What's the Point of Football Writing?
There's more to it than getting up late, isn't there? Isn't there?
In a vain attempt to raise my cultural level, a few months back a friend loaned me one of his favourite novels, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford.
I struggle with fiction. There's a heap of novels that I've discarded after labouring through 100 pages or so. This was one more. But I did find something so interesting that I made a point of writing it down in my notebook.
It was a piece of advice given to the sport writing narrator by his boss. What he needs, he is told, is "an appreciation of the fact that you're always writing about people who wanted to be doing what they're doing or they wouldn't be doing it, which was the only urgency sports writing could summon, but also the key to overcoming the irrelevancy of sports itself."
It is a passage that leads us straight to the 'f' word, the one that taunts those of us who make a living from writing about football. What on earth are we doing? How can we justify spending so much of our time on this activity? Can it be true that our professional lives are an extended exercise in futility?
Perhaps needless to say, my answer to the last question is no. But it causes enough discomfort to force me on a fairly regular basis to work out my case for the defence while I'm taking my morning shower (usually around 11 o'clock — one of the perks of the job is the opportunities for extended lie-ins, which to my mind is justification in itself for my career choice).
For what it's worth, my opinion could hardly differ more from that of the boss of The Sportswriter. It must be a cultural thing. I've never been to the USA, but I can't feel an affinity for their concept of sport. With their franchises and draft systems, it always seems to me that on that eternal tightrope between business and culture that professional sport has to walk, their model has always fallen on the side of the business.
Of course, football has been overrun with commercialisation in recent decades. In fact, one of its consequences has been to render untrue one of the lines from The Sportswriter: "You're always writing about people who wanted to be doing what they're doing." This does not seem to be the case for some contemporary players, big names among them. The demands of money bring pressures and an excess of games that take some of the joy out of playing, while for some the purpose of the exercise seems to be to finance entry into 'the life' — a non-stop glamour parade of women and tattoos.
Nevertheless, the culture of football is so entrenched that money can take a piggyback on the game, but cannot crush its very essence — at which point my case for the defence calls Argentina's great philosophising coach, César Luis Menotti.
"To be a footballer," he says, "means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of many, many people."
The game's apparent simplicity disguises an extraordinary complexity of movements and options. A player can pass the ball forwards, backwards or sideways, long or short, on the ground or in the air, with his right foot or his left. He need not pass the ball at all. He can run with it if he likes.
Such a range of choices ensures the existence of many different schools of football. Different cultures can express themselves through their approach to the game. As you live, so you play.
This gives football an enormous power. More than any other sport, football can make a people feel that they are being represented. For decades, of course, this was true not only because of the style of play, but also because of those who played it. With such low financial barriers to entry, many footballers sprung from the same communities as those who watched from the terraces. At elite level in the first world, the global market has weakened this bond, with the squads of top clubs now drawn from the four corners of the planet.
But on the other hand, the forward march of technology has increased the need for people to feel represented in a group context. New gadgets are forever atomising, enabling users to spend time in their own private space. Football works the other way, allowing people to feel a part of something much bigger than themselves. In its mass form English football is the product of the world's first industrial revolution. It is surely impossible to understand the extraordinary success of English football over the last 20 years without seeing it in the context of a need to recreate, in a sanitised form, the collective values of industrial society.
And so the footballer, as Menotti so eloquently identified, is not important in terms of his bank balance, his gorgeous girlfriend or his lifestyle choices — not that these triumphs should be begrudged. Those who put on the show deserve to be rewarded. But the world tries to turn the players into pop stars when really they are popular stars — important precisely because of those they represent, the thousands in the stadium and the millions who follow them from afar, straining imaginary muscles to help their team to victory.
Something that matters so much to so many people can hardly be futile. There must surely be value in an activity which offers the world a universal language which can be spoken with such passion in so many different accents.
And that is the defence that this sportswriter can offer for the way I make my living — the best I can muster after sitting through three back-to-back games in the Copa Libertadores.