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Delight and Disgust: On the Contradictions and Complicities of Soccer

ENOUGH WITH THE “poetry” of soccer. Poets are not transferred between universities for upward of $200 million dollars. There are no stadiums being constructed by quasi-slave labor in the Qatari desert to seat the attendees for the 2022 World Poetry Championships. I know of no oil sheikh or Russian klepto-capitalist or American hedge fund manager spending his billions to compile rosters of the best poets on earth. The “beautiful game” is as wholly conscripted into late-capitalist excess as poetry is irrelevant to it.

A poetics of soccer, on the other hand — which is to say, an account of the game as a phenomenological experience, an inquiry into the fraught ecstasies of fandom, a delving into the contraction and expansion of time from first to last whistle, an exploration of the presence of history that lingers inside of momentous moments — is the brilliant enterprise philosopher Simon Critchley has undertaken in his new book, What We Think About When We Think About Soccer.

As neither a sports journalist nor a former professional player, Critchley exists mercifully outside the culture of sentimental narratives by which sports commentary is usually — and, let’s face it, stupidly — offered to us. He’s a fan of the game who is somewhat disgusted by his own fandom. He refuses to look away from the behind-the-scenes machinations that bring the sport to its worldwide audience — the petro-dollars, sovereign wealth funds, greedy agents, corporate sponsors, and “the autocracy and sump of corruption that is FIFA,” soccer’s world governing body. (I use “soccer” and “football” more or less interchangeably in this review, though Critchley helpfully explodes the myth that “soccer” is simply an Americanism: at least through the 1970s, the term — derived from “association football” — was commonly heard in England as well.)

The money in the game is only one problem among many, but of the problems soccer has, it’s the most systemic and corrosive. That a socialistic game has become so inextricably tied to capitalistic greed Critchley calls the “profound contradiction” at the heart of contemporary world soccer:

[Soccer’s] form is association, socialism, the sociability and collective action of players and fans, and yet its material substrate is money: dirty money, often from highly questionable, under-scrutinized sources […] It is a monetized and sometimes unbearable spectacle of whatever period of capitalism (late, really late, last minute, or even end-of-days) we are trying to survive through. It can be hideous. And yet I still insist that football is not just that. It is much more.

The burden of Critchley’s book is this “much more.” He wants to pry the game as a phenomenon out of the teeth of the material circumstances that now shape it. And, crucially, he wants to do this without excusing the game — or recusing its fans — from complicity in the economic and social structures that govern outside the touch lines on the pitch.

It has long troubled me that if I were to subject world soccer to the same scrutiny I give my coffee beans — fair trade, organic, shade-grown, purchased at a B Corp grocery retailer — the only real conclusion I could come to would be that soccer is an unethical product to consume. Earlier this year, two of the richest clubs in the world, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, faced off in the knockout stages of the Champions League tournament. Salary reports are always sketchy, but there was almost unquestionably a billion dollars worth of players on the field. Where, exactly, those billions come from depends on how much access you have to the inner workings of the Qatari government’s sovereign wealth fund, the ownership group behind PSG. And it’s equally hard to forget, watching Real Madrid dart across the field in their white uniforms, that Los Blancos were the favorite team of General Franco — white knights for the centralized power of Madrid, their supremacy on the field a stand-in for the supremacy of the Castilians over the Catalans in Barcelona and the Basques in Bilbao. This is dirty money wed to dirty politics, and we haven’t even discussed the rampant hooliganism, the bananas-thrown-onto-the-pitch racial abuse still suffered in some places by black players, or the fuel soccer provides for the worst kinds of nationalistic and tribal identifications. Critchley doesn’t stint on indicting world soccer on the full list of charges: “Capitalism, commodification, colonialism, nationalism, mass psychology, patriarchy, and the legal codification of violence,” he writes near the end of the book; “this is why I have continually linked delight with disgust in relation to football.”

Rather than paper over this contradiction with paeans to the game’s on-the-field beauty or hymns to the balletic athleticism of its best players, Critchley asks that we simply treat the irresolvable conflict between the “socialism of football’s form and the rampant capitalism of its matter” as “not so much […] a dialectic that defies reconciliation as an open wound that we continue to scratch at the beginning of every match, every tournament, every season.” I confess that I’d hoped for a more vigorous argument, a clever turn that would allow me to love the thing I love in a less complicit and conflicted way. This, I think, is a characteristically end-of-days capitalist desire. Very often, the obvious solution — to consume less of something harmful — is the only one we are not willing to abide. Rather than drive less, those who can afford it will buy a hybrid car. Rather than fly less, one buys carbon offsets. Rather than use less, we recycle more. In the same fashion, rather than consume less soccer, I turn to Critchley in search of an argument smart enough to extract my conscience from the ugly fact of my consumption. And, sadly, Mr. Critchley will not oblige me.

So what is it about the nature of this game that it makes such addicts of its adherents — so much so that we are willing to overlook its shady money, institutional corruption, simmering racism, and performative tribalism? For answer, Critchley turns to his main métier, philosophy. Not everyone needs Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, or Gadamer to enjoy watching a soccer game, but if you’re a lifelong fan with a graduate degree in the humanities — and I sit at the bull’s-eye of that Venn diagram — you’ll be delighted. Anyone who takes aesthetics and the critique of everyday life seriously will find in this book an illuminating rendering of the game as a lived experience:

Football is “working-class ballet.” It’s an experience of enchantment. For an hour and a half, a different order of time unfolds and we submit ourselves to it. A football game is a temporal rupture with the routine of the everyday: ecstatic, evanescent and, most importantly, shared. At its best, football is about shifts in the intensity of experience, maximizing those intensities.

Throughout the volume, Critchley offers a thoroughgoing — and often very personal — report on these ecstasies. Most of his philosophical excursions begin or end with his longtime support of the Liverpool Football Club, a near-religious attachment that links him backward to his father, forward to his son, and acts as a transatlantic cable linking his current life in the United States to his old home.

Some of the ecstasy of soccer is simply spectacle: the canvas of deep green grass on which the brightly uniformed players contract and expand almost as one organism — which, especially on a high-definition television, has the hypnotic effect of moon jellies at an aquarium. You don’t need to know anything about the game to find this mesmerizing, at least for a short while. My four-year-old will watch games with me strictly for the undulation of the uniforms, the darting colors on screen (she also likes it when people fall down).

What fans of Italian soccer sometimes call “a pinch of healthy madness” often rules the game, with tight lines of defenders suddenly scattered from their discipline into a brightly flapping chaos by a devious midfielder’s pass into the path of a streaking attacker. This madness can create a “spell of sensate ecstasy,” Critchley writes, in which, at “magically irresponsible moments there is transport and delight [and] the form of football gleams above its matter.” At such moments, we’re given “a dynamic figuration of beauty, the dramatic mobility of play, the movement of free association between players and amongst fans.”

This focus on “the moment of moments” (with a long excursus into Heidegger) is perhaps the center of Critchley’s account — a joyful insistence on the way the game opens up everyday life, makes us deeply present, while at the same time drawing on the vast associations of collective memory that haunt the fans of clubs and national teams. It’s important to note that not all of the communities soccer calls into being are criminally hooligan or bitterly tribal. The whole performance at its best, Critchley argues, is something like Brecht’s epic theater, staged not for a silent crowd but for “an intelligent, knowledgeable, critical audience” (I suppose it depends which bar you’re watching in).

Whether all of this sounds like sufficient reason to accept the baggage of the sport, or whether it sounds outright preposterous, almost certainly depends on your preexisting attachment to the game. I was not an outrageously talented soccer player myself, but I did lace up cleats nearly every week of my youth: 13 years worth of recreational leagues, traveling teams, high school teams, off-season practices, and six-hour drives to play four or five games in a two-day tournament. Those innumerable hours of lived experience are something I carry with me, and, like one of those massive purse-seiners trawling the waters, everything in the sea of my youth is caught up in that net. It isn’t just the game; it’s first girlfriends on the sidelines, old friendships, humiliations, a few moments of fulfilled physical glory. I’m there with it again — paying my old life a visit — as long as the watching lasts. Critchley is resolutely alive to these associations, too. He tells, sheepishly, of a ghostly encounter he once had at a stadium, convinced he was being visited by his deceased father in the guise of a doppelgänger in the next line over at the concessions stand. Critchley, too, feels the phantom twitches of muscle memory from boyhood playing days — the noise and spectacle, the spookily near-animate life of the ball itself.

My first daughter was born in the summer of 2014, right as the World Cup was beginning in Brazil. On her first morning on earth, I held her in a hospital bed and watched Brazil and Croatia play the opening game of the tournament. She was startled from sleep — for the first time in her life! — as I booed the screen over a cynical dive from one of the Brazilian forwards, Fred. I found Fred about as captivating to watch as the man’s name suggests. The disgraceful stunt was sadly successful: lumbering Fred stole his team a penalty kick, and a creaky Brazil side went on to win their opener (their humiliations would come later in the tournament). I’d been pulling for Croatia that game, largely due to their genius midfielder, Luka Modrić, who possesses the fascinating second-sight that only the best players have, sending passes into lanes where there would seem to be no space, finding a player’s feet and forcing a half-dozen grown men to have to rearrange themselves at full speed into a new configuration to thwart the attack. I narrated some of this to my daughter as she slept. I tried to warn her about the cynical Freds of the world, how they often triumph over the brilliant Modrićs — “futebol de resultados” beating out “futebol d’arte.” In the end, I suppose, it was a forgettable game — they’re all, more or less, forgettable, if only because it’s the instantaneous moment-to-moment immersiveness that matters: sharp movement, bright color, tactical magic, ballet and blood, flailing elbows, lamentable cheating, improvisation, continuous, coordinated movement.

As I watched the game with a new baby in my arms, I was everywhere at once — in a hospital in Iowa with my recovering wife, inside the ticking seconds of the game clock, but also again in the grass and sun, where I am always thirsting and sweating. Those days of being overmatched and cramped, victorious and emptied out, my parents and even sometimes my grandparents, who are now long dead, in lawn chairs on the sidelines watching me clatter into a tackle. The blades of grass that always stuck and itched between shin and shin guard, the mud on cleat-bottoms that by morning would have hardened until it could be removed as one whole imprinted piece. Reviewing the game with my dad on the drive home, often dejectedly — there was so much I’d failed to see — but occasionally in utter disbelief at something I hadn’t known I could do, an arcing reaction shot with my left foot that inexplicably found the back of the net. Then up again early Saturday morning while the fire-breathing Scottish coach shows us game film and points out just how hapless, slow, and embarrassing we all are, how stagnant our midfield build-up, how lazy our crosses, how unconvincing a showing we made in our bright orange jerseys, and could we please get our heads out of our sorry asses long enough to not fuck it all up again?

We kept fucking it up. We went out and played. Play is most of what it was, but not all of it. I still don’t know what the rest of it was, and for that I keep looking.

¤

Casey Walker is the author of the novel Last Days in Shanghai (2014).

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