Football as a narrative

Yesterday my football-writing-friend was holding forth on the nature of sports commentary and how they need to provide a narrative – this is virtually impossible because any fiction writer will tell you that you can't tell a story unless you know what the ending is; which, in sport, you don't – so commentators come in with pre-conceived notions and try to fit the game to these ideas. The plucky underdog, the auld enemy, blah blah blah. (Incidentally, even though this is clearly what happens, I disagree with the practice. I think it's similar to the news attempting to provide a narrative and if you don't know why that's bad, you've obviously not been watching enough Newswipe.)

So I'm sitting here watching that dire performance against Algeria and wondering quite why Clive Tyldsley feels such a need to lay the entire blame at Fabio Capello's door. The 4-4-2 formation, his managerial style, the not-announcing-the-team until just before kick-off, how is this affecting the morale of the players – all of it came in for a proper bashing. I'll admit I didn't really pay that much attention during the qualifiers (sorry; I was probably doing something else. My league football watching has kind of been replaced by F1 watching recently. That happens when you can't watch your team except through fingers). But what Tyldsley was saying about Capello – in fact, what Tyldsley was castigating Capello for – was his unwavering dedication to certain ways of playing. Presumably then, these ways of playing were the ones that got us to the fucking finals in the first place.

I'm not feeling in a reasonable enough position to offer my own theories on the state of England, but I did find it fascinating* to see just how badly everyone seems to want to blame Capello. Gareth Southgate just now gave this speech:

Adrian Chiles: The blame has got to rest at [Capello]'s door, hasn't it?
Southgate: Yes, because it's his role to get the best out of them and he's got to try and relieve pressure from them. But, once they step over that white line they've got to be big enough to handle that responsibility and they look haunted at the moment by wearing the shirt. 

Hang on. He starts off by blaming Capello, but then immediately switches into saying there's something wrong with the players. What's that? Oh, yes the players! Those guys on the pitch who are their nation's finest, who have played football for their clubs at the highest level, who by now have been playing together as a national team for long enough to have, you know, an idea where on the pitch the others are going to be. Anyone going to start criticising the inaccurate passing? How nice it was that England wanted to give the Algerian keeper lots of catching practice by firing all their shots straight at him? Or does that not work with the narrative that Capello's at fault? Probably not; it was surely only time before the narrative turned against the foreign manager, right?**

*In other words, I found it useful to distance myself from the actual game by thinking about something else. I was irritating myself with my own shouting.

**I'm not saying I don't think there's some truth in it. I nearly wept when a right-winger was substituted for… a right-winger. But come on; how badly they're playing, I doubt it's as simple as just 'the manager has suddenly started getting it wrong by continuing to do what he's done so far'.

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7 responses to “Football as a narrative

  1. Kate June 18, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    As I was just attempting to say on Twitter, we always blame the managers. Arguably we’ve had a succession of perfectly acceptable managers, all of whom have copped the flak for underperformance. Why? Because the Premier League is the biggest distorting effect on, certainly European if not international, football. Players trade off their ridiculously luxurious lifestyles, therefore have no true (ie.monetary) motivation in national games, and can rely on colleagues of other nationalities in club games.
    Our home game is vile and maggot-ridden, and we pay the price in internationals. Meanwhile our tabloids flog the patriotic war hype shamelessly.
    It’s enough to make me wish I was Welsh.

  2. Del June 18, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Have to agree. The fact is that the manager can only achieve so much with players. I don’t agree 100% with everything Capello has done, but who ever does? A tired, but for once relevant point: the media wanted the recuperated Jimmy Greaves bought back into the England team for the 1966 World Cup final. But Alf Ramsey stuck with Geoff Hurst. And the rest is history.
    The manager has to stick his neck out and take the risks (which Capello did with bringing James back in, who I think played well), but if the players fail to take up the challenge, then it’s down to them.
    I’d drop Rooney, Heskey and Lampard. Play Defoe and Crouch up front, bring in Joe Cole on the left. How much worse could it be?

  3. Rachel June 18, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    I’m not entirely sure I agree that England suck so regularly as a national team just because the players are overpaid and pampered princesses (though arguably they are). English clubs do really well in Europe, with a mixture of English players and equally overpaid overseas players. (Mind you, Spain, France and Germany are doing equally badly at the World Cup with those same players). I’ve never been able to put my finger on why these players, who can pull it out for their club, can’t seem to gel for their country. It’s not because their club is the one that pays them; maybe it’s a lack of time spent together? Ah, I dunno.
    Completely agree about David James – the old man is the only one who played well (and I speak as someone who is well versed in his younger, howler-prone days). I wonder if the media are less in thrall to the manager than they are to the more glamorous players, so it’s the manager they pick on first.
    Narrative, narrative.

  4. Del June 19, 2010 at 12:40 am

    I think there’s certainly a case for a mid-season break. English players are far more brittle than their continental counterparts who have a nice rest at Christmas. That’s a fact. May not improve the Premier League, but it might help England.
    And the simple fact is that the manager can be replaced, whereas we’re stuck with the players we have. This so called Golden Generation. I think tonight was complacency to an extent. Arrogance. I actively dislike the players. But great club players sucking at international level isn’t really anything new. It’s practically an English disease.

  5. Kate June 19, 2010 at 12:40 am

    “I’ve never been able to put my finger on why these players, who can pull it out for their club, can’t seem to gel for their country.”
    Uh, because these are people who’ve been brought up to value money, wealth, outwrd status? It ruins talent. Once you start being motivated by the £ and the honeyz, it’s damn hard for your country to match that offer.
    English (and some other) fusball has become about the dollars and the ho’s, not the game. The international game simply doesn’t match up to that. What happens to these guys if they lose? Nowt. No change in their paypacket. End of story.
    Commercial football killed the international game star.

  6. Rachel June 19, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Football is an odd sport. It has a whole mythology around it that almost consumes it, and the peak of that mythology is the World Cup. You can’t have got to the top of football without buying into that mythology and culture – it’s all around you, there’s simply no escape. The World Cup is about honour, and honour is still massive in football. Possibly they’ve lost the ability to deal with that – it was interesting to hear someone (can’t remember who) on Radio 4 this morning saying, like Gareth Southgate, that the players looked afraid. The pressure is enormous, because it’s not true that nothing happens to them if they lose – in this country, they get crucified by the media in a way they don’t for their club. (Look at Robert Green.) It was perhaps it was even more instructive to hear Harry Harris (football writer for the tabloids) say that anything less than reaching the Final will be a disaster for England. This is ludicrous. But it gives an idea of the kind of pressure heaped on by the media. (Back to narrative.)
    Mid season break would be nice for fans, too. Well I remember freezing my arse off, even through thermal underleggings, at New Year.

  7. Kate June 19, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Thinking about this a bit more, you could arguably turn the rhetoric on its head and say that actually, it’d be surprising if the team DIDN’T have problems gelling, given all the shit that’s gone down in the last few months. Tabloid hoo-ha, shagging each others’ wives, injuries, captaincy changes … why SHOULD we expect them to be working effectively as a team after all that?!
    Just a thought …

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