Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint — Thom Cuell

‘This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual’.

I have pretentions to the former, and a more solid claim on the latter. But it’s not the intellectualism of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s essay on football that turns me off; it’s that Toussaint is caught up in the gaudy baubles of the game, never engaging with the chaos that lies beneath.

In this short essay, coupled with an article on the 2002 World Cup Final (‘Zidane’s Melancholy’), Jean-Philippe Toussaint reflects on what football has meant to him at various stages in his life, from childhood through to the present. Primarily, his memories are tied in with the four year cycle in which World Cups are held, with Toussaint describing his experiences of attending games in Japan (2002) and Germany (2006). In between times, his engagement with the sport is more superficial—he is not an attender of domestic football matches. Maybe this is why his analysis of the sport’s appeal rarely delves beneath the surface.

Early on, Toussaint describes football as ‘a cosa mentale; it is in the imagination that it is measured and appreciated’. Elaborating on this, he argues that ‘the nature of the wonder that football provokes derives from the fantasies of triumph and omnipotence that it generates in our mind’. This reminded me of Roland Barthes’ essay on professional wrestling from Mythologies. The effectiveness of wrestling as a spectacle, Barthes argued, was that it clearly delineated competitors as either victor or vanquished, triumphant or despairing. This is easy to do in an event where the result is fixed in advance (as in certain end-of-season matches in Italy).

In football, though there are more grey areas between victory and defeat – fans of Arsenal, for example, have compensated for their lack of league titles in recent years by focussing on the ‘fourth place trophy’, and the moral superiority provided by their supposedly purist style. Rather than being concentrated in results, then, dramatic tension comes from the match itself: the possibility that things could go wrong, the stars could fluff their lines, the officials may prove incompetent, tempers might not be controlled.

Fantasies of triumph and omniscience, as entertained by Toussaint, are swiftly crushed. Those with a vested interest in the spectacle of football – television presenters, sports administrators, advertising men—might imagine that the viewing public wants to watch endless clips of elite athletic achievement, but the crowd yearns for chaos. Own goals, fights, unlikely misses. These are the incidents which linger in the memory. Sure, a well-struck volley is elegant, and briefly exciting, but it is a fleeting moment, not one to be re-hashed and reminisced over down the years.

Introducing his groundbreaking video collection ‘Own Goals and Gaffs’, presenter Danny Baker introduces the viewer to a revolutionary thought: ‘they’re no good. None of them – your team, my team. They’re not actually very good. Now of course, in public, we all say that our side are the kings of the universe, and it’s only a conspiracy the size of the Kennedy assassination that stops everyone from recognising this… but in fact, in private, and with our closest friends, we know they’re capable of some terrible things, and they’re not very good.’

This, to me, seems a much more accurate description of the universal appeal of football. Football is a chaotic system, in which freak occurrences and incompetence can be more significant than years of training, tactics and sports science – a total contrast to the rigid order of cricket, for example. This is why we don’t bow to the idea of the omniscient authority figure, refusing to back our hapless referees up with technological assistance. There is nothing universal about the gym-honed super-efficiency of a Cristiano Ronaldo. We love the moments when the mask slips. Watching an overpaid twenty-something beating the ground in frustration after he has haplessly hoofed the ball into his own net, or a burly centre back hack down a tricky winger who has just humiliated him? That is pathos, my friend, and something we can all enjoy.

Again, unlike, say, athletics, the level of skill on display and the prestige of the event, have no impact on the football fan’s level of emotional investment. A scuffed winner in a League 2 match means as much to the players and fans as a cup-winning volley. If we are stopped at traffic lights, and see a casual game in the park, we will remain stationary to see how the next attack pans out. In a sentence which, I think, encapsulates the experience of the football fan more eloquently than anything in Toussaint’s work, my dad once said that he would happily spend more time in the garden, ‘if you could arrange for the foxes to play a match against the squirrels’. The added hullabaloo of a World Cup or major tournament final, if anything, detracts from the experience, as crowds are drowned out by piped-in music, and players are forced to restrain their celebrations until sponsor-festooned podiums can be erected on the pitch.

If this sounds as though I am criticising Toussaint on purely ideological grounds, I would also argue that his desire for spectacle above all else clouds his objective view of events on the pitch. Talking of Brazil’s performance in the 2002 World Cup, he describes the team’s ‘artistic play, its technique and its grace, its lightness and speed’. This, to let the intellectual mask slip, is bollocks. Brazil are the great marketing myth of modern times. The 2002 side, while successful on the pitch, played slow-paced, conservative and dull football, combined with a cynical attitude best exemplified by Rivaldo, whose most memorable contribution to the tournament was to ludicrously fall to the ground clutching his face after a ball hit him on the knee.

The team’s legacy to the sport was the employment of two holding midfielders, ensuring that every game of top level football for years to come would become an attritional grind. ‘Artistic’? Only if you’ve been drinking the Adidas kool-aid. By contrast, the Brazil team of 1982 was a comparative failure, finishing in fifth place, but that band of temperamental geniuses is a regular feature in the video montages used to hype up modern tournaments.

Toussaint is on firmer ground with his analysis of the Zidane headbutt, if still a little verbose. In his final match, on the grandest stage, the French midfielder responded to a defender’s query over his sister’s amorous habits with ‘a decisive gesture, violent, prosaic and romantic… [in which] beauty and blackness, violence and passion come into contact and create a short circuit’. Although to some onlookers, the headbutt, which connected with Materazzi’s chest rather than the bridge of the nose, as is traditional, was a little clumsy, Touissant imbues it with ‘all the suddenness and fineness of a calligraphic gesture’. He portrays the headbutt as an existentialist act, which ‘lies beyond the moral categories of good and evil’. With a wilful irresponsibility, Zidane abandoned his team-mates to their fate, casting off the responsibility as captain, leader and talisman. Significantly, the headbutt was unseen by almost everyone in the stadium, except for an official observer watching on a monitor who was able to alert the referee: this was a death offstage, like Ophelia’s.

Toussaint’s account of hastily creating an itinerary of seminars and events which would allow him to be in Japan to witness the 2002 World Cup is entertaining, but it is possibly his description of attempting to live-stream the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup which is most revealing. A thunderstorm breaks overhead, severing his internet connection, and he is plunged into darkness, searching for an analogue radio on which he can hear the crucial penalties described. We are reminded here on the fragility of football as a spectacle, the fact that even such high profile matches are subject to the whims of cruel nature.

Ultimately, whether you enjoy Toussaint’s essay will probably depend on whether your image of football is characterised by transcendent images of ‘the absolute green of the pitch beneath the powerful floodlights’ and so on, or of John Terry falling over as he tries to strike his penalty in the Champions League final. Whether you’re a Terrence Malick guy, or a Werner Herzog one. For me though, it’s less a case of a cosa mentale than ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. For all the modern insistence on statistics and analysis, the excitement comes when we realise that, in Baker’s words, ‘footballers are stupid, irrational creatures and we waste our money on them. No harm in that, is there?’


Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels, all published by Éditions de Minuit in France, and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Running Away and the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie.

Shaun Whiteside (translation) is a translator from French, German, Italian and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of non-fiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He lives in London.

Thom Cuell appears courtesy of his own bad self.

Image: switzerland-futbol-soccer-stamp-1970, Karen Horton, Creative Commons

Football is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.