Eye of the lens

March 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

A televised football match contains a hell of a lot of dead time, in which the viewer — as opposed to the attending spectator, who is at least participant in the atmosphere, however insipid it often is — isn’t watching any football. FIFA themselves calculate that a football match has between 48 and 61 minutes of actual football, which is a travesty all of its own, and so the production team have getting on for 45 minutes of non-studio time to fill. Plenty of this is players milling, jostling, chuntering, spitting, limping off, jogging back on, and so on, but there are times when even the narrative grip of such ephemera wanes, and the producer is forced to look to the crowd.

As such, many a young boy’s first memories of watching Brazil are those lingering close-ups on scantily-clad samba queens, gyrating or sobbing as appropriate; while the African Cup of Nations sticks in the mind for the costumes as well as the football. Less marvellously, this is why John Portsmouth Football Club Westwood and his sodding bell inhabits a tiny corner of every English football fan’s brain. And this is why anybody watching Manchester United play Wigan last weekend would have been treated, in amongst all the Chicharito-inspired fun, to a few seconds of Gabriel Obertan. Wearing large headphones. Using a telephone.

You’d have thought that Rooney’s elbow and Caldwell’s recklessness (one for any lawyers reading), not to mention the actual, y’know, game, would have provided plenty of grist to the how-do-we-pass-the-time-until-the-next-game-dear-God-I-must-fill-my-life-with-something mill. But no. The usual predictable canards of a furious fanbase were spaffed onto message boards and fora — disgrace; disrespectful; final straw; weird-shaped head — and reached a curious and dispiriting apotheosis with this moment of deluded pomposity from The Guardian‘s Richard Williams:

In the next seat was Ryan Giggs, who celebrates the 20th anniversary of his first appearance in the Premier League tonight. Do you not think the 22-year-old Frenchman might have done better to take the opportunity of engaging his United team-mate in conversation, picking up tips on wing play from a man with an unparalleled store of experience and a willingness to share it?

Well, he might have done. And since two hours contain 7,200 seconds, perhaps he spent some of the other 7,195 seconds doing that. Or perhaps he was listening to the commentary. Maybe his reputation for chronic shyness is well-deserved; maybe Giggs — hardly an effusive character himself — had asked him to be quiet. We might even conclude that, since he spends his entire career learning how to be a footballer at one of the finest clubs in the world, he realised that spending the whole game going “Ryan, how d’you …? Ryan, why d’you …? Ryan, when d’you …? Ryan, what d’you …?” would be (a) bloody annoying (b) relatively pointless and (c) really bloody annoying.

Or possibly he spent the entire game listening to hippity-hop and texting lolcats to Bébé. We don’t know. Whether this is appropriate behaviour for a United player (who, lest we forget, wasn’t actually in the match squad) is not the point. The point is that football writers, fans and commentators are comfortable drawing generalised and speculative inferences from the flimsiest of visual evidence, from clips lacking sufficient content or context, before then treating those inferences as facts, and proceeding accordingly.

It is in the very nature of those that observe — as opposed to those that participate — to infer from what is visible. Watching a player play like dreck leads you to conclude that they are dreck; and quite right too. But there is a less reliable, less justifiable kind of inference that dogs football, just as it dogs any aspect of British public life: the inference of a person’s internal emotional state from what externalities can be observed. And not observed from a careful and thorough study of an individual, but from a picture here, a clip there.

We live in the age of icons; the image is king. Joyce’s ineluctable modality of the visual has triumphed, only with added carelessness. When the paparazzi chased Princess Diana across the front pages of the press and into the wall of a Parisian tunnel, they sanctified her, but they also sanctified themselves. Grief — and grief, to the mourner, is always legitimate — for a woman experienced only through a lens required the acceptance of the idea that it is possible to come to truly know someone through their photograph, their news clips, their public face. Why else would you be crying? The consequence of this is a stupefaction of public discourse: if you can’t see it, you don’t know it. Staying with Diana for a moment, once the first floods of tears had dried, the headlines following her death turned on the Queen, withdrawn in Balmoral: “Where Is Our Queen? Where Is Her Flag?”; “Show Us You Care”. It is not enough that you might be grieving, Queenie, you need to do it where we can see you. Otherwise, how do we know it’s happening?

We have become a nation too stupid to want to look beyond the simplest, crudest interpretation of things. If it’s there, it’s there; if it ain’t, it ain’t. By failing to demand context, or by even failing to admit that context might exist, we replace thought with feeling: a picture, shorn of context, is a single word a thousand times. This is no country for the inscrutable; if we can’t see you caring, we’ll assume you don’t. Then we’ll lambast you for it.

This is why Fabio Capello is castigated for being insufficiently demonstrative; his failure to adopt a pose of suffering leads to the presumption that he does not suffer. This is why Avram Grant has taken to lunging around his technical area, bellowing like a startled ox; he knows he has to be seen to give one in order to be thought to give one. This is why Mario Balotelli’s failure to celebrate properly after scoring is a minor yet persistent source of disquiet (see this fine piece over on In Bed With Maradona).

And this is why Nicolas Anelka gets abuse for lazy penalty taking: regardless of his failed kicks against Everton and Manchester United being on target — and thus qualitatively better than Ashley Cole’s and John Terry’s — his subsequent refusal (read: failure) to wail and gnash his teeth ensures that his kicks are retrofitted as slovenly and gauche, despite being only a goalkeeping decision away from adequacy, and better than plenty that end up going in. He looks like he doesn’t care, so he doesn’t care. (The fact that he looks exactly the same — i.e., blank-faced and reserved — after plenty of his goals isn’t taken as relevant, because that would imply thinking rather than feeling.)

Amidst all of this idiocy is a simple truth that should lie at the heart of all thought: if you don’t have the basis to say something, say nothing. A five-second clip of a man wearing headphones is not sufficient to traduce his qualities as a footballer (especially where his performances are doing a fine job on their own) or as a man. A failure to burst into tears does not equate to a failure to care; a failure to punch the wall does not imply a lack of disappointment, distress or disgust. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Those that spend their time chattering about football would do well to recall that nothing befits ignorance so well as silence.

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