Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Beautiful Game 1. - a post in two halves

Is this one of the great television adverts of all time? I think it might be. Created by the Mexican director, Alejandro Innaritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), we are given three minutes that expertly fuse cinematic quality, wit, excitement, glamour and a meta-narrative to boot. It doesn't get much better than this.

Football, as the Write the Future advert shows, has mesmerised the collective cultural imagination, both locally and globally. But it wasn't always so. Before the age of Sky TV and the big bucks of international oligarchs, football attracted a loyal, enthusiastic following but there remained a great mass of people who considered the game as a prehistoric pastime, a sporting brontosaurus on its way to extinction. Their image of football was of socially disenfranchised men passing through creaking turnstiles and standing on crumbling terraces beneath dishwater grey skies. Players with bad haircuts, bad shorts and bad prospects. Then, the reinvention began. A makeover on an international scale. Football went designer and everybody (even those who knew next to nothing about football) wanted to wear the label, have others sniff the scent on them. New stadiums gleamed. Players, oiled and manicured, modelled Dolce & Gabbana underpants with the word Calcio on their waistbands. Football got funky and sexy. Football, if not writing the future, acquired the power to write big cheques for players, agents, managers and FIFA bosses. Serious fans may see this as a cynical exploitation of the game they love, but the public at large just want to buy in to brand Football.

Today, there are not many areas of cultural life that have not referenced football. From young, whippet-thin men doing the Peter Crouch "robot" dance outside some desolate nightclub to the British artist, Douglas Gordon's 2009 film, Zidane, that followed the every deft move and reaction of Zinedine Zidane during a complete football match (Real Madrid v. Villareal April 23, 2005). Street culture and the culture of the art house cinema have paid homage to the beautiful game. So, has poetry and literature. Take, for example, Tony Harrison's poem V:

These Vs are all the versuses of life
From LEEDS v. DERBY, Black/White
and (as I've known to my cost) man v. wife,
Communist v. Fascist, Left v. Right,

Class v. class as bitter as before,
the unending violence of US and THEM,
personified in 1984
by Coal Board MacGregor and the NUM,

Hindu/Sikh, soul/body, heart v. mind,
East/West, male/female, and the ground
these fixtures are fought on's Man, resigned
to hope from his future what his past never found.

But you don't need the golden tongue of a poet to appreciate that, consciously or unconsciously, football has evolved into an athletic metaphor for the intangible delight and desolation of being alive. "Sport is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and athletes have a greater significance in everyday life than ninety-nine per cent of windbag politicians," wrote the sports journalist, Duncan Hamilton, in his memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don't Kiss Me, "Red Smith, the best sports writer of his generation and most others, believed that "sport is life" -and I wouldn't disagree. It can move people to rapture, like a glorious spring day. It can persuade people to identify with it, and with those who participate in it, in a way that few other things can. It matters. It stays with us like the characters from a great novel."

Football has also acquired a metaphysical dimension in the contemporary mind. It has become a cliche to say that as "the Sea of Faith" began "its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" so football filled the spiritual void and provided religious consolation. According to the late Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, football is "a post modern religion, in that it is perfectly in tune with the commercial needs of mankind, intrinsically linked to business and consumerism. Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods." This kind of idea and language is culturally popular, but it is also fundamentally flawed and excessive. Football's horizons remain narrow and earthbound, whereas religion seeks that which is transcendent and ministers the grace for people to break free from the gravitational pull of earthly powers to seek the heavens. Football is no religion.

But football can be religious. Players making the sign of the cross as they come out onto a pitch. Players gesturing to heaven and some higher power when they score a goal. The Brazilian, Kaká (currently playing for Real Madrid) famously removing his jersey to reveal an "I Belong to Jesus" t-shirt and using the final whistle as a call to prayer. "God Is Faithful" is stitched onto the tongues of his boots and he persuaded teammates to reveal "Jesus Loves You" t-shirts in the postmatch celebration following Brazil's 4–1 win over Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final. Kaká is evangelical about his faith. He lives on a win and a prayer.

There have even been moves in some quarters to find a patron saint for football. Bishop Vincent Eugene Bossikov remains the leading candidate for this honour. Executed by a Stalinist firing squad in 1952 for opposing Stalin's anti-religious laws in Bulgaria, Bishop Bossikov was well-known as a passionate football supporter. He was beatified in 1998 by the late Pope John Paul II. This same Pope was also known to be a keen football fan.

What does this link between football and religion tell us? Exaggerating the importance of this link can only leads to skewed judgements. For every footballer with religious leanings, there will be countless others who simply enjoy the rituals of the changing room and the superstitious charms that they hope will bring them victory. As with any group of people, some will be religious, some nominally or culturally so and some not at all. If there is anything to learn from such links, it is that football has acquired a defining role in our cultural behaviour and attitudes. These coming weeks in South Africa are about to prove that.

1 comment:

  1. Yes a briiliant piece of filming. I just wonder how a devout football fan who has a devout faith compares the two. My guess is that what they gets from one is a quick fix and what they get from the other is a long cure.