The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
A television commercial in which the burden of meaning is carried by a shot of a large silver and black map of the world on which the land is full of tiny holes of slightly varying diameters as though it had been stuck with pins only there are beams of brilliant light shining up through the holes and as the map turns in the shot they shine up through the holes more and more brilliantly until the map itself disappears and all you see is a plane of white light upon which a corporate logo fades into view and that’s how you know that a cell phone could help your life mean something.
“YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE”
We’ll start with this, because we’ve all heard it and seen it. A man in a red shirt running toward his team with a grin and a clenched fist; and then, all around him, that candycane sea, banners high and scarves waving, raising its voice in song. It fills the whole area of the screen in your living room, and you (you: who have never been to Anfield, who are not a Liverpool fan) feel chills pass across your body. Not because of the goal, but because of the joy, the beauty, and (though you perceive the essential sentimentality of this; you suspect it of a certain falseness) the solidarity of the crowd in its singing. You,
sitting alone in your house, watching the crowd like a painting.
The game assumes certain proportions. It crosses different thresholds as it grows. One of them is the moment at which the crowd’s creation of an atmosphere—the colors, the chanting, the song—can be understood not as the experience of the people who are watching the match but as an aesthetic element to be consumed by the people who are watching the match: that is, by millions of people around the world who are looking at the match on a screen. Who are not implicated in the crowd’s behavior, but are simply free to enjoy it or to ignore it, without commitment, like any other aspect of the match. This is the moment when the game has exported itself so successfully, to an audience so diffuse, that the impromptu culture created in the stands ceases to retain its original significance and becomes, to anyone watching from the outside, another selling point.
MACHINES FOR BINOCULARS
Fragments of digital information that can be unscrambled by software into pictures resembling a stadium are requested simultaneously from computers all over the world. Tiny points around the world light up. I listen to commentary in languages I don’t understand, watching inch-high, pixellated players crackle and jump around a flicker I think is the ball. I watch matches alone, most of the time, sometimes with the sound on, sometimes while listening to music.
WHAT THE THUNDER SAID
The game changes—even more, the context of the game changes—as the world changes, and at the moment the direction of change in the world is one in which we (we: who are reading the internet; who are writing this) are disappearing into anonymous soft-focus cityscapes,
behind blurred apartment windows, down ribbon neon streets. Rain is distorting the camera lens and on the sixty-seventh floor a light goes out. It would be useless to try to stop history, or to say the game should be what it was in 1974. Useless, especially, for those of us whose connection to the game is only what it is because a truck which is rolling over a pool of water near a manhole cover speaks sixteen languages and knows the diameter of the world.
THE BILLIONAIRE WITH WHITE HAIR AND BLACK EYEBROWS
He has raised prices (reclining in the clouds, sipping from a shard of crystal, with his shirt sleeves rolled up) to help the club meet its interest payments. He has brought the club interest payments because he borrowed money to buy the club and then saddled the club with the debt. The difference between this and forcing other people to buy the club for him is chronological. The motive that has compelled him to act this way is
the belief that the vast soft-focus world is full of vast soft-focus crowds who are about to discover the game and bring huge new profits to it. He has created a model in the minds of many observers in which the club is a smoking black mountain of money down which flow hot bright rivers of its own supporters’ rage. The motive that has compelled him to act this way is us.
The red flares light up the crowd, the smoke drifts down over the lower sections, and the camera shakes with the roar, as Riquelme leads Boca through the Copa Libertadores. Murmured conversations in Catalan sound throughout the Camp Nou while the Guardia Civil tensely lounge outside. Hughie Gallacher lies down on the railway tracks. The faint romantic thrill we feel when when we think about these things will change what these things mean. The crowd sing and raise their scarves to say to each other: You’re here. You’re one of us. And we say, louder and louder each time, until even they can hear us: You’re only where we are. And we’re nowhere.
EVER FALLEN IN LOVE
The game changes as the world changes. As I write this, the African Cup of Nations is underway and is being watched—this tournament, which five or six years ago was of no great interest outside Africa—by people all over the world. It’s being discussed with excitement by bloggers and readers online. This doesn’t feel like cheapening someone else’s stories (although it might, five or six years from now); it feels like discovering new ones of our own. I don’t know what’s about to happen in football. Old ways of relating to the game are fading, in part because of us, even as new ways open up all around us. Is that a cause for hope? Is it possible that football will be saved not by remembering an old meaning, but by creating a new meaning out of what we make of the one we’re about to forget? Are we a cause for hope (we: who are watching the game from a distance; who have no blood ties to a team; who are lights on a map; who are strangers) or only for more desperation?
by Brian Phillips · January 27, 2008