish the club to fail (people do) and call themselves fans, or can show no loyalty or support whatsoever to the players at our club – that the link between club and fans and the stands and pitch can be so irrefragably severed and that can seem proper, logical or ever justified within the fans experience. Frankly if signing Kaka would stretch that trend at our club then I would stick with Eboue, tolerate his tail chasing turns and lost 5 yard passes, than I would sit and watch farce with a bunch of yuppies who think football is the post-modern opera. Ernest Hemingway writing on bullfighting, not a sport but an enacted tragedy, summed up this attitude thus after seeing a matador gored:
“I heard no word of sympathy for him. He was ignorant, he was torpid, and he was out of training. Why did he insist on being a bullfighter? Why did he go down on both knees? Because he was a coward, they said. The knees are for cowards. If he was a coward why did he insist on being a bullfighter: There was no natural sympathy for uncontrollable nervousness because he was a paid public performer. It was preferable that he be gored.”