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.

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Fans on TV

Serbian fan holds up scarf during the 2006 World Cup

I made certain vows and promises, in the days before this started, respecting things I wouldn’t touch, and I can’t break them now. So if it feels like something’s missing from this argument, it’s only that I’m trying to save my soul. You can fill in those blanks better than I could, anyway.

The question of the moment is about fans, and how they fit into all this. Maybe I’m wondering because not being in South Africa feels different from not being in Liverpool, or maybe because all those empty seats make the people who show up stand out. Either way, it’s an approved fact of the World Cup that the games will be stood around by people in party dress, face paint, giant plastic eyeglasses, no tops, styrofoam antennae, and the full heraldry and regalia of modern sports spectatorship. Compared to the fans at normal games—you know, the ones of only life-or-death proportions—World Cup fans are like aristocrats who wear diamonds everyday but finally break out the real ice for the opera. The queen, or Michel Platini, may be three seats away. Hoist the blue mohawk; hold up the family pride.

My question is: to what extent are these people complicit in their own objectification? And should it matter if they are? The background here is an argument I started to have with myself as a fledgling blogger, in a post that’s now slightly embarrassing but that still gets at certain truths:

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.

To put that in terms of the moment, FIFA, ESPN, ABC, and the rest are making tall piles of money broadcasting this game to people in the universe, and the number of people not in South Africa who are glued to these matches cosmically dwarfs the number of people in the stands. (And not only because Section 7D is empty.) Without the fans in the stands, though, this wouldn’t be the same event to that cosmic multitude. Japan-Cameroon in an empty stadium, with no dancing, no cheering, no sudden cuts to men in feather boas, would be a deflated thing. Those who love the game for itself would probably watch it anyway, but its energy, as Klinsmann would say, would be totally different. From out here, fans are intensifying. We need to watch people watching to know what we’re watching for.

So within the game’s order of unacknowledged priorities, how do these experiences compare? Are we supposed to think of the fans in the stands as the most important viewers, since they’re actually there, are proving a commitment, and—by urging the players on in a sometimes game-altering way—are participants as well as spectators? Or are we supposed to think of the billions watching on TV as the most important viewers, since there are so very many more of them, they’re on the outer ring of the concentric order of consumption, and economic reality means that the game is essentially tailored and packaged and timed and presented for them?

At the club level, where the convenience of the TV audience often trumps and offends the physically present supporters, this is a tough problem, one that’s hard to talk about without artificially taking sides. (In particular, I question the halo that sometimes gets over the heads of traditional supporters: people who don’t live by the stadium don’t necessarily care less, and TV is very far from being unambiguously bad for the game. The reverse of those qualifications is also true, of course.) At the World Cup, whose village-of-countries nature makes it inherently a displaced spectacle, I’m not sure it’s a problem at all. No one long for a more authentic past in which you had to live in Montevideo to see the tournament, and unlike at the club level, the fans who go to international tournaments don’t necessarily see themselves as the most hardcore or essential. The local community is only one part of this, in other words. The culture in the stands is a carnival, and you get the feeling that the people involved know they’re on, and want to be on, TV. It’s an Epcot version of nationalism, maybe, but that’s better than some other versions of nationalism, and it’s fun, and the tourists are invisible.

You could even say that this is one of the genuine happinesses of the World Cup: everybody’s sharing. That said, isn’t there something amazing about how seamless all this is—that we’ve arrived at a moment when it makes intuitive sense that the people in the stands for the biggest games on the planet are entertained by being part of the entertainment, and when this enormous nowhere where the rest of us live during these events (this year’s decor: South Africa) runs so easily through the semantics of about five different layers of avatars? It’s an incredible field of complexity around the experience of just watching a game, and we barely have to think about it.

I don’t know; maybe the best way not to panic about all this is to think of the media as an unwitting instrument. This is a time when we’re all supposed to turn frenzied nationalism into a form of global unity, and people watching people could be the best, even the only, way to make that happen. That’s not to say that the media, with its hierarchies of objectification, isn’t troubling. But it isn’t hopeless.

Photos from the Ivory Coast-Serbia match at the 2006 World Cup, taken by Hadi Barkat.


Fans on TV

by Brian Phillips · June 14, 2010

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