Oh dear, I watched the France-Ireland match last night to watch Ireland crash out at the hand of Thierry Henry. Henry’s manipulation was even more outrageous than Diego Maradona’s hand of God back in Mexico ’86. First, because he handled the ball twice, and second, because it’s a long time since Ireland was at war with France.
I don’t get this ‘any professional player in Henry’s position would do the same’ reasoning, which Jim Beglin had the privilege of expressing first, and which is spreading like knotweed. I think it is probably true as a matter of fact: you would need to be some sort of moral giant or idiot to plead for your goal to be disallowed, given the pressures from fans, players, sponsors and so on. Being nice is not so big a money-spinner as being a winner. Which is why the playoffs were seeded, because the risk of a World Cup without Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema needed to minimised.
But if you’re satisfied with the idea that any professional player would do the same, why watch professional sport? Once a sporting spectator has dispensed with the central idea of the match, that is, the exercise concerned with which competitor comes out on top in playing by the rules, you enter the realm of spectacle of the order of WWE wrestling, where what you’re concerned with are the story and the sensations that come with victory or defeat. And WWE has better back stories. The moment a professional footballer grabs the announcer’s mike to tell the crowd that he enjoyed a drug-fuelled steamy session with the opposing centre-half’s wife and her lesbian lover at the very moment that the centre-half was laid up in hospital getting his jaw reset from a beating administered to him in the car park of the gender reassignment surgery centre by a group of goons hired by his own manager seems far off, but I sense the hour is later than we think. Lots of football fanatics I know are able to draw on a wealth of seamy, prurient stories about professional footballers to complement their deep knowledge of match statistics, tactics, formations and so on. Some of these strike me as fantasy, with some stories approaching oral slash fiction.
I have to admit, though, that it would be very odd to take an interest in televised spectator sports and at the same time have no interest to some degree in the personalities and allegiances involved: the psychological side of things is all part of the spectacle. For instance, I enjoy watching Nicolas Anelka play because he combines immense skill, strength and no small amount of subtlety with the appearance that he really hates playing football.
Nor do I think there is much to recommend a spectator sport that is concerned with unerringly rigid application of the rules, which is one of the reasons that I take no interest in rugby. I mean, if you have a huge apparatus of rules and procedures bearing down on the sporting activity, to me that defeats the central point of most sporting activity, which -if I might be pretentious-moi about this- is above all un jeu. Sure, there need to be rules in order to enable play to take place in the first instance. But too many rules just render the whole thing an exercise in exploiting the rules to their limit, rather than a matter of play.
There is a bit of a paradox at the heart of l’affaire Henry, which is that a less rigid set of rules would mean that the goal would not have stood, but the objection to the goal is on account of the rules not being rigidly followed. That is, if the Irish players’ impassioned protests had been entertained by the ref, then the ref, even after awarding the goal, could have consulted with TV cameras, found that the goal should not have stood, and then disallowed the goal.
One time I was refereeing a rather low-profile match and a player went outside the goal-line with the ball before slotting the ball in the back of the net. I forgot to blow the whistle when the ball went out, had no linesman, and when I then declared, with a shake of the head, that there was no goal, I got assailed by several members of the team claiming to have scored, screaming at me for not having blown the whistle, saying that the goal ought to have stood. I told them to go to hell: it was damned obvious that the ball had gone out. The captain, in a rictus of rage, was like, well, you should have blown. And I was like, well, you’re right and I didn’t, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t a goal, as is the fact that you are a tool, but I don’t ask you to wear a sign saying so, and I think you’re humiliating yourself making an issue out of this when you’re 4-0 down.
That was my last match as a referee – the gulf between the my impressionistic ideas on the spirit in which the game ought to be played and the reality of the petty legalistic whingeing that sustains the game at any level was too much for this gentle flower to bear. There’s something undignified, ugly even, in the image of people getting all het up about something that matters very little: football shouldn’t be more important than life and death, even though, when it comes to people’s passions about things, it often really is, when it take hold of people’s every waking moment, giving them something to look forward to in the absence of anything else, occupying the space formerly held by religion.
Not that I wish to make little of the opportunities for real enjoyment, friendship, songs and so on that football provides- my point is not that it doesn’t matter at all. Hell, I woke the child twice last night shouting at the TV. I just get struck by the huge investment of time, money, effort and thought that people put into football by comparison with other things, and how easily they show allegiance to professional teams that have precious little to do with them. In particular I have a deep distaste for the way football (and other sports, too) is used as vehicle for presenting a common interest in the absence of any other: the jaw-dropping demands for a rematch from Minister of Justice Dermot Ahern is as good an example as any:
Mr Ahern has said FIFA should be called to account in the interests of fair play.
‘They probably won’t grant it as we are minnows in world football but let’s put them on the spot,’ the minister said.
‘It’s the least we owe the thousands of devastated young fans around the country.
‘Otherwise, if that result remains, it reinforces the view that if you cheat, you will win.’
Satire, if not dead yet again, is lying bleeding from multiple stab wounds.
Confronted with the likes of this, Thierry Henry has done Irish people a favour. Can you imagine the outpourings of ‘if the footballers can do it, then so can we!’ voluntarist exhortations that would gush forth from every media outlet for months on end? Not to mention the astrological economics wondering whether a world cup finals will herald a return to the good times. It was the right moment to deliver a lesson that game is rigged by powerful interests and claims to honest endeavour and appeals to the rules of the existing system won’t count for shit. Chapeau.