TFN’s Alex Stewart returns with a column on football’s dreaded “narrative”…
Football is confusing, isn’t it? I mean, take Arsenal. Arsenal are shit, aren’t they? We all know that. They’ve a porous defence, weak full-backs who can’t head the ball, injury problems galore, and Arsene Wenger is so confused about who to buy he’s actually taking suggestions by text. Sure, they’re probably top six this season, but only because everyone else is so woeful. And Manchester City are fantastic, right? They’ve qualified for the next round of the Champions League at long last, they’ve got the best striker in the Premier League and they’ve just bought another really, really good one. Vincent Kompany is more than a footballer, he’s a heroic saviour of all that is good and decent in this world, as well as being an elegant, handsome man to boot.
And then Arsenal go and beat City at home and suddenly, aren’t City shit? The Vincent Kompany rare error is becoming the Pepe Reina rare error, according to someone on Twitter. Forget the strikers: City are a one-man team who always lose when Yaya is away on duty with his national side. They have no plan B and no way of rousing themselves from their indolent, slightly apathetic superiority complex and when pushed, often fall over. And aren’t Arsenal amazing? I mean, Alexis Sanchez is the best player in the league, and Wenger was absolutely right to stick with Francis Coquelin and Olivier Giroud and bring in David Ospina; the man is a genius. And Santi’s Cazorla’s not lazy; he’s just been saving himself for the big occasions.
I’m totally baffled by football, really. And that’s before we have even tried to understand what Everton are up to this season. Thank goodness, then, that we have the media. The media can tell us how to think and what to think, whether it’s Match of the Day or the Mirror, we can sit and watch and be confused and then someone is there to explain it all for us. Except, that’s not quite how it goes. Because, actually, the media are just as confused as we are. That’s why, when push comes to shove, people fall back into the habit of running with narrative, of forging an identity for a season as a pre-supposed construction of views, ideas, stories, that may evolve and change somewhat over time but mostly become a way of entrenching a certain perspective on the game, used to reinforce a centrally held view of a team. Hence the collective holding of breath, waiting for Southampton to revert to type and be, once more, the plucky underdog who once gave the beetroot bottler a chance but don’t really deserve to contest next season’s Champions League. That breath has been held so long people are going to start dying soon.
The hardest thing for a football fan is to have his or her own opinion. I’ve discussed this with my dear friend and spiritual leader Joe Devine on the Illustrated Game podcast before: there is such a profusion of information, narrative, and counter-narrative out there that when the commentariat don’t provide us with a line to take, we find ourselves floundering, confused, mouthing empty explanations for things that are beyond our understanding. Like Everton. Until someone did a piece on how their use of two advanced full-backs was, last season, a development that caught their opponents on the hop and now has been exposed, understood, and countered. And then the narrative kicks in: Roberto Martinez is great at attacking innovations until he’s found out, can’t organise a defence, and Everton therefore suffer. Wasn’t the prosaic, steady approach of David Moyes better? And look, David Moyes is tearing up La Liga with Real Sociedad, until he isn’t. And then we can all go back to searching for understanding again. And so it continues. Statisticians are great until we all start arguing about is it the only way to understand football, or doesn’t it miss out on the very beauty of the game which is the moment of genius, and it’s not worked out very well for Liverpool, has it? Except it has, because Lazar Markovic is doing pretty well. But wait, I thought Daniel Sturridge was the only decent signing Rodgers had made? MAKE IT STOP PLEASE!
How do we have our own opinions? I suppose part of it is actually to consume as much as possible, to read and watch widely, to discuss, to argue, to listen to the Illustrated Game and read The False Nine and learn to understand stats and all of that. But, mostly, it’s to remember that actually, football is a thing to enjoy. It’s not there to be solved, it’s not a riddle to be unlocked, with Wenger the sphinx who sits, aloof and inscrutable, waiting for us to say the magic word. Part of the joy of AFCON for me, for example, is that because there is not much written on the subject (and much of what is, like on the excellent Sandals for Goalposts site, is by amateur experts or enthusiastic freelancers and therefore more free from narrative) is that I can actually get to grips with it myself; my enjoyment of the competition is not mediated by expectation and I can sit and watch a game and discover new players and learn about teams without already thinking that I know (or have been taught) what will happen. The more interesting parts of football, and I suppose some of this converges with the football hipster idea, are niche, and niche means discoverable for oneself, for fun and interest, rather than because we are made to consume it by voracious TV companies and their attendant media content generators.
Of course, any of us who contribute to sites like this and especially those of us who get paid to write about football are, in part, guilty of adding to the slew of pieces that bumble into cyberspace on a daily basis but, and I do hope this is true for me and my friends who write on this site especially, we should always try to be critical, to be inventive, to develop ideas that are outside the mainstream because they interest us and hopefully others, rather than because we need to churn them out. We should look at football (and sport in general) as a way of asking ourselves questions about society at all, about politics, about gender, about language, about history, and not simply regurgitate the usual bollocks about this team is good and that team is bad and that manager buys silly players and that one doesn’t buy any players. If that is all we do, we are doing a disservice to readers and to the game itself, which is surely more interesting, layered, and intelligent than a simple sweep of the mainstream media would suggest. So, let’s not.