Short Cuts

John Lanchester

Quantity changes quality, Hegel thought. It’s an observation which proves true in many different contexts, and one of them involves football. I know that I’m far from alone in finding the game much less compelling than I used to, and when I ask myself why, the answer involves two different kinds of quantity. One, there’s so much more of it, on television and everywhere else. The Premiership in particular has become an oppressive, oppressing monoculture and the whole idea of being a fan has been reified, commodified, and then marketed back to the supporter-as-consumer. Everyone now expects sharp annual hikes in ticket prices and annual changes of replica shirts to fleece fans with children. Those ticket prices are high: a season ticket to Chelsea costs an average of £870. As for where the revenue goes, the answer is: straight to the players. That makes football, indeed professional sport in general, a model for workers’ power; there isn’t another business in the world where so much of the revenue goes straight to the primary producers.

Unfortunately, in the case of football, the results are loathsome to behold, and that’s another way in which quantity has changed quality. I find I just can’t get interested in what happens to people who are paid £100,000 a week. Sport is a form of drama, and a key part of the drama is that what you’re watching is real. This is particularly true for television. Most forms of TV entertainment are packaged, managed, mediated; but within the obvious artificialities of whatever game you’re watching, what is happening in a sporting contest is the most real thing you’ll ever see on TV. What’s happening to the players is genuinely happening, right now, in real time, with real consequences. But if they’re on a hundred grand a week, just how real are those consequences? Answer: not very. These kids know that for them, the normal rules don’t apply. They can do what they like, and nothing really matters. If nothing really matters, why are we watching?

A spectacular example of this was the recent behaviour of the best-paid player in the Premiership, Carlos Tevez of Manchester City. In 2008 the underperforming club was bought from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister, by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi. Now City are trying to buy their way to a major trophy and Tevez, an Argentinian striker, is part of the masterplan: he is paid £250,000 a week. (Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that, as David Conn has been jaw-droppingly reporting in the Guardian. Tevez’s ‘economic rights’ apparently belong to an overseas investment company whose ultimate ownership is opaque, and is being disputed in court by post-Soviet oligarchs.) What you get for your quarter of a million quid is a brilliant footballer who is also a piece of work. He has fallen out with his manager, Roberto Mancini, and been agitating for a transfer, with his dissatisfaction taking the form of a public stroppiness, but not manifesting itself as an unwillingness on the field – until now. Against Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League, Tevez was on the substitutes’ bench. With half an hour of the game left, Mancini told him to go on. Tevez seemed to refuse: an unprecedented thing even among very spoiled footballers. He later claimed that he hadn’t done so, and that the whole kerfuffle was based on a linguistic misunderstanding – a claim which caused the hashtag ‘tevezexcuses’ to trend on Twitter.

Tevez’s actions were pretty much universally reviled by Man City fans, which was interesting. He had previously had a good deal of sympathy, since he works hard on the pitch, and the club do much better when he plays – and also, Mancini isn’t loved. Tevez’s open wish to leave the club was acceptable, but his apparent refusal to play wasn’t. Footballers can get away with a lot but not with everything. There are strong codes of behaviour in sport, rules which aren’t written down but which exert just as much influence on what players do as the rules that actually are. Spoiled, petulant and deceitful behaviour is all fine in football, up to a point – a point Tevez evidently passed.

These unwritten rules are one of the most interesting things in sport. They vary between sports, and they vary both off and on the pitch. There are many things that referees punish but that fans are content with, as long as it’s their own team’s player doing them. One of the noticeable things about football is that the unwritten rules permit a great deal not just of cheating – tripping, fouling, handballing etc – but of ‘simulation’. There are a rich variety of techniques employed, but in essence, what happens is that players routinely fall over while pretending to have been fouled.

Theatrical variations on the fall are widespread and often feature what a hilarious paper in the Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour calls ‘the archer’s bow’: the player exaggeratedly flings his arms, leg and head back, up and out, as he falls to the ground. (In a real fall, the arms instinctively move down and out to protect the body.) The player will then spend some time writhing in simulated agony. He hopes, at a minimum, that the ref will award a foul, but the ideal outcome is that his opponent will be booked or even, in the best of all possible worlds, sent off. If that happens, the hardest of all the diver’s skills is called for: keeping a straight face. This behaviour is loathed by opposing fans, but tends to be quietly approved of by supporters of the diver’s team.

This form of cheating, endemic in international football, is another of the reasons I’ve fallen out of love with the game. It’s in contrast to the forms of cheating you get in rugby, which are much in evidence at the moment thanks to the World Cup, currently taking place in New Zealand. At the time of writing, England (grindingly) and Ireland (exhilaratingly) have just got through to the quarter-finals (other teams got through too, I’m just mentioning the ones I support). Players cheat all the time in rugby, mainly by putting body parts on the ball to slow down the speed with which opponents get hold of it. This is an acknowledged and entirely honourable part of the game.

A murkier area was uncovered by a mini-scandal involving the England team. It turned out that when it was time to take a conversion, they tried to get a preferred ball to their kicker, Jonny Wilkinson, rather than using the ball with which the try had been scored – which is what the rules specify. Is that cheating? Well, barely. Apparently some of the balls behave differently once they have been ‘kicked in’ and are no longer stiff with newness. Two of England’s support staff were suspended for the ball-switch, which to me doesn’t seem so much cheating as an embarrassingly public form of magical thinking. What rugby players almost never do is fake injury to get opponents into trouble, as happens all the time in football. It’s against the code. I like that about rugby. I notice that it also doesn’t happen in the sports Americans watch: none of them has an equivalent of football’s ‘simulation’. American spectator sports all involve a ritualised idea of maleness which would be violated by that particular type of cheating.

The other great thing about the Rugby World Cup has been one of the best sport-related tabloid scandals for some years. Several England players went to a bar in a hard-partying place called Queenstown, where extreme sports fans go to blow off steam after – for instance – taking part in the world’s longest bungee jump: 134 metres, or 440 feet. (Who does that for fun?) Anyway, the bar was having a ‘mad midget weekender’ featuring a dwarf-throwing competition – though apparently the dwarfs aren’t thrown so much as slid across the floor; it would be more accurate to call the activity ‘dwarf-curling’. The players got hammered, and one of them went outside for what looked like a brief canoodle with an ample-figured blonde. Why is this news? Because the player was the England captain, Mike Tindall, who a few weeks before had married Zara Phillips, Princess Anne’s daughter and 13th in line to the throne. As several commentators observed, it’s hard for the tabloids to go wrong with a story which features the following terms: mystery blonde, World Cup, breasts, royal family, England rugby captain, drunk, dwarf-throwing. An employee from the bar posted CCTV footage of the clinch on the internet – and has gone on trial for doing so. By the time the next Rugby World Cup comes around, in England in four years’ time, the scrutiny of the players will be so intense that this kind of thing will happen behind closed doors, as it currently does in football, so this may be one of the last public meltdowns of its kind. The England manager, Martin Johnson, struck a magnificently lordly note in dismissing the subject: ‘Rugby player drinks beer, shocker.’ A good line, almost as good as the observation V.S. Naipaul once made to his biographer, that Zara Phillips has ‘a criminal face’. I’d pay good money to hear his uncensored view of Carlos Tevez.