Archive | November, 2010

Knowing the Dancer from the Dance: The Two Andy Carrolls

28 Nov

I hate Andy Carroll, I love Andy Carroll. He’s the problem, he’s the solution. A thug, a folk hero. A provocation to anger, an emblem of hope.

We are all used to having to negotiate fiendish binaries when it comes to footballers. But surely we should learn how to know the dancer from the dance? Football is after all a highly surface-oriented art form. Founded in the lyrical grace of human interaction with angles and spheres, it doesn’t really communicate anything. As such, why should the off-pitch personae of players matter a jot? Aren’t they just “players” in the Shakespearean, dramatic sense? Aren’t they merely, as the Italian Futurists seemed to think, aestheticized robots, human conduits of speed and furious motion, abstract symbols at the centre of a modernist-formalist exercise in technique?

"Dynamism of a Football Player" by Umberto Boccioni (1913)

In a sense, this is what the doyens of the modern game would have you believe. For those with a commercial stake in the sport, the idea of football as an abstract formal entity capable of being transported into any conceivable leisure context is an attractive one. If you are Rupert Murdoch, Roman Abramovich, Malcolm Glazer, or Mike Ashley, football is basically a deracinated PS3 game, and football players exist solely as the expensive avatars of a high-level corporate roulette.

With this paradigm in mind, we can see how the contemporary situation has developed, in which players are sophisticated machines on the pitch and pathological childish psychos off it. If football is no more than aesthetic entertainment, a chemical compound of high-octane superstar skills, celebrity glamour, and a smidgeon of watered-down tribal emotion, to be paid for and ingested at the weekend or after work via satellite TV, then it really doesn’t matter where it’s coming from or who is taking part. If Andy Carroll is god-like for the duration of the 90 minute slot we have paid for, then that is that: the service expectations have been met. Exchange value stands in for any other method of valuation, and Andy Carroll is indeed a god, a hypertrophied superman perfectly inhabiting the role of the crowd-pleasing ingénue.

But football is not yet, despite the concerted efforts of the Glazerites, a wholly consumerized, leisure industry sport. Unlike, say, British pop music, British football still has some level of connection to a grassroots reality, to the places, lived experiences, and communities that have by some wild fluke managed to retain a central, if vastly underrepresented, position even in today’s thoroughly finance-oriented game. For a large percentage of the north-east population, Andy Carroll feels like an integral part of a community identity that extends on to the pitch. He feels like one of us. A good lad. A real-life embodiment of an inchoate spirituality. A representative of something.

So if he inspires and represents the genuine hopes of a group of otherwise marginalized, exploited human beings, isn’t Andy Carroll therefore a very real hero, an on-balance good thing? Shouldn’t we just leave it at that? I think not. It is precisely because he represents something tangible and important that I cannot accept a convenient distinction between the man and the player. Because Andy Carroll is not a computer game character, because he is a real person, playing for a real club, in a real city, I can’t ultimately justify celebrating the heroic footballer Jeckyll by ignoring the existence of the thuggish, lassy-bashing Hyde. In a world in which the heroizing relationship between club and supporters went both ways, and in which salaries and hyperreal celebrity didn’t put up concrete walls between communities and their representatives, we wouldn’t have to deal with these infernal dilemmas. In a better alternate universe, Andy Carroll really would be one of us. Make no mistake, I’m unequivocally glad he’s still scoring for Newcastle. But I’m equally certain that Carroll is part of the problem rather than the solution, and that his on-pitch genius shouldn’t obscure this fact.


“Nani, What’s the Score?”: On ‘Playing to the Whistle’

3 Nov

As the controversy surrounding Nani’s goal against Tottenham finally seems to be put to bed, at the risk of picking at freshly formed scabs, I wish to add in a belated haporth to the argument.

Most of the discourse surrounding the event seems to be concerned primarily with apportioning blame. Harry Redknapp pointing the finger at referee Mark Clattenburg, Mark ‘Barry Chuckle[1]’ Lawrenson, with what I’m sure he thinks of as being some sort of sagely vision, blamed the linesman, commentator Steve Wilson wagged a finger at Spurs keeper Gomes (with a sotto voce criticism of Jonathan Pearce’s commentary) on the BBC sport website. ‘J.P.’, for his part, was his bafflingly hyperbolic self, describing the action in the same tone as if he were watching Sir Killalot being pushed into the pit of oblivion… with refbot’s help! This is an oblique reference to Robot Wars; the platform to which J.P.’s sensationalist style of weaving ‘thick descriptions’ out of the images presented is best suited.

But in all of this, one person seems to have got away scot-free, and that is the ‘Thriller-era-Michael-Jackson-look-alike’ Nani himself. Yes, he followed the letter of the law, but not the sentiment behind it.  Regarding my colleague’s highlighting of neo-Kantian rhetoric (see the post below), the shout heard from all sides in this debacle could be added to the list; “you have to play to the whistle”.

Play to the whistle, Nani, though you know you have just feigned injury to win a penalty. Play to the whistle, Nani my son, though you know you have just handled the ball still in play. Play, play, play ‘till the whistle is blown, though you know the ball has been thrown down for a freekick which you caused; though everyone in the ‘theatre of dreams’ knows what is supposed to happen next. Play to the whistle, Nani. Kick the ball into the goal like a petulant child, then have the audacity to celebrate, acrobatically, your ill-gotten gains.

I don’t want to romanticise the game – I do it, but I don’t want to. I know that the notion of ‘the taking part’ being all that matters has always been the consolation of the loser. But come on. Whistle or no, what Nani did was wrong. There was no ambiguity in any of the actions up to the point where Nani deigned to kick the ball. Clattenburg didn’t blow the whistle to stop play presumably because he thought it was so self-evident that Gomez would be allowed to take a freekick. Only when Nani’s interpellation ruptured the assumed course of events did Clattenburg – hamstrung by the necessity to follow the letter of the law, to play to his own whistle – have to concede that Nani’s actions, whilst contemptible to all but the most cynical Man. United fan, resulted in a goal.

Oh, for a brief allowance of the amateur sentiment in the game. Were someone to follow Nani’s example on a five-a-side pitch, they would be soundly and abruptly told to “fuck off”. The ball would be then taken out of the net, the goal expunged from memory, the ball placed down for a freekick, and the game would continue. If only Clattenburg could have done that!

This gripe could (should) be levelled at Fernando Torres from earlier this season, as he wilfully ‘misinterpreted’ a nudging of the ball back to ‘keeper for a freekick as the actual freekick (though it was against the mackems, so I have a little more leniency). He knew what was going on, but deliberately chose to forgo convention. On that day, Roy Hodgeson called it ‘quick thinking’. I call it bad sportsmanship.

I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the modern player to show a modicum of decency in this respect. No matter what I think of ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson, I don’t think he would have got his infamous hairdryer out for Nani for not kicking the ball into the net. I certainly don’t think Nani was thinking of the good of the team either in his actions. It was a selfish, self-serving act. If blame is to be apportioned, then he needs to take some of it.

I suppose players have to tread that line between ‘giving 110 percent’ and doing whatever it takes to win, and it is hard to know where that line is. If a player earnestly tries to win a 50-50 ball, but ends up injuring an opposing player? If a striker knows they have handled the ball in the lead up to a goal? If a goalkeeper sees the ball cross his goal line, but the referee doesn’t? Expecting players to ‘own up’ to these actions is probably asking too much, but when something as patently wrong as Nani’s ‘goal’ happens, I feel an air of disappointment as the weight of evidence for footballers being self-serving little shits increases, and the integrity of the game of football diminishes.

[1] He actually looks more like Paul Chuckle, but for some reason ‘Barry Chuckle’ sounds much funnier than ‘Paul Chuckle’.