Thursday, April 24, 2008

Beautiful Losers: From One Bird to Another

Like the Uraguyan writer Eduardo Galeano who confessed that he just plain loved a beautiful game, no matter who was playing it, I am more a fan of the game than I am a fan of any particular team. I live so close to Arsenal's stadium that I can hear the games from my living room even when the windows are closed. I admire the young Gunners - not because they play the game perfectly (obviously, they don't), but because they look like they love to play. I am, though, in my heart of hearts more partial to the Spurs. They are even more spectacular in my eyes. When they go down, it's often dramatically - after having put 4 goals in the net. Sometimes they play not just with joy, but with near total abandon.

Clearly, I love beautiful losers. Simon Barnes borrows this term from Leonard Cohen to wonder at how Arsenal fans are holding up. Tom Dunmore expanded on the theme for his site Pitch Invasion - and I thought I'd join this discussion of the affection some of us have for those who give us more than mere victory.

I love beautiful losers both on and off the pitch. The pleasure, elegance, and virtuosity of a game are paramount. There is a righteousness to the well played game - a game that unfolds between the whole team in which the skill level is so high that the team's "stars" must establish their genius with death-defying headers, with outrageous runs, or a cross so fast and so precise as to be telepathic. But more than anything, 'beautiful losers' show you their love for the game above all else.

It's one thing to talk about beautiful loser teams. This title also applies of course - and perhaps even more compellingly - to a few players. The most fabulous is probably Garrincha - Pele's countryman & misshapen teammate was never supposed to be able to run, but played perhaps the most gorgeous football in history. Garrincha never turned his genius into a "career" like Pele (who turned his name into a global brand). His last years (spent in alcoholic ignomy) were as hard as his first. That said, this end takes nothing away from the joy he gave to his fans.

I don't know what it is, but footage of Garrincha can move me to tears - they are very sentimental tears, tears of joy - a strange kind of emotional sympathy for that improbable, impossible being who seems to fall out of the sky and onto the world stage - and whose unlikeliness seems to be the very engine of their genius.

I'm more than a little tempted to link the particular nature of his legacy as a player to that of Edith Piaf - he has, I think, almost more in common with an artist like her than he does with other athletes. When Piaf (or Judy Garland or Billie Holiday) sang it was as if her entire being vibrated with some excess, some unnameable thing - it's beyond simple pleasure - and listening to them, you feel it in your bones, too. It's no accident that "Piaf" and "Garrincha" mean "little bird" and "wren". Garrincha's game was more of a song than a plan - and it seemed to lift everyone near it to another plane. But it also somehow felt like a game you could inhabit - and like the weirdest most unlikely part of yourself might be worth something.

Take Piaf's performance of "L'Accordeoniste": This is an incredible song, which in and of itself goes to the point: The story is of "une fille de joie" (prostitute) and losing oneself in the nightlife - in music - it's a tragic story of a woman dreaming of something else, dreaming of her lover and another life - dreaming dreams that will never be realized (he goes off to war and never comes back). Nevertheless, inhabiting the music she loves totally, she transports herself to another place. The music in which she once lost herself to pleasure, however, becomes a special form of torture.... The key words here (rough translation): "It goes right through her skin, from the top to the bottom. She needs to sing, it's physical: her whole being is tense, she holds her breath - she's wrapped up in the music" - "la fille de joie" is the song, the song is her - being taken over by that music is too much, and there Piaf is, signing it, channeling it all for your pleasure. It's crazy.

Every now and again an athlete does this too - uniting thought, feeling, body to make something much bigger than the sum of its parts - taking us with them in the proess. (Maradona, certainly, had this thing, I think Marta might, but it's hard to tell, since it's impossible to watch her play if you don't live in Sweden.)

Sometimes that energy spreads out to a team - it radiates out from an individual body and becomes a collective consciousness. Loving a team like this is about loving the ride. It's not that we don't care about winning - we just don't want to give up extra thing - the beauty, the sublimity - in order to win. It's just not worth it.

And with that - here is "Barcelona", sung by opera diva Montserrat Cabellé & Freddie Mercury - the most beautiful of the beautiful losers:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Fan Letter: Yrsa Roca Fannberg Paints Barça

Yrsa Roca Fannberg's quixotic blog, art versus sport is more than a Barça blog - it is what the title promises, a site pulled in these two directions - art and sport - at once. I've come down to Barcelona partly to meet Ysra, and to look more closely at the wonderful watercolors she has posted on her site. Last night, she kindly met up with me and my friend, the artist Ming Yuen S Ma.

Yrsa is an independent minded artist who works across a range of mediums - at the moment she is studying documentary film-making. She makes these gorgeous watercolors in the same spirit with which she writes - with an eye to mood, delicate questions of psychology and emotion, with an eye to not only the sublimity of the sport, but to its beauty - which is sometimes quite ordinary, and at other times quite melancholy. The tone of her writing is nearest to Eduardo Galeano's Soccer in Sun and Shadow - one of my all-time favorite reads.

It was a joy for me to meet a woman similarly engaged by the sport - for those of us whose identities are primarily bound up in art and intellectual life, an absorbing passion in football can be quite isolating. Even though many women play and become fans via their attachment to their fathers, brothers, to the men in their lives, that affection for "their" sport can make us, well, a little bit weird.

Speaking for myself, when I've tried to talk footie with guys as a way to, well, talk to them, I've come away with the distinct impression that I've trangressed some major rule of womanly conduct. A few weeks ago, for example, I sat on a London bound train with my friend Mandy, who is perhaps the biggest Arsenal fan ever (and that is saying a lot). She's followed the team since god knows when (and knows every minute detail about the French national team as a result). She no casual expert on this subject.

So, across the isle are two guys: a BBC sports journalist, and an American tourist. They were talking football - and stuck with this subject for a full two hours. They talked about relegation - a fascinating, exotic form of sport brutality to us Yanks. As it happens, I'd just read National Pastime, a comparative economic analysis of major league sports in the US and around the world - focused in part on the relegation system and its economics. I mentioned this, in a casual conversational friendly way. They both looked at me, said nothing, and then continue talking as if I'd said nothing.

I suspect a lot of women who love football have had similar experiences - my friend Mandy hadn't even bothered trying to talk with those guys, and welcomed me back to our discussion with a knowing look. Women really really love to talk about their sports, it sucks to be shut out of a conversation because you are a girl - and that sense of rejection is made worse when a guy looks at you like you are stupid. Men are fans - when women talk footie we are, well, crazy, or we must be lesbians - or, crazy lesbians.

When men talk footie with each other - when they talk in great depth and with enormous intensity of feeling about other men - it is often not just about footie, it's about their relationships to each other. It's a way to be a guy with other guys. A woman who tries to take part in this sorts talk upsets whatever delicate balance is in place that allows guys to talk with and about guys without, well, thinking about guys.

Anyway, back to Yrsa's work: Most representations of footballers are hyper-heroic, hyper masculine. When Yrsa offers a visual meditation on that ecstatic post-goal moment, she literalizes this explosive joy, as above, in "Encima 2" (I think that's 'Ecstasy 2' in Catalan). Sports photography tends to amplify the testasterone even in failure, when our sports heroes are made to look more like fallen soldiers than, well, human. Not often do we see them look like the big babies they sometimes are, like Messi here on the left.

Take this portrait of Thierry Henry (right, below): he looks weighed down by his own feet, like he gets heavier and heavier as he gets closer to the ground. If you've ever played 90 minutes, you might relate - I know that there are times when the ground feels attached to my feet - like the earth itself is holding me back. I think I see in this both an affection for Henry and a mix of hope and a fear of disappointment. But perhaps I project.

The thing that moves me most about these images - about especially "In Training", pictured at the top of this article - is that they are quite plainly made out of love. And that love isn't filtered by the requirements of macho/heroic tradition. Maybe because Yrsa's a woman it's ok to look at and see men in this way, and to paint them with this sort of delicacy. Maybe because she's half Icelandic/half Catalan - and because she played herself in Sweden until she was 14 (she says she was terrible) - she approaches the subject of Barça and football culture with an eye that is both that of an insider and that of an outsider. I think Barça fans would agree that the freedom with which she looks at this world gives us a glipse into its beauty and its emotional intensity.

When she'd spread her portfolio out on our table, the waiters in this tapas bar stopped, called others over, and pointed to the portraits - "Oh, that's Messi, for sure, look at how he holds his head", and "You can't miss Thuram there" or they'd shake their head in consternation as they identified the prodigal son: "Ronaldinho." Our faces lit up with a kind of warmth - the same warmth that animates Roca Fannberg's images: these are members of the family, and we love them no matter what.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zidane, Corporate Robot?: From this month's "So Foot"

SO, I’m here in France – enjoying a self-imposed writers retreat, and loading up on French football writing. I came across this provocative interview in the April issue of the glossy magazine, So Foot. It’s with Abdel Raouf Dafri, the scriptwriter for La Commune, a new series broadcast on Canal +. The interview was conducted by Simon Capelli Welter. It’s a fairly generic discussion of soccer & the disenfranchised – at the end, though, he makes some harsh statements about Zidane. I'd love to know more about this - I know Zidane presents himself apolitically, but Zidane gave Sarkozy his maillot (in 2006)?! That somehow hadn't made my radar screen. Say it ain't so Joe!

Anyway, I’m hoping the guys at So Foot don’t mind my unauthorized translation of the Dafri interview – it’s rocky – I may have taken some liberties, but I’m sure I’ve the basic points right.

SF: There’s something missing from La Commune, right? It’s about the banlieu, but there’s no football.

AD: Football is the least cinematic sport you can find. All football films are miserable flops. Football’s appeal is in the direct experience of emotion, it’s the suspense. In a film, the director shows you there is a good team, and a bad team – there’s no point. To make a story out of football, you have to look behind the scenes, at “how one makes a player”. I’d love to see a film with Cantona as a corrupt agent.

SF: Who would he represent?

AD: Tibéry – I mean Ribéry! I’d love to know how one makes a guy like Ribéry. A guy who comes from the streets. He grew up in Boulogne – really, a he’s a kid from the favelas.

SF: They say it’s like being an “immigré de l’interior” (roughly, a domestic immigrant - trans).

AD: Yes, that’s a lovely expression. You should check out Boulougne-sur-mer. I dare you to spend two weeks there. […They talk here about the relationship between regionalism & nationalism.] I’ve been [to places] where there are guys who don’t know the names of streets more two steps from their house. It’s crazy…You say to them – “Look – there are chances to get out, work [in other places] and they don’t want to go. They only want something two bus stops from their place, max. The reality in that region is grim. Economically, intellectually, in terms of artistic creation, it’s bleak.

SF: There’s just football.

AD: I have a theory: the cities that have some money have very mediocre football and in the poor cities, it’s a religion. [Hardly his theory alone! - trans] In Lens, the guys in the stadium are there for the love it. But, they don’t have anything else. In any case, I don’t really like stadiums, I don’t like crows and then…One night, I was DJing at Macumba (a club in the banlieu in Lille), we were asked to put the TF1 match on the club’s screen. I turned on the projector, and I saw some sort of massacre – I thought this isn’t the right channel. I switched channels, I couldn’t find the match, and I put the images of the slaughter back on. I went back to the music – funk, or something from that time. The images of the violence played on. It took us ten minutes before we realized that it was the right channel, and that the match had been interrupted by a fight. It was Heysel….

SF: That was Brussells, not to far from here….

AD: When they had World Cup in the US, we asked an American cop, the Dallas sheriff, what he thought of hooligans. “If they make a move, we’ll hang them by the collar like the wash.” [I think] There wasn’t a single incident. Hooligans know that if they get locked up in the US, it’ll be with gangs. And that’s no joke…. But in France, guys know that the cops are nothing [there’s that word “walou” again – trans]. During the World Cup in France, there was that cop killed by English hooligans in Lens [was he killed?? JD]. The problem was simple: the French cops looked at guys who looked like them – white hooligans — and they weren’t on their guard. A group of black guys would never have killed that cop. The cop would have pulled his gun. It’s usually the black supporters who see one of their own killed. Same in Heysel. The Belgian police really kept an eye on the Italians, because they’re dark – so they didn’t really put surveillance on the English. They just let them drink.

SF: What do you make of the whistling during La Marseillaise?

AD: It’s pathetic Those guys crack me up. They were born in France. I’m Maghreb (from North Africa), and at one time, I had to ask myself those questions. With these whistles come questions about French society. But we shouldn’t indulge in self-victimization! You have to get off your ass! Most of those guys are spending 150 euros on their sneakers – and they can’t buy a book for 20? Look, these guys from the hood, they make me look at things from a different angle. Today, you can’t get anywhere without an education. You think Barack Obama got where he is because he looks good in his Nikes? He went to Harvard! You have to teach, take care of yourself. And if the system doesn’t give you a chance, too bad – teach yourself. My parents were illiterate. I went to a technical school. In school, everybody came from the same background – the poorest. 90% were children of immigrants. From every direction, from the left and from the right, Arabs and Blacks are fucked. They go on about Rama Yade and Rachida Dati. You have to laugh. It’s like Condaleeza Rice – they say “she’s black”. No, she’s not black, she’s republican. Look at Rachida Dati, or Zidane - their power is about the present but not the future [une force sur le moment mais handicap pour la suite], it derives from the fact that they think of themselves only in terms of function and ambition. Really, we don’t know where they come from. Rachida Dati, she doesn't talk about her experiences as an Arab woman because she understands herself as a woman from the political right….Zidane – what has he done for other Africans? He became the world representative for Danone! It’s the brand speaking. Not him. In terms of being human – he doesn’t exist. Zidane – he’s Johnny Halliday! [I think this might be the most scandalous bit! - JD]

SF: You have to be apolitical and compliant in order to have universal appeal.

AD: You don’t give your shirt to Sarkozy when you are Zinedine Zidane. With Brice Hortefeux as the minister of immigration, his family would never have gotten into France, and we’d never have had Zidane. As an Arab, he has to ask himself some questions! His parents come here, speak French, work, build a respectable family, teach their kids values. Their son becomes the greatest player in the world and what does this son do when he retires? He gets on the payroll for Danone?....I’d love see for the record his political position.

SF: Thuram [adoring sigh from me - JD] isn’t afraid of positioning himself.

AD: He’s doing the right thing, even if it's sometimes awkward. Karembeu too, when he addresses his roots as a Kanak. I have to give respect to the guy who doesn’t forget where he’s from. I can’t say where Zidane comes from. For all I know he’s a digital hallucination. You don’t know if he’s even real, you don’t know what he thinks about. Except how to appeal to as many as possible. That’s not how it works. You can’t appeal to everybody – you choose a camp. We are staring down some huge problems in this world, and you have to take a position on them. With these guys who come to have so much influence and then don’t do anything with it, you can be sure you know why they are there: “I just want the dough, I don’t want any trouble, so I’m not going to rock the boat.”

Note: I have my own take on this interview - on the contradictory threads in his rambling about how one needs to pull oneself up by one's bootstraps et al. But I thought these comments were great to share with those outside France, where it may come as a surprise that Zidane as seen as super vanilla.

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