The Football World Cup for Smart People 6 – The round-up

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Media Res has a special round-up week (starting today!) on the Football World Cup. Short incisive insights to be expected, starting with Thomas Corrigan’s thinly veiled hopes that media broadcasters would have learnt their Napster lesson and would, this time around, go for a more inclusive approach to illegal streaming of football matches. Fat chance!

More to come this week.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 5 – BFI, 1975

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Football on Television, London: BFI Television Monograph, 1975: a small collection of essays attempting to decode British TV coverage of the 1974 World Cup.

putting to use early findings of semiotics and the importance of codes (visual, cultural, poetic codes) in reading images (even, or especially, images that pretend to ‘realism’), these essays break down British TV coverage in terms of its constituent components: shots, shot-length, shot types, color, music, commentary, credit sequences, and so on. The point is to denaturalise the understanding of TV coverage, especially as it relates to sports.


“this monograph challenges the accuracy of the popular position (that TV offers factual reproduction). It casts doubt on the centrality of the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘actuality’ in the mass media; it argues that ‘real’ events are–when perceived via the media–as structured as fictional programmes” (8)


There would be an interesting update to be done on the 2014 World Cup coverage, based on similar premisses: comparing shot lengths game to game, analysing the frequency (or lack of!) of replays (are there fewer replays in fast-moving games or in slow-moving games?), the use of “secondary images” (coaches, players on the bench, faces in the crowd)

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.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 3 – Bernard-Henry Lévy, 2006

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Bernard Henry-Lévy, “Zidane”Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2006

really shouldn’t be in here: this is a straight red card for grandiose use of metaphors and for name-dropping (Abbé Pierre!  Mother Theresa! Mandela! Machiavelli! Dostoyevsky!) over the 2006 World Cup Final and Zidane’s head-butt. But Zidane as Achilles, Domenech as Agamemnon, Makelele as a Myrmidon — this is irresistible. Also, as a reading of the football hero as convoking narrative tropes of the mythical figure of the Homeric Hero (is Zidane Achilles or Ulysses now?). Mostly, though, this piece deserves to be on our list for proposing to read Zidane as the media icon that rebels against mediatisation (“I am not this idiotic, empty hologram”) — maybe a uniquely French perspective on global media (resist!)?

On the take that the headbutt is in anyway good as it shows resistance to the powers of marketing (end of the post), hmm, excuse-me? However symbolic you want it to be, a head-butt is a head-butt. Even a semiotically-charged head-butt has got to hurt…

On our list, then, with BHL at his usual best with good dribbling skills, excellent vision of the game, and some good on-goal opportunities —  but a red card in the end.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 2 – Umberto Eco, 1978

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Umberto Eco, “The World Cup and Its Pomps”, an essay written in 1978 but most easily available in the collection Faith in Fakes: travels in Hyperreality, Vintage, 1995.

a variation on the “panem et circenses” tradition, football as offering easy mediated reconciliation for traumatised nations (written at the time of the Red Brigades in Italy and dictatorship in Argentina, hosts of the 1978 World Cup), and revolving around the intriguing question : “is revolution possible on a football sunday?”

A good question, to which common intellectual sense would have us answer a resounding NO, but it turns out that in West Africa, at least, football sunday made the revolution possible

— with a whiff of Swiftian irony in the celebration of the deaths and injuries football may inflict on fans and players alike (“I consider the passion for football providential…”).

Football as “everyday unreality… the absence of purpose…the vanity of all things” — it doesn’t get more Virilio-Baudrillard post-modern than this.

Also, if you are looking for the source of the comparison between football fans and “sex maniacs regularly going to see couples making love”, look no further.

On Eco’s essay, there is by the way a nice collection of visual essays by artists from Liverpool who think, with Eco, that “soccer has never loved me” (come play with us on Sundays, there is no love lost there !)


The Football World Cup for Smart People – 1

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Now that the serious fun starts at the World Cup, with qualifying groups almost over (at least for England!) and “win or go home” games about to start, I’ll be compiling here a list of “serious” (but fun!) readings about the World Cup for people who want to sound smart while enjoying their football (hint: don’t scream “what a shot!” at the TV screen, but remark snidely “this is like watching porn!”). I will be looking, you’ve guessed it, for scholarly writing with bite.

This list will attempt to round up the scholarly market on writings dealing with the Football World Cup as media event, in line with my interest in media ethnography and cultural history, ancient and current. Is there, then, a way out of the postmodern domination of the ‘image’ that media scholarship of sports events warns against at regular episodes (more on this below)? Anything else happening in the mediatisation of the World Cup but a shallow pre-fabricated hollowed-out consumption spectacle? Where is the power of the game in all this media analysis?

In the spirit of fair play and competition, I will attempt to produce as complete a list as possible by the time it takes this World Cup to reach the Final on July 13 (which will be Brazil vs. Argentina, as you probably know UPDATE JULY 9: Oops, 7-1..). Think of this post, then, as an on-going, though very short-term, bibliographic enquiry.

Think of it, too, if you wish, as a game:

  • the pitch: the football World Cup in media studies;
  • the time: play will take place during the next 2 weeks and a half — and no water break every 30-minute sort of nonsense, no sirree;
  • rules: anything not on the World Cup of football is offside (sorry no general studies on football–for more smart readings on football and the World Cup, check issue 13 of The Blizzard, h/t Put Niels in Goal);  any lazy intellectualising is a straight red card, so is jargonizing;
  • a referee: me!
  • number of players: hmm, potentially, limitless.

And, yes, contributions, as usual, are most welcome :-).

To build this list, I have notably used Steve Redhead, Post-Fandom and the Millenial Blues: The Transformation of Soccer Culture, and his list of scholarly writings (as of 1997 then), John Turnbull, The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (2009) ; The Guardian in 2008, and the blog The global game: football as second language maintained by John Turnbull of Columbia University between 2003 and 2010.

First up: Umberto Eco’s 1978 essay on “The World Cup and Its Pomp”, and who better than a French philosopher to make sense of a French football player losing his head at a World Cup Final?

Still to come…:

John Williams, “Sport, Postmodernism and Global TV”, Postmodern Studies no. 9, 1993 — Edward Buscombe ed. Football on Television London: BFI, 1975 (TV programs as not so much records of events but rather as social constructs) — Nowell-Smith, “Television-Football-the World”, Screen 19.4, 1978/9 — Umberto Eco (again), “How Not To Talk Football”, 1990 — Alan Clarke, Justin Wren-Lewis, “The World Cup–a political football”, Theory, Culture and Society 1.3, 1983 — Tomlinson, Whannel, Off the Ball: The Football World Cup, London: Pluto Press, 1986, notably Christine Geraghty, Philip Simpson, “Tunnel Vision: television’s World Cup” — Chris Berry, on watching the Korea World Cup on public screens in China…

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