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.

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On Freedom

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by the mega-historian Professor David Starkey, during which the characteristically flamboyant expert on the British monarchy (and self-appointed ‘rudest man in Britain’) broke into a somewhat controversial massacre of contemporary culture with a provocative alignment of 21st-Century life with the more insidious aspects of Imperial Roman society.

Against a paradoxically egalitarian tradition of constitutional monarchy drawn from Anglo-Saxon culture, Starkey argued, Chariot Rider!stands the oppressive political climate of Ancient Rome, whose historical roots, though much thinner in Britain than Continental Europe, are threaded through modern consciousness and threaten to grow as we abandon our sense of social justice.

Even in Britain, where resistance to Roman occupation was as strong as the colonial power’s influence was weak, the cultural wave of the Renaissance gave birth to a fervent admiration of the Roman system of governance, justice, art and culture. Indeed, the swashbuckling military monopolisation of international trade came to be the hallmark of the British Empire as well as that of Rome; Shakespeare learned his Ancient History through Virgil, whilst Britain’s pre-Romantic (and indeed some of its Romantic) poets shaped their work along the lines of their Roman ancestors.

The very structure of our cities, centred around the physical manifestations of cultural and economic might of the ruling élites, is virtually indistinguishable from that of Ancient Rome; international commerce and a labour-surplus economic system enticing millions of migrants from place to place thrive now as they did then; and vast economic inequality is masked by the legend, the cult of celebrity, and the relentless popular satirical dissemination of all aspects of cultural and political life. As a historical bridge towards the idealized vision of ‘pure’ Greek democracy, Rome imposes its brand of egalitarianism on us and we lap it up through lenses tinted with the grey of reassuringly firm pillars, busts and testudos.

But Rome, Starkey poignantly reminded us, was a military dictatorship. Order was maintained with public executions, torture, political backstabbing and costly imperial campaigns. For ordinary people, transcendence came from the Arena. Even as the Empire crumbled, successive Emperors diverted financial resources from military campaigns towards the production of greater and grander spectacles of death, spectacles which an adoring public lapped up in decadent glee.

All of which moves us nicely onto Barcelona. Today, our Arena is a more abstract space; its idealised Form is the football stadium, but in reality, it exists in the supposedly democratised domain of the public media and internet. Our fantasies, like those of our Roman ancestors, are much the same—a search for transcendence through conquest, ownership, sex, dominance and death; as the Romans watched their Senators murder each other and their heroes were the warriors of the Coliseum, so we share links to politicians’ gaffes, enjoy with morbid detachment or righteous coffee-shop morality the bombing of faraway lands, and talk, read and write about football. Amid all this, Barcelona represent hope.

Barcelona’s approach as a team is unique to the modern game in that it is a carbon-copy of all that is attractive, all
that is beautiful and all that is true about football. Football is the satiation of communal yearning; in an era in Gladiators with kids!which the fragmented nature of individual positions on the field reflects the multiple emptiness of barren 21st Century ‘democratic’ culture, Barcelona represent a unified whole, an absolute and physical embodiment of the fundamental creativity dripping down to us from the past, that very creativity which draws us to the game and fills our hearts and mouths. They are more than the champion gladiators of the 21st Century Arena; they connect us with the social ideals fans have imposed on the game since its inception. It is beauty as transposition through imitation, in that it takes the most attractive aspects of technical ingenuity, teamwork and physicality and blends them into a way of playing which comes to embody something else.

But then, is the beauty of Barcelona not more than the highest expression of our own sordid failures in real life? The argument that Barcelona play football the way it ‘should’ be played is little more than a self-evident step down the road to essentialism, as dangerous a doctrine in football as anywhere else. We arrive back where we started; if Ancient Greece is the idealised ‘Form’ of democracy and Rome is our bridge, so too we impose our democratic yearnings on the football which most represents freedom—that of Brazil 1970, Holland in ’74, or just little bits of Maradona—and use Barcelona to bridge the gap.

The paradox is that in their mesmerising ability to sculpt matches at will, Barcelona impose a tyrannical order on the game. Or rather, we impose it on ourselves, as fans; having moved from being a thriving expression of proletarian solidarity to the plaything of the faux-intellectual bourgeois blogosphere of which I am a proud member, football has ceased to be a localised squabblefest. It is ‘universal’. Just as the capitalist system which has nurtured (and been nurtured by) the game implies a kind of placid conformity through total openness, so the game has stiffened. Before Barcelona, beauty could be fabulous wing-play, it could be a single playmaker, it could be a deadly counter-attack, it could even be catenaccio. But with vibrant local tradition having finally given way to the pluralism of the Guardian Sport section, spectators have an entire industry between themselves and the game. Rather than questioning, we wholeheartedly accept the storming narratives presented to us because they are precisely the sorts of reassuring stories we want to hear. We want to see the freedom we don’t have, and we consider it a democratic right to demand it.

While Manchester United lined up in their reassuringly suicidal battle formation for the Champions League final, I couldn’t help but think of the pre-arranged ‘battles’ at the height of Roman decadence, when totally mismatched armies of gladiators were sent out to recreate historical battles. United’s barbarian horde, in unsophisticated 4-4-2, piled into the wonderfully well-drilled Barcelona—whose 4-3-3 as they approach the battlefield shifts to a 4-6-0, or a 4-4-2—and made a marvellous mess of things for about ten minutes before they were duly picked apart. Barcelona played the game as it ‘should’ be played and the crowds roared with delight. They had their spectacle.

As Starkey argued to a baffled audience, political systems whose power comes from the bottom up very often result in tyranny and are much harder to dislodge than top-down autocracies, in which competing factions in the social pyramid create the conditions for genuine thought. Having traded in dictators for denim long ago, we Westerners prefer to think of politics as the choice between religions, sexualities and social lives rather than the fundamental problems underpinning them all. Whilst we have next to no say over the international credit-rating agencies which can cripple a nation on a whim, or the multinational corporations dictating the policies of supposedly popular governments, we are free to choose how we like our football played. We live in a democracy, after all.

Augusto Neto strings thirty passes together and hits the post at www.soccerlens.com.

Sir Karl Popper noted, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, that essentialism, as a process of historicism and philosophical faith, was a fundamental pillar of tribalism. Is there a better parallel in modern society than hyperpartisanship?

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On Freedom

by Augusto Neto · June 7, 2011

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