Sunday, 19 September 2010

Watching football the third way


If over the past couple of years you’ve picked up a copy of either Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson or Why England Lose by Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski, then the chances are that, like me, you probably found both titles to be immensely enjoyable reads but were struck by the intimidating amount of research that the authors had undertaken. Naturally, as professional writers it is their job to have an exhaustive knowledge of the topic at hand, but the enormous level of work that obviously went into the books by Wilson and Kuper & Szymanski demonstrates that football can be understood and interpreted in much greater depth than the average fan would usually have time for.

Writing in October’s issue of When Saturday Comes, Mike Ticher expresses similar sentiments with respect to Inverting the Pyramid, albeit it with tongue firmly in cheek: “I was a bit shocked to find out that I didn’t know how to watch football, despite years of practice.” Ticher goes on to set out two opposing ways in which football can be enjoyed. There is the fan’s way of watching, in which entertaining fare on the pitch is the overriding concern, and the coach’s way of watching, when the method and motives behind the teams’ actions on the pitch are analysed. In praise of Inverting the Pyramid, Ticher explains that “the book’s genius is that it successfully explains the second way of thinking to the first group of people.”

For all Wilson’s intricate theorising about the way in which different nations have created, adapted, and copied various tactical systems since the middle of the nineteenth century, however, his book remains primarily one about football. Compared with the tables of numerical data that Kuper and Szymanski produce in an attempt to explain the ‘curious football phenomena’ that their book’s full title refers to, Inverting the Pyramid is a much more accessible read for the average fan. This is not to say that Wilson treats football in isolation. For example, he intelligently blends history into his narrative, such as his explanation that, when the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s was broken up by the advance of the Nazis into the country, this destroyed not only a football team but the culture that had influenced stylistically a generation of players. Nonetheless, for its socio-economic register and rigorous attention to information and statistics not commonly found on the back pages, Why England Lose is an altogether different sort of football book, and one that adds a third way of watching to the two posited by Ticher in his article.

If the spectator in the stands or in front of the television does watch the game in a different way to the modern day coach with access to Prozone, or the newspaper journalist with a remit to fill a page of Monday’s football supplement with tactical analysis, then all parties concerned do still have in common the fact that it is what happens on the pitch that interests them most. Jonathan Wilson’s towering knowledge of the mechanics of football, and his ability to articulate it, might align him with managers seemingly blessed with the ability to predict how matches play out – Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Arrigo Saachi, and José Mourinho all spring to mind, as well as, in his head at least, Sam Allardyce – but they are all men whose main passion is (or was, in the case of Lobanovskyi), fundamentally, football. Even Allardyce. By contrast, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski are fans of the sport whose professional fields of interest lie elsewhere. Kuper’s biography on the Financial Times’ web site emphasises his interest in anthropology and the intention of the column that he writes for the newspaper to “place sport and sportsmen within a country, a time, a society, while also being about sport itself.” Szymanski is a professor at the Cass Business School in London and his interest in football exists within his enduring research into the economics of sport. It follows that the two collaborators watch football by taking up an academic’s viewpoint, and garner enjoyment from it all the same.

It is impossible to disagree with Ticher’s closing remark in When Saturday Comes that nobody would pay to watch football were it not for the unexpected moments of excitement and drama that it offers. The writer has little time for the cliché that football is the ‘beautiful game’ but it is entirely credible to consider the game as, if not art, then certainly capable of being understood culturally. Art – be it painting, literature, music, film, theatre or any other creative medium – defies conclusive explanation, leaving room for it to be appreciated for the same “superficial and emotional” qualities that Ticher attributes to football. Football can also be understood subjectively, that is it can be "read," either on its own terms or in relation to another discipline - be it subjective too, like art, or scientific. What is so important about a book such as Why England Lose, which blends football with economics and anthropology, or David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, which brings topography into its discussion of Dutch football, is that they prove just how far the job of understanding football can be a multidisciplinary, intertextual affair.

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