Sunday, July 21, 2024

Sharing is caring

I grew up with four older sisters who have varying levels of engagement with football. But one of my sisters has absolutely no interest in it whatsoever, and apathy that became an outright antipathy as she began to follow rugby and Formula 1. When I was younger she would talk about how footballers were too removed from the real world and the whole sport made her feel a little queasy.

I have only ever known her to willingly engage in football discussion once. It was in June 1996, minutes after David Seaman had saved a couple of penalties in England’s Euro 96 quarter-final shootout win against Spain. A few minutes after the final whistle as celebration could be heard in gardens across our street, the phone rang.

I picked it up and it was Kim. She simply yelled, ‘I bloody love your goalkeeper!’ To this day it is the only time she has ever willingly spoken to me about football. That summer, David Seaman’s exploits for England turned him into a national hero. Wheels take longer to turn in international football due to the sporadic calendar but it still feels totally absurd that Seaman did not make the England number 1 position his own until he had reached his 30s.

 

The wider football fandom really couldn’t see why Arsenal fans held him in such high regard. That summer, it all changed. Those penalty saves against Scotland and Spain during such a culturally significant tournament (in truth, a culturally significant moment in England’s popular culture in general) saw opinions of Seaman traverse overnight. Everyone else finally saw what we Arsenal fans could see.

It’s a very satisfying feeling when the country clutches one of your players to their bosom and you, effectively, get to tell everyone you were right about them all along. I had a really similar experience in 2004, when I returned to uni after the summer holidays.

My flatmate, Will, knew his onions and came close to a professional football career himself (even having taken the academic route as opposed to the YTS route available to him, he continued to play in the ninth and tenth tiers until his early 30s). For the whole Invincibles season, we argued bitterly about the defensive abilities of Ashley Cole. Will was convinced that Cole was a good attacker but that he couldn’t defend.

I argued about it with him about it often. Following a sterling Euro 2004 performance, most notably against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, I smugly asked Will whether he retained his position upon our return from summer holidays. He smiled. ‘No mate. How wrong was I?’ It was a sweet victory.

However, ‘sharing’ ‘your’ players with the country has a lot of downsides too. David Seaman himself would bear the brunt of public criticism when he was unceremoniously lobbed by Ronaldinho as England lost to Brazil at the 2002 World Cup. Being lobbed by Ronaldinho made more sense to the general public in hindsight, as the breadth of the Brazilian’s talent became more apparent. In 2002, most people didn’t have that context.

I was in a three-hour English exam during that game. The teachers made it known to us we could ask Mr. Guy, one of the heads of English, if we wanted to know the score once the exam finished. Mr. Guy, as it turned out, was an Arsenal season ticket holder (maybe he still is?) and he used to sit a couple of blocks over from me in the Clock End. I made a beeline for him as soon as we made our way out of the exam hall.

‘2-1 Brazil,’ he whispered. Oh. He looked at me again. ‘It’s worse though, people are blaming Seaman for their winner. He got lobbed from miles out.’ Oh again. Both of us instinctively knew what would follow. There’s a special kind of irritation when ‘your’ player is scapegoated and held responsible for the nation exiting an international tournament.

International tournaments attract such a wide swathe of the public. Many of whom are not football experts (we, dear reader, are experts, of course). Many viewers know their stuff about football but really only watch England during those tournament summers and therefore don’t have a full picture. (I certainly don’t watch many England friendlies and have a fitful record of watching qualifiers, at best).

It’s a troublesome mix when things go awry. A mixture of the ignorant (to put it bluntly), those who are not ignorant but are blighted by tribalist club bias, keen to apportion blame and those of us blighted by tribalist club bias keen to shift the blame and tell everyone else how little they know (ahem).

Strangely, I experienced something similar but at a remove during the 2018 World Cup. At the time, I was writing about the Brazilian national team for a website called Sambafoot. I had watched all their games since around 2013. I knew that team inside out. I also loved Gabriel Jesus and felt that he had totally transformed what the team was capable of when he burst into the team as a 19 year old.

When it comes to World Cups and popular discourse around them, England is an oasis of serenity in comparison to Brazil, with 210 million people, many of whom consider Brazil’s World Cup record as a big part of their patriotic identity. It really matters. Brazil games outside of World Cups are not widely watched. When it comes to Brazil at the World Cup, the whole country watches.

And the whole country is emotionally invested. This is a huge, young country with no military history and that feels globally ignored due to the spectres of the US, Asia and Europe. Football World Cups are the only time the world talks about Brazil as a superpower. They mean a lot more than sport.

Gabriel Jesus did not score at the 2018 World Cup and Brazil went out in the quarter-finals to Belgium. Both of those things are considered something close to a national disgrace, let alone a sporting disappointment. But I had watched Brazil, I knew the tournament was not representative of Jesus’ abilities or what he brought to the team.

I knew that his hitherto explosive partnership with Neymar had been compromised by the latter going rogue and trying to win games all on his own. I knew that his role was to act as a foil for Neymar and that had been compromised, in part, by Neymar’s main character syndrome and his sudden refusal to work in concert with his teammates. (The loss of the underrated Renato Augusto in midfield was also a factor).

Jesus bore a good deal of the brunt of the fallout from that tournament. He was the striker, he didn’t score, Brazil didn’t win. That was all that mattered, there is simply no room for nuance in this scenario. I tried to argue the position to people but few cared- even fewer than usual. It is strange that, at that time, he was a Manchester City player who would subsequently become an Arsenal player- but I felt invested enough in him to be frustrated on his behalf.

England went to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and that summer was the most I have felt connected to an England team since 1996. This was partly because Southgate seemed to be building something that I finally felt able to invest in and, to be honest, I found it easier due to the total lack of Arsenal involvement. Danny Welbeck was the only Arsenal representation in that squad.

I found it easier to relax and invest in England as a team in its own right. I lost some of that underlying yet ever present tension I feel about an Arsenal player making a mistake, or being blamed for something or, even worse, being misunderstood. The well of England discussion is totally poisoned by club biases and when players from your club are involved, you cannot help but become a part of that internecine bickering.

And so in this tournament, I have returned to that edginess around England games. To my memories of Adams being called a donkey, Seaman a buffoon and Cole a subpar defender. Not only are England performing poorly but there are two Arsenal players who are mainstays of the team and as well as tolerating the turgid football, I have the additional stress of people GETTING DECLAN RICE WRONG.

Because I too am precious and stupid and racked with my own club biases, because I am unable to tune out the noise. Instead I, like many of you I am sure, pointlessly add to it by trying to fight the tide. And I just keep hoping for that moment that Bukayo Saka smashes one into the top corner and I get that phone call from my football agnostic sister about how much she loves Arsenal’s right winger.

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