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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Happy Together

John Crace, beloved author of the Guardian’s digested reads, has written a book called “Vertigo: One Football Fan’s Fear of Success,” which we may suppose is John Crace’s delightful way of offering a point of view into every football fan’s fear of success.

From an excerpt in The Guardian, titled “How football helped me to live with depression,” we learn that he writes about being a Spurs fan in an abusive relationship with a Highbury being demolishedclub that promises glory and delivers heartbreak routinely. Who doesn’t have those? Even Barcelona fans must remember what that was like. He writes, also, about the stability of this relationship, and how it becomes an anchor to normative time and space during his occasional lapses into depression.

I saw myself just doing something that had to be done, something that required nothing of me beyond showing up. I could shout or stay quiet as I pleased, and no one would judge. Or notice. At the best of times, the idea of milling with crowds of shoppers on the high street makes me anxious and homicidal. Yet even when I’m nuts, I feel safe in a football crowd: over and beyond a common sense of purpose with everyone else, I feel as if I’m in a bubble where there’s nothing getting in between me and the moment. All the other worries that are invading my psyche 24/7—“You’re going to die, John, it’s only a matter of when”—dissolve for a few hours. There is no me; only football. It’s the most perfect time off, time out from myself. Knowing there are football matches—and therefore moments like these—ahead is one of the things that helps me survive those days when every minute feels like an hour.

Earlier in the excerpt, Crace writes about a different space, a hospital, where he is admitted during an episode of depression, and which he finds a relief. The hospital is a place where he feels absolutely safe because no one expects him to be “up to doing very much”. This makes it sound a little like the football stadium itself; a place where he can watch life unfold without being too much a part of it himself.

Perhaps any football fan, not necessarily one with depression, may understand this also. It explains the love of watching football as the love of escape, an idea so fundamental that no one talks about it any more. Its minimum requirement is, at best, intensity; not necessarily an active emotion. Someone else owns the means of production. It is “just” a game, so it suspends our sense of the ordinary without asking us to discard it altogether. But it is also a routine, with the same worn-down comforts of work: an industrial pastime. It helps us to forget some things, by making us remember others.

There is an unlikely parallel in, of all places, the universe of PG Wodehouse, where darling audience stand-in Mike Jackson, a cricket hero who expects to go to Cambridge University and compete for a place in that august team, suffers a reversal of fortune and must begin life out of school as a bank clerk, in a thinly-disguised version of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, where Wodehouse himself worked for a while.

At the beginning, Mike feels the absence of cricket in his life like a wound, but Wodehouse, in what for him must count as a sort of searing confessional, remarks that the daily rhythms of work themselves grind down the sharp edges of life, making it something comfortable, reliable; something not worth escaping. Work gives Mike something other than cricket to remember. (And when our hero Psmith blazes into Mike’s life shortly, to upend it with joyous absurdity, one of the ways in which he ingratiates Mike and himself with the grim supervisor is to memorise gossip about Manchester United players and repeat it to the older man, who in that good-humouredly snobbish Wodehouse way happens to be a soccer fan.)

Both sport and work become ways to displace sadness, even boredom. What Crace writes about as a consequence of depression can occur in varying degrees, to—I think—most football fans. Perhaps here is one possible origin of the gentler, less clinical feeling of melancholia that overtakes all of us, even Arsenal fans, now and then.

Where does that put the sadness—and the boredom—of football on a scale of comparison with more private realities? One of the saddest things I have ever seen on film happens in a football stadium. It is the montage of the Boca-River derby in Wong Kar-wai’s most viscerally painful film, Happy Together, where we breathe in the atmosphere of the electrified stadium in Argentina in a few thrilling shots, lashed together in Wong’s almost cubist sense of time, and see, almost in passing, the grieving Lai Yiu-fai in the stands, head pillowed on a ledge, fast asleep mid-match.

It lasts maybe all of four seconds. As in many of Wong’s films, his self-contained characters simultaneously occupy noisy, bustling metropolises full of other people, and a totally autonomous inner world which others can enter only sporadically, if at all. Remember Fallen Angels, in which a mute man, who may or may not be mentally ill, may or may not be having an encounter on an empty football field with a mysterious woman. Here, earlier in the evening, UC Sampdoria have come to play a friendly in front of millions of screaming fans; we have been hearing football commentary, as though issuing from the radio, in the previous sequence. In Wong’s movies, the song floating out from an all-night diner is transmuted into the soundtrack of your life. Football on the TV can bring you as emotionally close to a team as anything. Conversely, and opposite to what Crace writes about, being on the terraces during the world’s most passionate derby can be a perfectly remote experience when the place you are really inhabiting is the wreckage of your long-term relationship.

Wong understands that football is one of those experiences that happen simultaneously on life’s centre stage and in its background. The intensity of following a match in Genoa doesn’t rival or aim to rival the intensity of the Hong Kong you inhabit. There are simply moments when one supersedes the other. His brilliant films of the 1990s struck critics repeatedly as films made like music videos, telling stories about an “MTV generation.” To me, watching now, they are just as easily about an “EPL generation,” a population sometimes referred to in European football as “the Asian market.”

As an AC Milan fan, I planned, this year, to summer like the French aristos in The Scarlet Pimpernel, who spend their whole lives tormenting the working classes, then escape the guillotine by the skin of their necks and then swan around London as though they own the place, marrying well and setting trends in society. Which is to say, unapologetically fabulous.

Manners, especially those inculcated by exposure to Test cricket in early childhood, dictate that it is intolerable to celebrate victories too emphatically. But what is the use of these splendid new imagined communities if not to indulge in collective obnoxiousness from time to time? In football, at least, your stupid joy, smug and gloating, seems forgivable. It’s not a fabulous new job or house or date, after all. Unlike those things, it is relatively painless—and largely accurate—to predict that it will all be gone someday. Why not make a performance of celebration while it lasts?

At the beginning of July, I was also trying to reconstruct another celebration, this one across time rather than space. July 31st this year was the centenary of a seminal moment in Asian football, when Calcutta’s pre-eminent Mohun Bagan football club beat the East Yorkshire Regiment to become the first brown team to win the IFA Shield in Calcutta. The Mohun Bagan victory was a nationalist’s dream. EDITOR’S NOTE: You can read Supriya’s piece on Mohun Bagan here.For all the contradictions of victory in the colonial tournament of a colonial sport, in a country where British imperialists built cities without public squares so that natives would not be encouraged to congregate, the victory was an explosion of pride and joy that emitted light for years together in India.

A century after the events, followed as they are by the radical march of history in Calcutta and India, it can seem like hijacking the event to jump on its bandwagon in retrospect. Yet, to generations of Indians in the decades between the victory and Independence, this hijacking must have been subversive and defiant in itself—a reactive, passive defiance, to be sure, but no less intense for that. It seems okay, in hindsight, to say that a victory of this order could make it beautiful, even necessary, to become a football fan.

Eventually, I wrote the piece in a very different state of mind, on the morning after three bombs exploded in Bombay, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. Having tried for weeks to imagine being a football fan in 1911, watching the red-and-green kites rise in the evening sky, signalling victory, it became impossible to escape back into that world at the precise moment of committing it to paper; and impossible, that morning, to believe that escape would ever be possible again.

Sadness can turn human bone to glass. It makes the flexibility and playfulness of figurative talk—which is the main way we talk about sport—impossible. Thinking about something else requires conscious efforts to forget. Perhaps that much effort is why sports fans ill-advisedly judge each other by how intensely they invest in their teams, as though fandom is an adventure sport in a Mountain Dew ad. Perhaps this is also why we sometimes indulge in morbid calculations of all the things we could be doing if we didn’t pay so much attention to football, invest so much energy in keeping ourselves from falling asleep on the terraces.

And yet, we know that there is no true dividing line between fan and human being, or not much more than there is between football and the world in which it exists. There is a brash, terrific 2003 piece in Le Monde Diplomatique by Francois Thomazeau that describes what Olympique Marseille does to its players, fans, city and history.

[Olympique Marseille] were once the biggest club in Europe, hence the world, and then they slumped to near-oblivion, in a 1965 second division match against Forbach. The attendance that day was 434, including the gabians. Yet I don’t know anybody who was not at the game.

…And they really WERE there. Because that is what legends are for. To take you to places you will never go. Half a million people believe they were there. They have no choice now. Once you have lied, there is no way back. You cannot belie yourself: it is an insult to the myth. And it is taboo. OM has been through its ups and downs, it has gone to and fro, here and there, by and large, never straight at goal. To me, OM is the tide that has been denied us. The Mediterranean is a liar. It makes you believe in stability, in the possibility of a status quo. It seems to say that things can stay the way they are, that the world cannot change.

OM is here to remind Marseille that you can be rich one day and poor the next.

By forgetting some things, we remember others. Football is here to remind us that we can be rich one day and poor the next—in football. Is that a lesson we remember in the parts of our lives unaffected by sport? It seems to me that we carry a lot more into stadiums—into the blue rays of television screens—than we carry out. Perhaps what counts as forgetting in the world outside isn’t actually forgetting, but finding a place to store memory away, and let it come back in manageable installments.

I think it’s the Monumentál, but I may be wrong.

I apologise for any inaccuracies in this summary. Wong is impossible to write about in short declarative sentences anyway; and my Fallen Angels DVD has decayed in the monsoon this year. This is the sort of crudely obvious thing that only happens in real life and never in a Wong Kar-wai film.

thanks to a rich Englishman ridiculed by his countrymen and his celebrity singing-star wife. No doubt their children, too, were named unusual names.


Happy Together

by Supriya Nair · September 15, 2011

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