Now that I’m free from exams a scarily high percentage of my time has been spent trying and failing to explain the constant spectacles created by football. Something I’ve always found surreal about the sport is how isolated those around me are from it – events that I view as seismic and definitive barely cross their radar, melting my brain in the process. These aborted attempts to explain my passion usually end up following the same few patterns – excerpts from the /r/Soccer headline list, that one Erling Haaland interview that sounds like anxiety-ridden third years flirting for the first time, and cliché walls of text based on the comfort of endless highlight shows. On some level it feels as if my obsession is based more around the humans behind the sport rather than the endless games they play – there’s something endlessly fascinating about the stories and cursed facts surrounding each fixture, even if I’ve retold them all countless times.
It could be argued that my excitement for Euro 2020 was fuelled more by this urge for spectacle than an appreciation of Kylian Mbappé. The actual football within this competition isn’t usually of the highest standard, with Portugal winning the tournament in 2016 after finishing third in their group and only winning one game within ninety minutes of play. This mixed quality creates the perfect conditions for shitehousery – with a team coached by a part-time dentist managing to knock out the Brits, Gareth Bale pretty much carrying his country, and random drunk Irish supporters fixing cars for the boys in green. The Euros are arguably so fascinating specifically because of how varied results end up being, pretty much anything can happen as long as it doesn’t make sense on paper. I guess the last five years have been spent just waiting for a return to these oddly consuming spectacles, a return to having new stories to tell. The tournament’s definitely delivered in this regard, just not in a positive way.
business as unusual
In the crudest of terms Euro 2020 is an active absurdity – a competition pretending to be held in the year prior, basing itself around rapid international travel at a time when its solely associated with climate change and death. The early stages of the tournament felt defined by a sense of suspended animation, with those running the show refusing to admit that things have changed since the onset of this never-ending pandemic. There was something actively unsettling about hearing Bono’s drawl reverberate through stadium speakers after each match, a discomfort amplified by what happened to Christian Eriksen. The twenty-nine year old striker collapsed halfway into Denmark’s opening match against Finland, suffering a cardiac arrest as the continent gawked.
For the hour or so following his collapse it felt as if we saw a player die on camera. Television coverage provided us with voyeuristic glimpses of his lifeless body and distraught wife, with players having to form a protective ring around Eriksen as he received lifesaving medical treatment. There was something actively eerie about the whole ordeal, as if the layers of bullshit which underpin our obsession were being peeled away in real time. All we were left with was dread and fear, soundtracked by uptempo advertisements for gambling websites. This eeriness was amplified by the sudden attempt by Twitter to block out the hashtag used for the game – it almost seemed as if there was an urge to erase what we had seen, if anything just so the spectacle could continue. These attempts inevitably backfired, with the choice to block off discussion being quickly reversed. However, as the discourse continued I felt an odd sense of guilt wash over me – it felt as if I had seen something I really should not have, something I was arguably complicit in. We push these people to the limit, perhaps we just witnessed the logical conclusion.
This sense of complicity contrasted a fair bit with the understandable anger expressed towards UEFA, the BBC, and RTÉ for airing footage of the incident for far too long. Fans correctly pointed out that the Danish national broadcaster instantly cut away upon noticing something was amiss, arguing that an active decision was made to exploit a possible tragedy. In the days following the incident the lead director of the global coverage tried to weasel their way out of controversy, claiming “we also saw unity in this moment of great anxiety, it had to be transmitted […] I wouldn’t call it voyeurism”. Nobody bought into this weird narrative, with over 6,000 complaints being submitted to the BBC over their choice to keep the cameras rolling. For better or for worse it felt as if we as fans wanted to create a simple narrative to justify the confused feelings spurred on by these grotesque scenes. There were one or two evil cameramen out there actively violating the humanity of Eriksen without any vague sense of empathy and we had to right this wrong by shouting at them online. The most depressing thing is that perhaps an active choice wasn’t made. Perhaps we’re alienated from the humanity of these athletes by the nature of the system we live under. Perhaps the cameras made this such a spectacle as that’s the sole purpose they serve.
angela merkel thinks we’re at work
One of the craziest aspects of this sport (and every industry under capitalism) is the fundamental rupture between the athletes who create value and the corporate side who act as if they do. Recent controversies surrounding the aborted Super League have exposed this divide in almost comical terms, with the so-called “prawn sandwich brigade” displaying a clear disconnect from both the industry that lines their pockets and reality in general. Those who own clubs or sit on UEFA boards view football through a solely immaterial lens, falsely believing the sport can endlessly expand and contract at will – preferably beside perfectly placed Coke bottles. But this idea of constantly growing and rebranding football ignores the fundamental realities of the human body, something best seen through the 2019 Club World Club. Liverpool had to somehow juggle the absurd miracle of playing matches in two different continents in less than twenty-four hours – and all for a competition that nobody outside of Qatar actually pays attention to! If anyone is making an active decision to disregard the humanity of players like Eriksen it’s those who profit from these decisions, even if that’s slightly depressing to admit.
For better or for worse ex-FAI CEO John Delaney serves as the ultimate depiction of the corporate side of football, if anything just on account of how oddly pathetic he is. The constant presence of this executive haunted Irish football for decades, with funds that could have been used to develop the grassroots game being redirected towards James Bond-themed birthday parties and attempts to sit on UEFA’s Executive Committee. Under Delaney the rupture within the spectacle was blatant – our football was getting worse but we opted to ignore it as sport gave us an escape from the depressing impacts of the recession. This fundamental disconnect from reality inherent amongst those holding power over the game is best captured in the following anecdote from ‘Champagne Football’:
The FAI launched the Vantage Club, as the ticket scheme was called, on 18 September 2008. The timing could hardly have been worse: three days earlier, the giant American investment bank Lehman Brothers had collapsed, and it was clear that a global financial crisis was underway. […] Days after the glitzy Vantage Club launch, the Irish government bailed out the six main banks. It was not a time for ostentatious spending on luxury items such as match tickets, but Delaney was making bullish noises nonetheless, claiming six weeks later that sales were into ‘four figures’. ‘I’ve had lunch with some big corporates and they’ve bought ten on the spot,’ he said. ‘In fact, the most seats sold to date are the €32,000 ones. That’s straight-up.’
Characters like Delaney could hold such power on account of what they represented. They stood for the excess of a time that no longer existed, providing pathetic affluence during an era defined by lacking. These figureheads expressed ideas of football being an apolitical form of escape, something that would constantly expand at a time when everything else was being cut back. This sentiment is mirrored in the infamous “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work” flag that arguably defined Ireland’s run in Euro 2012 – it was as if we were getting one up on the IMF overlords by participating in the spectacle, even if that’s silly to admit. But reality caught up in the end:
When Delaney became Chief Executive of the FAI, the Irish domestic league was ranked thirty-eighth out of fifty-one leagues across Europe in the UEFA coefficient table based on results. Fifteen years on, in the 2019/2020 season, the League of Ireland was forty-second out of fifty-five national leagues across Europe. When Delaney took over the job of interim Chief Executive of the FAI in November 2004 Ireland were fourteenth in the FIFA world rankings, close to an all-time high. In October 2019, the month after Delaney resigned, Ireland had slipped to thirty-sixth.
For better or for worse the world we live in won’t let us fully immerse ourselves in the spectacle anymore. The allure of characters like Delaney has faded and we all saw through the vapid claims that Danish players opted to restart the game hours after the Eriksen incident. It’s now clear beyond any doubt that there’s something dark underpinning our collective obsession, that people have to suffer to pad out our summers and awkward conversations. But what happens now? Probably not that much.
no such thing as a “football family” (and please god there never will be)
From the perspective of someone deeply addicted to the spectacle, it sometimes seems as if UEFA seem intent on generating as much anger as possible. This crude oversimplification was of mine was reinforced over the past few days, with the organisation essentially just turning a blind eye to blatant racism and homophobia broadcast by the Hungarian state and their supporters. Instead of just admitting that they were cool with Diet Coke Blackshirts lining their pockets, UEFA tried to cynically virtue signal – pissing off literally everyone in the process. Their social media accounts spread a pathetic excuse of a press statement, attempting to explain away their choice to turn down a request to illuminate the Allianz Arena in the colours of the pride flag as a response to homophobic policies pursued by the Hungarian state. The association decried the use of the rainbow as a “political symbol”, acting as if they were throwing the first brick at Stonewall by being actively complicit in the normalisation of homophobic hate.
As aptly pointed out by Richie Sadlier during RTÉ’s coverage of the controversy, “[UEFA] claim to be about certain values, […] they claim to be about equality and respect and inclusion and openness for all. You can’t credibly claim to be for those things if you run scared at the first opportunity of being up against someone who attacks those things”. In the same way that the Eriksen incident temporarily stripped back the layers of crap that underlie our obsession, UEFA’s capitulation dissolved the cynical utopianism used to sugarcoat their power plays. On some level the whole ordeal shouldn’t have been shocking. After all, any notion of UEFA being an apolitical body representing all aspects of the so-called “football family” has been long laid to rest following constant scandal and bouts of selective blindness. But what made this specific ordeal so infuriating was how utterly stark it was – with the association essentially admitting that queer lives only matter when they’re the easiest group to advertise to. The quiet part was said out loud, making things slightly awkward.
In 2019 Eric Cantona delivered a surreal acceptance speech upon receiving the UEFA President’s Award. “As flies to wanton boys we are for the gods, they kill us for their sport. Soon the science will not only be able to slow down the ageing of the cells, soon the science will fix the cells to the state and so we will become eternal. Only accidents, crimes, wars, will still kill us but unfortunately, crimes, wars, will multiply. I love football”. In the days following both the Eriksen incident and the Pride controversy I’ve found myself fixating in on this speech, if anything just as it captures the inescapable approach we take towards our obsession. Despite report upon report of horrific exploitation it all inevitably returns back to football. Despite provocation upon provocation we’ll end up feeling glee whenever Hungary eat shit and temporarily rooting for Denmark. No matter how badly the spectacle has disassembled we’ll inevitably find ourselves back in front of the television screen, just with a vague tinge of guilt gnawing away at us in the background. But hey, the away goal rule just got scrapped. At least there’s that to talk about.