Telmo Rodrigues


[Versão em português / Portuguese translation]


In a book about playwriting (The Three Uses of the Knife), David Mamet suggests one goes to a football match in the hope of watching a perfect drama, where the team we support suffers a series of incidents before arriving at a final victory. Maybe the suggestion derives from American football (or American sports in general), which has a relatively shorter season than European football, normally stretching out for at least three quarters of the year; for one of the obvious objections to Mamet’s claim about what we desire when going to a football match would be to ask: how much suffering can I handle? Can I deal with such an emotional drama every week? Mamet believes the relationship spectators keep with a sporting event is similar to the one they keep with an entertainment show, which explains many strange things happening in sports these days. But most fans’ relationship with football, no matter if the European or American kind, is not of that type, and very rarely one goes to a match expecting anything other than our team’s victory — an outcome which might give us pleasure even when one has to endure through horrible playing.

Simon Critchley underlines the analogy between football and drama in an acute way: “FOOTBALL IS DRAMA” (p. 60), meaning it is something emotionally relevant. Many have favored the analogy in different ways, claiming the narrative arch of a tragedy can be glimpsed in a game, or saying football enacts life’s hardships the way drama is supposed to, or just comparing emotions arised by games and plays. Critchley’s claim seems to incorporate all those ideas, but he is actually linking drama to football as an art; and though he is not thinking about dramatic structures, he nevertheless hints at them:


To put it more formally, the essence of football consists in repetition, in this game, the previous game and the next game. And none of these games is less original than the last. Each game is the expression of the essence of football which consists entirely in repetition. From the repeated acts that are recognized as such by spectators, we can construct a series, or a series of series, which might begin to constitute a history, or a series of histories, say the performance of a team during a tournament or throughout a season, or that might permit the comparison between different seasons. (pp. 56-9)


The idea behind Mamet’s game structure fails to resonate to an European football fan in the sense that a match is nothing more than a stepping stone to another match (only occasionally do matches gain individual resonance beyond the season, as when rival teams from the same city meet); repetition, as Critchley so clearly states, is a key factor in our relationship with football, and we embrace it as so. The dramatic construction is there nevertheless, as it is transferred from individual matches to the season — usually one of tragedy, for only one team emerges as the winner each year and not all of us support Barcelona or some team sponsored by sheiks; eventually, the narrative structure is transferred to a club’s history, and tragedy gives place to more heroic deeds: a club’s history is made of defeats, naturally, but mostly enriched by the occasional victory, by that cup won so many years ago, or by that season when the perfect team played brilliantly. Claiming that one’s sole expectation consists of a perfect game is extremely restrictive, no matter how much human beings require an idea of dramatic structure to account for their behavior: in this sense, the analogy between football and drama is wanting, for one can make the same claim about our relationship to anything else and not only with football.

Nonetheless, Critchley seems to push the analogy further on by closing in on the more technical aspects. The idea of repetition is a crucial point when thinking about football, and a clear definition of what we mean by repetition must be held in order to account for our interest in the game (or in any other game, for that matter), for there is no justifiable reason to watch something which is always repeating itself (the different ways in which we react to games must also be accounted for as repetition, although by its own standards it is always different). Certainly it is true that matches are mostly repetitions of previous matches, no matter how entertaining or boring they might be; but they are not repetitions in the same sense a play is performed for several months at some theater. For if every performance of a play is different, and accidents do happen that misshape the play, the outcome and events are fairly predictable from the rehearsals (when not from the written play); this is not true of football, no matter how much interactions between the players are rehearsed: for all its repetitious ways, one can never anticipate what the outcome of a match might be (even when the team with better odds wins, it is never certain how that will happen).

Critchley makes use the analogy with drama again in different occasions, as when he declares that “football is a theatre of identity—family, tribe, city, nation” (p. 61). But he clearly collapses the two components of the analogy when he says a game “without fans is a kind of category mistake”, admitting the “key to football is the complex, configured interaction between sublime music and the beautiful image, Dionysos and Apollo, the fans and the team” (pp. 70-1). The relationship between team and crowd is then compared to Bertold Brecht’s aspiration for a critical audience:


(…) then what Brecht wanted was an intelligent, knowledgeable, critical audience. An audience relaxed and expert in its knowledge. This is why Brecht said he wanted something much closer to a sports crowd for his new epic theatre: eating snacks, smoking cigars, talking and making noise, singing, cheering and booing. I think Brecht was right and it allows us to appreciate in reverse the intelligence of a football crowd. (p. 97)


There are obvious analogies to be drawn between football and drama, but Critchley is less concerned with narrative structure or repetition than he is with protecting his position as a football fan, demystifying a preconception about football crowds: “But football fans are not a collection of dumb hooligans, simple minded nationalists or rabid fascists. Not at all. Nor are they quasi-Nietzschean participants in some sacral, ritual communion” (p. 100). Just as drama audiences are not treated as hooligans, some of the relevance of Critchley’s analogy lies exactly in the idea that there is an intellectual interest in football (as no one would refuse there is in drama); this explains, obviously, the book he writes, but also his approach to football through phenomenology, namely with Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. The goal, he states, is to “make explicit what is implicit in our experience” (p. 15).

The problem is not, then, that football has a close relationship with drama and, as so, Gadamer’s ditto feels true: “As Gadamer writes in Truth and Method, ‘A drama really only exists when it is played, and ultimately music must resound’” (pp. 66-7). The problem is how to position oneself within the discussion in order to account for two contradictory behaviors: the rational philosophical reasoning Crichtley claims necessary to explain our experience, and the aparently rationally incongruent behaviors one has concernig football. Critchley is aware of the problem, and tries to balance the philosophy with the personal experience, although they seem, ultimately, detached from one another. It is not a coincidence, then, that a serious attempt at writing about football, as this one certainly is, begins with this description:


I was raised with a fanatical devotion to LFC and a belief that my team was not just very good, but that its fans were special and its culture unique. I think it is pointless to conceal my allegiance because such loyalty to team, identity, place and history is a large part of what the experience of football and this book is all about. I am therefore guilty of Anfield exceptionalism. I know how irritating this can be to fans of other teams, because LFC supporters always seem so self-righteous and to think that what happened to them happened first / better / more intensely / more profoundly than elsewhere. (p. 20)


Neutrality seems more scientifically relevant, but as anyone trying to discuss football has always felt, it seems not only fake but also mostly unfulfilling. As Critchley very well notes, no amount of philosophy seems able to systematize football, just as personal experience does not account for everything concerning people’s relationship with the sport.

Mainly, it is that one’s relationship with football is not of the same nature as one’s relationship with Broadway shows, no matter how much one enjoys the shows. The emotional investment one puts into football is of a different sort, and ultimately it is that difference one is always trying to explain. The bafflement Critchley expresses in a parenthetical aside is completely understandable for most fans, but contradictory for the claim that football is part of one’s life:


(Although I must say that I am always perplexed by the recurrent phenomenon of fans leaving the game early, five or ten minutes before the end, ostensibly to avoid traffic. I mean, if traffic is your major concern, then why bother going to a game at all?) (p. 92)


The perplexity and irritation towards these people is completely understandable — I have voiced the same question over and over in the matches I go to. But people who leave early did not leave their houses to see a show and, in that sense, a football match is just another grievance such as dealing with traffic or going to the supermarket: a place one has to go to in order to go through with life, a suffering of a kind, yes, but not Mamet’s idea of suffering from well planned narrative strategies: it is the slow suffering of everyday life which sometimes has, as we all know, small rewards.

Maybe Brecht was right to a certain degree when demanding better crowds, but knowledgeable crowds certainly come with a cost: an allegiance to something other than the showmanship. And football crowds are, in fact, knowledgeable despite the discrepancies in the way their knowledge is acquired and used. Hence FIFA’s wrong bet on diversification of markets, on searching for spectators with a knack for a show: football is what it is today, commercially speaking, because many still suffer with it on an everyday basis. Entertainment and showmanship are fairly acceptable in certain doses, but for those who love football a match is not a show but occasionally; it is, most often, an ingrained part of one’s life. Critchley knows this: “And of course, my unspoken hope is that if my son has children, then they will also be Liverpool fans. So much for dreams of the afterlife” (p. 35). And as someone who understands this, he attempts to reconcile many conflicting things an intelligent person may think about when considering football; but, as many things in our lives, understanding comes from doing things that German (or French, for that matter) philosophy cannot account for.