Literary pitches, football bitches

I’ve recently finished writing a kids’ novel, and during the process of coming up with the ‘elevator pitch’ (the blurb to convince the literary agent in less than 20 words) I’ve learned various things, the most important of which is that if you don’t have a simple story line with characters who have punchy kid-like features, you can’t write the pitch….and therefore your book probably sucks, or won’t sell.

It also got me thinking about football in a slightly different way.  Imagine that football didn’t exist, and that you were pitching it (as a commercial concept) to some wealthy ideas person whom you just happened to have met in an elevator. You’d probably get their attention before the ‘ping’ and the opening of the penthouse doors.  They’d probably give you a quick parting glance and say ‘Yeah ok.  Tell me more’ and leave you to work out how exactly to do that – I mean by finding out the e-mail of the schmuck in the hierarchy to whom you really send the pitch.  The pitch itself will be easy.  Football?  The basic rules are simple, the parameters clear, and the attraction for tribalism obvious.  But as I get older and reflect on a life following the tortuous ups-and-downs of my beloved two teams, of watching my son play as a vicarious extension of my own hopes and failures, of experiencing, for nine months a year, the vile aftermaths of defeat and the absurd and irrational ecstasy that accompanies a win – I’ve suddenly realised that the pull of football has nothing at all to do with winning and losing.  It’s like a bolt from the blue beyond – and I’ve only seen it because of the obligation to do the literary pitch.  Bear with me.

To get kids interested in a book, you have to create a sense of injustice.   You need goodies and baddies, sure, but that ain’t enough.  Anybody can do goodies and baddies, but creating a story in which the reader gets the brutal idea that the world is hopelessly unfair is basically your only ticket to getting published.  The only carrot that keeps the kid reading is the desperate hope that injustice will be vanquished – that the world is actually okay and that the goodies will be treated fairly, in the end.   There’s also the small matter of impunity, where in the follow-up book the Voldemorts will get their just desserts….but that can often wait. 

If you took away the sense of injustice from football, the entire edifice would collapse overnight.  Almost all of my mates – at least those who are as emotionally afflicted as me by football – are convinced that there is a high-level conspiracy being carried out against their team – and hence against their very own persons.  No amount of therapy can cure this. And not only is there a conspiracy, there is also a cabal of referees who are against their team, and hence against them.  It’s personal, of course.  Some referees may be incompetent, but it is their alleged bias that rubs folks up far more. 

Leo has his say on ref corruption

The emergence of VAR has only fuelled these feelings of injustice, given that we were sold the idea that it would somehow correct all errors overnight – as if it were as simple as the tennis hawk-eye configuration. In tennis now, it’s in or it’s out, and McEnroe can leave his testosterone in the changing-rooms, but in football the configurations are more complex, of course.  And so the guys in the VAR room –apparently there for our protection, have in fact become an integral part of the conspiracy, aiding and abetting the officials in their personal vendetta against our club.  Like Winston Smith in 1984, we are wary of any campaign to undermine our paranoia.  If there is no injustice, football loses a large part of its magic, just like that Harry Potter novel without Malfoy.

Justice in football is a fleeting emotion. If you deserved to win that league title then fair enough, you won it – but the satisfaction will never last as long as a perceived injustice. It will never fuel your love for your club in quite the same way.  Leeds United’s league titles glow more dimly than their historic sense of outrage at their home defeat by West Brom in 1971, where an offside decision not given (allegedly) cost them the league title.  As Barry Davies, the commentator at the time famously yelled: ‘Leeds will go mad, and they’ve every right to go mad’.   The game and the referee, Ray Tinkler, are now a part of Leeds’ DNA, and no matter what Bielsa currently achieves, he will never exorcise this from either the club or its community. 

Leeds go apeshit. Does anyone care?

Put up the question on the twittersphere, and word it something like ‘In which game in the history of your club were you most fucked over?’ and you will be guaranteed a flood of angst-fuelled answers, like a sociopath convention where members are invited to air their grievances.   Of course, there will be different levels of validity, with regard to the responses.  Here in Spain, Barcelona’s president was murdered in the mountains by the Nationalist forces at the outbreak of the civil war.  That seems like a decent enough injustice to carry around in your knapsack, except that of course, the anti-Barça brigade have accused them of ‘victimismo’ (victim-complex) over the years, whining about Madrid and political oppression whilst happily raking in the lolly.  You decide.

Josep Sunyol. Barça’s martyr

Further down the pecking order, this doesn’t mean that an Elche fan (for example) should feel guilty at complaining about a penalty decision awarded in the Camp Nou against his team, because Elche will have their own historic grievance to sustain them, whatever it is.  Other teams’ grievances are of little concern. The sociopath is only concerned with his own sense of injustice.  Stoke City fans will fuel their rage by being associated with wet Tuesday nights. Is it always wet on a Tuesday night in Stoke?  Perhaps not, but football’s pervasive discourse has conspired to convince us that this is actually the case.

Stoke next Tuesday. Busting the myth.

You would think that Real Madrid, as Spain’s record trophy-holder, would have little cause to rail against the runes, but of course they do. The chant that still echoes around Spain’s stadia ‘Asi, asi, asi gana el Madrid’ (That’s how Madrid win) alludes to the alleged favours done them by Franco’s regime, and the continuation of official favours to this day.  Madrid fans protest, for example this season, that they are the La Liga team who have been awarded the least penalties – a statistical truth rebutted by howls of historic protest – ‘Well it’s about time!’  They can never win this particular argument because the injustice stakes are high in the collective consciousness of a nation. Madrid fans’ own sense of injustice thus resides in the feeling that their team’s achievements are undermined, and that their image is unjustly sullied.  They may be right, but nobody really gives a shit. Outside of their admittedly extensive church, their every defeat is celebrated in a writhing orgy of schadenfreude, with Catalonia at the naked forefront. Meanwhile, poor Real Madrid sit like King Midas, surrounded by gold but unable to eat.

The two sides that have invaded my emotional self and battered my psyche from the age of roughly 9 years are Grimsby Town, on whose terraces I grew up, and Real Sociedad, in whose plusher seats I have sat for the last 30 years. I like to think that destiny chose me these two teams because of their particularly virulent sense of injustice, but that would contradict my thesis.  The supporters of Crawley Town, to select an outwardly pointless team at random, will also have their stories to tell. But if we take Real Sociedad, with their acute sense of politico-cultural discrimination, we might be tempted to admit that they have a point.

Traditionally viewed as the Basque bad guys, allegedly conspiring against the state and applauding terrorism from behind the walls of their cold northern Mordor, their fan-base took it for granted that the referee collective was against them, and that the Spanish state viewed any prospect of their success with fear and loathing. Their two league titles in the 1980s were further proof of this, since their supporters reasoned that Franco’s death a decade before had finally given them the chance to compete on a semi-equal footing.  Note the word ‘semi’, for there was no still general feeling that anyone was on their side.  Their hard-balled team of the 1980s was in fact so good that nothing could stop them, but the titles were certainly earned. 35 years later, the conspiracy mentality still suffuses the club, engulfs its very being. 

Ricky Zamora hits the title winner in Gijón in 1981. Franco turns in his grave.

They may be right – I wouldn’t like to say, but it sure makes for a fun club to follow. The greater the sense of injustice, the better the feeling is when the team sits temporarily at the top of the table, or reaches the King’s Cup Final, as was the case last season.  Even this game’s delay (it will be played on April 3rd, a year late) is seen as a conspiracy – an attempt by Spain’s monarch-kissing unionists to spare King Felipe the inevitable public trashing of the national anthem by the massed ranks of hooligan Basque nationalists from Bilbao and San Sebastián.  Pandemic?  Nah. Nothing to do with it mate.  It’s those Falangist civil servants in Madrid, serving up their neo-fascist poison. *Don’t write in. I’m being ironic.

Grimsby Town is an altogether more complex case. Shivering out on England’s east-coast margins and cut off from the country’s main transport networks because nobody cares, the surviving hard-arsed populace has traditionally required its football team to understand this cut-off psyche, and to treat all visitors to its sagging old stadium as unwelcome ponces, to be tolerated for 90 minutes only because the rules of the game demand it. 

Welcome to Grimsby Town.

The club currently sits 92nd of the 92 league teams, the victims of years of neglect and a Nero-like president, not even fiddling while his house burned. Be that as it may, Grimsby fans will direct their anger more quickly at the infamous phrases repeated by generations of higher-league players, quote: ‘No disrespect to the likes of Grimsby’ or ‘No disrespect to your Grimsbys’ – the latter one really pushing the buttons, as if your Grimsbys were a collective metaphor for everything that is shite. Well, that’s the problem. It is a convenient metaphor for everything that is shite (ask Sasha Baron Cohen) and the sense of injustice that this confers upon its fan-base has become the reason for its very being, a reason to rage against the dying of the light.

No disrespect to your Grimsbys

Okay – if you’ve got a few thousand followers, stick that question up on Twitter.  In the end, the sense of injustice that saturates football’s afternoons is its very lifeline, the reason that we will continue, post-pandemic, to return to its gleaming church to pay its indulgences, listen to its phoney orators and pray for a paltry three points to keep us happy for at least the following week. And given these rather challenging times, I reckon that’s absolutely fine. Meanwhile, must get on with writing to that agent…..

2 thoughts on “Literary pitches, football bitches”

  1. Always more enjoyable to read your unique perspective rather than another xG packed, transfer rumor hyped, sterile quote using, non-opinion piece. Not disagreeing with your view on injustice being football’s lifeline–partially because I don’t have as an informed macro perspective–but it’s not my personal experience. In fact, injustice in the unpunished diving of players that was so common in the earlier 2000s would’ve made me quit following football if that was my attraction. But I kept tuning in to see the beautiful side, like Ronaldinho at his best. And I’m definitely praying today for a paltry three points!

    Thanks for posting. Time to get Ed to dust the cobwebs off his Liga Fever account!

    Like

  2. What a pleasure it is to read Phil’s articles.

    Thank you so much Mr. Ball. Please don’t go AWOL on us again.

    Like

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