In an interview back in 1991, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida revealed that, for all his scholarly achievements, his real dream since childhood had been to succeed as a professional footballer. Likewise, commenting on his experience playing as a goalkeeper for Racing Universitaire d'Alger (RUA), the French existentialist Albert Camus once famously stated that "after many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA".
For those who see football as a sport played by overpaid jocks and watched by "hooligans" and "louts", this might sound surprising. But for Joe Kennedy, author of Games Without Frontiers, a new book about the beautiful game, the number of theorists in love with football always made perfect sense. "What strikes me," he says in the book's introduction, "is how central football has been not only to my understanding of more or less obviously related fields such as politics, history and economics, but also of areas which seem logically separate: literature, music, philosophy, critical theory."
In Games without Frontiers, Kennedy – an academic at the University of Sussex – treats football with the kind of serious analysis it deserves but rarely gets. In between travelogues that document his experience as a fan of Darlington and Dulwich Hamlet, he explores the internal poetics of the game, its relationship to modernity and bemoans how the social experience of watching football has been lost in the age of Sky Sports and tactics-obsessed football writing. I called him up to find out more.
VICE: In the book you analyse football in the same way someone might analyse art, literature or music. Why was that important to you?
Joe Kennedy: It struck me that a lot of the "intelligent" writing about football was just people like Nick Hornby saying, "I'm really a literary person but I feel the need to justify my liking of football," and then setting them up in opposition to one another. All that's being done there is saying how you could use the terms of literature to justify football, while saying they'll never be the same thing – that the latter has some constitutive inferiority. I thought it would be interesting to think harder about what the intrinsic poetics of football actually are. I think a lot of what is interesting about football is the way that it parallels, independently, aesthetic history in a much more profound way than someone like Nick Hornby would claim. It comes out of the same moment in the 1860s, the same period of industrial, capitalist modernity that modernist art and poetry emerged from, and I think we need to think about it as a particular form of modernism, another bracket of modernist culture.
Can you explain that a bit more? One of your central arguments is that football should be considered a form of "popular modernism". What does that mean?
Popular modernism is, broadly, the whole sphere in which popular culture has attempted to register the fractured experience of modernity – industrial capitalist and late capitalist modernity, specifically.
Can you give me some examples?
We know already how high culture has done this. We know, for example, that in the 1860s, painters like Monet and poets like Baudelaire started to try and find a way of representing the world as accelerating, turning into a blur in which it was hard to hold onto experience. The reason I think football is a form of popular modernism is that, like modernist art, it's founded around impermanence, transience and erasure. We know that victory in football is not something that lasts for very long; your team wins, if you're lucky, you're happy for five minutes and then it's onto the next match. You don't actually get to dwell on it for that long. There's a kind of inbuilt impermanence that supporters understand and accept. Growing up, that sense of impermanence and instability was key to my experience of going to football: the terrace irony, fanzine culture, the slightly Beckettian black comedy. I actually got into Kafka and Beckett through reading football fanzines.
Another central argument is that the social experience of being at a football match has been lost in the top divisions. Why has that happened?
After the Taylor Report in response to the Hillsborough disaster it was recommended that stadiums in the top tiers of English football become all-seater. Club owners, instead of taking this in good faith, used it as an excuse to completely change the experience of football and market themselves to a new, wealthier audience. This happened at the top level of the game and had a drip-down effect. All clubs wanted to get involved. So 15 years or so after the Taylor Report, you find grounds in the fourth division where you are paying £20 to get in, £7 for a programme, £5 for a pint and £4 for a pie.
You say one of the manifestations of this is that everyone is over-engaged with "the game", with metrics, data and tactics. Is that a bad thing?
I think with people having the perception that the social aspect of football has become so broken they've almost given up on that aspect of it. Subsequently, we've seen a rise in this kind of connoisseurial approach to football, in which you become completely over-engaged with the game itself. So reading tactics blogs, obsessing over stats, acting as if the game is limited to what happens on the pitch alone. It offers consolation for the broken social experience, but it also makes it easier to further turn the game into a commodity. If the thing is sealed off from all its social implications and extensions then it is easier to package up and sell.
At the same time, though, we've seen the rise of fan groups at Dulwich Hamlet and Clapton which put an emphasis on the social experience, on politics and inclusiveness. What do you make of that movement?
I think that the political stuff, in terms of opening up football to a broader community beyond the demographics of traditional English football fans, is great. But I don't think what has been happening at Dulwich and Clapton – despite having been part of the former – is unambiguously good. I think there is a risk that the fans end up masking what was already good about football, imposing another community on top of a club. You end up getting – to use a slightly wanky word – this hyper-real version of "real football", where everyone is there to act out seeing the real football as opposed to being something that people just happen to do on their Saturdays. The politics of these fan groups have also now become the commodity that is being sold. So people think, 'Let's go and watch the political football fans – I hope these ultras will perform for us today.' I think this probably puts a shelf-life on the whole thing.
You caution that the "Against Modern Football" movement can be reactionary in places, too. Can you explain that with some examples?
I think there has always been a reactionary element to the movement. It is almost by definition reactionary, because it is saying "this modern thing is bad" and "this old thing is good". I think very quickly the AMF movement – maybe even from its inception in Italy – has become populated by people who don't like the more inclusive aspects of "modern" football. At one club in London, when a supporter complained online about a song which is misogynistic they were given enormous abuse and told that they are kind of people that are ruining football, the kind of people that are homogenising football. That in proper football, proper old fashioned football, you should be able have "that bit of banter".
We often think about football and footballers as an example of the excesses of contemporary capitalism. But you argue that a lot of people involved in the game are actually dealing with job insecurity, exploitation and crap pay.
If you've known footballers in your life, it's unlikely to have been a Wayne Rooney or Paul Pogba. It's more likely to have been someone who has been a footballer and then retired and gone on to do some not particularly glamorous things. Neil Webb, for example, who played in the 1990 FA Cup final and played at the World Cup in Italy for England is now a postman. A guy who'd scored in the FA Cup final ran a newsagent round the corner from me in Norwich. I don't think this has gone away just because footballers wear shinier boots. I think that most people who play football are completely aware that, below a certain level, what they are doing involves a real financial risk. In the non-league you also get these kids kicking around that have dropped out of overstocked Premier League academies, earning only their expenses in some cases and trying to sustain their belief that they will get picked up again. They are a reserve army of labour, open to all kinds of exploitation. And finally you get immigrant labour, which is deeply exploited in football culture. You get agents who will invite large numbers of players over – often from sub-Saharan Africa – on the promise of a European football club that turns out to be to be a third division club in Cyprus, or wherever. So I think the widespread hostility to football players is founded on very little, and often involves very suspect judgements around class and race to boot.
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