Football: It's Up To You

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini reacts as he watches his team during the FA Community Shield match sponsored by McDonald's between Manchester City and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on August 7, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

There comes a moment in every football writer's life when he disagrees with something that Jonathan Wilson said ...

In a recent piece for the Guardian, Jonathan Wilson salted his analysis of England's U-20 campaign with a trenchant broadside against those who view football as entertainment. A summary might perhaps not do it justice, so here are the relevant paragraphs:

Those who sit at home watching on television complaining about being bored - and I've been introduced to an awful lot of them on Twitter over the past few days - seem to be treating football not as a sport but as an entertainment. It may be entertaining, but it is not and should never be an entertainment. It's not WWE.

Football's beauty is in the struggle, in the fact that a weaker side, through diligence, industry and clever tactics, can hold off a stronger one. That means that often there aren't flicks and tricks and hatfuls of goals. If ready gratification is what these armchair moaners want, they should watch pornography, or perhaps basketball: it's the height of arrogance for them to demand a team should play in an ineffective way so that they can be entertained.

With TV rights deals and talk of brand values, perhaps the waters have been muddied a little, but football fundamentally is about two sides each wanting to beat the other using whatever methods the rules and spirit of the game allow. The spirit, of course, is largely self-determined: some will insist on an aesthetically pleasing style; others will be as pragmatic as they can be, and most will be somewhere in between. It is one of football's strengths, though, that at the very highest level, the most effective style tends to be an attractive one, with the odd Greece thrown in for variety's sake.

Kaboom!

Loath as I am to argue with one of the country's finest football thinkers, I nevertheless think that this point is based on a peculiarly narrow and dismissive understanding of the nature of entertainment. Indeed, taken to a logical absurdity, we might conclude that Wilson has never been entertained nor sought to be entertained by a football match, which seems distinctly unlikely, if only because he has devoted his life to writing and thinking about it. It would be a peculiar kind of masochism to build a career from a subject that didn't entertain in any regard.

I don't think it's unfair to suggest that Jonathan Wilson, at least sometimes, likes watching a football match. Nor do I think it's unfair to suggest that this liking constitutes being entertained by that football match. "Entertaining" - a word that has been devalued in some quarters as a trite concept, for which we can perhaps blame David Brent - is at heart a wholly subjective but universal description: a thing is entertaining if you find within in it something that engages, something that titillates, something that amuses or stimulates or diverts. Wilson's own parallel with pornography demonstrates the breadth of the notion: some people get off on foreplay, others on the money shot, others on the inappropriate moment when the referee gets a ball in the face. There's nowt so queer as folk.

There is, of course, a certain arrogance where fans demand that a team play in a certain way, particularly in the circumstances in which the England U-20 squad found themselves, with a squad decimated by a malign cocktail of club self-interest and bureaucratic snafus. To expect, or demand, that an unrealistic personal preference be satisfied is presumptuous at best. But - and while I don't think this is the point Wilson is attempting to make, he certainly comes close - it would be easy to extrapolate this to any circumstance, and conclude that any demand, request, or preference from any particular fan could only be met with "no, mate. Take what you're given".

An example. Last season, Manchester City visited the Emirates in a game that was notable on two counts: firstly, some of the seats were priced above £100, the first time that an individual non-VIP seat in English football had broached three figures; secondly, the game was astonishingly, bone-meltingly, soul-scaldingly dull. City rocked up, kept their shape for two hours, and bowled off with a point; Arsenal were as much use as a spork in a knifefight.

Let's think about that game in terms of entertainment. There were things about it that could, to the right person, be entertaining. Fetishists for defensive organisation would have had a great time. So too would those who enjoy watching Arsenal struggle. And finally, perhaps, those who admire "diligence, industry, and clever tactics". My point is that for those who crave goals, goals, goals, such ideas of entertainment are just as laughable - just as contemptible, and just as incoherent - as the opposite.

This isn't even a question of pragmatism, or of fans not understanding that teams have to play in a certain way due to circumstance (I'm talking generally here; obviously England U-20s were limited by events beyond their control). Most fans are happy to accept that teams have to operate in accordance with their circumstances. But ultimately, I suspect, the vast majority of people watch football because they find it entertaining, in one way or another. To conclude that one version of entertainment is in some way superior to another is a dangerous precedent. It introduces ideas of right and wrong, and of superiority and inferiority, into the experience of watching the game. It means that some get it, while others don't.

Of course, It must be incredibly frustrating for a journalist, particularly one as thoughtful and articulate as Wilson, to have to cope with fools on Twitter who lack the knowledge of the context to make an informed judgement, but still feel the need to throw countless ill-informed ones in his general direction. But it is also frustrating for a fan of a different perspective to be scolded by journalists for, essentially, doing it wrong. (And it should also be pointed out that while the circumstances of the England U-20's squad may have precluded them playing expansive football, that doesn't mean it wasn't boring. It means it was understandably boring.)

If you like football because of the fun goals, and there aren't any fun goals, then it frustrates, in much the same way that a game lacking diligence, industry and clever tactics might be less than entertaining to those of a Wilsonian inclination. Does this mean that you like football incorrectly? Chiding people for their taste is never constructive; telling them to abandon the game in which they presumably invest considerable affection is patronising; suggesting that basketball - an abomination of a sport - might be the best option is downright insulting.

ASIDE. Lurking behind all this, of course, is the fact that journalists don't have to pay to get their football. Returning to the Emirates, let us consider two individuals, one in a £100-seat, the other in the press box. One has paid through the nose not only for her ticket but for a couple of pints of watery lager and a thing shaped like a pie, the other's got free wifi, food laid on, enough space to move her legs and nobody spitting in her hair. And, while this again doesn't apply to the England U-20's campaign, in which Wilson found himself ranged against TV-watching keyboard warriors, the general point is that those who pay might not take too kindly to being told what is and isn't important by those who don't. Fans, after all, are there because they want to be. ASIDE ENDS.

Were I to attempt to answer the question of the beauty of football, I would propose a weaker but perhaps more satisfying answer: breadth. That the glory of the sport lies in the fact that so many people of such disparate dispositions are enthralled by it in manifold and radically incompatible ways; that there is space for those who love goals, and those who love defending, and those who love diligence, industry and tactics, and those who love violence, and so on and on. This, after all, is a sport in which Zdeněk Zeman and José Mourinho do the same job; that there might be one right way of addressing it seem nonsensical.

If England-Nigeria had finished 7-6 to the English, in a welter of disorganisation, tactical anarchy, slack defending, and approving tweets from the goal-hungry Twidiots, there would doubtless have been those who would have thrown their hands up in horror, repulsed by such a horror of a game. That's why football's great. Somebody's always happy, and somebody's always upset. The game is broad, and can be enjoyed in a million ways; people are narrow, and are doomed to always think their way is best.

CODA. All that said, tweeting a journalist to say "dude, why are you covering this, this is boring", is a twatty thing to do, even if you're right. Jonathan Wilson is a gem and we're lucky to have him. CODA ENDS. 

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