Friday, June 27, 2014

Viewing the World Cup from an Ivory Tower

Nothing says 'football' better than a blue and yellow armadillo, right?
Yesterday the first round of the World Cup 2014 reached its conclusion. Even as an ingénue to the world of organised sports I know that this heralds a few weeks of extra time and distressingly disappointing penalty shootouts. ‘What?’ you cry – ‘has Jonesisdying lost the plot so badly that he’s resorted to writing about the antithesis of ‘culture’?' Sport: that stuff enjoyed by vaguely right-wing types in white trainers braying at ceiling mounted LCD TVs in public houses, or maybe the stuff that summons up of the childhood indignity of always being the last to be picked for any team during our ‘halcyon’ schooldays?  So many of my Facebook friends have expressed both disapproval and dismay at the amount of media coverage given to any 90-minute display of human-on-pigskin action. Wimps, the lot of 'em...

Well, amazingly I DO watch the World Cup, and a friend yesterday actually asked me to post something about the current competition in Brazil from the point of view of an ‘aesthete’. Pausing only to point out that describing me as an aesthete is like calling David Cameron a ‘keen European’ (I was tempted to post a picture of my living room to make my rather messy point, but no one deserves to see that); I do (occasionally) relish a challenge, so here are a few not-very-salient points regarding the jamboree/bunfight/crucial tournament (delete as applicable).

Firstly, some context: it will come as a surprise to no one who knows me that I hardly EVER watch sport. I could point to Brian Eno’s quote about organised sport mirroring the condition of fascism if I could be bothered to find it, but that’s easy stuff. My objection to televised games is nothing more, really, than the mewlings of a man who just has other obsessions to fill up his time and distract him from doing anything useful. I just find no glamour or commonality in the struggles of arbitrary ‘teams’,  ‘personalities’ or the (masculine) predilection for endless statistics involving leagues, tables, goal differences, touchdown percentages blah, blah… I would not and could not ever deny my own peccadillo for knowing who was the second bass player for Uriah Heep or the order (and year) in which David Lynch’s films were released. Working up the enthusiasm to actually CARE if Andy Murray wins at Wimbledon or that a team which I have randomly picked to be my favourite has won against another eleven-man bunch of overpaid tabloid whores will never move this writer who, at the age of 11 or 12 decided that David Bowie may just know the secrets of the universe (it turns out he didn’t – boo). And yet I know that many of my eloquent, erudite friends DO care for such things as WELL as caring about music, literature, film whatever… Apparently these interests aren’t mutually exclusive. Quelle horreur…

Yes, I’m the kind of guy who, if, in the middle of a heated debate about the relative merits of Miles Davis before and after Bitches Brew finds the conversation has drifted into whether England may win the Ashes (whatever they are) will be nothing less than disgusted. All of which marks me as a steaming great hypocrite, I know. Arguments as to the horrid, corporate nature of modern sport are built on sand when you consider the self-delusional cant of my beloved counterculture with regard to ‘selling out’ or the nauseating amount of marketing, sponsorship and dodgy finance involved in everything from the Turner Prize via just about any architectural endeavour of note to even Henry Cow’s involvement in this year’s London Jazz Festival. Fucking hell, it’s an ethical minefield out there, mate…

And claiming moral high ground when I DO watch a couple of major sporting events (I even used to watch American Football in the days when it was on Channel Four, finding it akin to a vast, boring game of human chess, which appealed to the pervert in me) is also odious. The Olympics (winter AND summer) as well as the object of this post will pretty much always draw me in. Willingly. But what makes these acceptable to such an anti-sport prig?

My friend’s request for my take on the lengthy World Cup campaign made me sit back and mull for all of, ooh… ten minutes last night as I watched the Belgium vs South Korea match.  

And the not-really-very-surprising conclusions I careered into last night were as follows:

You seemingly did, Ray: YOU ate all of the pies...

1) The ITV coverage is horrible compared to the BBC’s, if only because they insert adverts and idents into gaps that could be measured in gnat’s whiskers. Add to this the creepy editing of Ary Barroso’s fabulous song ‘Brazil’ into the last two notes, the inevitable appearance of that Ray Winstone floating head advert (where he makes the word ‘taaaablet’ sound like the most disgusting thing on the planet - see above) and Adrian Chiles’ puffy miserable face and even Gary Lineker’s Mr Clean act seems preferable. On which note, tradition dictates that I insert this clip:

2) Having noted the above, one point in favour of ITV vs BBC is that ITV do not have Robbie Savage as a commentating pundit. I understand the attraction of having an ‘expert’ on hand to comment on proceedings, tactics etc. yet Savage’s miserly, bitter Northern pronouncements are utterly depressing. Once he gets an idea he seems unable to relinquish it and move on. The BBC came under attack for their recruitment of Phil Neville (allegedly he was boring – well, durr) but in my mind Savage is far worse. Like the offensive professional Yorkshire arrogance of Geoffrey Boycott in the even more occult land of cricket, his know-it-all demeanour really gets my goat.

2a) Even more objectionable is the constant need for producers to cut to shots of 'attractive ladeez' in the crowd, but others have noted this way before me...

3) I LOVE the introductory pre-match computer wizardry that shows us each player rotating towards us with arms folded and a sexy come-hither look on their dear sweet,  dim faces. I’d like to see this approach adopted everywhere. I’m frankly amazed that they don’t do it at Glastonbury this weekend. Pre-show Metallica gurning (but with less tattoos than footballers) would make my weekend.

4) And on that point, the flair and variety of modern footballers’ appearances is astounding. They’ve taken David Beckham’s peacock-shaped ball and run right out of the stadium with it (ouch, sorry for the mangled metaphor)! Tattoos are the least of it. Facial hair; science fiction hair-dos; flourescent footwear; even dreadlocks for goodness-sake. For the first time in recorded history, the World Cup shows more sartorial daring than 150,000 posh kids at Glastonbury Festival. Maybe football really is the new rock ‘n’ roll…

5) As a temporarily re-vibrated Englishman (who actually could not care less about his home team, but more on that below) I suddenly cannot bear the idea of the USA winning anything to do with football. While I admire Jurgen Klinsmann’s success in partially making a nation of insular ‘we’ve got our own massively corporate-sponsored games’ types sit up and take notice as well as shaping a team (mainly by stealing them from his native country) that at least made it into the last 16, I rail against the world’s most arrogant country sullying a pastime which really belongs to Europe or Central/South America. For this reason I also took offence at the Australians taking part. But then, they went and called themselves the ‘Socceroos’, and for that alone they deserved to be knocked out.

6) See what happened there? I became, to all intents and purposes slightly racist for a second. And this is my next point – the commentators and pundits throughout provide us with the slyest, most socially acceptable form of racism while passing judgement (i.e: making huge generalisations about a team’s ‘national characteristics’). Last night it took seconds before Alan Hansen (that scarred, ultra serious provider of truisms and humour-free comments on defensive failures for every World Cup since god-knows-when) referred to the  Germans as ‘ruthlessly efficient’. An hour later they were ‘the sharks of the World Cup’. And so it goes… Latin Americans are passionate yet cynical cheaters. In fact the word ‘cynical’ now seems exclusively reserved for the art of tackling until this is all over. Americans and Australians are relentlessly positive (well, they just are) while any far eastern team deserve the ‘plucky’ label. And, let’s face it, you can’t be plucky unless you’re SMALL compared to the opposition. Well, not in someone as provincial as Robbie Savage’s mind, you can’t.

7) Further to this, I haven’t, you’ll notice, mentioned how England’s performance has affected me. The answer is not one jot. On every level the England team were rubbish to my un-tutored and unqualified eyes. Ugly, dull, and lacking any grace: and that was just the manager… Their early departure hasn’t abated my interest in the slightest. If I were to profess any preference it would probably for those ruthlessly efficient Germans.

8) Which brings me onto the last brief observation: that I don’t really care who wins. It’s the HOW they win that amuses me and keeps me engaged.

So my cursory conclusions came down to this: I like the world Cup because it’s a WORLD event. Asked yesterday whether it was the political subtext that drew me in, I have to say, no, not entirely, but it’s undeniable that there’s a rather satisfying sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ about the whole affair that makes it more intriguing.  There we have it: it’s the NARRATIVE that entices. I actually find myself envying those diehards who know every back story behind every player and their history on the pitches of the world’s regular leagues. How much more exciting to know that player A, playing opposite player B in term-time plays in the SAME TEAM. Or that player C is well known for his trademark fouls/headers/acrobatics/ball-handling skills/speed etc. etc. etc? But to an amateur such as myself, the prospect of a limited and yet extensive set of skirmishes establishes a foreseeable result, rewarding close attention, and also (with the help of aforementioned pundits) means that you can pretend to have opinions about matters. Admit it, you felt strangely qualified to speak to a near or dear one on the subject of Luis Suarez’sadolescent biting behaviour this week, even if you’d no idea of his record over the last few years.

But unfortunately the regular three-ring circus of Premier league football is still best represented in my head in the following way:

Or maybe its arbitrary partisan nature could be better demonstrated like this:

Yet, just like a mini-series or box set of a TV show, you can binge on the World Cup but be sure of both a conclusion and of some thrills and spills along the way. It’s the True Detective of sport. I know the end will be disappointing, but it functioned well as a distraction for a short period.

Given the above, it seems fair to surmise that the function of nearly all sport which is passively consumed shares the same goals as a digital drama series and that the two are equally guilty of drawing us away from what really matters in life: the ability to create rather than consume. Giant world competitions such as this are expressions of capitalism in excelsis. And so was Breaking Bad. Both function as a socially codified excuse to sever our connection to the outside world and, as such, I’m back to where I started. To criticise is aimless, because from my ivory tower of aestheticism, I’m not doing anything more worthwhile, other than writing about it. And maybe this is the most positive point I can make about the World Cup 2014. For five weeks my uptight universe coincides with another alien one, and briefly I can pretend to be part of something that for the other three years and 11 months is as remote as Alpha Centauri.

So come on my son, nice one Cyril, or whatever you footballists say. Score one for team Jones!

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