We Are All Sisyphus: On Following Soccer, and Family Rivalries
A Literary Look at the Beautiful Game, From Camus to Villoro
I come from a mixed-faith Manchester family: My grandfather bled United red. He raised three sons who all supported the Blues, the sky-blue colors worn by Manchester City.
Explaining the intensity of the rivalry between City and United supporters to Americans stretches my vocabulary sometimes. I try to compare it to the enmity shared by fans of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, or perhaps it’s similar to the tribalism of Michigan vs. Ohio State, when it comes to college football. But still. Those rivalries don’t come close.
Of course, the stereotype of a European football fan—often invoked by lazy journalists and most readily available to Americans—is that of the “hooligan,” the working-class thug who drinks too much and destroys trains, city centers, pubs, and their opponents’ stadiums in weekend long rage-fests.
That stereotype of the loutish fan became a fatal caricature in the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, when Liverpool supporters were herded into an overcrowded “pen” by Yorkshire police who assumed the fans were drunk when those in front started vomiting through the chain link fence they were being pressed up against. Ninety-six fans died in the crush, many under the age of 18, in an event that was initially blamed on drunk and disorderly fans, the type of working-class “yobs” that Margaret Thatcher had declared war upon five years earlier when she refused to negotiate with the miners’ unions. The strikes had turned violent, and it was in this atmosphere of antagonism that Hillsborough occurred. Just this year, over a quarter-century later, a government inquiry found that Liverpool supporters died because the police badly botched their crowd control strategy for the match; worse still, they then planted evidence on dying fans to support a narrative of out-of-control hooligans who’d brought it on themselves.
And yet, football is also “the beautiful game,” and its literature is one that invokes the artistry of a centre forward with the ball at his feet carrying the hopes and dreams of an entire city on his shoulders. In some cases, writers have been football players. Albert Camus played goalkeeper before becoming “Camus,” while author Aleksander Hemon, who has worn his grippy soccer cleats his entire life, has, in addition to his award-winning novels, published a book of essays about football and continues to write about the game for a number of publications.
As it turns out, Albert Camus should perhaps be the patron saint of football’s literary types. The best writing about football carries with it the underlying existential dread contained within a match itself, the feeling that anything can go wrong, at any time; that defeat can always be snatched from the jaws of victory. Those who have been watching Euro 2016—or those who followed the improbable success of Leicester City (5000-1 odds at the beginning of the 2015-2016 British Premier League season)—know that the team dominating the match is always just a few seconds away from a soul-crushing counterattack, that anything can happen in those final mysterious moments as the game’s eond that exist at the whim of the referee’s whistle.
“A fan is a person who resigns himself to things,” writes Juan Villoro, in God is Round. Unlike American sports, where it feels that suddenly, everyone has been a secret Cleveland Cavaliers fan or whichever team is in the spotlight, in football, people are often born into their allegiances, as I was with Manchester City. Villoro grew up in Mexico, but his father, a Barcelona native, taught his son to love the denizens of Camp Nou, Barcelona’s fabled stadium. Villoro also followed the team favored by those on his street, Necaxa, whose fans come out of a melange of allegiances. It was a team that symbolized class status, as it represented the electricians, but it had also been the favorite team of the Jewish community, back when the team without its own training ground had used the local Jewish community club’s facilities.
But, because being a fan is a permanent—not a sunny-day—commitment, being disappointed is part and parcel of supporting your team. Camus said in The Myth of Sisyphus that a man “defines himself as much by his make-believe as by his sincere impulses.” Thus it is for the football fan. Villoro writes about the football fan’s belief in the make-believe, which here is the “imponderable.”
A whole catalogue of imponderables, all kinds of surprises can happen in football to put a dent in our mood; no one goes expecting the sure thing. For all that he or she complains about the opposing side, and sometimes about the not-opposing side too, the spectator tacitly accepts that the unimaginable is what they’ve come to witness, and it won’t be pretty.
Those who have been following the fortunes of Iceland in this summer’s European championships will certainly recognize that emotion. Iceland was on the brink of winning its first match ever at a European championship when an own-goal by a defender put the ball in the back of the net for Hungary.
The heartbreak of that own goal was monumental, but a few days later, when Iceland defeated Austria on a goal in injury time, the nation of just over 300,000 assumed a place on the international footballing stage well out of proportion to its miniscule population. At one point, while watching the first match in the knock-out stage, that is, the final 16 teams, the BBC announcer declared that eight percent of the residents of Iceland were now in France, watching their national team. And, when Iceland went ahead 2-1 after just 18 minutes of play, England fans could be forgiven for imagining themselves part of an Icelandic saga… as the vanquished enemy.
When the final whistle blew, the Icelandic players went over to their supporters, and in unison, sent chills down the spines of any teams yet to face them. The slow-clap battle chant undertaken by thousands of Icelanders seemed to designed to wake all the old Viking gods. Coming on the heels of the Brexit vote, this defeat at the hands of the smallest nation in the tournament spelled further heartbreak for an uncertain English nation.
Football often carries with it an entire nation’s sense of self. Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano says that football and national identity become inseparable.
“We are because we win. If we lose, we no longer exist. Without question, the national uniform has become the clearest symbol of collective identity, not only in poor or small countries whose place on the map depends on soccer. When England lost in the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup, the front page of London’s Daily Mirror [one of Britain’s right-wing tabloids] featured a headline in a type size fit for a catastrophe: “THE END OF THE WORLD.”
Aleksander Hemon offers this explanation to Americans who are bewildered watching entire nations lose their minds over the fortunes of their national football teams.
While Americans can and often do understand how city or neighborhood identities can be established and organized around sport teams or clubs, the ways in which a non-superpower nation projects and then sees itself in its national team might escape them. It’s because, on the one hand, the favorite American sports are so exclusively American that no other nation can begin to enter the picture: there are no international competitions, or even foreign players, in American football. On the other hand, in the internationally played sports, the knee-jerk American exceptionalism creates the expectation of kicking everyone else’s un-American ass. Thus, the outcomes of the U.S. games vs Somebodies either confirm the expectations or are ignored. The only way for soccer to reach the popularity of baseball or football would be for the U.S. team to be so superior that they wouldn’t even bother playing against the others.
That is unlikely to happen. Andrea Pirlo, one of Italy’s greatest stars, has recently grumbled about his experiences playing, in his advancing years, in the MLS. He characterizes American football (soccer): “It’s a very hard league to play in. It’s very physical, there’s a lot of running. So there is a lot of physical work and to me, in my mind, too little play.” And while the reaction from American sportswriters was predictable Pirlo revealed the major difference between football as a game of skill and football as an athletic contest. Unlike baseball, which seems to be full of athletes with beer guts, it’s rare to see an overweight football player, and the ones who are, with the exception of Maradona, are beaten to the ball so often as to render them ineffective. The average soccer player, depending on position, will run between seven and nine miles per game. Add to that the jumping, stopping, turning, kicking, and tackling that are part of the game, and there is no doubt that it is one of the more demanding sports.
But football, as any writer can tell you, is as much art as it is athletics.
And the joy in watching something sublime is captured when Galeano writes:
Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee, and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.
The dribble, the bicycle kick, the Panenka are such things of beauty that those of us who love the game often resort to the descriptions of ballet or an actor’s performance to express the moment of being so lost in a player’s movements that time ceases to move forward. Football, for many of us, is the ultimate moment of Zen.
In his novel, Iron Towns, which for me is the closest evocation of my father’s experiences both as a spectator and player of football, Anthony Cartwright switches his narratives among players and fans of the game. For Americans who are familiar with the concept of a penalty kick, but do not know what a “Panenka” is, Cartwright offers the play from within the Hungarian great, Panenka’s mind. In a Panenka, the player taking the penalty does not shoot the ball toward either of the corners, which is what a goalie expects, but rather, lobs the ball up the center of the goal so that it curves up and drops while the goalie has gone in the wrong direction. When it works, it’s magnificent. When it fails, as it did most recently in the Argentina-Venezuela game, it results in universal condemnation. The hoots that rang down upon Seijas after he tapped the ball into the waiting hands of Argentinian goalie Romero made me cringe. It was worse than watching a child scuff a ball that they’re just learning to kick.
But the Panenka, in Cartwright’s writing, becomes a political act, a piece of guerrilla theatre intended to make us all feel foolish.
You cannot underestimate the fact that it is Germany, of course. When the men Panenka grew up listening to said ‘the war’ they meant the second one. The ball that floats through the air, a conjuring trick, a joke, is an act of the deepest resistance. Resistance against what? A lack of imagination, perhaps, against too great a seriousness, an absence of humour? Is it a last defiant act of the Prague Spring? If there is message in it, it must be not to take life too seriously. We realise it does not matter whether the penalty goes in or not. It is the gesture, the joke that matters. But thinking about it all is part of the joke, because it is to take it seriously, far too seriously, grown men playing games, chasing a ball, other men looking on. The joke is either on the penalty taker or on the goalkeeper, or on all of us, but the joke is there. The joke is in the way the ball pops up, floats lightly in the air, the way a child’s balloon might drift in front of a tank.
And the characters who make up the starting eleven on a football club are themselves the stuff of literature. “We know very well from Tolstoy that happy families don’t generate novels,” Villoro writes, “Nor do they produce footballers.”
In Iron Towns, the players at Anvil Yards are the unhappy, wounded carriers of a town’s lost glory. They are the last remainders of what is still standing in the old industrial north after the catastrophic Thatcher years. Liam Corwen may be familiar to American readers in that he bears a resemblance to one of the characters in W.P. Kinsella’s story, “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa.” Moonlight Graham is a character who has a single moment in the big time, which in the case of Cartwright’s Corwen, a moment playing for England, before returning to the mid-table-level football played at Iron Towns F.C.
Liam makes his body into football text. On nearly every inch of skin, he has had tattooed the likenesses of the greatest players of the game. Cruyff. Pele. Eusebio. Bobby Charlton. Bert Trautmann, the German goalkeeper who played for my beloved Manchester City, and who, in 1956, played a game with a broken neck that he didn’t seek treatment for until the match was over.
One of the saddest chapters in England’s football history is the Munich air disaster of 1958. Manchester United was led by Matt Busby (given a namecheck by the Beatles), and filled with players, most of them so young that they were collectively referred to as “Busby’s Babes.” They were the sons of the working class. Busby’s Babes went down in the fog of Munich, and eight players on the team died. My father would tear up telling me the story, tell me of going down to the pub to look for his dad, finding the pub full of grown men sobbing over their beers.
Cartwright’s characters look at a photo of the doomed team:
Billy Wright’s dad worked in a foundry, big Duncan’s too. Matthews’s was a barber and pro boxer; his own son plays tennis, wins the Boys championship at Wimbledon just five years hence, they say he’s the new Fred Perry. But this photo offers nothing of what is to come. Look at the big man in the middle of the three. Ten months after the picture is taken he is dead, twenty-one. Later, Duncan Edwards’s dad leaves his foundry job, works at the cemetery where his son is buried, tends the flowers and the verges and the graves.
One could imagine that football is a game of perpetual sorrow, a game of disappointments.
But, just as Camus declared that one must imagine Sisyphus happy, if you can’t laugh watching a football game, then you aren’t doing it right. Aleksander Hemon’s writings about football can provoke the sorrow and the pity of the beautiful game at the same time. It can also make one belly laugh.
To read Hemon about football is to laugh at the absurdity of a game that can at once be called “beautiful,” but may then play as some “Keystone Cops” vignette between the main features. For example,
At one point, a Željo defender facing his own goal well outside the box attempted to kick the ball over his head toward his midfielders, who were watching him, perplexed. He, however, managed only to bounce it off his own face to a Sarajevo forward strolling lazily toward the center from a deep offside position in Željo’s box, comfortable in the assumption that his midfielders were nowhere near getting the ball. As the Željo player knocked himself out with his own awful clearance, the Sarajevo forward found himself with the ball in his feet, facing, through no fault of his own, the panicked Željo goalie. The forward had a lot of time to pick the spot to score, the Željo defenders watching him, paralyzed with resignation, but score he did not. What he did was try to dribble the goalie so clumsily that he somehow stepped on the ball, twisted his ankle and fell down. The goalie simply walked up to the ball and picked it up. The Sarajevo forward’s ankle required medical attention, as did Željo defender’s bloody nose.
After my father’s death three years ago, his eldest brother sent me many stories of his years with his kid brother. He also told me what it was like to grow up in a household where the decision to support the team that their father hated was the act of three sons in rebellion against their father. When I was growing up, the Saturdays spent with my grandfather and father, as both of them sat with their beers at the kitchen table and glowered at one another over the day’s football results, was as normal to me as eating mushy peas with fish and chips.
Animosities between father and sons was nothing new in the Berry family, but it galvanized around football. My grandmother attempted to keep the peace, and in one of her efforts, brought home two figurines: one in a blue kit and one in red. She placed both in pride of place on the mantle. The trouble began the very first Saturday after their arrival. City won. United lost. My father insisted that the losing team’s doll didn’t deserve to face the room, and it became custom that whichever doll represented that week’s losing team had to face the wall for the week following.
When Manchester United was beaten 4-0 by a lowly team, my father and his brothers draped the red doll in a black sock, figuring my grandfather should be in mourning and would want his sons to acknowledge that. It started another fight. The tradition of the dolls came to a Humpty-Dumpty-like end when my father, in another effort to prove to his dad that City was the superior team, stood the blue doll atop the red doll’s head. The law of physics prevailed. It’s a fact that the mighty have a habit of falling from their pedestals, and the City doll followed suit. He shattered, and nothing could put him together again.
The life of the football fan is one of the constant fall of the angels, the rolling back down the hill of the boulder.
But one must imagine us happy.