Playing for the Shirt
What makes a club, and why do their colours seem to matter so much more than other aspects of identity?
The Emperor’s New Clothes
In the summer of 2012, the Malaysian retail magnate Tan Sri Vincent Tan came to the conclusion that a change to the colours of Cardiff City’s hitherto all-blue shirts might be the causal agent needed to spark an upturn in the team’s results. The club thus issued an executive statement on June 14 inviting the supporters to “join us on this journey”, a platitudinous fig-leaf of corporate pragmatism that couldn’t quite conceal the owner’s magical thinking: “In order to realise our potential, real world business and financial decisions need to be made...” Exactly how real was this “real world”? Had research been done into the commercial potential of red over blue? Or was the only pertinent reality in play not, in fact, the desire of the owner and the ‘blackmail’ he held over the club (and had made them aware of two years earlier when he bought it): change the kits to red and he would invest £100m in stadium, training facilities and players.
If not an act of outright despotic whimsy – and sitting in the stand in dark shades and black leather gloves, Mr Tan was quick to be encoded in the British media as a Bond-like uber-villain – it certainly all seemed like so much superstitious guff. Yet just how outlandish an idea was it? Is the notion that colours possess some sort of causal power entirely antithetical to our modern and supposedly rational outlook? And was it this clash of sensibilities – just as much as the high-handed way he bulldozed it through – that led to so much scorn being directed at Tan?
After all, when Don Revie took the Leeds United job in 1961 and implemented a change of kit to all-white in homage to Real Madrid – Leeds had played in blue and white stripes from 1920 to 1934, yellow and blue halves until 1948 and thereafter alternated between yellow and blue – the exact same principle seemed to be at work. Similarly, in 1973 Malcolm Allison changed Crystal Palace’s colours from claret and blue (though occasionally white) to the current royal blue and red in a (slightly colour-blind) homage to Barcelona. In 1971, John Bond modified the colours of Bournemouth (‘the Cherries’) from plain red to red and black stripes, emulating the famous rossoneri of Milan. In 1962, Jimmy Hill had Coventry City’s strip changed to sky blue from white with royal blue trim. In the summer of 1979, Mike Summerbee’s first act as player-manager of Stockport County was to change the club’s royal blue strip to the albiceleste colours of the World Cup winners Argentina, although without a great improvement in fortunes before the experiment was abruptly ended in March 1982 with the outbreak of the Falklands War. And Graham Taylor, upon joining Watford from Lincoln, had the Hornets introduce red to their previously gold and black livery (which, incidentally, prior to 1959 was blue shirts, white shorts, blue socks).
Tan’s familiarity with the tenets of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) remains a thing of mystery – and without wishing to traduce this discipline, its general practitioners out in the badlands of ‘performance coaching’ have been known to offer team-building seminars based on encoding specific emotions as colours, so perhaps there is something not altogether vestigial about it – but his explicit reason, when pressed, was that red was luckier than blue, which makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t don the red garb. At any rate, thus was expressed the hope for an uptick in performance in both the primitive/magical register (making the shirt a fetish endowed with agency) and in the modern (stimulating consumption), the shirt mobilising the forces of determination and desire. The changes were pushed through in an act of autocratic fiat.
Elaborating upon the rationale for the change, the Cardiff CEO Alan Whiteley, receiving the hospital pass from on high, explained – and it’s best to imagine this being spoken by a man in a hostage video – that the decision to overturn 114 years of blue-wearing heritage had in fact caused some boardroom anguish. “We are only too aware that the change of colour is a radical move,” he blandished. “Some would say this is a revolutionary move, which will be met with unease and apprehension by a number of supporters, along with being seen as controversial by many.” As the Cardiff supporters were clearing their throats for some yeah- but-no-buts, on he went with haunted determination: “To those, I would like to say that this was not a decision that was taken lightly or without a great deal of thought and debate [emphasis added; in fact, best to read the rest of the statement in italic, bold, 28-point typeface]. There is no getting away from the fact that history and traditions are the lifeblood of any club and as such should be jealously guarded and preserved”. As efforts to placate the supporters go, this was the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast.
Needless to say, the statement failed to get the fanbase entirely on board with the carefully-thought-through shade of red handpicked by Tan, nor with the fact that he had also instigated changes to the club crest, relegating the Bluebirds’ eponymous avian totem to something swooping timidly below the belly of a large red dragon – the dragon of the Welsh flag, true, although that cross- cultural coincidence was the thinnest of veils for the owner’s transparent wish to impose his superstitions on those “jealously preserved” traditions. And so the fans threw themselves into anti-red protest, some returning their season tickets, many joining marches through the city that had been organised by myriad fan groups established for the purpose, while open displays of defiance of the ‘tyrant’ in the presidential box were common.
In March 2014, the day of a 6-3 loss to Liverpool, 3,000 were mobilised for a “mass show of pride in Cardiff City’s heritage and tradition and to peacefully demonstrate our strong desire to return to our blue kit with Bluebird badge”, and supporters indeed pointedly wore their blue kits throughout that ill-starred Premier League campaign of 2013-14, during which Malky Mackay was sacked and Ole Gunnar Solskjær – whatever happened to him? – failed to keep them up. Blue scarves were regularly brandished when the match clock ticked round to 19:27, a reference to the year of the club’s sole major honour, the FA Cup. And in early 2015 supporter groups organised an event for the February 10 visit of Brighton that was dubbed ‘Blue Tuesday’ (“How does it feel, to treat me like you do?”), the date marking the two- year anniversary of the club handing out free red scarves, when Brighton were also the visitors. “With an overwhelming display of blue kits, scarves and flags,” a spokesperson said, “we will take back our stadium and proudly restore blue as the true natural colour of Cardiff City Football Club”.
However, the protest never took place, because in January 2015, shortly after an all-time record low attendance of 4,194 turned out for an FA Cup third- round tie against Colchester, Tan finally seemed to have accepted his failure to red-pill a generation. The change of heart was brought about by conversations with his 87-year-old devoutly Buddhist mother, the matriarch convincing her son of “the importance of togetherness, unity and happiness”. There was a JFK line tossed coquettishly into the climbdown, although little said about the fact that in the final five games in the lucky/commercially advantageous red shirts, they failed to register a single win, collecting nine points from nine games stretching back to early November (although, analytical balance – or rather fairness to the talismanic qualities of the shirt colour – requires us to clarify that, following a 1-0 win against Fulham the day after the decision to rebrand the rebrand, the blue-clad Cardiff picked up four points from their next eight league outings).
At this point it might be worth asking why a change in shirt colour inspires such depth of sentiment while a change to a club’s crest is often met with either short-lived disgruntlement or a shrug of indifference before being widely accepted, even celebrated as a design classic. (Not always, though, as Leeds United discovered last year when an expensive rebrand for the centenary celebrations drew 77,817 querulous signatures to an online petition – the new crest, intended to celebrate the fans, depicted a headless man doing the ‘Leeds salute’ – and several months’ work was binned. Likewise, when Everton, to the disgust of the Gwladys Street classicists, decided to remove the club’s famous Latin motto from beneath St Rupert’s Tower, 23,000 signed an online petition and the badge lasted but a solitary season.)
In the case of Cardiff, the fans’ objection to the modified crest, viewed in isolation, is easily explained by the unambiguous symbolisation of the ‘conquest’ of the Malaysian/Welsh dragon – the Cymodo, if you will – and its dwarfing of the nimble bluebird. Nevertheless, club crests – which only rarely appeared on shirts before the 1960s (more for financial and practical reasons than symbolic), and thus might be considered less part of the club’s identity – have often moved with the design sensibilities of the era: consider Juventus’s recent change to a sleek ‘J’ symbol, aping the simple logos of multinational sports brands, or the iconically modernist Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest badges. The latter was designed by a supporter in open competition – as were those of Brentford, Birmingham, Ipswich, Norwich, Scunthorpe, Southampton, Hereford, Hartlepool and Dagenham and Redbridge – which is certainly more democratic than the Cardiff change but also something of a risk in an age of Boaty McBoatface and Brexit.
So, what’s the big deal with colours? Why is changing them somehow more egregious than a change to the crest, which would seem a far more singular embodiment of a club’s identity than a colour? Why are the club colours reckoned to be more intrinsically and elementally a part of the tribe’s identity than the badge? After all, in Spain it is common parlance to esteem players who sudar los colores de la camiseta (literally ‘sweat the colours of the jersey’). Can any colours really be considered an ‘authentic’ expression of a particular community (“The true natural colour of Cardiff City...”) as opposed to accidental by-products of a contingent history later mythopoetically retro-fitted as foundational? Quite a few are especially arbitrary, despite figuring as a primordial element of the club’s identity.
Famously, Boca Juniors chose their blue and yellow livery after losing a winner- takes-all match with Boedo to see who kept the white and blue striped shirt, afterward deciding that their new colours would be taken from the next ship to arrive at Dock Sud, which was reputed to be the Drottning Sophia sailing under the Swedish flag, and the rest, as they say, was history. Juventus started out in pink shirts until, tired of how the colours faded when washed, they asked their English player John Savage if he could help. He had a friend from Nottingham, a supporter of the world’s oldest club, ship out a set of black-and-white striped shirts and thus the bianconeri had their ‘immortal’ colours. A similar story is attached to Dinamo Moscow, whose blue and white kit, so the legend goes, represents air and water, the two elements without which man could not live; in reality, the general manager of Morozov Mills and founder of the club that became Dinamo, Harry Charnock, was a Lancastrian who kitted them out in the colours of his team, Blackburn Rovers. Real Madrid, meanwhile, were reputed to have chosen white after club officials witnessed a cricket match on a visit to London, while their cross-town rivals Atlético’s red and white colours emerged from the chance expediency of having a local mattress maker with an abundance of such cloth, this giving them their nickname of los colchoneros (‘the mattress makers’). Many clubs in Spain and Latin America derive their colours from encounters with British sailors or workers, while others took British names, too, all of which suggests ‘impure’, syncretic origins. In other words: nothing to revere here.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the current 92 league clubs no longer play in their ‘original’ colours, and even allowing for the fact that clubs in the Victorian era took what material was conveniently available without having to worry about shifting units or inciting protests, several of those clubs’ colours didn’t stabilise until well after their formation, while others have chopped and changed even in their mature years. Indeed, Vincent Tan was far from the first to change colours on the express basis of luck. Burnley had 28 years playing in green, royal blue, black, red, purple and gold, black and gold, blue and white stripes (both Oxford and Cambridge blues), white with blue diagonal sash, pink and white, before adopting Aston Villa’s “lucky” claret and blue in 1910. Blackpool had played for much of their first 36 years in red shirts, blue before that, and were turning out in white in 1923 when the club director Albert Hargreaves, an international referee, returned from officiating a Belgium vs Netherlands match and decided to introduce the tangerine shirts because they looked “distinguished”. Of course, back then there were comparatively meagre means to drum up opposition – no social media outrage machine – but then Hargreaves wasn’t the owner. Macclesfield, Oldham, Reading, Scunthorpe, Walsall, Brentford, Millwall, Peterborough and Rochdale have all seen radical changes to the colour of the home kit since the 1960s.
So, again: why colours, not crests?
Perhaps something approaching an answer to these questions – some critical purchase on the different types of investment (psychic, economic, symbolic) in the hallowed football shirt – can be found in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose first collaboration, Anti-Oedipus, while ostensibly a critique of the Freudian Oedipus complex, also elaborates a “universal history of desire” and its functioning in three basic types of society, three “abstract social machines”: the primitive-territorial machine or savage formation, based on tribe and kinship relations (clans), the imperial or despotic machine, centred on the State and political relations (caste), and the civilised-capitalist machine, organised around market relations (class).
Each social machine exacts an essential and specific repression of desire – there can be no society without such repression, without a separation of desire from its object – such that Deleuze and Guattari’s basic postulate is that “a society is defined by the way it captures the energies that escape it”, the way it organises the “decoded flows” of desire (or really “desiring-production”, since desire in its pre-social state is simply the free operation of connection with the world rather than a desire-for, an acquisition to fill a lack, which it only becomes after the socially enacted repression of desire in its free state). “The prime function incumbent upon the socius has always been to codify the flows of desire, to inscribe them, to record them, to see to it that no flow exists that is not properly dammed up, channelled, regulated”.
Admittedly, it is not a theory regularly aired on Sky Soccer Saturday – Merse, aghast: “That’s never been a theory, Jeff”; Thommo, fulminating: “I’m norravin’ dah, Jeff” – nor is it one thought yet to have featured in Robbie Savage’s column in the Mirror (although we ought not let that glaring absence prejudice our notion of its validity). Even so, perhaps the Cardiff situation – and, indeed, many facets of the social phenomenon of football besides, in particular the hyper-capitalist form emerging from its primitive and imperial phases – are most fruitfully grasped through the prism of a “politics of desire”. It is our strong desire to return to our blue kit with Bluebird badge...
Join us on this journey.
A Universal History of Desire
The three chief pundits of Anti-Oedipus – its Dunphy, Brady and Giles – were Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. A liberal dash of Freud was introduced to Marx and political economy in order to demonstrate the thoroughly libidinal dimension of the social sphere: “The truth is that sexuality is everywhere: the way a bureaucrat fondles his records, a judge administers justice, a businessman causes money to circulate; the way the bourgeoisie fucks the proletariat; and so on. And there is no need to resort to metaphors... Hitler got the fascists sexually aroused. Flags, nations, armies, banks get a lot of people aroused.”
Marx, meanwhile, was introduced to Freud and psychoanalysis in order to demonstrate the profound effect of social forces – and not just the Oedipal theatre of Mummy-Daddy-Me – in shaping the unconscious, the personality, from the earliest stages of life: “The father, the mother, and the self are at grips with, and directly coupled to, the elements of the political and historical situation... The family is by nature eccentric, de- centred... There is always an uncle from America; a brother who went bad; an aunt who took off with a military man; a cousin out of work, bankrupt, or a victim of the Crash; an anarchist grandfather; a grandmother in the hospital, crazy or senile... The Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, religion and atheism, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of fascism, Stalinism, the Vietnam war, May ’68 – all these things form complexes of the unconscious, more effective than everlasting Oedipus.” Or again: “The child does not wait until he is an adult before grasping – underneath father-mother – the economic, financial, social, and cultural problems that cross through a family: his desire to belong to a superior or inferior ‘race’, the reactionary or the revolutionary tenor of a familial group with which he is already preparing his ruptures and his conformities.”
And yet it was Nietzsche-the- anthropologist of The Genealogy of Morals that allowed Deleuze and Guattari to grasp fully the deep intertwining of libidinal and political economies, grafting his insistence on the primary reality of debt onto Marx’s notion of surplus-value: that part of productive activity accruing as debt to the “socius” – a “recording surface” for productive activity (producers, products and their relations, best thought of as a sort of virtual map of the social body) – whence is determined how the excess shall be distributed and consumed (the capitalist socius is, unsurprisingly, money/capital). Deleuze and Guattari will explain how these systems of surplus-value creation and debt/obligation issue from each social machine’s specific repression and recording (or “inscription”) of desire/ desiring-production.
Before getting to that, it should be borne in mind that a regime of social production can operate according to one of two modes of generality: either symbolically, engendering surplus- value through the coding (savagery) or overcoding (despotism) of qualified flows of matter-energy; or economically, through the “axiomatisation” of decoded, quantified flows, conjoined through an abstract equivalence (money). Social relations in symbolic societies (primitive clans, imperial castes) are therefore qualitative and significant, mediated by custom, meaning or belief, whereas in economic societies these relations (class) are quantitative, direct, and essentially meaningless. (Kinship structures and political relations do not vanish in fully- fledged economic society, of course, they merely cease to be the principal relations directing social reproduction, as evinced through the institution of marriage: previously a fully social event, a strategy, implicating the entire community and undertaken to knit ties and consolidate or improve the position of the family within the network of alliances/debt obligations, whereas in the civilised-capitalist regime, with familial reproduction separated from wider social production, it becomes a private affair.)
Nietzsche argued that primitive society’s fundamental task was that of marking bodies. Just as you cannot have men running free at a corner, with no-one assigned the duty of picking them up and everyone doing as they please, so no society can function with ‘free desire’. Marking bodies – in the literal sense of tattooing, scarification, piercing, branding and mutilation, social signs inscribed on the flesh – was thus the means to create a memory of debt and duty, overcoming the appeal of an unmediated life. And it was this forging of memory, this “mnemotechnics”, that first taught humankind that what is produced for the social body – produced in the broadest sense, including animals that are killed on the hunt – cannot be immediately consumed. Displacement and deferral of desire: the primordial repression.
These rituals of social initiation in which, under the authoritative gaze of an elder, the bodies of savage society are inscribed with signs of its ‘law’ comprise what Deleuze and Guattari call a “system of cruelty”, by way of which is carried out “the collective investment of the organs” (part of the broader method of the coding of flows), be they hunting arms, reproductive wombs or, indeed, authoritative gazes. The organs belong less to private citizens – this will come later – than to the socius, the great ‘creditor’ to whom the debt is owed. (This is not too far removed from the perception of football fans toward players wearing the team’s shirt: it bestows a duty to put your collectively invested head in where it hurts for the cause, for the tribe. Or at least it did, when footballers’ bonds to their clubs were more tightly knit and ‘organic’.)
The ‘magical’, enchanted relationship between the socius – for the primitives, “the body of the Earth”, hence “territorial machine” – and productive activity is absolutely crucial, and forms a constant of all social formations. Indeed, Anti- Oedipus draws on Marx’s famous depiction of the relationship between labour and capital to illustrate it all. Notwithstanding the analytical difficulties posed by virtual financial speculation, money begetting money with the click of a mouse and nothing being produced except zeroes and ones, the basis of all capital (as stored value) is labour. In the beginning, all capitalists are aware of this, since private capital is precisely the means to extract surplus-value (via the inherently exploitative wage relation).
However, as the productive powers of social labour are developed and recorded as/in capital – “dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour,” wrote Marx – there soon emerges a “perverted, bewitched world” in which these same productive forces now appear to be due to the “very mystic being” of capital rather than to labour as such.
All social machines possess this “unengendered, nonproductive attitude” whereby what is merely a recording surface for productive activity nevertheless appears as the latter’s “natural or divine precondition”, miraculating all the forces and agents of production in a causal inversion or “apparent objective movement”: a true perception of a false relation. The enchanted socius is thus a quasi-cause – an entity to which is attributed ‘magical’ causal power and thus, to the extent that it is so invested, effectively possesses it – and while the primitives had their totems and fetishes, the modern world is no less free of them, from flags to football shirts. And between the body of earth and the body of capital-money will come, in the imperial machine, the “full body of the despot” as socius, arrogating to itself all of the productive forces, their divine precondition. Thus Vincent Tan pronounced in February 2014: “No way I will change it back to blue under my ownership. Perhaps they can find an owner who likes blue, pay up and buy me out. Sure they can go and change it to blue after that. I go somewhere and build another red club.” [Emphasis added].
The primitive machine is concerned, then, with coding flows – of goods, trinkets, food, blood, sperm, prestige, duty – thus binding desire to the socius and ensuring that “decoded flows” are captured, for nothing is more mortally threatening to the social machine. Nevertheless, the death that the savage formation feels rising from within, in the form of those decoded flows, and against which it mobilises the ‘cruelist’ rituals of inscription, eventually comes from without: the instantaneous capture by the imperial machine, the conquerors riding in off the horizon...
“They appear as lightning appears,” writes Nietzsche, in a passage dedicated not to foreign plutocrats buying football clubs in order to sportswash their reputations, but the founders of the state, “too terrible, too convincing, too sudden, too different even to be hated. Their work is an instinctive creation and imposition of forms... Some pack of blond beasts of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organised for war and with the ability to organise, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless...”
The arrival of the state does not so much destroy the territorial machine as allow it to subsist, but within the new set of political relations of the sovereignty machine. Where debt/surplus-value had been circulated and discharged in elaborate social rituals (dowry, potlatch, feasts), everything, including wombs, is now owed to, and owned by, the despot: a vast river flowing into his coffers, an arrogation of surplus-value displayed in lavish expenditures on palaces, orgies, wars, superfluous Ukrainian strikers and other instances of maximal consumption. This is the regime of infinite debt – a debt of existence, indeed, since he has the power of life and death over you – and the despotic law thus constitutes, for the newly imperial subjects, “a second inscription: a new mark, a new severity”. The codes are replaced by overcoding: in place of – or superposed on – the graphic bodily marks of savage custom there are written laws (often in an incomprehensible foreign language) aligned on the voice of the distant despot; in place of the patchwork of local currencies there are gold coins as universal standard of value, all bearing the despot’s face, his all-seeing eye.
What is essential here is the transformation in libidinal economy. Desire now becomes reactive, an interpretation of sovereign whimsy, since he is the sole arbiter of the law and holds the power of life and death over his subjects: What does the despot want? As such, the distant law – the apparatus of repression, interceding between free desire and the world – is now expressed in the form of a supreme danger, a “permanent menace from on high”, a death instinct that becomes internalised. Public executions provide a visual display of this despotic power when the actual means to surveil vast regions and ensure obedience is logistically impossible (and, it should be noted that, as the owner of everything his subjects produce and reproduce, the position of the despot is inherently paranoid, forever on the lookout for rebellious organs, his power, as that of all quasi-causes, a kind of ‘spell’ and one that history shows us is often broken in the most brutal way). In place of the savage system of cruelty we have a “system of terror” (in essence, a principle of reflection upon mortal danger). Reactive obedience: the second fundamental repression of desire. Of course, the state will undergo many mutations from its despotic origins – liberal states, totalitarian states, socialist states, constitutional monarchies, all variations on the “pure principle” of sovereignty – and once capital comes to replace the despot as the new socius it will have to adapt itself anew, becoming another agent in the field of decoded, quantified flows, as when sovereign governments bargain with multinational corporations or the World Bank.
Unlike the instantaneous seizure of the primitive machine by the imperial formation, the arrival of capitalism is a slow emergence: diachronic rather than synchronic. As a fully integrated and abstract system of exchange in which any flow of social substance can be substituted for any other via. the medium of money, capitalism fully establishes itself when flows of ‘deterritorialised’ or abstract wealth – private, subjective, ‘liquid’ money freed by usury, mercantilism and the like from its objectification in the old system, chiefly landed property – are directly conjoined with deterritorialised flows of abstract labour-power: that is, labour freed from its entanglement with feudalism and sold as a ‘naked’ commodity. This is capitalism’s primary axiom. Consequently, the system of inscription, the social machine’s means of laying its hands on free desire, no longer needs to go by way of specific representations or meanings in order to capture desiring-production, and instead becomes directly economic, marking not persons – the producers as qualified objects – but one’s abstract subjective quantities: “Your capital or your labour capacity, the rest is not important...”
In place of primitive coding and imperial overcoding, capitalism works by simultaneous decoding and (largely illusory) recoding, continually releasing desire from old products and labour from old technologies only to tie them down anew. As Marx wrote in a famous characterisation of this double movement, “capital displays a cosmopolitan, universal energy that undoes every restriction and bond in order to establish itself instead as the sole bond”. This is its basic rhythm. What it frees with one hand, it ensnares with the other, tethering desires to new objects so as to realise the surplus- value embedded in them, turning it into capital. Thus advertising, the supreme absorber of surplus-value, is the great industry of capitalist recoding (branding being marking bodies in its modern guise), shaping consumer desires (and thus ‘identities’) through ersatz ‘beliefs’ and simulacrous ‘meanings’.
Deleuze and Guattari thus depict capitalist inscription as “a system of cynicism with an admixture of piety”. Cynicism corresponds to decoding, and was, for Marx, capitalism’s positive moment inasmuch as it sluiced through the rigid stratifications of the old, meaning-based social order, the clans and castes, in “an uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions [in which] all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify [and] all that is solid melts into air.” Piety is the moment of recoding, say Deleuze and Guattari, “the continuation of belief when there is no longer any need”.
This, then, is the protean ‘genius’ of capitalism: unlike the previous social machines, it no longer needs to tell you what, qualitatively, to believe in order to secure your compliance. (Again, this is not to say that belief and meaning vanish altogether – turn on the news! – merely that they become almost inconsequential from the standpoint of capitalist social production, a temporary stabilisation of the means to tap profits, noise about quantified flows.) Where imperial power was transcendent, capitalist power is immanent. It dispenses with the need for subjects to accept moral or ideological justifications for its existence; all that matters is that you produce, consume and desire in the prescribed manner. The American Dream is its apotheosis: a mode of desire – self-interested accumulation in the name, apparently, of the common good – shared by superrich and daydreaming down-and- outer alike. And of course, capitalism, its deepest tendency being the ‘irrationality’ of abstract growth for its own sake, is infinitely flexible – and entirely indifferent – as to the concrete stuff that fills its abstract equations, from pornography, party-planning and plutonium to tusks, toothpaste and travel insurance.
A quick glance at Manchester United’s portfolio of official partners underscores the point. Here the unslakable thirst of restive capital couples with the mobile deterritorialised club-brand to inscribe (recode) all manner of ‘bodies’ in the search for new sources of profits: mattress and pillow partners, global noodle partners, official financial services affinity partners, motorbike partners; tyre, spirits, logistics, office equipment, integrated telecommunications, airline, leisure headwear, formal footwear, casual footwear, outdoor apparel, paint, medical systems, soft drinks, isotonic drinks, nutritional supplements, confectionery, wellness and casino partners. Always new axioms to be added, the ineffable surplus-value of prestige to be hawked.
The simultaneously cynical and pious capitalist inscription is palpably evident in the production and consumption of replica kits, decoding corresponding to the continual design modifications they undergo (a sort of ‘forced obsolescence’) and recoding to the stimulus to consume out of a sense of loyalty and identity (or meaning). Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner capture this dynamic in Jumpers for Goalposts: “The frequency with which clubs began to release kits, cynically exploiting parents powerless to resist their children’s pleas for the latest top, was so extreme that regulations had to be put in place. When Tottenham Hotspur decided to start changing all three strips every single year, they even had the cheek to announce the decision by saying that they’d noticed that fans in the stands were wearing a lot of their older shirts, which they had taken as a subliminal demand for more new shirts to choose from. The idea that fans were wearing shirts they already had because they couldn’t afford (or didn’t want) a new one apparently didn’t figure in that board meeting.” Incessant kit redesigns thus constitute the acceptable limits for transformation without compromising the core symbolic identity or essence of the ‘tribal’ shirt (well, aside from Revie’s Leeds, Allison’s Crystal Palace, Bond’s Bournemouth, Taylor’s Watford...).
Of course, the once hallowed shirt has itself long been ‘adorned’ by the names of commercial sponsors (in some countries, they aren’t far off F1 drivers’ overalls). Barcelona kept their jerseys pristine until they invited Unicef to advertise for free in the 2009-10 season, an act of piety met with cynical titters when, the following year, they caved to the game’s implacable economic forces and announced a five-year deal with the Qatar Foundation, an adjunct of the nation’s sovereign wealth fund (the reputation laundering streaking the kingdom with those famous blaugrana colours. Indeed, the protean power of capitalist recoding is evinced by the retro shirt market, in which the old sponsors’ names and logos – Crown Paints, JVC, Sharp, Hafnia, Holsten – have become a desirable stylistic feature of the fetishised commodity, a supplier of ‘meaning’ (taste as identity). Yet the degree to which the football shirt has been captured by capital is perhaps best exemplified by the manner in which replica shirt sales have become a factor in player recruitment, a way of offsetting the exorbitant cost in transfers and salaries for superstar global player- brands and their awesome capacity to mobilise desire. Thus Neymar at PSG and Ronaldo at Juventus were deemed more affordable, while, apocryphally, the Real Madrid galáctico project opted for the luxury-goods-shifting good looks of Beckham over the psychedelic footballing imagination of Ronaldinho: a case, perhaps, of the commercial tail wagging the footballing dog.
Here, schematically, we have the three abstract social machines and their specific ways of capturing desiring- production – coding, overcoding and decoding/recoding – which are also discernible in the history of football. The majority of clubs emerged autochthonously, from friends establishing informal games – this is also true, more often than not, of works teams such as Manchester United, West Ham or Arsenal – which become more and more stable and settle into a club. This is the primitive phase. The imperial phase of football is the higher organisation imposed upon it by the “transcendent, eminent unity” of the Football Association, with its league and overcoding rules – an instantaneous capture, albeit by a relatively benign ‘empire’ (indeed, the state, however barbaric in origin, eventually facilitates the undertaking of vast public works that develop productive forces). The club’s name, which had hitherto designated the clan, now becomes the overcoding signifier of the new ‘caste’ taking up its place1 within the new machine – albeit with greater social mobility than both pre-capitalist society and modern football.
Even as the FA extends its sovereign powers, money slowly infiltrates the game, until such time as it becomes its chief organising principle (arguably, this can be dated to 1992). Thereafter, much as the modern bureaucratic state must “enter the field of decoded forces” of the world market, so the sovereign football associations must learn to appease the clubs, at least those that form the economic cutting edge – in this regard, the implicit threat of a breakaway European Super League keeps the ‘imperial’ bent of the associations in check. And yet, even as the clubs become predominantly focused on commercial activities, a deterritorialised brand concerned with mobilising desires – the perpetual libidinal incitement and enticement of globalised consumers, through smartphones, subscription services, newsletters, social media, a blizzard of branded objects, images and information, an avalanche of Arsenal, a tsunami of Tottenham, all day, every day, intimate and identity-reinforcing – they remain tethered to the emotional hurly-burly and communal bonds of the match-going fans. They cannot deterritorialise completely from those tribal allegiances without risking the disruption of the television spectacle, the ultimate source of its new wealth. No one buys Manchester United duvets without the psychic inscription of a thrumming, real-world theatre of dreams...
Libidinal investments, passional vestments
If the general history of football – indeed, the actuality of any social conjuncture – is a complex mixture of tribal allegiances, political relations and market forces, it follows that the Cardiff City episode outlined earlier comprises a “concrete assemblage” exhibiting aspects of these three “abstract machines”; likewise, the football shirt itself can be articulated within the three regimes and their specific inscription or capture of desire: tribal codes (the Bluebird bonds), imperial overcoding (both the imposition of red as an expression of sovereign will and the idea of the blue shirt), and the capitalist decoding and recoding of the shirt as commodity-sign (perpetual redesign and incitement to consumption out of loyalty).
Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari argue that in capitalism, as in Freud’s Oedipus,2 there is “a recapitulation of the three states or three machines... [It is] ‘a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed’”. Capital makes use of everything and anything as a medium for its operation. Nothing is off limits, everything admitted. Commodify water. Monetise God! “Territorial fetishes, despotic idols or symbols, then everything is recapitulated in the images of capitalism...” In this light, can the football shirt – venerated as a symbol, renovated as a consumer desirable – be considered a modern-day fetish (for as Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate, “the events that restore a thing to life are not the same as those that gave rise to it in the first place”)?
In the work of Marx and Freud, the term ‘fetishism’ is used to identify a misapprehension of the world in which properties are attributed to objects that can only correctly be attributed to human beings (and is thus a descendant of the animistic belief that spirits reside in inanimate material objects). If not a fetish in the Freudian sense, a substitute erotic object (although, the odds would suggest it doubtless is in one or two bedrooms up and down the land), it certainly is in the Marxian sense of a commodity fetish. For Marx, an object becomes a commodity when made for exchange rather than use (and thus, as the property of the capitalist, it is inherently alienated from the labourers that made it), effacing the labouring relations in its production – those dollar- a-day seamstresses in the Bangladeshi sweatshops who are truly sudando los colores de la camiseta – and becoming “an independent being endowed with life, entering into relationship both with one another and the human race”. For evidence, one only need thumb through those highly stylised, drippingly erotic magazine photoshoots inviting a wholly aestheticised consumerist fascination with the shimmering new (or indeed retro) kit designs from Nike, Adidas, Hummel, Umbro and the like; or perhaps to read, apropos Sampdoria’s re-issue of the 1991- 92 shirt in which they lost the European Cup final to Barça at Wembley, “the kit deserved better”. (Indeed, as I argued in ‘The Sacred Eyeball’ [The Blizzard, Issue Twenty-Seven], the whole of the football-industrial complex is predicated on commodity fetishism: a made-for- TV spectacle, produced and widely consumed as images of capital, in which the fully social ‘production processes’ that creates these images’ value – a three-dimensional flesh-and-blood reality drawing on the loyalty, passion and embodied knowledge of the fans, without which there simply are no TV mega- deals – is elided in the distribution of the surplus-value, some £490,000 of which, before tax, currently wends its weekly way into Alexis Sánchez’s bank account in return for his labour.)
For the arch-postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, however, both Freud and Marx’s focus on the unreality of the fetishised object was misleading. There was, he argued, another, more active and pragmatic dimension to the fetish: namely, the way it is used as a social signifier – not of tribal allegiance so much as taste or even ideological outlook (as when bands such as Sigur Rós or Asian Dub Foundation wear the St. Pauli strip on stage to indicate their progressive politics) – a semiotic praxis that contributes to its “sign-value”. Of course, this type of authentically bottom- up, subcultural value-creation (‘cool’ as capital) cannot long resist absorption into the formidable apparatus of capitalist recoding, culminating in those de facto PR features about kit re-issues – a whole production of consumption in which the semiotic surplus-value forms an ever larger part of an ever more swollen exchange-value.
Beyond all that, and congruent with the ‘primitive’ or tribal elements of football culture already delineated, the old animistic or anthropological sense of the fetish remains attached to the sacred shirt, as when a player might say “the shirt gave us a lot of strength tonight” or that they had “felt the weight of the shirt”, as though layers of history were somehow engrained there. Whether meant sincerely, metaphorically or as a means of ingratiation with the tribe, these figures of speech nonetheless express a sense of the garment’s magical or supernatural (quasi-)causal powers.
Although not directly broaching the fetish in his seminal The Football Tribe, the anthropologist Desmond Morris does touch upon the quasi-causal power of the shirt, specifically in relation to colours, which, he argues, must make teams conspicuous, distinct from their opponents and neighbouring teams, and should confer a psychological advantage. Extrapolating from the somewhat arbitrary fact that most of the shirts in the four leagues he studied are red, blue or white, he speculates – in an argument not too far removed from NLP – that the relative rarity of orange and yellow shirts, despite these being common warning signals in the natural world, are down to “psychological associations”. Yellow expresses cowardice, while orange, being an “intermediate colour” (like pale blue), expresses indecision3.“Intermediate colours fare badly in the Football Tribe,” he goes on, which might be news to Netherlands, Uruguay and Argentina (sovereign formations rather than tribes, it’s true), while Brazil might also be interested to learn that yellow meant a lack of courage – particularly given that, in an example of both ‘sacrilege’ toward the shirt and fetishistic superstition, they changed their national jersey from white to yellow in the aftermath of the 1950 World Cup defeat to Uruguay, the infamous Maracanaço, in the belief that the white would be forever tainted4 as a symbol of their capitulation.
Morris does have more to say about club crests as “totemic devices”, however, their main function being “an intensifier of tribal emotions. As a unique visual motif, its conspicuous presence serves to strengthen feelings of club loyalty. Merely to catch sight of it, fluttering on a club banner or scrawled on a wall, should quicken the pulse of any devoted tribesman” (thus the heady arousal when the goalscorer kisses the badge to seal the bond with the totem and affirm his alliance with the clan; likewise, the puce-faced indignation when those collectively invested footballing organs are revealed as the private labour-power of an ambitious careerist and the spell of the tribal allegiance is shattered). Morris discerns two phases of these “sacred signs”: the first club crests tended to be derived from city coats of arms, but were too widely used by other civic organisations, too fussy and complicated in their design to be easily remembered or replicated and often lacked the sharply defined element to be used as a totem; thereafter, they became simplified and focused more on the totemic element, often an aggressive animal, sometimes a weapon or warrior, although not infrequently an agile bird, as with Cardiff City.
For Freud, the totem was a sort of proto-Oedipus, both the common ancestor and the guardian spirit and helper: the clan has a sacred obligation, subject to sanctions, not to kill the totem, and to marry outside a clan with that totemic object (on which note, in 2016 Barry Jenkins walked down the aisle wearing full Arsenal kit, although it was unclear from reports whether the bride, from Woking, was also a Gooner). You could hardly find a more palpable example of the tribal totem being ‘killed’ than placing a large red dragon above it: the conqueror ... [that] unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless... But again, club crests only became a uniform element of the shirt in the late 1970s and have been regularly modified before and since – some changes removing the totem altogether – so perhaps ought not to figure so centrally, so non- negotiably, in the libidinally-charged symbolism of club identifications. The point is moot, but would the Cardiff fans’ reaction to the crest alterations have been as visceral had the shirts not also been switched to red?
Modifying the emblem or diminishing the totem animal would seem, then, less egregious than changing the colour of the shirt, the latter a more essential or intrinsic part of the club’s identity. Indeed, to this extent, the shirt itself functions as a de facto totem, as in the phrase: playing for the shirt (here, the venerated object of the labouring/ libidinal effort rather than its magical, fetishistic cause). It is the sacred garment, channelling those ancestors whose sweat cannot be washed away, to be reverentially honoured, never profaned (except, perhaps, when symbolically burned if still bearing the name of a recently ‘defected’ player). All a question of desire and its investments.
Thus, too, the codification, in British football culture at least, of when the jersey can legitimately be swapped – or, indeed, what can be done with them after the exchange, as when Ronald Koeman simulated wiping his backside on Olaf Thon’s shirt following Netherlands’ 2-1 victory over West Germany at Euro ’88 – contravention of which can get a certain type of Football Man hot under the polyester collar. When Mario Balotelli – whose lax observance of such codes can be gleaned from his habit of gallivanting about town in an AC Milan shirt while playing at Inter – exchanged shirts at half-time with Pepe, whose Real Madrid side were en route to a 3-0 win at Anfield, he was later lambasted by Liverpool’s manager, Brendan Rodgers, with the ‘tribal elder’ pronouncing: “It’s something that doesn’t happen here and shouldn’t happen here”. The palpable fetishism was all rather neatly summed up by Barney Ronay: “Funny things, football shirts. It is apparently OK to reinvent, redesign and aggressively retail your club’s shirt from season to season. Or to cover it with adverts and market it as an object of desire at a price that is beyond the sensible reach of most fans. This is to respect and value and cherish the shirt. On the other hand taking the shirt off at half-time in order to conduct an ill-timed exchange: this is entirely unacceptable, a debasing of the hallowed fibres, a knee to the guts of the hard-working fan, and a crime to be punished at the earliest opportunity by a convenient post-match public shaming. [...] The future ownership of Balotelli’s shirt had no bearing on Liverpool’s understandable inability to compete, beyond 20 minutes of high-tempo pressing, against the most expensively assembled squad ever.”
That the shirt constitutes an element in a tribal coding is indisputable: a sea of fans bedecked in the club colours expresses its symbolic unity. Marking bodies. And this ‘primitive’ inscription can be perfectly literal, as when the investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre infiltrated the Chelsea Headhunters hooligan firm in 1999 for his BBC documentary series and had the club badge tattooed on his arm as part of the cover, enabling him to pass into the group (as well as pass out during the procedure), a common enough initiation rite among ultras whose sense of abiding by savage codes often extends to the rules of the violence itself. (Attempting to downplay his work in later interviews, MacIntyre intuited the tribal mnemotechnics outlined by Nietzsche when he said his targets had “long memories”, which was prophetically borne out when associates of the man he helped jail rounded upon him and his wife in a wine bar and he was knocked unconscious.) Then, several degrees beyond MacIntyre’s simulation, there is the Flamengo fan Maurício dos Anjos, who spent 90 hours under the needle to have a 1:1 scale ‘replica’ shirt tattooed on his torso (the 2015 kit, no manufacturers or sponsors name, the number 10 on his back). “Having the sacred mantle on my body is a dream come true,” he explained. Or the antiquarian bookseller John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood, a staple of establishing colour shots at Fratton Park in his blue stove pipe hat and fake blue dreadlocks, club insignia tattooed in 60-odd places on his body, PFC engraved on his teeth, Pompey till he dies. Presumably John (likewise Maurício) would feel a little put out, a little irked were his club to suddenly change shirt colours – and this notwithstanding Portsmouth having begun life playing in salmon pink, back when they were known as ‘the Shrimpers’ (all of which might present a symbolic cannibalism dilemma for John were he partial to prawn sandwiches, which is unlikely to be the case). Not that there aren’t ways around such clashes of codes and overcoding. When the deep-pocketed Emirati regime at Manchester City oversaw a change of club crest in 2016, they offered fans free laser surgery to remove tattoos of the old emblem: a new mark, a new inscription...
For all the tribal devotion here, the arbitrary origins of shirt colours (before they are stabilised into a tradition), the toleration of occasional crest changes, and the resigned acceptance of annual design changes leads one to wonder whether it’s the specific symbolism of the group identity being invested or something more abstract, perhaps the very form of identity itself: what Nietzsche called “herd mentality”.
An argument often heard in relation to right-wing populism is that people need meaning – a desire that leads people to align themselves politically with groups that manifestly do not represent their interests – but is this form of belonging and the hankering for meaning-through-identity (nation, ethnos, culture) really a natural state, or might it not be an adaptive response? That is, just as with those segments of post-industrial communities drawn to flag-waving identitarian politics – all too often a mental refuge against material impoverishment and their exclusion from the libidinal pleasures of surfing the decoded flows unleashed by capitalism – might it also be, then, that football tribalism is in part sought as a psychological ‘coping strategy’ in response to “the uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions”, the great capitalist churn wrought by money as habitual ways of life and traditional frameworks of meaning become decoded and eroded? Which is also to ask: has the tribalism of football intensified in recent times as the totemic symbols hawked by the clubs have become ubiquitous – from adornments of shirt and scarf to today’s social media icons, avi or header image, a tattoo, a set of hub caps or curtains, bin stickers, bras, tape measures, condoms, chopping boards, ice scrapers, dummies and mugs, suffusing one’s mental landscape, the “private territoriality” into which one sinks one’s passion – while fanaticism, genuine or performed, increasingly facilitates a fringe media career for the honking heads of Fan TV or lucrative income streams for such uber-vloggers as ‘Mark Goldbridge’?
Regardless of their ideological content, the segregative form of such ‘tribal’ identities is, for Deleuze and Guattari, not only aligned with capitalism (a quick glance at John PFC Westwood’s house evinces an unusually avid if somewhat narrowly- focused consumer) but intrinsic to its functioning, cutting across higher forms of solidarity and collective action. (Again, the point was made in “The Sacred Eyeball” that for fans to exert some control over football’s circuits of wealth creation would require little more than a concerted cross-club boycott or disruption of the spectacle, thereby breaking its spell.) Cardiff’s neo-tribalism may well have opposed the imperial fiat of the autocratic Tan – whose colour change was also sold as commercial rationality, you will recall – but resistance in the name of the tribe (“blue is the colour...”) is ultimately inconsequential from the standpoint of the club’s real animus, which, evidently, and with little say in the matter, is functioning as a profit- making enterprise. Whether invested as a sacred symbol by the fans or not, the shirt has become just another “image of capital” for the club.
This is not to say Cardiff City fans were benighted ‘primitives’ for investing the shirt in that way, but why stop there? For all the cheer of asserting the tribe’s sacred symbolism and overturning the despot’s whimsy – and, in fairness, the climbdown was such that his ‘dictatorship’ has subsequently been of the more benevolent variety – it was only ever a partial victory: the club remains the private property of an owner from whose largesse all glory emanates, and the fans cling to their pieties amid the remorseless commercial logic imposed upon their club by the broader football environment. Perhaps private ownership is something fans are willing to accept in order to secure the finances required to be competitive within the increasingly rigid stratifications of hyper-capitalist football5, something they have learned to live with and internalise provided it at least brings hegemony over the neighbouring club/empire. But what if the very idea of belonging to the tribe, far from the unequivocal virtue it is often romantically depicted to be, was itself the problem, inasmuch it inculcates a segregative them/us outlook that spills through the stadium’s porous walls and out into wider social relations – more diffusely and less intensely than with the nakedly far-right ultras of clubs from Lazio and Chelsea to APOEL, Crvena Zvezda and Zenit (whose Landskrona ultras group published a manifesto demanding the club sign “no blacks or gays”), but there all the same – and ultimately militating against broader solidarities, both between football tribes and out into football’s great social beyond (a world many hyperpartisans rarely care to visit, it’s true)? What if it came down to a straight choice: devotion to your club or social transformation?
The answer Deleuze and Guattari’s “micropolitics of desire” provides here is a nuanced one. After all, as we have seen, the shirt is not a thing-in-itself – it can be invested in very different ways, from tribal totem to overcoding symbol to deterritorialised sign of consumer libido; from fashion statement to fascist statement to low-key marker of collective affinity – such that the object ‘itself’ is really the sum total of the ways it can be grasped by outside bodies. Everything hinges on the way the shirt figures in the group fantasy, the unconscious underpinnings of a group’s sense of itself (or the individual’s phantasied relation to the group). Is it the venerated object of the group libido, an immortal and eternal symbol, that which cannot be changed lest the group becomes something other than itself, and through which desire is invested in the stasis of the past and its traditions, their “imaginary givens”? These are the traits of the subjugated group, organising the fantasies of its members around an “institutional object” that comes to represent the immortality of the institution, under the shelter of which they imagine themselves (imagine their selves) as group members playing out their destiny (under strict conformity to the pre- established behavioural parameters, the coding of desire’s connections), with the group’s repressed death drive projected onto the outside, turned against the segregated others, for whom is reserved scorn, fear, or disdain. Or could the shirt instead figure as the “transitional object” characteristic of the subject-group fantasy, a mortal formation embracing its own finitude in which symbols are not the bearers of an eternal essence but ‘machines’ subordinate to the group’s social libidinal investments, an index of its continual openness, in principle, to transformation (even if the transformation isn’t desired or expedient). Becoming, rather than passive belonging: a whole different texture.
In 2012, fans of the Venezuelan club Deportivo Táchira staged a pitch invasion during a match in which the team sported an all-pink strip in support of the non-profit SenosAyuda Foundation for breast cancer awareness, swirling their traditional black-and- yellow striped shirts around their heads, singing the national anthem and chanting about “defending the colours”. Here, the shirt performs what Guattari has called “a phantasmatic corporalisation of the group”, an immaterial body embodying its soul or subjective essence. That the protesters could see no justification for the temporary transformation of the totem, its becoming a transitional object of group desire, not even to promote something as palpably worthy as breast cancer awareness, is a paradigmatic subjugated-group fantasy.
Conversely, when a section of the Manchester United fanbase wished to protest the debt-leveraging Glazer imperium at Old Trafford, they took to wearing the old yellow and green half- and-half shirts and scarves of Newton Heath, the club’s forebear, thus positing the abandoned totemic red shirt of the Red Devils as a transitional object expressing the group’s desire, even going so far as forming a new club, FC United of Manchester: a genuinely radical act, not least in the obvious pain this ‘exodus’ of their group desire would have caused.
Similarly, in 2011 Forest Green Rovers ditched their black and white stripes for lime-green-and-black shirts, which was a good fit not only for the club’s name but also in terms of them having been bailed out by local eco-tycoon Dale Vince, owner of Ecotricity, who, not entirely without a convergence of promotional value for his business and the ethos it embodies, turned Forest Green into a beacon of environmental sustainability: the world’s first carbon- neutral football club, with an organic pitch trimmed with solar power lawnmower, 100% vegan catering for players and fans, and, in the offing, a Zada Hadid-designed 5000-seat stadium built entirely of wood. “There was some resistance at the beginning”, said Vince, “but that’s changed completely. Everyone’s behind what we’re doing, the eco stuff. We are a very cohesive, happy club. Environmentalism is like a tide in human affairs, it’s kind of unavoidable.” Here, then, is the quintessential subject-group fantasy, complete with its transitional object, for “the revolutionary pole of group fantasy becomes visible”, assert Deleuze and Guattari, “in the power to experience institutions themselves as mortal, to destroy them or change them according to the articulations of desire and the social field.”
Whether totem, fetish or other atavistically sacred object, the investment of the shirt as such constitutes a sort of trap for the ultras and the passion-and-pride partisans: imagination captured, cornered, cordoned off. Solidarity here but not there, to the stadium walls and no further, with all the kneading of minds into psychic segregations that this implies6, all the damage done to the possibility of progressive politics (not that instantiations of cross-club solidarity are per se progressive, as attested by the singularly unlovely ‘Democratic Football Lads Alliance’).
This is not to denigrate partisan support as a whole, tarring it as so much herd behaviour, which would not only be inaccurate but also po-faced and grotesquely dishonest for anyone who enjoys the throbbing energy of the football crowd, its wit, bonhomie and, yes, its occasional stirrings of radicalism. Rather, it is to ask, precisely: what is at stake in the nature of group belonging and how do the shirt and other codified objects figure in the group imaginary? What are the codes, conventions and conformities imposed on an ‘Us’, warding off its pragmatic transformation? And how does the ‘Us’ relate to ‘Them’? (As long as, say, ‘Manchester United’ and ‘Liverpool’ appear in the imagination as locked in a compulsory enmity, then, to repeat, you are trapped and condemned to fight the tribal particularisms that barely ruffle a hair on reality’s head.) Through such questions you hope to attain the libidinal tenor of a group, its unconscious investments of desire beneath or within its conscious investments of interest (which may well be perfectly progressive, even as the group unconscious is rigidly segregative).
Just as the individual may swing between radical and reactionary investments, so there are multitudes within crowds, which can tilt toward the conduct of the subjugated group – an outburst of racial epithets may owe at least something to the contagion of mass behaviour (that is, they are not always the innermost expressions of ‘the individual’, but rather the individual’s reactive effort to conform) – or tip to the subject-group pole, breaking through the obligatory symbiotic loathing. Indeed, football crowds regularly display – which, again, is to say they are transformed by a fleeting, contagious ‘affect’ or emotion, rather than express a uniform sentiment present in all – the sort of magnanimity that shatters those codified enmities and antipathies: witness the recent standing ovation offered Leo Messi by 52,000 at Real Betis, chanting his name in unison after an otherworldly hat-trick, or the Bernabéu’s famous handkerchief- waving pañolada for Ronaldinho. This is a production of group desire freely investing a three-dimensional social reality, as opposed to the mere representation of ‘passion’ in the pageantry of the ultras as this is flattened into a voyeuristically titillating televisual image light years from the flesh-and- blood ‘machinic’ reality: rigorous ‘tribal’ codification of the correct postures and attitudes, the black hole into which it sinks the libido, the ‘prohibitions’ and inhibitions it exerts on the productions of desire. As WB Yeats put it in “The Second Coming”, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
No doubt the Cardiff fans’ demand was more reasonable than all that, their desire more tempered, the ancient rights they asserted in the face of the despot widely shared, widely sympathised with. (Mind you, had Cardiff City’s first, red- shirted campaign in the Premier League somehow yielded the miracle of a title, it would have been interesting to see how many of the hardcore would have opted to stick with the ‘lucky’ colour.) For the hallowed football shirt is woven into people’s lives and those lives are woven into the shirt, but if it has become something you would fight to ‘defend’ at the merest provocation while resignedly shrugging at the abduction of football by a billionaire caste, then perhaps you are still all too mired in ancient superstitions. Perhaps we are all still too pious.