The Football World Cup for Smart People – 4 – Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 1978

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a more scholarly addition to the debate than Eco’s essay, and is to be found in Screen 19.4, Winter 1978 (45-60).

If you’re ever in a fix and need a source for the oft-quoted pronouncement that “football is about winning”, this is the place to go. Just add (56) right after that quote, and you’re the toast of the party.

The real question of the article, though not fully explored, is whether “Argentina” did indeed win the 1978 World Cup, and which “Argentina”. It’s not fully explored because the article folds all issues back to whether the military junta in power won or not, which is a much more narrow focus than the general cultural implications of which “Argentina” won. The conclusion, that the political regime came out all right, mainly through the fact that TV coverage of the World Cup was normal (read: similar to previous World Cups) and therefore non-political, is in line with frequent criticisms of televised sport (again, see Eco: all circuses, little panem).

It’s a disappointing conclusion as the article also sets up “football” as more than a game and as a culture, or rather a cultural field, through which lots of social, cultural, emotional attachments and histories are negotiated. It makes the great point that the Saturday football match is merely one stop in the cultural flow of football (the friends one talks to, the football related news and rumours one reads, etc.), that football is as much about the match as it is about “recall”.

Once it gets to Argentina, however, it forgets this intense plurality of meanings and this temporal flow of football cultures to focus on the “blue” of Argentina, concluding that the “Argentinian nationhood [became] axed around football (…)  from which any other Argentina (…) was for the time being evacuated.” (58) Apart from the analyst’s intuition that this was the case (based, no doubt, on the desire for football at the 1978 World Cup to have done more to fight the political battle), what is this based on?

The World Cup, through TV, is here seen as articulating several overlapping sets of oppositions, Nordic vs. Latin (for European countries), Portuguese-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking (for South American nations), North vs. South (rather than East vs. West, with both USSR and USA absent from the competition) — a set of oppositions that could still be argued to inflect much analysis and football coverage today.

But does TV coverage really erase football partisanship? Is football really just about partisanship? Because TVs (on long shots) are positioned at the half-way line, is that a sign of TV attempting impartiality, trying to make us forget that is is merely a representation, not a reproduction of the event? Yes the annoying shots of people in the crowd help us being “present” in the event — but is that enough to put us, politically, to sleep?

It is a bit surprising that, for an article that looks at the game of football, it does not look at the gaming dimension of football TV reception — or how audiences may have fun with TV coverage. The main problem, of course, is that, as was then the case in film studies, spectatorship is essentialized: it is derived from an analysis of content — although, at the same time, there is insistence on the fact that TV audiences cannot be viewed as homogeneous ! It’s TV spectatorship in limbo, waiting for the David Morleys of this world to extend our understanding of what it is that audiences do with TV.

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