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.
It used to be that men were men, thighs were fierce, kits were muddy, fields were gouged, and every match was a wet November night away to Scunthorpe. It wasn’t pretty, but English football knew what it was. If you saw a ball, every fiber of a being that had been handed down to you through generations of hard-kneed public-house titans cried out to kick it as far as it could sail. If you saw the Mona Lisa, well, tosh, you’d knock her over once just to let her know you were there.
Then, somehow, things got murky for “Route One as religion”. TV was invented at some point in the 1970s, and there was a girlish team of ginger dancers from Holland that played the game like it had nothing to do with rugby. Everybody started getting rich, you trimmed your sideburns, the rain let up for the first time since 1865, and before you knew it, your son was doing a degree in philosophy and Arsenal was his favorite team. Your own son! It wasn’t all bad, but…who were you supposed to be, exactly?
The vexed identity of English football is not a new topic; often it’s not even a very interesting topic. But, like it or not, it’s the topic that shines forth from Paul Hayward’s Observer piece on Barcelona yesterday. Hayward’s point (which, by the by, touches on a topic I wrote about in these parts last year) is that what he calls Barcelona’s “rhetoric of artistic endeavor” might possibly get in the way of their ability to win. The idea, which has never been committed to prose before, certainly not by Premier League announcers who were accusing Arsenal of “passing the ball about without ever scoring” while Arsenal were leading the league in goals, is that you can play beautifully, but you also have to win, and if it’s a choice between playing beautifully and winning (and it’s always a choice to the person who presents this argument), then you have to slaughter your luscious ideals, and Barcelona (maybe) won’t slaughter theirs, and thus Barcelona will lose (maybe).
Okay, fine. The tension between utility and aesthetics in football is a fascinating topic; I can’t quite embrace it as the basis of a column that doesn’t take it any further than Hayward’s, but you probably have to write fast when you’re the chief sportswriter of the Observer. What’s really interesting about Hayward’s piece is how it stakes out a position with respect to Barcelona’s style by using a technique that I think might represent the exact median of English footballing masculinity at this moment. The technique is to hedge your bets on both sides, or to practice what we might call “the rhetoric of approving by disapproving.”
You’ve seen this before. Every color commentator in every Arsenal game lapses into it at some point. Hayward himself applied it just a couple of weeks before the Barcelona piece in yet another quasi-takedown of Arsenal. The essential step is to set yourself up as someone who cares about the team that plays beautiful football: you dwell in the cosmopolitan present, no partisan of Dirty Leeds, and if the world yearns for a pretty passing move, well, you know that yearning, too. But because you care about the team with the beautiful style, you’re also concerned about them—concerned precisely because you’re afraid that their beautiful style will defeat them, that they’ll be daintily vulnerable to teams that foul hard and thump the ball forward. Thus, making common cause with the aesthetic vanguard, you somehow imply that your darlings might foul a little harder and maybe just occasionally thump the ball. You’ve transcended England to reconnect with England. Arsenal are admirable but just need more bite (cf. “it was all Patrick Vieira”). Barcelona can only cement the legacy of their style by being prepared to abandon it if necessary.
Now, this turn of rhetoric might be based in a sincere consideration of tactics, one that has nothing to do with cultural legacies or anxiety about the self. But in practice, it’s almost always accompanied by just a hint of secret flexing, which often comes through in sudden unwarranted military metaphors or exaggerated depictions of violence (Hayward on Arsenal: “This is no time for sugariness…[they] ought to have wiped out relegation-threatened opponents”; on Barça: “this brilliance must obliterate, too, it must crush”). It’s an air of proving one’s own toughness by telling adherents of “the rhetoric of artistic endeavor” to get real. Maybe you’d rather watch Barcelona than Blackburn, but a murmur in the corner of your brain is telling you that that’s soft (Hayward: “there is also a voice that urges them to kill teams off and not just enchant in bursts”). So you tell Barcelona to turn into Blackburn, and—I hope—you hope they won’t listen to you.
For what it’s worth, and as I wrote last year, I think it’s vital that Barcelona win, too. But I want them to win by enchanting. The “football equals toughness equals hard fouls” equation is historically confused and massively self-defeating, and if it holds and Barcelona’s idealism is a weakness, then reality is cynical as far as this game is concerned. And winners are just variations on the same template of doing whatever it takes.
Paul Hayward’s phrase from yesterday’s Observer.
by Brian Phillips · April 5, 2010