Friday, May 23, 2008

Feeling It: Sentimentality, Football, & Eamon Dunphy's 'Only A Game?'

News flash: women don't have a monopoly on melodrama and sentimentality. Witness Lampard's emergence as a national icon via his admirable performances for Chelsea while mourning his mother - his eyes turn to the sky as the back of the net bulges and the crowd cheers. You can feel the whole country choke on its tears. Or, John Terry's collapse on missing his penalty - an unlucky slip of the foot unraveling a night of superhuman work on the back line.

Whose heart didn't break at the injustice, the bad luck? At the grim irony that the man so easy to love would take the burden of his team's defeat when the man so easy to hate (C. Ronaldo) would wear a crown of glory - after he had nearly cost his team the championship with his approach to the ball - an arrogant cha cha cha that itself nearly wiped out the authority of his earlier goal. If you've ever stood in goal, you know Cech felt a malicious thrill watching C.R.'s smug little dance, knowing the wave of schadenfreude he would soon unleash as he scooped up the ball. I know I lept out of my seat and shouted with joy.

We like to think that sentimentality & melodrama belong to soap operas & chick flicks like Stella Dallas or Terms of Endearment: to those of us who organize our days around General Hospital, Neighbors, or Maria La del Barrio.

Fact is, though, the emotional intensity of those programs pales in comparison with that of a big match. You will see men wrap their arms around each other in drunken tenderness, sing together as their teams go up, weep together as their teams go down. Their eyes will mist over as they remember the glory of Baggio or Garrincha or Best, and indulge a nostalgia for the days when the game seemed more honest, more real.

So when Nick Hornsby writes "what sets [Eamon Dunphy's Only a Game?] apart is its honesty and lack of sentimentality" I must ask why anyone would need to disavow this aspect of Dunphy's writing - or indeed of the game itself? The only book about football I've read that is devoid of sentimentality is the comparative economics study, National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer.

Only A Game? is a memoir of Dunphy's last months playing for Millwall in the 1973-4 season. It is a classic in sports writing - by far the most compelling book I've read about the game. Dunphy writes with tremendous honesty about how it feels to be a part of a team, how it feels to play (his writing on being a sub is ruthless and 100% spot on). He's also shameless in avowing his ideas about how the game should, and should not, be played.

He is particularly frank about the emotional, personal, and even sentimental aspects of football culture.

Take the following passage:
When you share a job with somebody in football, a relationship develops between you, an understanding that you do not have with players doing a totally different job. If you are just knocking a ball between you, on a training ground, a relationship develops between you. It's a form of expression - you are communicating as much s if yo are making love to somebody. If you take two players who work together in midfield, say, they will know each other through football as intimately as two lovers. That would apply to Giels and Bremner, for example. It's a very closer relationship you build up when you are resolving problems together, trying to create situations together. It's an unspoken relationship, but your movements speak, your game speaks. the kind of ball you give each other, the kind of passes you give each other, the kind of situations you set up together, speak for you. You don't necessarily become closer in a social sense, but you develop a close unspoken understanding. (Dunphy, 30)

I nearly dropped the book when I read this. I couldn't agree more: One the real pleasures of the game is that feeling of total communication with your teammates, with especially those playing with you on the field (the connection between left back to left wing, between the back four, midfielders to strikers, goalie to the back four, forwards to each other, etc.). It's wonderful to have that kind of intimacy with people without having to talk, really. Dunphy is writing honestly and with a shocking absence of homo-panic about a nearly unspoken truth about the game: When things are going really well, it feels like romantic intimacy. And because of this, you can "fall in love" with players via the game.

There are a hundred other reasons to read Only A Game? It is written from within the game - and is really eloquent about what makes a game feel like a great game from the player's perspective. About how certain kinds of defeats feel OK, others are soul crushing - and that in fact victories aren't always sweet.

He is most romantic about the good pro - the self-effacing, hard working, totally dedicated teammate. The person who never tires - or who pushes him/herself past the limits of tiredness, who looks after their position, but also that of their neighbors - the person who 'has your back':

If you are in the shit, having given your man that crucial extra yard or two, have lost your concentration for a minute, the good pro will often rescue you, leaving his man to get in a saving tackle or making what looks to the crowd like a simple interception. He is woven into the fabric of every good side and every great side too. (Dunphy, 13)

Now - here's my cross. That kind of person - the person who knows that their glory is only enhanced by your glory - that playing the game well involves a heavy element of self-sacrifice - that kind of person is the heart of every good tear-jerker, every classic melodrama: it's Stella Dallas, the mother who makes a terrible sacrifice so that her daughter might have a chance at a better life; it's Annie Johnson, the maid/mother who sacrifices herself for not only her daughter, but her employer too. These women make the lives of other people possible at great expense to themselves. It's why these are such problematic genres for feminists, who worry that these stories only serve to make women complacent about the myriad of forms of self-sacrifice foisted on them in their daily lives.

The stories played out for us in stadiums and on Sky Sports perform a parallel version of this: men giving themselves over to something larger - but at the expense of so much - like: it's ok to love one another just as long as you never, ever speak it. It's ok to cry, as long as it never, ever makes you womanly. It's OK to try, as long as you never, ever fail.

So we arrive at the evil flipside of masculine sentimentality: sure, men cry in these arenas - but they often turn around and "correct" that display with a punch, with a kick, with a head-butt. Worse, players and fans carry that conflicted relationship to feeling, to sentiment, off the pitch, and work it out on the women in their lives (e.g. Paul Gascoigne) or anyone who offers themselves up as a suitable target.

Dunphy's memoir is a miraculous document - most footballers who enter the public arena do so under the heavy supervision of an army of publicists all massaging their egos and their images into a Nike-worthy version of manhood, cemented, frozen expressions of rage and phallic glory.

But most footballers who take the pitch every weekend do so not because they are inspired by those kinds of images, but because they want the thing they saw their fathers enjoy with their friends: that simple pleasure of the good pass, the game well played, and that feeling of being "in it together". I don't know a single player who isn't deeply sentimental about *that*.


  1. Woah, I'm all up on your blog today it seems...this was great. I got in a posting match on the Guardian over John Terry's tears after his missed penatly, and everyone was going on about how as team captain it was his responsibility to maintain compusure and console his teammates. Ronaldo came in for it as well...but in the end, if players weren't this committed to the game, weren't able to love to the point of collapse, to want it more than anything else, what'e the point?

    I also recommend searching 'Raul and Morientes' on youtube; there's a lovely fan tribute video that touchingly depicts them as lovers on the pitch, which I think captures the spirit of what Dunphy was talking about.

    PS -- I've noticed I've been removed from your site! I hope I didn't offend. How embarrassing. Let's dialogue!

  2. hi richard! i must have accidentally removed you - i've been trying to clean up & reorganize bits of the side bar. situation fixed. and thanks for your comment - i really love the sentimental side of the game - and find terry an endlessly fascinating figure in all of it - it's like he walked out of a war movie.

  3. One of my favourite images is that of Bobby Charlton weeping alone when England won the World Cup in '66. He later explained himself and said something like, "I remember looking at the crowd, and then I thought of when I played football as a boy and I started to cry. I never cried when we lost." Magic.

  4. I absolutely despise Dunphy on RTE. Him, Brady and Souness are an absolute joke.

    He is the most biased pundit on tv bar none, and his anti-Liverpool.Benitez rants and raves are just embarassing. Everything about him is a joke.


  5. hi football bets. i basically only watch the guys on match of the day. highlight of my evenings here in the UK.

    whatever you think of his punditry & biases, i totally recommend this book: it is a fantastic read, and most of the player-books are basically of the 'i came, i saw, i conquered' variety.

    there should be a click through to an anti-ronaldo rant from him in this entry somewhere.

    i should say: i am not a fan of terry (or chelsea and i'm a man u hater -see my entry from dec) - though, as a defender, i thought terry had some truly heroic moments.

    most of them, IMHO, are giant babies. most of them, in fact, are under 25 & haven't done a thing besides play football since they were 10. expensive experiments in arrested development.

    anyway - dumphy's book is really superb. worth reading whatever you think of him.


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