Friday, January 11, 2013

"I Could Do Better Than That"

Besides my familiarity with the period there are myriad reasons for setting my tale in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among them is that while footballers then were certainly athletes, you always got the sense watching them that, at the lower levels of the game anyway, they were a bit more like you and me, physically speaking. That sense of watching them play and thinking "I could do better than that" is important to me as I spin my yarn, because I want my team of part-timers and semi-pros to be within reach of our imaginations enough that those of us who play or played the game might recognize ourselves just a little among my fictitious lot. The footballing characters in my story are potential heroes, inevitable scapegoats and overwhelmingly human, no different from real footballers, just hopefully a little more like you and me than the modern iteration of professional sportsman.

The Guardian's Barney Ronay writes a super piece that points up how times have definitively ch-ch-changed when it comes to the modern footballing professional and neatly ties together his thoughts on David Bowie and Fernando Torres with the overarching theme that no, "not everyone gets to be Bowie" and no, you cannot do better than the modern footballer -- these days a well-machined super-athlete who even in decline is miles better than you could ever dream of being: "I could do better than that," uh, well, no:
You probably think you could do better, but you couldn't.
In fact one of the remaining measures of distance between our relentlessly over-exposed elite footballers and those who pay to watch them is the enduring and unbridgeable gulf in basic physicality. This is particularly the case with footballers of the last 10 years, who have generally coalesced into a single highly specialised ideal of unattainable athleticism.
Obvious exceptions aside, footballers are no longer lanky, gangly, beefy, spidery and so on. They are instead almost uniformly lithe and Olympian, their bodies remorselessly optimum-scaled, narrower, stringier, more compact.
I'm looking forward as I write to introducing the world to the lanky, the gangly, the beefy, the spidery and the other heterogeneous traits of players on my pretend teams. And while I am awestruck at the modern footballer's athletic gifts, I can't help wishing the game might not have progressed so far so fast. I love watching the modern game and its artist-athletes (I like that Ronay calls today's game a "form of high-stakes physical ballet" -- though I thought it was exactly that when I watched the top flight players 30 years ago). But in the rapid modernization of the game -- especially as business interests have overtaken (in my view) the natural evolution of the sport, turning football into something colder and more distant from Everyman -- something elemental has been lost.

I hate the English Premier League for super-monetizing the sport, for dividing itself from the Football League, for calling itself "Premier" for goodness sake. I lived in Scotland in the late '70s and was struck by how stupid the moniker "Premier" sounded then. At that time the English had it right, naming its succession of levels of achievement Divisions One, Two, Three and Four. None of this idiocy of naming the fourth tier of the sport "League Two." Seriously.

I may be a Luddite whose memory of the supposed good old days is clouded by misplaced nostalgia and a fondness for three o'clock Saturday kick offs across the country and 50-pence student entries at the turnstiles. I know it is unrealistic to expect football in a commercialized world to reconsider itself to the point that it reverts to what was, admittedly, a past as dingy and dangerous (at times) as it was dignified. I don't care.

The thing I've got going for me is that I can attempt to write a version of the past that breathes life into that lost world of three o'clock kick offs, cheap tickets, standing on crappy terraces and using rotary-dial telephones, to name just a handful of details. I want to be sure I capture that world faithfully enough that the storytelling brings back all sorts of memories and evokes a time when maybe, on a good day, you really could "do better than that."