In appreciation of the EPLOL

August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 23 April 2012

Like all good capitalist institutions, the Premier League loves nothing better than patting itself resoundingly on the back in recognition of its own magnificence. This being the 20th season since the teams at the top decided they didn’t want to give any money to the teams below them, they are running a series of votes to work out who and what’s been great over its two decades. And as part of this exercise in mercilessly hacking away the past to better extend their control of the present, they want to know which of the Premier League’s seasons has been the best.

One suspects that this season we’re just finishing up won’t be making the short list for the 25th-anniversary triumphs. It’s not been good. The football’s been largely insipid, and at times has been almost overwhelmed by the sad return of racism to the conversation. But what it has been, overall, is very, very funny, and while the Premier League doesn’t appear to be interested in that sort of thing — comedy is bad for the product — with just three weeks to go, we’ve got to take what we can get.

Football being what it is — competitive in structure; tribal in character — much of its comedy is cruel; schadenfreude derived from the hilarious inadequacies of those playing for teams other than your own. Which is all as it should be. There’s also simple farce; it is a universal truth that there’s nothing in the known universe as funny as a man falling over. But there’s also a third kind of funny, one that feeds not on personal or tribal enmity but on the unexpected humbling of the proud. It’s this last kind in particular that the 2011-12 Premier League has been serving up, in great big dollops of hilarity.

Consider John Terry plummeting to the ground in futile pursuit of Robin van Persie as Arsenal scalped Chelsea 5-3 in late October. For obvious reasons, it was funny for Arsenal fans, not-Chelsea fans and not-Terry fans, an alliance that encompasses a fair proportion of Britain’s football-watching fraternity. But it was also funny because it was so inexplicable, so incongruous and so weird. Terry is, after all, an excellent defender of remarkable consistency and achievement — we’ll speak nothing of his personal life here — and he’s fallen on his face! Arsenal and Chelsea are two very good football teams, and there they were, trading wayward haymakers like drunken uncles at a wedding, guests chuckling into their gin. Clearly, both sides are still traumatized by the whole business months later, which perhaps explains why they spent Saturday lunchtime gently nudging one another in a scoreless, catatonic stupor.

Arsenal, of course, began the season by sputtering its way to seventeenth in the table. While its 8-2 loss at Old Trafford was as much a confluence of unfortunate circumstances as an exercise in comedy — still funny but, given the relative strengths of the two teams, a trifle cruel — the season of chuckles announced itself when Blackburn Rovers stood and watched the Gunners beat themselves 4-3 at Ewood Park. Arsenal scored two own goals in the process, the second of which, Laurent Koscielny‘s box-to-box heartbreaker, was as pure an expression of physical tragicomedy as anything Buster Keaton ever managed. Even once the Gunners got good again, Thomas Vermaelen kept the flame alive with his beautiful clearance away from the wrong goal against Manchester City.

Speaking of City, the 6-1 defenestration of their nearest and dearest (at Old Trafford, no less) brought many a smile to many a face, though probably not as universally as Peter Crouch‘s impossible moment of volleyed, dipping perfection, a goal so ridiculous — Crouch? Crouch! CROUCH!? — in every single way that the only possible response was to ell oh ell out loud. Then there’s Liverpool, which … well, if you’re reading, Mr. Henry, have you thought about selling the season-review DVD to fans of other clubs? It’s been that kind of adventure.

Again, a lot of this is straightforward pointing and laughing — those T-shirtsStewart Downing; the sudden spurt of goalkeeping red cards; Andy Carroll; the constant battering of the goal-frame; Charlie Adam; Kenny Dalglish pootling onto the pitch at St. James’ Park;the Anfield cat — yet the fact that from some angles Liverpool has had a decent season (one cup down, one final to go) gives the comedy an extra dimension. It’s not just that they’ve been bad that’s funny (though it is); it’s that they’ve been bad and good, and have oscillated so wildly between the two that they’ve achieved a kind of quantum confusion, existing in both states at the same time. Have they been bood, or gad? They’ve been mighty entertaining, with Saturday’s “Take 30 shots, lose 1-0 at home to West Brom” result the latest example.

Thinking back over the season, most weekends have brought something to laugh at: a delightful own goal (Sunderland’s David Vaughan’s horror against Everton, Koscielny’s slice against Liverpool — oh, and we’ll count Carl Jenkinson‘s shank in preseason); an unlikely reversal of form or status; a bizarre collapse; a curious hammering; a managerial meltdown; a scrap; a fez. People who are very good at their jobs being very, very bad at their jobs, for your viewing pleasure. Also, a man protesting the hiring policies of a low-budget airline handcuffed himself to some goalposts.

Naturally, all this unintentional comedy is less positive for English football in general. Comedy doesn’t win trophies, after all, just as competence doesn’t raise chuckles, and the serious task of getting results is a serious business to be taken seriously. The majority of England’s clubs left European competition earlier than they would have liked, and did so generally well-beaten; England, managerless and incoherent, will likely exit the Euros at the quarterfinal stage, shredded to shamed ribbons by some resoundingly unfunny-yet-technically proficient foreign types. And how will the hockey scores look then, eh?

Of course, they’ll still look funny. Playing football always contains within it the seeds of mirthful disaster. (As does anything else, admittedly, though thankfully most of human life is spent without a live audience in the tens of thousands, plus millions more on television.)

There will always be times when football can’t be brilliant, or savvy, or breathtaking, yet the comedy is always lurking. After all, but for a couple of feet here and there and the alert reactions of Brad Jones, Andy Carroll would have ended Liverpool’s game at Blackburn with the greatest own goal of the season. Instead, a few minutes and a bit of a lumber later, he was scoring the winner at the other end.

Back from the brink of hilarious disaster and off into delirious triumph — if you want to be a hero, you have to risk looking like a fool.

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