Why do I like football? Near as I can tell, most poets don’t. I’ve tried to explain it to them sometimes. People who listened to me were usually familiar with my arguments (the tribal experience, the sway you feel when being part of something, the aestheticism of the athlete, etc.), the problem as they put it was just that they didn’t feel it. I couldn’t get them to ‘feel’ something by explaining it, of course, so I dropped it there.
I don’t want to start ridiculous comparisons, but there is at least one way in which poetry and football are similar. In both cases, people who don’t understand them usually think that the object they are looking for is somewhere inside the field or the page, and that they just can’t see it. It can be the feeling, it can be the meaning. Not many seem to intuitively grasp that they should be looking inside themselves.
Meaning is not something that you find ‘in’ or ‘inside’ a poem. It’s the result of the interaction between yourself and the poem, and that’s why there can be different meanings of the same poem that are equally valid. Football works, I think, in the same way. If you stare at the game and try to ‘find’ what it is that makes it click, you never will. Or you may get to a point where you think you found it, and will discover later (maybe a long time later) that you never did, like someone who thinks they finally discovered what a poem ‘really’ means and finds himself or herself reading it in a different light at a time when everything has changed.
You may think that I’m working towards an argument about football being as important as poetry (or as sophisticated, meaningful, interesting, etc.). Perhaps in a way I am, but not in the sense that I’m trying to raise football to nobler heights. From this as from any other sport you can draw abundant metaphors about life and the world. A man or a woman who understands football completely is a man or a woman who has understood life completely, and if you change the word ‘football’ for ‘poetry’ you’ll see what that statement really means.
I made the same mistake when I approached literature, or what you call high literature anyway. I was younger then in every way that matters and believed that there was something to ‘find’ in literature, some secret I could be in on, something to be revealed to me after reading a finite number of books. There was a supremely clever joke that I just didn’t get, but I could get it, and as I saw it, eventually I would. It took some time before all that washed away – and while this may sound cynical, in truth the ride was gratifying, even fun. I stress ‘the ride’, not ‘the literature’.
If you want to get football, and feel what other people feel, you will have to engage with it. I’m not suggesting that you should, because at the end of the day it’s just a game. But thinking that you’re exposing yourself to the sport by watching a match once in a pub is like thinking that you’re exposed to poetry because you’ve read a poem on the tube while commuting to work. Try reading a full collection, or a few collections, and try following a season or a few seasons, and see what happens.
Educate yourself. In football as in literature, the process of learning is enjoyable and beautiful. The process, not the football itself – get this clear. It’s ‘the ride’ that matters. You will start out knowing only the name of one or two stars in your team, the big ones. Then you’ll learn the names of the rest of the players. You will recognise their faces. You’ll find out what they do on the field and you may even discover an appreciation for the work of some yeoman who, at the beginning, you barely even noticed was there. You will develop sympathies and dislikes. You will look kindly on that young promise whom you noticed before everyone else did and who talks with an accent kind of like someone you knew. You will loathe that overpaid South American who always screws up the end-game.
Things will begin to come together. You will learn the playing styles of different teams and different coaches, and when some gang of champions loses 3-1 to the mid-table team, you’ll think goddamn if that doesn’t make sense. Goddamn if I didn’t see that coming. You’ll think formations and tactics. You’ll begin to watch games in a way that you don’t even think of now, barely even looking at the ball, only watching the patterns that the men make as they run on the football field. You’ll listen to the pundits and shake your head and think, why are they even being paid to talk?
And then you’ll make a prediction and mess it up completely. And you’ll castigate yourself for your arrogance and go back to the chalk-board. You’ll learn from your errors. You’ll start reading football history, the great teams of the past, and discover an entire universe made up of grainy colours that barely earns a mention in the sports media. You’ll start reading Zonal Marking. You’ll wonder how you could even think you understood the sport at all.
All of this process is internal. You won’t be captured by football, really – you will be captured and fascinated by your own knowledge, by the sense of your mind growing new wings. From this point of view, it’s no different than beginning to learn about literature. Knowledge, which I am not at all confusing with wisdom, is a joy in and of itself, a game in and of itself. It tantalises you with a sense of completion that never comes. It rewards you with a sense of entitlement when you interact with your peers. Many things in life we study only for the pleasure that is found in the study. My most personal example is wine. I don’t even particularly like the beverage, but the variety and the history and the complexity and the beauty of the language that describes it and the symbolism evoked by taste and so much more – that’s what drives me to learn about wine. You may think that I’m embracing vanity but I’m not. Knowledge works in this way, whatever the field. Wisdom doesn’t, but knowledge does.
I suppose literature has a more important role than football, though I’ve given up on trying to find a positivist explanation for its benefits to us, either individually or as a whole. In my own little life, literature has taught me nothing that football couldn’t have taught me as well. Or maybe neither could have taught me anything at all, which is kind of the same thing. The things I’ve learned that changed me came from the countries I lived in, the friends I made, the women I loved, the people I worked with. Not from books. Not from fucking books and football games.
Coming to this point of the article you may object that I’m just being a relativist – that I’m saying that what matters is knowledge in and of itself, regardless what the knowledge is of. Like being erudite in philosophy is the same thing as mastering the subtleties of Magic: The Gathering. That’s not really true though, because knowledge only matters to a certain extent. You need knowledge to start getting into football – and the fact that knowledge is a process (or a game) that is so seductive is part of what allows us to get there in the first place. But when you get there, and you will always get to a place that is both unique and inside yourself, it will be a specific place that nobody else can get to. It will be somewhere that only football could have led you to.
I can describe, as an example, the particular street and the particular house inside my spirit that football takes me back to, conscious that my experience will not be the same as yours, nor can it be. It is a rewarding exercise because looking back at my relationship with football helps me make sense of time. It is not very different with literature. There are phases, moments, things you grow out of, things you learn too late. Today, if I had to say what it is that keeps me in football in spite of everything, I would say – and this will be odd – that it is the sadness. You cannot do anything in football without stumbling into sadness. Not only because you will see your team lose so many times, and then so many times, and so many times, to the point that even those rare moments of jubilation (mine was in Rome, 9th of July, 2006) will quickly become the object of mawkish nostalgia rather than comfort. And not just because of all the filth that there is in football – the racism, the violence, the vulgarity, the sexism, the self-indulgence of celebrities, the culture of excess, all those things that give people a good reason to stay away from it and in the best of cases turn to rugby, or basketball, or athletics. Not even because of the most open lesson you can learn from the short-termed chronicles of the sport – that the job history does best, in football as in life, is not that of recording but that of forgetting.
No, for me football is so inescapably sad because its world is built on a foundation of lies. Everything that holds together its microcosm is false. There’s a story that takes place in the game, but the reason that game exists is that it allows for a different game – one in which people compete at who can tell that story best. Distrust anyone who speaks about football in a way that seems to make sense – they’re the best storytellers, which makes them the worst ones if you see what I mean. My own brief and mostly inconsequential experience with sports journalism saw me gaining a great deal of popularity very quickly before I let it all go – and the reason was not my preparation in the field of football, which was never anything more than passable, rather my preparation in that of poetry. My reputation was entirely built on articles like this, in which the only thing that really matters is the language in which the sport is described, and not the truth of it.
You may say that I was fooling my readers, bamboozling them. Believe me when I say that I was not. I was giving them football. The question of whether I believed in it at all is of no consequence – do I believe in poetry? Do I believe in literature? I’d love to say yes… but then the eyes of my next metanarrative, the one I told myself when I was sixteen years old as I forced myself to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, come out from behind the door-frame and the hypocrisy of it all just gets overbearing.
And yet the reason I kept writing those articles, and the reason I still write poems, is that in the chasm of truth that they leave behind – and perhaps only in that chasm – I see something that is kind of like beauty. I won’t say that it’s beauty, but it’s something like that. And maybe that’s why there is so much sadness in football, because it teaches you that beauty is a lie that you can’t stop telling yourself. Maybe that’s why I can’t explain football to a poet, any more than I could explain poetry to a football fan. Maybe this whole article is a lie.