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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.

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Sail On, Sailor b/w Typical Boys

I sailed an ocean, unsettled ocean
Through restful waters and deep commotion
Often frightened, unenlightened
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Maybe it’s just natural to feel sympathy for these slighted creatures. To see the anguish on their faces as the referee penalises them for reasons they can’t fathom; to see the disbelief register on their tormented visages as a penalty appeal is dismissed; to see one slam the turf with open palms, enraged that the contact that sent him to the floor was not deemed sufficient for censure…Fair breaks your heart, doesn’t it?

Maybe we recognise ourselves in them—in how fate deals them such cruel blows while they can do no more than stand there and accept them, defenceless, or perhaps bark into the referee’s face from six inches away. Such injustice seems to speak to our own lives so clearly that we can only share their pain, yes?

Yes.

I wrest the waters, fight Neptune’s waters
Some of their tackles were outrageous while we
Would just touch a player and there would be a free
Sail on, sail on, sailor

Or, to put it more truthfully: no, not for a second. The twenty-first century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass, as it were. It’s that word up there, injustice, and variants thereof, which are problematic. Justice, in this case, doesn’t mean what players and managers believe it to mean, or what they want the world to believe they believe it to mean in their post-match interviews. Justice is a concept malleable to whatever shape is convenient at the time.

Football is characterised by a clash of behavioural codes. There are the laws of the game—or, because it has been so decreed, the Laws of the Game. These are designed, in part, to ensure fairness. In a morally correct environment, in your crazy-ass utopia, that would be all ye need to know. But, as the band nearly sang, your law alone is not enough. Running in parallel is morality. Except that “running in parallel” may not be an entirely adequate expression when we talk about football. “Running in parallel with the law and trying to trip it up”: that ought to do it. Footballers engage in a constant struggle against the law. Diving, shirt-pulling, blocking off defenders at set pieces, physical intimidation, backseat refereeing: these acts are not performed to ensure the harmonious and peaceful conducting of the game. They are a continual effort to—to use the word advisedly—conspire against the law.

Caught like a sewer rat; alone, but I sail
Bought like a crust of bread, but oh, do I wail
Seldom stumble, never crumble
Try to tumble, life’s a rumble
The penalties are clear as day
I can’t understand why they weren’t given
It’s a disgrace, it’s a disgrace
It’s a fucking disgrace!
Sail on, sail on, sailor

It should be made clear that this is hardly a feature exclusive to elite football as practiced by developmentally-arrested millionaires. It is common to all levels of the game; as it is, indeed, to other sports. Despite their proponents’ occasional mocking of football’s foibles in this regard, they are subject to the same forces. Ask Rosie Ruiz. Or take rugby. For all its superficial deference to the officials, its true essence resides partly in its dark arts—arts darker than a bit of creative falling. One moment, you’re digging your thumb into someone’s eye socket; the next, your captain is telling the ref that yes, sir, he knows, sir, it won’t happen again, sir.

The point is that this kind of thing happens, and that it is natural. Unless your sport is protected by a shield of pathological legal rectitude (though who knows how much cheating really went on in golf before the players had television cameras following their every shot and deliberation?), players will do this kind of thing. They want to win, and will test points of weakness in the law’s structure if it helps them achieve this end. True, what is coyly known as gamesmanship is often condemned, often vigorously. But such condemnation has not been enough to expunge it from the game. Far from it—it is generally accepted, albeit mostly tacitly. This morality aspires to a version of Machiavellian pragmatism: the idea that “saving the state” is the goal, “that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done achieves his downfall rather than his preservation”, that “it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity”.

I work the seaways, the gale-swept seaways
Past shipwrecked daughters of wicked waters
So that is what the English call “fair play”
Wail on, wail on, sailor

Which is all well and good; but which also makes risible the ululations of those who are disadvantaged by technically incorrect officiating. On the one hand, they play by the unofficial code, whose method is to subvert the official code. Yet when this subversion fails, or is outmanoeuvred by the subversive activities of the other team, or when the application of the official code doesn’t suit their wishes, it is seen—apparently sincerely—as grounds for complaint. It’s an impressive feat of doublethink. Like the calls for consistency and common sense in refereeing—two ideas which are often contradictory—it’s a distraction: from their errors and misjudgements, technical and tactical, which play a greater role in a team’s defeat, and from the possibility that the real morality by which teams play might be acknowledged beyond innuendo.

Machiavelli believed that his instructions would ultimately assist in doing God’s will. A football team’s striving for self-preservation aims only for self-preservation. Not even the most delusionally partisan football person believes that there is a higher purpose than that. (Do they?) Yet a higher purpose—justice—is routinely invoked. But when you actively work against justice, all bets are off. When you try to harness the power of Neptune and he responds by capsizing your flotilla, don’t be surprised when your curses get smothered in the briny.

Always needing, even bleeding
Never feeding all my feelings
I do not know if he is a referee or a thief
There are no words to describe
The person that was on the pitch here
Stop the crying and the lying
And the sighing and my dying

Because the winds are their own justice. You don’t like it? You want to feel cold, pliable certainty beneath your fingertips? Become a butcher. You’re in the navy now.

Ah how shameless — the way these mortals blame the gods
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes
Typical girls get upset too quickly
Typical girls can’t control themselves…

Fredorrarci blogs about football, snooker, bicycling, pop music, and other assorted arcana at Sport Is a TV Show.

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Sail On, Sailor b/w Typical Boys

by Fredorrarci · May 14, 2009

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