Read all about it

Is it possible to follow a sport without watching it? In the current climate this might seem a strange question. The Premier League recently signed a new TV contract, the size of which stretches the boundaries of credibility. Players, clubs, leagues, even entire sports are beholden to the whims of the TV market. TV has decreed that the average Premier League player earn more than his Serie A counterpart, just as it has decreed that fewer snooker players can earn a living from that sport than was the case in the 1990s. As for me, I have spent many a weekend hunched over my computer watching pixelated feeds from matches from France, and I am frustrated that I do not have as much free time to do this as I did in the past.

Yet the majority of my interaction with football has not been via the moving image, but via the written word. I have been watching football matches for as long as I can remember. But the amount of time spent watching matches take place is nothing compared to the amount of time spent reading about the game and writing about it. This is, in fact, entirely logical. Football is the most popular sport on earth because it means so much more than 22 players running around a field. Matches themselves cannot tell you anything about the political ramifications of one team winning title after title, or about the way fans interact with the communities around them for better or worse.

You can watch a match and see fans going crazy when their team scores, but the image alone will not explain why that particular goal against that particular team at that particular stadium means more than any other goal scored that year. It is the written word which enables us to connect to the emotional content of the game beyond the touchline. Sometimes we can extend this to the pitch itself. A few years ago Rob Smyth wrote a beautiful entry in the guardian’s Joy of Six article about passes. I took so much pleasure from these words that I will take the liberty of quoting it in full.

6) Roberto Rivelino, BRAZIL 0-0 England, Friendly, Rio de Janeiro, 8 June 1977

Some things are best left to the imagination. The future; the physical act of love; and this pass by Rivelino. During a trawl through every single Rivelino clip on YouTube, there was a secret wish that this 80-yard wonder would not turn up – because it could never be quite as good as it is in our mind’s eye. Or, indeed, in Kevin Keegan’s mind’s eye.

“I’ll never forget one of his passes in Rio, it was every inch of 80 yards,” wrote Keegan in his excellent 1979 book, Against The World. “I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to strike a ball so hard, so far, so accurately, until I saw Rivelino do it from the edge of his penalty area.

“The target man was 20-yards inside England’s half and starting a full diagonal sprint to get behind Dave Watson and Emlyn Hughes. Yet the ball pinpointed him, it fell in his stride. He didn’t need to change direction. I was about three yards away from Rivelino and I felt the wind as the ball passed me at shoulder height. The astonishing thing is that it stayed at the same height all the way. I watched wide-eyed as it flew on and on; that’s one of the rare times when I’ve felt outclassed.”

Keegan’s punditry is often unfairly derided because of the occasional Colemanball, yet he can be perceptive and eloquent, especially on the subject of greatness – which is no surprise, given that few players have ever worked so hard to attain it.

You can’t attain the sort of genius exhibited by Rivelino, whose silken sledgehammer of a left foot was without compare, but then there’s no shame in that. If you thought Frank de Boer’s elegant reacher for Dennis Bergkamp in 1998, wonderfully described as a “stretch limo of a pass” in Cris Freddi’s history of the World Cup, was good, try to imagine this.

And then be thankful that your imagination is where it will stay.

I agree with Smyth. I am so, so happy I have never seen footage of that pass. I never want to. I want only to imagine it from Keegan’s point of view and attempt to feel what he felt at that moment; the sense of awe, of respect, of adulation that no one could have perceived from the raw footage alone without him going on to tell us how it felt.

Thinking about the way I interact with the only other sport to which I still devote any serious headspace, I now realise how our ability to connect with the emotional content of what sport can provide is in no way linked to our ability to see the events on the field.

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I rarely watch cricket. Partly this is due to the fact that, since 2005, test matches can only be found on Sky, which I neither want nor can afford. But days spent on the sofa following tests on Channel 4 were a staple feature of the summer holidays when I was young, so I already had the framework around which I could attach my emotions to the sport as I matured. Thus the sport has remained in my head and I still care about what happens. Very few people are responsible for this. For football I trawl through writer after writer, article after article, book after book. I pass hours on twitter, scrolling away in search of more information I shall never actually need.

For cricket, by contrast, I simply read the guardian. There is so much to admire about the content you can find on their cricket coverage that it is worth exploring it in detail.

For starters, the blogs they publish are among the few places where the maxim “never read the comments” does not apply. Back when the guardian sportblog started, around the time of the 2006 World Cup, you could find a similar level of knowledge and debate on the football articles, but this withered away within a year or two. On the cricket blogs, it has survived. You find behaviour that makes you forget you are online, where people so regularly dispense with reason, intelligence and subtlety. Take this article about the strange, sad case of Maurice Holmes, which featured one regular contributor taking up a more contrary position than the one he actually held simply to inject balance into what he felt was becoming a one-sided debate. The civility on show means that writers are far more content than those on other sections of the paper to join in below the line.

I do not think I have ever actually commented on a cricket article – if I have it certainly has not happened for many years – mostly out of respect for those that do. I do not feel that my participation would improve the level of debate, so I content myself with seeing what everyone else has to say until such a time actually arrives. I like the fact that there is a place on the internet which can both make me feel welcome visiting due to its convivial atmosphere and compel a loudmouth like me to shut up for once.

Perhaps the most notable thing about reading other people talking about cricket, especially in contrast to football, is how so lacking in a tribal mentality it seems to be. Just as we often fail to appreciate people around us until we are reminded of their mortality, so fans of a sport probably have to come to realise that their sport is dying before they can be civil to one another. Test cricket will probably not last much longer, for reasons I will touch upon later, but in this context decline is has a beauty of is own because of the attitudes it inspires. In this environment, people are more likely to identify as fans of the sport first, and fans of their own teams second. An England fan can appreciate, even cheer, the late blooming of Chris Rogers or the resurrection of Mitchell Johnson because of what it means for the sport as a whole, even when those players are taking their own side to the cleaners. Many fans would probably quite like to see their teams blackwashed by the West Indies, for that would mean that the latter had re-established themselves as a test side to be reckoned with.

Normally we would feel the need to see these events unfold, but in cricket, for me at least, this does not apply. I do not need to see the action to feel the excitement which it inspires. This brings us to the peculiar joys of the OBO, or over-by-over report. As a format it reflects rather beautifully the way you can interact with cricket at the ground. During the lulls you can pass the time discussing hilarious inanities, but when the drama returns it is exhilarating. Many of my most powerful memories of the sport come not from the sight of seeing a stump flying out of the ground, but by reading someone else’s description of it. Rob Smyth’s description of England’s farcical, Jerome Taylor-inspired batting collapse at Sabina Park in 2009 being a particularly notable example. When the guardian published their ode to the OBO, they got the tone spot on, as did those below the line. To quote just one reader, the OBO is

Almost the last place of discussion on the internet where people leave their rancid opinions at the door and just behave like nice people and have a good time (even if they are talking about their relationship inadequacies and career failures). Humour, generosity, modesty and a shared love of the world’s most civilised game. That’s the OBO to me.

For the blogs and the OBO to function properly you need people who have a feeling for the game and its history as well as the ability to write, and the guardian does not lack such talent. Through them I get the impression that, unlike many sports, cricket writing still seems to be dominated by people who, even when railing against the incompetent bluster of national associations and governing bodies (it is nice to know some things in sport are truly universal), are capable of demonstrating a most profound love for their sport. No-one encapsulates this better than Andy Bull, whose output is consistently excellent. No other sports writer I am aware of even comes close to him in terms of the quality of his prose or the affinity he displays for the sport he covers. It is worth following cricket as a whole for his work alone. For those who want to explore his archive you could start anywhere, but two pieces I am particularly fond of are his personal reflections on the Allen Stanford case and a beautiful piece following the epic World Cup semi-final between South Africa and New Zealand.

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Test cricket does not lend itself well to TV, which is what will probably kill the sport in the long term. Partly this is because test cricket takes a long time. Most people are not able to watch over 35 hours’ worth of coverage over five days. And, unlike football, the majority of the most important matches do not take place in adjacent time zones. But these are not the main reasons why test cricket and TV make such uneasy bedfellows. Football, for instance, is based on moments. As much as we not like this method of analysis, we can still discern a fair amount about the overall pattern of a game from the goals and key incidents. Cricket, however, does not work because of moments. The joy of cricket, for me, is derived from the way the match ebbs and flows over five days. A single test match can be like a whole season when it comes to the emotional rollercoaster ride that players and spectators experience.

That is something that TV cannot simplify or boil down into a highlights package. You can watch the last episode of a 10-part drama series and know how it ends, but the joy of the experience comes from knowing what went before and how it unfolded. Test cricket is the same in that you have to experience the match in full (via TV or an OBO) to get the pay-off at the end. But who has the time to watch it all, and which TV companies have the patience to devote such vast chunks of their schedule for little more than an outside chance of high drama on Sunday or Monday evening?

Due to the power that TV holds over sport, some examples of which I gave at the top of this piece, someone will either have to find a way to square that circle, or test cricket will fall by the wayside. Even if it does survive, it will probably function only as an antiquated cousin of the dominant, TV-friendly Twenty20 format. But this same trend is what makes us fully appreciate all that the game can offer us. For some it might be Kumar Sangakkara finally getting a century at Lord’s or Sachin Tendulkar’s ton completing a mammoth run-chase barely three weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks. For me it was and continues to be the realisation of the depth with which sport speaks to us and the variety of ways in which it does so.

On that note I should add two important points. Firstly, I am well aware that I might be totally wrong about all of the above. My interaction with cricket comes from a single source where, somehow, the tribal and abusive excesses of the internet are largely curbed. I am not so naïve to assume that all cricket-related discussion operates along identical lines. Secondly, I am not interested in point scoring between sports. Just as the arguments about which league are the best are completely pointless, so are similar arguments between sports. One is not better or worse than the other. What they are is different. They have different cultures, different norms, different histories and they make us react in different ways.

When I get home from work having missed a football match I really wanted to see, I find out what the score was and immediately hunt down video highlights. It is not enough for me to know that a particular player scored, I want to see how it happened, and I delight (or despair) in the emotion it inspires in me. Only then do I go in search of written reactions.

When I get home from work having missed the last day of a close-run test, I head straight for the OBO. I want to see who got out and when, and I delight in seeing the emotion it inspires in other people within the context of the game.

In both cases, we are able to connect with the only thing that matters: the emotional content of sport.



Is it possible to watch football on one’s own terms?

My unease with football has been growing since the Qatari takeover of PSG, and it came to a head this summer. First, Jonathan Wilson delivered a firm punch to the gut when he described football as being in the process of turning into “the entertainment wing of the oil industry” [1]. Monaco, having won promotion with a young squad, went out and bought a more experienced one. Finally, Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid; when asked by my non-football-following father if €100m was the going rate for the best player in the world I had to explain that he was not even in the top 10.

I am not saying that before this summer all was sweetness and light in the football world. Since its creation, football has often been used by unpleasant people/governments/organisations to launder their reputations. More recently it has been used by some unpleasant criminals to launder their money. There is a limit to what one can put up with, however, and by the summer’s end I had conceded to myself that perhaps football no longer merited the time I devoted to it. Given that I would have a lot on my plate over the next 10 months, I decided at the start of this season that I would not watch any football until the World Cup. Time constraints aside, I was not entirely sure why I was doing this or what precisely I was hoping to get out of it, but it seemed like a good idea.

Four months into the season I finally have a bit of down time, and my determination to stay away from football has faltered. Nonetheless I think the idea of avoiding it for a while has indeed proved to be a good one. For one thing, it has helped me to realise which aspects of the sport still captivate me.

I miss internationals, and the word-wide frenzy that only the end of a World Cup qualification campaign can inspire. I am still fascinated by the development of young footballers throughout France. I want to see how players that I have spent so much time watching over the last few years are doing. I want to see how different clubs’ styles of play have progressed since last season. My desire to follow long-term developments in football, things one must track over a period of years, remains undiminished. I really want to watch Ligue 2, which in my mind is the living, breathing archetype of what a league should be, where “certainties” do not exist, where “probablies” are rare and where 10 teams have a genuine chance of winning the title.

But as much as I am reminded of the things I really miss, equally prevalent are the things that drove me away from the sport in the first place. The existence of superclubs that stockpile the most talented players to the detriment of the sport everywhere. The fact that French football, to which I have previously devoted so much of my time, now has two superclubs of its own. The fact that it will be impossible to truly enjoy the 2014 World Cup, so great is the scandal of FIFA’s insistence on creating a state-within-a-state to siphon away all of the money that Brazil generates. The way football’s powers that be have so cheerfully embraced people with dubious pasts and questionable motives for the sake of a few dollars more. These are not minor issues. They influence every aspect of the game, from the outcomes of individual games and seasons, to the long-term trends that determine the way football is played on the pitch. These issues directly affect the lives of both young footballers who risk being exploited, tossed around like pieces of meat, and impoverished workers who are held hostage so that the richest people on earth can create new temples to the world’s richest sport.

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When I was growing up I watched a lot of sport. Everything except horse racing and golf. I watched these sports because I could connect to the emotional content of what I was watching. As time went on I found myself struggling to retain this connection. I was able only to see a stripped down, cynical version of what was on offer. I have, over the last fifteen years, slowly been shedding sports.

Motorsport was the first to go; it was just rich people going round and round. Rugby League was next; it was just square people standing in a line and occasionally running into each other. Cycling was next; no matter how often people went on about how they were not drugged up any more, they were still drugged up.  Rugby Union was next; it was turning into Rugby League. Athletics was next; see cycling. Tennis was next; at least in athletics and cycling people were willing to talk about how obvious the doping was. Cricket has been teetering on the edge for several years; the majesty of test matches and the wonderful writing of a series of journalists, most notably Andy Bull, have prevented me from ditching it, despite all the T20 nonsense.

Football took up the slack whenever another sport fell by the wayside. I read even more books. I watched even more matches. Despite my exasperation with certain aspects of the way football has developed, my desire to keep following the sport shows me that I still have a connection to its emotional content. I want to watch the likes of Bakambu, Cabella or Ghoulam develop as people as well as footballers. It still matters to me to watch clubs like St Etienne or Reims draw strength from a glorious past as they create a healthy future. I still want to marvel at the pure joy of players who make it to the World Cup. The events of the 19th of November show how magical football can be, both for what happens on the pitch and the way it makes us feel in the stands, in the pub or in front of the TV.

The concurrent drama of Zahir Belounis reminds us of the ways in which this is a sick sport, one that is stubbornly refusing treatment. Is it possible – is it right, even – to keep following a sport, however much I love it, when it seems so determined to inflict damage on itself and the world around it?  If I am going to start watching football again, I feel I owe it to myself to at least have that question in mind when I do so.


[1] Before the pedants attack, Wlison refined his point in his Editor’s note in Issue Ten of The Blizzard in questioning what football was becoming: “Some sort of game for the mega-rich? A propaganda tool for oligarchs and the commodities industry?”