BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 26: Gervinho of Arsenal in action during the training session during the club's pre-season Asian tour at the Olympic Sports Centre on July 26, 2012 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
It's football, Jim, but not as we know it.
Were you to happen across a pre-season friendly without knowing the first thing about the calendar, it wouldn't taken you long to figure out that something was a little off. Yes, they may look like football matches: eleven players on each side, a ball, two goals, and so on. Yet something's wrong. The sprints aren't quite as quick; the tackles are slightly soggy. Misses are greeted with grins; goals with handshakes and nods. Nobody spends enough time rolling around on the floor clutching irrelevant parts of their anatomy.
There's no point, you'd realise. Or rather, there's no wider sporting point. While technically football matches in form and presentation, the result is less important than modelling the new kit, not getting injured, not injuring anybody else, signing autographs, establishing a presence in emerging markets, assimilating new tactical plans, losing the holiday fat, and informing the world that DHL are an excellent choice for all your logistical needs. Friendly football is football gutted; if sport is war, pre-season is paintball. "They've got the winner!" screamed ESPN last Tuesday, as two Arsenal reserves hugged like distant cousins at a wedding and Malaysia XI's goalkeeper yawned in boredom.
If you were in any doubt, just look at the line-ups. This year is even worse than usual, back-to-back international tournaments ensuring that plenty of players are either just sloping back from their holidays, or have gone to London to help Sebastian Coe in his bid for a
knighthood baronetcy viscounty. So we watch players priced and measured for market hustling alongside first-teamers that have just changed out of their flip-flops, convalescents passing to adolescents, reserves tackling contract rebels; those going, those gone and those still here, minds all firmly elsewhere.
Yet despite this, an inordinate amount of attention is being lavished upon these distracted exercises in training and advertising, this liminal edgeland between Football and Not Football. Of course, television channels need something to fill their schedules, and even a blank parody of football tends to draw the eyes. But pre-season has an appeal even beyond that, an allure that derives from the clairvoyant insights it pretends to reveal. Find out how your team might line-up, it whispers, running its fingers through your hair. Get a look at this new prospect you've picked up on the cheap from the Bundesliga, it coos, hand sliding up the inside of your thigh. Find out how your latest manager's attempts to introduce a zonal-marking system are going, it blushes, tongue flickering against your earlobe. Lavish attention on me, it promises, lips hovering over yours. I will show you the future.
All nonsense. Attempting to divine anything from pre-season is like reading decaffeinated tea-leaves, or poking around in the guts of a nut-roast. At best you'll discover how improvised lineups perform in irrelevant circumstances, which as far as knowledge goes is probably worse than knowing nothing. It's not good for you, either. Start searching for patterns where there are none and you'll end up finding them, and finding patterns where there are none is as good a definition of madness as springs to mind.
There is much to enjoy about pre-season. New players are fun, and new kits are dreadful. Alex Ferguson dresses as a coach driver, and Bebe finds his level. Far-flung fans get a rare chance to see something resembling the team they follow at a distance. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that what we see before the season starts has anything more than a faint resemblance to what we see afterwards. And even more importantly, let's not burden ourselves with the pretence that the result matters. A new football season is coming, and it's going to be ... well, it's going to be what it always is. Tiring as hell, and slightly louder than the last one. Let's not put ourselves through that before we absolutely have to.
You can read more from Andi in Issue #1 of the Surreal Football Magazine, coming soon.