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 may seem odd to think about football as comedy when it seems to catalyse suffering so effectively for a great majority of its fans. After all, in what other major sphere of secular activity do people return repeatedly to have their hearts battered? Why do footballers—at least in La Gazzetta dello Sport—speak so readily of suffering and sacrifice, in terms that are picked up and incorporated into the way fans talk about their experiences? Football’s ability to evoke pity and terror in its watchers is so great that there are times when it seems inevitable that Aristotle, the premier taxonomist of tragedy and comedy in art, would have been a Panathinaikos fan. Consider the things he taught us. The effect of tragedy on its viewers, he proved, is catharsis. (Football offers catharsis.) Tragedy epitomises the human condition in the form of heroes, grand and admirable men of superior talents and fatal flaws. (Football offers heroes.) Tragedy is marked by a set of formal rules and conventions, in keeping with its identity as a rite of Dionysus, and to communicate a situation to the audience through well-known dramatic cues. (Football bingo, basically.)
This vein could be tapped a little longer, in keeping with the principle that on the Internet everything is like everything else, and so football is like classical tragedy just as much as it is like, say, like ballet, or soap opera, or the film Mean Girls. But the human mind does subsist on metaphor and analogy. We can’t resist thinking of the things we enjoy as art, and abstracting their qualities in artistic terms. So let’s continue to assume, for a minute, that football does lend itself to the connotations of tragedy in more or less the same way as it does to ballet, etc. True, we know of its immense potential for joy and celebration; but apart from those fortunate enough to support a longstanding hegemony, joy and celebration are far less permanent to most fans than football’s capacity for disappointment. At its low points, football can seem so emotionally isolating, such a vehicle of despair, such a tool of self-consciousness, standing out amidst the wreck of a match or tournament or season, reduced to extracting dignity from failure, that it can really take you out of yourself. Right?
Right. And yet, I am reminded of the cosmetic nature of this comparison when I think of this quote from Toni Nadal, uncle and mentor of Rafael, which I just read in L. Jon Wertheim’s reconstruction of the 2008 Wimbledon final, Strokes of Genius: Federer, Nadal and the Greatest Match Ever Played:
Victory does not feel so good as losing feels bad … When you have a son, you are happy. But it’s no comparison to the sadness you feel losing a son. When you earn one million dollars, you are happy. But when you lose one million dollars, it hurts more. If Rafa wins Wimbledon, he’s happy, we’re all happy. But what if he loses?
Maybe sport does teach players a great deal about fear, and human limitation, but this notion still struck me as one that would be counterintuitive for most fans, particularly football fans. What if my team lose the World Cup final? Are you kidding? Do you know what most fans would give for their team to be in a World Cup final? Do you know what it feels like to have your team win a World Cup final? And if you know—as you surely do—what it means for your team to crash out of a tournament, whether in a shock defeat or as an inevitable consequence of their participating at all, and even if you have have never known anything else: You know how, equally shockingly, and equally inevitably, you will come back for the next game. If you stopped coming back, it would not be tragic. It would simply be a suspension of narrative. You just left the theatre before the dénouement.
If you break it down, football is so much about the anticipation of joy—whether on a micro-scale, like the prospect of a goal at the end of a period of build-up play, or the larger cycles of expectation from a player, a team, a tournament, a generation—that every fulfillment, and every disappointment, can only ever punctuate its experience. It can rarely define it. And that is why, odd as it is, I think it is essentially true that football is comedy, not tragedy. Toni Nadal’s formulation of the joy/sadness imbalance seems inapplicable only in the sense that in football, the order of experience is reversed. Every disappointment operates in a minor key, a continuous assonance with the flow of football itself. But joy has the capacity to accommodate and absorb all those conflicting emotions that descend on us in the lead-up to that goal, those three points, that title. It transforms our experience in retrospect. If we lose this derby, or this Champion’s League quarter-final, or this penalty-area contest between our striker and the opposition’s defender, we’re crushed, we’re all crushed. True. But what if we win?
I guess this is a good time to track back and remind everyone that Aristotle wrote a treatise on comedy as well. It has been lost to us, and over the ages, we have scrambled to reconstruct it in relation to the classical comedy of his own time, as well as to the comic arts of our own. Brian has already referred to a defining principle of the comedic art by describing
the kind of classical comedy that always ends with a wedding, the kind that revels in turning the order of things upside down so that it can give you the giddy satisfaction of seeing them turned right-side up again. This kind of comedy is in the business of reconciliation: The king turns out to be wise, the lovers love each other, and the villains reveal themselves to be failures, however things look for a while.
Reconciliation: complicated, messy, but necessary for football to go on. Sometimes it’s Pelé, taking our breath away as felicity personified. Sometimes, it’s looking at the league table at the end of a season and seeing your team exactly where you hoped to see them. In one case, the sheer transcendence of the moment expands what we can guess at about reality: it opens up the possibility, and the expectation, of a better game. In the other, victory is more complicated, but perhaps even sweeter. Our team has fulfilled our expectations, and in doing so, has given us hope for the future, as well as nullified the bitterness of the past. Take that frustrating 2007 Champions’ League final in Athens between Milan and Liverpool. It created no records; it offered no spectacular football; the recent past shadowed it almost cartoonishly. Yet, Liverpool’s defeat, bitter as it was for their fans, could not have disturbed the lees of feeling that their miraculous—and perhaps comedic to a hitherto undreamt-of degree—win over the same team in 2005 evoked. For Milan, on the other hand, victory meant something else altogether. Perhaps the specifics of defeat in Istanbul would not be erased from memory, but on that night in Athens, the past was replenished, and the future made thinkable. Milan would go on.
It may be too easy to exemplify this chain of events. How does a Champions’ League final between two detestably successful clubs epitomise any truth about football, the great majority of which is played far out of the spotlight of such loaded showpiece games? And what if Milan had lost again? They would still have gone on, surely? Perhaps to a deeper crisis of confidence, followed by decline, followed by—to retrace one common scenario in football—swift decline, a fall in revenues, the transformation to a selling club, a sold club (hold on, let’s examine the tragi-comic possibilities of that later), a white dwarf, and then that living insult to machismo, a small club, rattling around in the bottom half of the table—if they were lucky—their rivalries diminished, their flair hamstrung, their chances scuppered and their future bleak. There would be no spotlight, no loaded showpiece games. They would be just like everybody else.
But in all likelihood, they would still have gone on. And that does not happen in a tragic universe.
What, so the goal of comedy is survival? No kidding that’s a handy comparison to make, then. Isn’t it copping-out of this argument to circumvent all notions of football as art, and equate it to—seriously now—life itself? Maybe not. For the longest time, in the absence of Aristotelian certainty, we have understood the opposition between tragedy and comedy as the opposition between the self and the world. Tragedy defines and exalts our humanity in a scary, nihilistic way: the protagonist is a brilliant, accomplished individual, but fatally given to testing his limits, hyperaware of his talents but unable to control his faults. It is what makes us admire him, but it is also what leads to his destruction. It reminds us of our mortality; we weep; we are inspired. By contrast, in comedy, we are being taught to live in a world that owns us quite comprehensively. We are rather effectively rendered as pawns in the hands of an uncaring fate, that allows us to be subject to all kinds of vicissitudes: ref. growing an ass’s head; falling in love with someone who has grown an ass’ head; losing a game from 3-0 up; being relegated thanks to a single bad referee call, and so on. You have to learn to deal with it. It’s not pretty, being told that you can only be happy if you learn your place, and rely on your existing resources, and leave much of your life up to chance and coincidence, which is what the comedies explicitly tell us to do. But how else to go on? You can’t, but you will, as Beckett told us. We come out of a comedy with stars in our eyes. We cannot rise above fate, but we can still dream. That is reconciliation.
After Roger Federer lost the US Open semi-final to Novak Djokovic—comedy much?—last week, Guardian sportswriter Dileep Premachandran sent out a couple of tweets about the wailing and gnashing of teeth that briefly engulfed Twitter. He said
Federer losing is “tragic”? Seriously, how sad are you people? Or how pathetic? Understand what a word means before you use it. #Federer
And went on:
If you want sporting tragedy, try Hillsborough. Superga. Munich. Bradford. Vivian-Foé. Scirea. Deyna. Victor Davis. Antonio Puerta. Get it?
Do I ever. Those are indeed moments when football itself becomes irrelevant in the face of real terror. Indeed, I would go a step further from Dileep’s admonishment and say that they remind us that the art of tragedy is unequal to dealing with death as we know it in the real world. There are events that can never fit into the pattern that the fates weave for heroes. There are no character flaws to be blamed. There is no way to retell these incidents as stories for the purpose of moral instruction.
Those moments have the power to change us, and to change the game itself. They remind us, as Iris Murdoch—a great comic writer—said, that real life cannot be tragic: it is simply terrible. Contrast these out-of-stadium moments with, for example, that time Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi. Zidane is such classic hero material that two thousand years from now human beings will be bawling as they study that film about him. That exaltation you feel when you see him headbutt Matrix is both nihilistic and self-aggrandising. Typical tragedy. And yet, were someone to make a film about The Headbutt today, aren’t the odds pretty high that they would pull back from that scene and take a moment to reflect on the sheer absurdity of it all? Would a majority of us of us find the story complete, or satisfying, if it was told purely as the tale of a superman undone by his fatal flaw? What is it that—there is no kinder way to put it—offers us perspective?
I think it is continuity. Art is capable of suspending time for us: we experience each form of it within its own boundaries of time and space. Football breaks through those boundaries. It is incredibly rare for football itself to grind to a halt. When we follow a team from week to week, season to season, generation to generation, the rhythms of that following develop in tandem with our own. We are fortunate to be able to experience football not only in the heat of the moment, but also in retrospect, and as part of a much longer-running story. The language we use to talk about sport may be the language of art: but it runs in historical time. Nothing ever comes to an end in comedy; as was briefly in vogue in the Bollywood films of the ’70s, the title card that spells ‘The End’ for a romantic comedy could just as easily be replaced with one that says ‘The Beginning.’ Call it life-affirming, call it survival, call it comedy—but there is no way to suffer for football without the expectation that we will also be comforted by it.
Actually I’m not sure he wouldn’t have been one of those wily people who support Manchester United in Europe, or whatever. He could be quite disingenuous.
It may be suspended in accordance with the demands of the external world—war, riots, repression—in which case the rules of its existence change altogether.
You may start your blog about how football is functionally akin to soap operas now. I suggest that someone at the New York Times write an op-ed about how countries with the highest TRPs for soaps habitually win World Cups.
Read More: Football as Philosophy
by Supriya Nair · September 17, 2010