1 October 2011

Love and Death and Football

Let’s start from the consideration that each game of football can be understood in terms of a story constructed over 90 minutes. The manner in which any given game is played determines the content of this story, establishing the horizons of possibility onto which the narrative opens. This is an uncontroversial opening gambit. Now stories that are constructed do not just happen – rather they have authors who construct the narratives, shaping the direction that the tale will take. What I would like to consider, ever so briefly, is the concept of authorship in conjunction with narrative in football. There’ll also be some stuff on Juan Roman Riquelme, prostitutes and Jesus (stay with me here).

The first thing that needs to be established is who, in reference to football, the author is. It could be argued that the fans or the media constitute the author, insofar as they construct the main narratives that haunt the back pages of the British papers on a daily basis – the kind of nonsense narratives like Roberto Martinez being a good manager, etc. Now this is certainly a kind of authorship, but it is limited to our perceptions of the game, not the game itself – whilst the press may provide us with a lens to view the game, they cannot actually play out the games. As such we can discard these budding authors from this discussion. Of more interest will be the manager and the players. Both of these can be seen as being directly responsible for the authorship of the game: the manager by picking the team and setting their philosophy and the players by literally playing the game.[1]

So if manager and players are authors of football, what then? What I would like to suggest is that different managers and players are representative of different conceptions of authorship, and hence of different narratives and styles of football. In the broadest sense I will distinguish between positive and negative narratives and consider these through two figures (both GULag favourites): Fyodor Dostoevsky and Woody Allen.


Dostoevsky and Allen have very different ideas of authorship. Dostoevsky’s notion of authorship is best understood as the provision of time and space for characters to develop within the context of the narrative.[2] This developmental space means that there can be no arbitrary last words in the narrative; it is crucial that all beliefs held are challenged within the context of dialogue, which refuses a last word – there are no lapidary statements providing closure. For example, Alyosha Karamazov is not simply a holy fool – there are points where he expresses doubt with regards to his belief. The refusal of the closure provided by a last word there is accompanied by a measure of openness suggested by the possibility of free acts. The most famous example of this might be within Ivan’s story of the Grand Inquisitor: after the Inquisitor’s long speech Christ responds simply with a kiss. This, of course, is echoed by Alyosha, who, when similarly challenged by Ivan, repeats Christ’s gesture. Alyosha’s gesture, like that of Christ, is a gratuitous act of compassion in response to hostility. Whilst we cannot rule out all pathological motivations for this act, perhaps we can read it as showing that there is the real possibility for free and compassionate response in an imperfect world. What the Dostoevskian notion of authorship holds to be important, then, is the free agent who is not constrained by arbitrary last words. This does not lead to the arbitrariness of actions, however; Dostoevsky does not deny that there is a good, merely the precariousness of our relationship to it. But at least through the freedom that agents possess they are able to work out how they might aspire towards an ethical form of life. This is an incredibly brief summary of a very interesting area, but it does give an idea of what authorship is for Dostoevsky: the provision of time and space in which possibilities can be enacted that can lead to real (moral) growth.

I would suggest that the Dostoevskian idea of authorship is similar to the authorship borne witness to in teams with a more positive style of play. It gestures towards an open, creative game. Rather than possibilities being restricted, they increase exponentially – the team probes and asks questions, both of itself and its opposite, in search of novelty and wit. As a microcosm of this notion, consider the classic number 10 as a Dostoevsky-style author, providing time and space for the flourishing of creativity. Indeed in a previous post we have already considered the playmaker as a creator in a similar respect. The perfect pass can change the dynamics of the game, allowing teammates to escape markers and dash into unoccupied areas of the pitch. This is the romance of the number 10 – he is an avatar for creativity, embodying the most positive aspects of the game.

Allen, however, has a far more negative idea of the author. This is seen in films such as Hannah and Her Sisters, but best in the utterly unapologetic Deconstructing Harry. Here Allen plays the apparently unredeemable Harry Block, an author who has destroyed almost all of his real life relationships, living from whore to whore, only able to function within the fictions that he creates. The work that Block authors is entirely parasitic upon his life and the lives of those around him. There is no real innovation or novelty, merely the recycling of the old. Everything has already been done in one way or another and everything going forward will have been adumbrated and prefigured. There is something vampiric about the author in Allen’s work – he is of the same genealogy as the pervert and the scrapbooker. In contrast to Dostoevsky, Allen’s idea of authorship is about the closure and destruction of possibilities and approaches innovation with suspicion and weariness. Perhaps this is why Allen’s more recent efforts have come across as little more than inferior copies of his earlier works (consider Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanours, for example). Even in his most accomplished films, haggard tropes abound, of the benefits of sleeping with children in Manhattan, e.g..

I would suggest that the author in Allen’s work is reminiscent of the ethos behind a more negative approach to football. Consider those coaches for whom every situation is reducible to a drill that can be repeated ad nauseum on the training field, for whom rehearsed set plays are both the substance and limits of the game. Basically, consider Sam Allardyce. For this breed of author within football there is no room for genuinely creative and innovative players – they are too undisciplined to work within the constraints imposed upon them and too inconsistent to provide for the team over the duration of a game. For this author, it is better to rely on statistically backed sources of chance-generation: set pieces and moves with as few complications (or passes – perhaps it is damning that this type of author might equate ‘passing’ with ‘complication’) as possible.

In the history of football clashes between the ‘Dostoevskian’ football and ‘Allenic’ football have been frequent, perhaps primeval. Maybe the most entrenched opposition would be in Argentina, where the division between Menottistas and Bilardistas provides two clearly defined camps. Menotti’s teams played wonderful attacking football that also got results. Bilardo, in contrast, was schooled in the Estudiantes de la Plata side of Osvaldo Zubeldia, a notoriously cynical team who achieved Libertadores success in the late 60s playing what would be dubbed anti-futbol. Whilst it is not entirely straightforward, we could well understand Menotti as a Dostoevskian author and Bilardo (or, for that matter, Zubeldia) as an Allenic author.

What is important to stress is that these are both just attitudes. On an ontological level the Dostoevskian author does not actually ‘create’ space – he merely approaches time and space in a manner conducive to creative ends; the playmaker does not create time and space – the pitch is finite – he merely interprets the space in such a way as to allow spontaneous expression. Likewise Allen does not reduce actual possibilities, but the repetition and derivation that we see in his work is suggests the finitude of possibility. The two ways of thinking essentially look at the same thing from two angles – perhaps the world is neither as open as Dostoevsky would suggest nor as closed as Allen would suggest. It is reducible, in a way, to whether one is an optimist or a pessimist. Perhaps, as Allen suggests, we should take the pragmatists’ route and go with ‘Whatever Works’. Of course, Dostoevsky rejects this fairly explicitly in Brothers Karamazov (where the notion that anything is permissible in the absence of God is ultimately rejected). Maybe it’s as simple as asking: what kind of story do we want to tell? What kind of story do we want to see told?

This is why players like Riquelme, who constantly creates space and time for other players through his passing, are thrilling. What is gorgeous about Riquelme is the impact he has upon the pitch. Potential is everywhere and you are unsure as to where the danger will come from next. The killing pass, a traumatic event for the opposition, fools everyone, just as how, in an open narrative, the readers are carried away with the twists and turns of the plot.

We call upon the author to explain

I am not saying that the only way to play is like Riquelme and the only way for managers to think is like Menotti. Obviously it is important to incorporate creativity in a team that also has a sense of industry and, depending on your playing staff, you may have to tailor the degree of industry to their ability of your playmakers. For instance, if your playmaker is Jermaine Pennant then your players will have far more to make up for through physicality than if it is Mesut Ozil. What I would say, however, is that there is a positivity, an optimism, about allowing this belief in the potential for creation and spontaneity, that I feel is very important in football. We may not always notice when it is there, but its absence is keenly felt and, as a keen reader, it is something that is always greatly missed.

[1] Of course Steve Bruce is literally an author, having penned such works as Sweeper!, Defender! and Striker! Unfortunately these artefacts will not be considered in this piece.
[2] This reading of Dostoevsky derives from recent work by Rowan Williams. See Rowan Williams, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (London: Continuum, 2008).

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