DAVID GOLDBLATT’S The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain begins at Pitzer College, in California. Lecturing in a hall full of young Americans, the English sociologist recognized that although these students were “familiar in passing with bits of British pop culture, comedy, and music,” they “were neither Anglophobe nor Anglophile.” To them, “Britain appeared too small a feature on their radar to evoke such extremes, but for one thing: football.” Unlike Goldblatt’s class on British national identity, which had nine students, his “football course was four times the size and could have been double that again.” Supposing the same courses were offered at a college in Beijing, Melbourne or Mumbai, it’s safe to wager on similar subscription.
Goldblatt explains why in his exceptional new book, beautifully describing British football’s inner workings with scholarly depth and a literary touch that challenges, entertains, and inspires. But above all, for longstanding fans and novice devotees alike, The Game of Our Lives compels us to think beyond the sensationalized platitudes that tend to dominate sports writing.
Borrowing from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Goldblatt’s investigation of British football reminds us that “longing on a large scale is what makes history.” Today those grand longings have become “increasingly colonized by commercially manufactured imagery.” Gone are the days where witnessing a live sporting event was principally a physical and communal experience. Now, “distant, mediated, artificial events” have become “the central nodes of an atomized culture held together by a shared addiction to stupefaction and the spectacle.” Subsequently, intimacy, immediacy, spontaneity, and authenticity have been replaced by hype, cliché, and exaggeration, leaving the concrete human realities of sport in the shadows of the circus.
According to Goldblatt, any institution or activity subject to mediation (and especially mass-mediation) is vulnerable to its 21st-century simulacra. Taken to its logical conclusion you arrive at the overt farce of professional wrestling, and while football faces similar dangers under the influence of organized match-fixing, its salvation is “that the raw material out of which the media-football complex constructs the spectacle remains intensely local.” Still, vividly capturing the drama of English football through enhanced production methods can only create the illusion of a tangible social relationship between say fans at Anfield and a bar in Los Angeles. Illusory or otherwise, English football has a growing international consumer base that doesn’t just enjoy the spectacle: they feel as though they’re a part of it.
Goldblatt calls this an imaginary community; full of religious fervor but devoid of any tangible communal purpose. As Simon Kuper recently reported, what is unequivocally tangible are the financial transactions leagues and teams desire, and continue to develop more sophisticated methods to secure. But for the most part, the relationship between English clubs and fans abroad remains a commercial fabrication. As we’ve recently seen in the triangulated debacle between MLS, Manchester City/New York City Football Club, and Frank Lampard, it appears that contractual relationships are no less illusory.
But supposing these mediated communal illusions were in fact real, what kinds of social contracts would we be subscribing to, and what sort of claims are being made through commitments to the colors of clubs halfway around the globe? If novice fans of British football crave an authentic connection, Goldblatt offers fair warning to those who would fall in love too quickly.
Make no mistake: the past and present topography of British football is rife with abject racism, callous anti-Semitism, ruthless classism, prohibitive sexism, and utter institutional incompetence. Though some of these features may have abated for the cameras in recent decades, and much soul searching has been done in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, Goldblatt suggests that a narrative of postmodern enlightenment is truly naive. Further, he proposes that if we want to overcome this naïveté then we need to “tell ourselves different, more complex and more candid stories.”
Of racism, Goldblatt is unrepentantly frank and unpersuaded by the rhetoric of anti-racism campaigns like Kick It Out, knowing the undercurrents run much deeper than branding and PR mechanisms. “In some respects,” he argues, “the anti-racism campaigns of the 1990s and early twenty-first century provided the perfect cover for the football industry.” The key was “linking the antisocial hooligan and the racist so explicitly and exclusively together, the deeply ingrained institutional racism of the rest of the industry could remain unexamined.” As always, what brews below the surface is bound to bubble to the top, never more disturbing than Goldblatt’s retelling of a black Millwall supporter who experienced the galling bigotry of white fans heckling John Fashanu: “they were shouting, ‘You black bastard, get off your arse and do something, you fucking nigger.’ Then they turn round and say, ‘Sorry mate, no offense, I am talking to that black bastard on the pitch!’”
Of sexism, Goldblatt wonders if in fact English football is the last bastion of “enduring maleness,” and while the Premier League and Football Association (FA) have made some improvements in supporting the women’s game (pro and national), attending a football match remains an uninviting prospect for many women in Britain. Furthermore, it seems the reason clubs have become slightly more hospitable to women attending matches is so they might “bring male children to the game and get them hooked.” That women come because they actually enjoy the sport, are inspired by it, or learn from it is simply too much to ask of the male-football imagination.
Of the stodgy, old male codgers running the show, we’re introduced to the aristocratic ancestors of fusty New England country clubs; squandering money they haven’t earned, but holding a strong enough portfolio and academic credentials to maintain the semblance of luxury and ostentation. Similarly, their insular premonitions and fits of incompetence would be somewhat funny if they weren’t reflecting the powerful political and economic underpinnings of a nation. Without further explanation, Goldblatt’s chapter on the English FA is appropriately titled: “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing.” As you’ll discover, quite transparently, they don’t.
All of which points to a clear fact: “football is a political game. Wherever there is power, money, and status at stake — and football offers all three — there is going to be a struggle over who makes the rules, who gets the loot, and who takes the glory.” In fact, illusory mechanisms and utopian ideals combined with the naive opinion that sport of any kind is, or should be, separate from politics have helped create the apolitical conditions for racism, sexism, and classism to thrive. According to Goldblatt, these conditions have also contributed to the troubling advance of high-powered crony capitalism, stratifying the game more than ever before. Safely nestled under the apolitical umbrella of sport, football’s new global elite have initiated a 21st-century arms race, where investors fight in the name of unending progress and the assurance of a brighter future.
But if we take our cues from the present and recent past, the communities of local clubs, or even the economic driving forces of indigenous regions, won’t have much say in the future. Rather, the future will be defined by “American billionaires, postcommunist oligarchs, Middle Eastern royal families, and industrial tycoons from Asia,” who seldom appreciate the institutional significance or economic realties of their new objects of desire. And because football clubs are seldom profitable ventures, many 21st-century tycoons have discovered that the easiest way to profit is to treat their club like a complex — though dispensable — asset, rather than a communal institution to be preserved for posterity. For clubs of lesser resources, the fine line between preservation and extinction “swings between two unpalatable but seemingly inevitable conclusions: slow, grinding decline or self-destructive bids for the top.”
The fact that Goldblatt manages to fearlessly outline British football’s unpleasant realities, without capitulating to cynicism or relinquishing his passion for the sport, is a testament to his bona fides as a thinker and writer. Seldom is a book about sports discussed alongside lasting works of literary or cultural criticism, but The Game of Our Lives belongs in that kind of conversation. As such, Goldblatt’s judgments are firmly measured, knowing that history can just as easily repeat itself as it can surprise us in moments of transcendence; from Ian Rush, to Ally McCoist, Paul Gascoigne, Eric Cantona, and Didier Drogba, the canvas of British football has certainly produced that. But to ensure that the raw material of the media-football complex doesn’t fully succumb to crony capitalism, the game’s followers will need to marshal the political will to demand more from their clubs, leagues, and public officials than the frivolous trappings of an unregulated spectacle.
For Goldblatt, it appears that that kind of political will has collapsed, which should compel fans around the world to ask: If this is the game of our lives, what are we really living for? One can only hope, something better.