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.
I am here to save your life, and I’m not kidding. This isn’t about the state of discourse on the internet, or nostalgia for some imaginary pastoral of 1950s civility, or making sure I don’t get yelled at in blog comments. This is about you, and how you are going to live in the world. I mean how you’re going to live as a sports fan, but let there be no limit to the revelation: I mean how you’re going to live in every other way, too.
I don’t care about role models, but you can’t tell the story of rage in soccer without talking about managers, so we might as well start with them. Because the truth is, as I am not the first to notice, that we are living in a world in which every coach of any importance reacts to all adversity by blaming someone else, hinting at plots, or gazing into the astral distance and knitting his brow in a way that suggests some dark mysterious flaw at the heart of the game. It isn’t just Mourinho (or Ferguson, or Wenger, or whoever’s in the headlines for it this week). There is an increasingly sweeping assumption abroad that the only thing that can keep a plan from succeeding is injustice, or to put it differently, that if things don’t go your way, it’s because something is wrong, maybe something big. That “something” is important, because it’s never really just about the referee. The anger of managers who are complaining in a press conference often has an abstract, gloomy, even melancholy quality just beneath the surface, which you could possibly explain away as the inevitable sadness of a loss, but which has recently struck me as a sign of something deeper: it’s as if the manager, while outwardly complaining about the referee, is inwardly transfixed by the apprehension of a vastly larger problem, a problem of which the referee is only the easiest piece to explain.
For the Wengers, Mourinhos, Fergusons, et. al., it’s as if soccer itself, the entire system of the game, has splintered into fragments, and the fragments have somehow shifted in such a way that things no longer work the way they’re supposed to. From the outside, the system looks almost the same, but from the inside, there’s a subtle difference, a minor bias against earnest efforts that would succeed if the bias weren’t there. The referee may be the most obvious sign of that bias—its avatar, so to speak—but I think the apprehension itself points to something more vague and atmospheric than conscious and deliberate. That is, I don’t think that Mourinho really believes that real individuals within UEFA are involved in a concrete conspiracy against him. But he also isn’t making things up. He senses that something is wrong, even if it’s impossible to articulate exactly what it is. One of the reasons that the post-game complaints of managers seem so unhinged and rant-y, I think, is that coaches are driven to exaggeration and rage by the need to be specific and plausible about something that probably feels to them like magic.
Maybe that sounds overblown, but is it really so far away from what fans experience all the time? I suspect that one of the reasons we’re so fascinated by, and so hard on, managerial rants is that they give us back grotesque versions of our own feelings. Especially in sports, which is deliberately designed to flood your brain with testosterone, we’ve all experienced that mind-snapping moment where some bit of bad luck or perceived unfairness sends you hurtling over the edge. As fans, we’ve lived through losses that made us think no—no—that can’t be right—this isn’t right, losses that made us feel utterly, metaphysically thwarted. And at those instants when your brain simply refuses to accept what’s happening, “the truth” is a concept that has no relevance to anything you think. You don’t believe or disbelieve, you just know in an overpowering way that the universe is somehow against you, and seize on whatever evidence comes to hand to give form to the feeling. You and your friends jump out of your chairs, point at the TV, and yell gibberish. You have marauding, embittered conversations. And then later, you hear a manager for a different team saying the same sorts of things you were thinking, and it’s so obviously ridiculous, and everyone is making fun of him, and you do, too, even though on some level it feels like an omen.
And all this is totally natural and timeless and circle-of-life—Achilles was a Real Madrid fan. The problem is (and again, I’m not the first person to notice this) that for a lot of people, that rage-tap is getting harder and harder to shut off. Anger is increasingly becoming a default element in how people interact with the games they follow, and that’s true for soccer fans to a much greater extent than most sports fans. It’s becoming a constant. The ubiquity of the unhinged managerial press conference is an obvious symptom of this. It’s as if flashes of brief, intense fury still occur, but instead of dissipating all the way, they now leave behind a weird residue of obscure rage that releases itself in conspiracy blather and persecution complexes. Real Madrid fans think the universe is against them and for Barcelona. Manchester United fans think referees are out to target them (why? because they’re Manchester United); fans of other teams think Manchester United get all the breaks (why? same reason). When you become a low-grade-rage fan, your club is always in the right, and truth has nothing to do with it. “If you simply look at the evidence…” was the cry I heard from both Rangers and Celtic fans after my piece on the Old Firm rivalry last month. Earlier this week, when I was writing for Slate on El Clásico, it hit me that soccer has devolved into a realm a little like politics, a realm where fans’ access to preconceived explanations that suit their emotional allegiances is drowning reality out of the discourse.
The internet has something to do with that, of course, but it’s more a function of the world the internet calls home. Richard’s piece on hyperreality in El Clásico put this in context for me. This is just one way of looking at the issue, and again, it might sound overblown. But it seems persuasive to me that the insane digital-age fragmentation of the experience of being a soccer fan—endless replication, endless mediation, endless interpretation—has meant that fans are no longer in a position to define the meaning of what they see: there’s always another angle, another opinion, another giant voice from the media echoing in your head. Something is always slightly wrong with your perceptions. And when meanings come unmoored in that way, hyperpartisanship becomes extremely attractive. Hyperpartisanship promises to give everything a clear meaning, because it gives you a single, simple principle to test all meanings against. Your club itself becomes the index of all meaning in the game. But hyperpartisanship is always running up against the limits of its own efficacy, both because the games still have to be played on the pitch and because it’s incapable of triumphing over either other people’s competing hyperpartisanship or the displaced media narratives that hyperpartisanship was an alternative to in the first place. There’s still reality, and there are still other explanations. Reality and other explanations are both irritants to the hyperpartisan worldview, but hyperpartisanship can never admit this without admitting that it’s basically delusional. The result is that mysterious, low-grade rage.
And here’s where I save your life. Because the truth about hyperpartisanship is that it is an absolutely miserable and unpleasant way to be a sports fan. No one talks about this, because (a) people who complain about rage in sports tend to want to mourn some lost standard of politeness, which has nothing to do with anything, and (b) because hyperpartisan fans are the most outwardly invested in their clubs, so there’s a presumption that they’re the most authentic or admirable supporters, even if they’re also, everyone knows, unbearably obnoxious. It’s the last bit, the presumption of authenticity, that’s the most concerning, because if you’re just getting into soccer, and you love your club, well, then you don’t want anyone to be more totally into your club than you are. So especially if you’re already surrounded by a lot of hyperpartisan fans in your daily life, your instinct may be to go in with blinders on and drink from the chalice of the faith.
The problem is that by doing so, you condemn yourself to a life of always being at least a little angry about a thing you supposedly love, a life of storing up slights and spinning them into bitter little stories, a life of basically hostile, suspicious, and un-fun commitment to a thing that only exists to give you joy. The sole and entire point of sports is to enjoy sports; even if you think athletic competition has a deeper purpose, that it helps with moral instruction or enforcing community ties or whatever else, it’s only able to serve that purpose because it’s fun in the first place. If your love of soccer has brought you to a point where you’re no longer really able to see the game as something wonderful and amazing except in narrow moments of unequivocal triumph, then you are doing it wrong, no matter how many kills you rack up on the internet. On that note, it’s also not unimportant that the mind-warp of hyperpartisanship is eventually going to make you think and say things that are, let’s be frank, really fucking stupid, and that there’s no need for you to be really fucking stupid just to support your club. Last week I heard from two separate Madrid fans who tortured themselves through an argument that Barcelona are actually the most negative team in soccer, and especially when they play Madrid. Anything is beautiful if you say it is, but like Mourinho’s postgame spy novel, that was a pretty big stretch.
Now, obviously the odds are good that if you’re hanging out on this site in the first place, you’re not spending your nights standing vigil over your Chelsea scabbard and cursing Tom Henning Øvrebø. And if you’re not, this will probably sound quaint in about fifteen ways. But maybe you’re a kid, or a grown-up who’s tired of this stuff. So look: don’t be like this. There’s no reason to. It’s really, really easy not to be, once you decide you don’t want to. The secret is to care, I mean really care, about something other than your club. That thing can be the game itself, or the truth, or just being a reasonable person. You can care about something other than your club and still be totallysupercommitted to your club. It doesn’t mean not supporting your team through thick and thin; it just means being able to tell the difference between thick and thin, and not thinking that your favorite forum, or your group of like-minded supporters, is so important that it throws reality on the wrong end of a greater-than sign. It means doing this for fun, and not for revenge or for a sense of deep-down defining identity, even if you’re a crazy tattooed ultra. You can be a crazy tattooed ultra and still be fine, for that matter. You just can’t be an idiot.
“Here comes Crazy Forum-Poster Rafa,” I used to think during Benítez’s wilder press conferences. In the same way, I remember once making a note, though I don’t think I ever followed it up with a post, about how Alex Ferguson was like a deranged blog commenter filling up the space beneath his own matches.
That’s my impression, anyway, though admittedly I don’t spend much time in water polo forums.
I.e., Waterloo wasn’t won on the playing fields of Eton because people hated being on the playing fields of Eton and got out of there as fast as they could.
Read More: rage
by Brian Phillips · May 5, 2011