I’M OFTEN ASKED a question that, upon the reception of the answer, my inquisitor appears somewhat perturbed. The question is a common one, one that will be asked – at least somewhere on the planet, whether it be in person or via the myriad means of communication that now link us – every minute of every day: ‘Who do you support?’
“I support whoever’s playing good football,” I reply. “I don’t care where or by whom it is being played. It is the action on the pitch that interests me, not the identity of the protagonists.”
So, if you’d be so kind as to entertain me a while, I’d like to explain why.
To support an entity – be it an idea, movement, collective or individual – is to feel some sort of overlap between the principles and beliefs of that entity and those of your own. A Christian football fan from Glasgow may well feel a strong affiliation with the theocratic connections harboured by a particular side of the religiously divided Old Firm depending on their own interpretation of the reformation. A socialist inhabitant of Madrid would be more likely to feel a political simpatico with the Guevaran antics of the barrio club, Rayo Vallecano, than the Cava quaffing and perceived sophistication of the moneyed Madridistas across town.
There are, of course, more emotive ideas that one may feel compelled to identify with. Family tradition plays an important part in the lives of billions of people across the world. To grow up with the memories of shared moments of happiness with one’s close relatives is a wonderful thing that, for so many, the mutual support of a football club provides a romantic backdrop. Indeed, I still fondly recall those particular Saturdays when my father would suggest we take the half hour drive into Aberdeen to watch the Dons take on Scotland’s finest.
Walking briskly (my father is – often much to my mother’s chagrin – incessantly early) across the blustery golf course to Pittodrie Stadium as the wind whipped in from the North Sea. Sipping on the perennially scolding meat drink, Bovril as the likes of Jess, Booth and Shearer grafted for the cause. And, if I was really lucky, the pit-stop at the Silver Grill Chip Shop on the drive home where I’d be the gleeful recipient of that rarest of treats: a Mince Pie supper and a can of Irn Bru.
It could also perhaps be that it is merely a matter of proximity. Support your local team. Regardless of principles or pedigree, it is the parochial that is paramount.
These are but a select few of the innumerable reasons why one may choose to affiliate themselves with a certain club. And they are of course entirely legitimate. Who am I to preside over the validity of one’s reasoning in this matter? I would, though, suggest that none of these motivations actually have anything to do with football.
I think it’s important to clarify that when I say football, I am referring explicitly to the game itself. Not what somebody – anybody – might consider football to mean to them, I’m talking about football.
Football, a game comprised of a set of rules, two teams of 11 players, a pitch, two goals and one ball. A game where the 10 outfield players of each team are entrusted with the task of manoeuvring the ball into the opponent’s goal without using their hands. The team that achieves this objective of scoring a goal on most occasions within the allotted time period will win the game. If the scores are tied, a draw is declared. And that’s that.
There is no subjectivity here, only an overriding objective: to win.
Football Theory (Tamboer, 1997) dictates that when a team has ‘possession’ of the ball they are said to be attacking and will be engaging in one of two potential team actions – they will either be building up or scoring. When a team is out of possession they are said to be defending and will be, as a result of the team actions of the opponent, also engaging in one of two potential team actions. They will either be disrupting the build-up or preventing a goal. In between these situations we have the transition moments when each team will be adjusting to a turn-over in ball possession.
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Each of the four potential team actions – building up, scoring, disrupting the build-up, preventing a goal – are comprised of individual football actions. A football action can be described as the process during a football game by which the body interacts with its surroundings.
These interactions are verbs that describe what the player is doing in relation to the ball, the goal, the team-mate and the opponent. They are such things as controlling, pressing, shooting, blocking, intercepting, covering, throwing, penetrating, blocking and many others.
These actions are comprised of communication with external stimuli (surroundings), game insight/decision making and technique which is the execution of the selected action.
In order to maximise the probability of achieving a positive outcome, the team must endeavour to ensure that each player is performing better actions more often than the opponent, as well as maintaining both the quality and frequency of these actions throughout the allotted time period.
So that’s what I’m talking about when I say football. Because that’s what football is. It’s got nothing to do with anyone’s identity or any other subjective human facet. In this sense it is pure and unspoilt – a beautifully complex network of circumstance that provokes an infinite number of potential scenarios. And all merely for a pastime. Its creation is truly a testament to the ingenuity, creativity and meticulousness of its designers. It is a quite astonishing human achievement.
I work in a pub, and one of the great delights of this most noble of vocations is that there is endless opportunity to engage in conversation with people whom one may not otherwise come into contact with. Don’t get me wrong, not every character that darkens the saloon door is what one might refer to as an affable raconteur, possessing as some do, the oratory panache of a hard- boiled egg.
There are, however, plenty of occasions when time is passed genially discussing the virtues of various ideas, people, places, food, drink, music, film, literature and, should one choose to inquire as to the identity of my more passionate interests – although you may well be sorry that you ever asked – football. That or the genius of Daryl Hall and John Oates. Depends what kind of mood I’m in.
Near perfectly written, performed and produced soul-tinged Yacht Rock aside, what’s particularly interesting about many patron’s knee-jerk reactions to the declaration of my penchant for the beautiful game is that they are largely negative. ‘But how could this be?’ I hear you cry, ‘you’ve just explained how football is a purely objective entity that ranks as one of humanity’s great achievements, how could anyone find such a thing at all disagreeable?’. I know, it’s weird isn’t it?
The fact is, it isn’t weird at all, not in the slightest. Not when you consider the extent to which our wonderful game has been spoiled, sullied, stained and outright bastardised by marauding hordes of boorish ignoramuses. These philistines have raped and pillaged football for almost all that its worth and have left a trail of wanton destruction in their wake.
I’m in no way surprised that for so many, football is a synonym for regressive attitudes and aggressive dispositions. It’s very DNA has been parasitised by the vulgarity of racism, sexism, sectarianism and homophobia. It has been charged and condemned as the cause of brutal and deadly violence when religion, politics and tribalism should have been the ones in the dock.
There are those among us who will seemingly stop at nothing to propagate their own bias and prejudice through the medium of football. I can think of no other game that must continually fight against these most aggressive of cancers. I can see the throngs now, frothing at the mouth with God on their side, crazy-eyed, consumed with vile hate and vitriol. Any excuse to channel the fallen angels of our nature to a wider audience. And what’s worse still is that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
Thanks to decades of misappropriation, we have been denied a common football language, a centralised dialect of knowledge, logic and understanding. Instead, we have been force fed a diet of ignorant vagueness punctuated by moronic and clichéd vernacular. And it’s now being used against us.
National broadcasters bluster their way through even the most rudimentary of mainstream analysis, respected publications have resorted to infantile listicles that bait our clicks with the promise of enlightening us with ‘6 things we learned from Sunday’s Manchester derby’.
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In Scotland, we watch on helplessly as our taxes appear to be splurged by our national federation and media to peddle the nonsensical narrative that losing is OK. No, it’s better than OK, it’s, wait for it, it’s glorious. ‘Ach, same old Scotland eh? What are we like?’ we repeat ad nauseam with glazed-eyed obedience. This is grotesque.
It’s as though the country has been conditioned to fetishize failure in order to divert the collective gaze from the breathtaking incompetence that lies at the dark heart of the nation’s footballing malaise. It’s almost at the point of masochism now. These days, losing 3-0 to Slovakia is essentially a public display of nationalised self-flagellation. None of this makes any sense.
Does no one actually understand the objective nature and component parts of the game that they are paid to preside over? Can you imagine a Formula 1 team head who doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics? It’s the greatest trick the devil ever pulled. Football, ladies, gentlemen and comrades, has been hijacked by subjectivity.
The national team question is a pertinent one, so let’s run with it. Why should I even bother to support the Scottish national football team? I don’t just like musicians because they happen to be have been born nearby. I go to see the show if I like the artist. I’m neither a nationalist nor a patriot.
The former requires one to take credit for the achievements of others while, as Oscar Wilde put it, the latter is nothing more than ‘the virtue of the vicious’. Not only am I entirely uncomfortable with the notion of basking in the glory of the accomplishments of strangers, I am also ill at ease with the selective memories that seem to be a hallmark of those of the nationalist disposition. It’s a dangerous habit to take one’s history a la carte, but a tough one to break.
While quick to play the victim card in what is fast becoming a kind of Oppression Olympics, many nationalists appear to conveniently forget that much of Scotland’s recent remuneration has stemmed from an enthusiastic role in the very slave powered empire building that they are so desperate to condemn.
I voted ‘Yes’ for Scottish independence by the way, but for purely democratic reasons. Democracy and the supreme power of the electorate are values that any society should hold in the highest regard and any opportunity to further decentralise power towards a more representative electoral system certainly appeals to my liberal persuasions.
And this is what it comes down to – I’m a liberal. I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have been born in a country where the liberal tenets of democracy, free speech, freedom of sexuality, freedom of religion and secular government are held in such high regard. The fact that Scotland can boast a rich and fascinating history, world-class food and drink, cutting edge scientific research, creative and innovative enterprise and world-class artistic output is, I think, testament to the progressive nature of these liberal values. And I’ve not even mentioned the genuinely jaw-dropping natural wonders of this rugged, coastal land.
This is not to say that we are without problems as a society, but one should be mindful to remember the plethora of hideous regimes across the globe where despots and theocrats regularly show their populations just how diabolical systematic oppression can truly be.
So when the SFA include as part of their remit to whoever takes up the seemingly poisoned chalice of Performance Director in the wake of Brian McClair’s departure, the task of implementing a ‘Scottish style of play’, we find ourselves wading into increasingly murky waters.
How can a style of play be Scottish?
A playing style is a subjective implementation of the objective understanding of overriding football theory. This subjective implementation – performed by the coach – is referred to as the ‘art of coaching’. The individual – whose beliefs have been shaped by their own specific ideologies – will use their knowledge and experiences to apply their understanding of Football Theory to construct the game model that they think will give them the highest probability of achieving a positive outcome given the constraints within which they working.
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An appropriate analogy could be that of an F1 car engine designer. The engineer is an individual. They have their own subjective biases and beliefs which will shape how they approach the task at hand. The task, though, remains objective. The designer must use their knowledge of proven scientific theory to design an engine that will deliver the team the highest probability of achieving a first place finish on race day.
Now, let’s say our engineer just happens to be a white supremacist who lives their life according to strict racist ideology; this does not mean that the engine itself is racist. How can it be? It’s an objective entity. It’s either effective or it isn’t. If it proved to be successful another team could copy the design and use it themselves. Would they hesitate to do this because the engine is racist?
I am Scottish in the geographical sense, not the ideological. I was born in Scotland, therefore I am Scottish. But, as I have explained, that’s where it ends. I have my own beliefs and choose to invest in ideas that may or may not be in congruence with those that others may consider to be ‘Scottish’.
In exactly the same way that an engine cannot be racist, a playing style cannot be Scottish. A Scottish person may design it, and if the country of birth of the designer is the only thing that we are talking about then yes, just as I am geographically Scottish, the style could be said to be Scottish. But if – as I believe the SFA are – we are speaking in terms of a perceived idea of Scottishness and the playing style itself exuding some concoction of stereotypical national traits – pride, passion, etc – then we have completely lost all grip on reality.
It’s clearly nonsense. A playing style can be Scottish no more than it can be defined by any other ideology. The playing style is a collection of football actions. These actions don’t have views or opinions on the make-up of an idea like Scottishness, just like the mechanical components of an engine cannot hate black people.
Ask 10 different people what being Scottish means to them and you’d be likely to get 10 different answers. That’s because it’s open to interpretation. It’s subjective. If Marcelo Bielsa pitched up at Hampden tomorrow and instilled his high-tempo verticality and pressing style, the nation would delight that the team is finally showing the ‘heart’ and ‘desire’ that defines the Scottish ideal. Conversely, if José Mourinho brought a winning formula of deep lying defensive blocks and quick counter-attacks, the narrative would shift to fit the ideas of ‘gritty determination’ and ‘dogged battle hardiness’.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. By mixing an objective entity (football) with a subjective construct (Scottishness), we end up with the impossible task of reconciling the absurd.
The big problem here is not that this is fundamental misunderstanding taking place, it’s where it’s taking place. I’m not suggesting that all football fans should take a long hard look at themselves, stop enjoying the game as they do, and commit to dedicating an inordinate amount of time to studying the various schools of thought that exist in football and engage themselves in the battle of ideas that rages on as we speak. I mean, if you want to then great. But this isn’t the issue. The issue is that too many individuals and organisations that are paid with significant sums of tax payers’ money to structure, organise, deliver and evaluate football content are hopelessly out of touch. Professional people without even the most basic grasp of how football works. The example of the ‘Scottish style of play’ demonstrates this.
These people are putting subjectivity and personal bias ahead of an objective understanding of the game. You can build the fanciest school with the best facilities available but if you’re teaching the wrong curriculum then the students are going to fail the exam. Every time. Just like Scotland have failed to even qualify for a major tournament for what is likely to become 20 years by the time the World Cup kicks off in Russia.
Subjectivity will always exist within football. And it most certainly has its place – whether it is found in the genius design of an innovative game model, the pirouette of a graceful midfielder or simply in one’s own views and opinions on how the game went today. What is of the utmost importance, however, is that we begin to better understand the difference between these personal interpretations and the objectivity of the actions that take place on the field of play.
You cannot tackle a player in a socialist way. And for those who of us who proclaim authority via status, profession or mere opinion, the onus is on us to adopt a learning style that always wants to be wrong, that always wants to question things. It would be a pretty dull existence if everything that we believe today turned out to be true. What we must ensure is that we approach the study of football in a rational and logical way that acknowledges the objective nature of the entity in question.
Thankfully, the red pill is available and, if we are able to see our subjective biases for what they really are, we might just be able to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.
By Jamie Hamilton @stirling_j