My Left Eye Sees Toast’s Sexy World Cup Special Series #1

Welcome to the first installment of My Left Eye Sees Toast’s Sexy World Cup Special Series from the Hong Kong Cinema blog that rarely writes about Hong Kong Cinema (or anything else for that matter). Over the next few weeks I’m going to try and apply some theoretical concepts from film studies to football, a task that raises many questions – Why do this?/Does anyone care?/Can I overcome my own inherent laziness and actually update this blog more frequently than once every 6 months? – and many answers – Boredom mainly/Probably not/Who knows. So sorry to anyone who wanted to read about movies.

Anyway, I have actually been wanting to write about football for a while, prompted by my own fascination/infuriation with the recent vogue for theoretical tactical analysis in public discussions on football. The actual content of these debates is of little interest to me. I find the likes of Zonal Marking and the Guardian’s tactical analyses unbearable in their dryness and often laughable in their pomposity, written as they are in such definitive, absolute tones, with titles like “Why Barcelona Lost” or “How Ancelotti Got it Right”. Ultimately these tactical critiques are largely fatuous as they give primacy to tactics over all other areas of the game and have created a fantasy of the best managers being auteurs (in the original Andrew Sarris sense of the term), defined by the tactics through which they manage and control football matches. This is not to say that the tactics managers employ are irrelevant, nor that a manager cannot be defined by their tactical approach. Rather, the problem is that, as with Sarris’s original auteur theory, these writers are taking a schematic, yet largely unscientific, approach to match analysis and then forming definitive judgements based on entirely fallible reasoning. An imperfect analogy would be a film critic deciding to analyse only the narratives of the films they reviewed based on a set of criteria that they themselves had defined, while ignoring all other aesthetic elements (acting, cinematography, set design etc.) AND then forming definitive judgements on the quality of the films based solely on their own narrow, and potentially irrelevant, sphere of focus.

On this episode of This is Deep Play this phenomenon of privileging tactical analysis above all other areas of debate is discussed. One of the contributors also wrote a very interesting piece on the same subject here during Euro 2012, coining the term tactocratic to describe the isolated, privileged debate on tactics in football discussions. Their objection to the emergence of tactical analysis as the definitive mode of football analysis is twofold. The first objection is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. It can be mind-numbingly boring. I share the view that Jonathon Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid is a good book ruined entirely by its subject. For those who haven’t attempted it, it consists mainly of long passages about football systems and formations punctuated by interesting segments of human history. For some bizarre reason, despite his clear talent for writing about the latter, Wilson seems more interested in the former.

However I slightly diverge from their second argument, which is that this tactical analysis is unhealthy and ultimately damaging to discourses surrounding football as it isolates this analysis from football’s wider social context. I do not necessarily believe that isolating areas of football for individual study or criticism is a problem. In fact, this could be an interesting point in the evolution of football writing whereby more detailed but less “definitive” theoretically focused analyses could emerge. I entirely agree that there is an inherent snobbery in much of the debate surrounding tactics in that many of those engaged in such conversations take the position that their analysis/discussion is more intellectually rigorous and of more worth than other less tactically focused discourses. I would also concur with the notion that the intellectualism ascribed to these debates is completely false and often little more than posturing on the part of their participants. Nevertheless, if the idea of the relativism of such debates could be established and they weren’t treated as either definitive judgements on matches, teams or managers or as the pinnacle of football discussion, then an interesting line of theoretical analysis could emerge. In fact, there is a good piece here from the Put Niels in Goal blog about accepting the relativism of football writing.

Anyway, that’s going to largely be the aim of My Left Eye Sees Toast’s Sexy World Cup Special Series, applying accepted relativist theory from the field of film studies to football. We’ll take a look at auteur, cult and star theory and see how they can be applied to football analysis.

Finally, I should address the elephant in the room, the argument that a football match cannot really be considered an authored piece of art like a film in that the spectacle of the match emerges from the antagonistic relationship between two teams rather than by design. That to appreciate a match as a piece of art, one must regard it as autonomous art, beyond the control of its participants and creators. To these points I have several counter-arguments.

Firstly, it pre-supposes that one only analyses a match and not the surrounding publicity, interviews and general context of football. Many of the best football shows are successful largely because they discuss the soap opera of football from a mostly ironic position, paying little attention to the events on the field.

Secondly, most academic analysis of film accepts the role of hermeneutics and interpretation in how we construct authorial figures from directors, actors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers and even executives. Film is an ultimately collaborative pursuit, not just in terms of those involved in the production but also the reception. How we interpret films as collective audiences is not monolithic or singular and, by extension, nor is how we construct authorial identities for actors, directors etc. So why shouldn’t it be the same with football. Surely we can detect traces of creativity in how the individual figures involved in a match contribute to the spectacle? And how external forces, such as the crowd or the pundits, contextualise the events on the field.

Thirdly, the argument that football is ultimately predicated on the antagonistic relationship between opponents. But is that so different from art and cinema? Is the stand-up of people like Stewart Lee and Johnny Vegas not often predicated on a sense of antagonism between the performer and their audience? A similar argument could be made for the films of Lars Von Trier and Vincent Gallo. And there are countless antagonistic, oppositional relationships – between cast members, between crew members, between filmmakers and censors – from which great, undisputed art emerges. So the oppositional nature of football should offer us no great obstacle. It’s no big deal. Chill out guys.

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