Does it look like I’m here?

April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.
— Jorges Luis Borges, “Borges and I”

The weekend before last, one of the more magnificently ridiculous decisions in the history of football occurred. A footballer cast into doubt the very fundamental nature of the sport, throwing all around him into paroxysms of self-doubt, condemnation, counter-condemnation, amusement, disdain, and despair. He did it on television. In front of millions. And the repercussions for the sport are as profound as they are shocking.

Yes, that’s right. Neymar, Santos’ and Brazil’s loose-limbed grebe-a-like genius, was sent off.

Nothing particularly unusual there, of course, except that he wasn’t just sent off. He was sent off for putting on a mask. A mask of his own face: he was sent off for simulation of himself. Neymar was dismissed for pretending to be Neymar.

To pretend to be someone else is as prevalent in football as it is in any other walk of life. I spent much of my childhood pretending to be Ryan Giggs; most professional footballers grew up channelling one hero or another; Fabio Capello recently asked his England team to play like Barcelona, though only against Wales. Football is a game of imitation more than innovation, because imitation simply requires diligence and awareness, whereas innovation requires at the very least creativity, if not genius.

To pretend to be yourself, however, is a puzzling business. Why would you bother? We might propose that there is a disjunction between Neymar-the-person and Neymar-the-player, and we might perhaps locate the source of that disjunction in the difference between playing football and being a footballer.

Football philosophy blogger Richard Bellis has suggested that football as we know it can be divided into the game – being the fundamental component parts of football itself; players, goals, rules, a round ball, and so on – and the sport – being everything external-but-parasitic to that. If so, it makes sense to suggest that the actors within the game and the actors within the sport are in some way distinct. One is a person, playing football, defined only by the way in which he plays; the other is a footballer, defined in part by his actions within the game and in part by his actions (and the presentation and perception of those actions by others) within the sport, which essentially encompasses everything else he does: his medals, his off-field life, his adverts, his relationships, his haircut, his boot deal, his transfer rumours, his blah, his etc., and his so on. Formally we could designate these as gNeymar and sNeymar; alternatively, and a trifle pseudishly, Neymar and “Neymar”.

Neymar the footballer is a simple thing that can be understood (if perhaps not perceived) objectively: his character and identity as a footballer is determined by his footballing actions. Yet that same identity is simply the starting point for our understanding of “Neymar”, who is the footballer subsumed by and understood through the superstructure, a complex product of a simple idea in complicating circumstances. Neymar has been consumed by “Neymar”, devoured by the machinations of the sport that surrounds the game. Neymar determines his own footballing identity, but only participates in his identity within the sport as a whole.

So it should come as little surprise that Neymar (or indeed any player) would attempt to reassert himself (or his self) by drawing attention to this dissonance of identity in a manner at once self-aggrandising and self-effacing. By presenting himself masked as himself, he highlights and simultaneously ridicules the fact that we spend our time watching “Neymar”, not Neymar. It was a triumph for the fundamental over the superficial; for football-as-it-should-be over football-as-it-is.

And then the referee – part proto-fascistic martinet, part implacable opponent of spontaneity and joy, all jobsworth – squashed it. He forced Neymar back into his quote-marks and sucked the sun out of the sky. The bastard.

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