The Indiscreet Charm of the Predictable

Why we need football

/ by Urban Vovk

Years ago, when telling jokes based on social stereotypes was still acceptable in places other than the safe havens of shady dive bars, a popular joke was making the rounds, a joke about the situation in hell and heaven. In heaven, the teller of the joke was barely able to contain himself, all comedians are English, all cooks are Italian, and all soldiers are German; in hell, however, the cooks are English, the soldiers are Italian, and the comedians are German. Football is the proverbial most important distraction in the world. In contrast to the soldiering, cooking and comedian skills of our worthy European colleagues, this is not merely an enduring stereotype – and stereotypes, again proverbially, always contain a grain of truth – but also an easily verifiable and provable statement, as from the global perspective, football is by far the most popular of sports and huge amounts of money change hands in its context. To the benefit of statistics geeks, naturally, whose expertise thus speaks to a much wider circle than it would if they focused their attention on, say, crop failures.

Excerpt from The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a film by Luis Buñuel.
While true things can also become the subject of rumours, the opposite isn’t true, which is why we find ourselves on thin ice whenever we try to say anything about stereotypes. However, we’re not quite that willing to renounce inductive reasoning, which after all feels much more natural than deduction. It’s simply a fact that life often forces us to come to our conclusions based on past experiences. Those truly autonomous go even further, swearing almost exclusively on their own experience, which cannot be supplanted by the experience of their friends, much less by the ‘total’ knowledge about a given subject, which itself is nothing more than the sum of various, often culturally determined experiences. However, not all of us are equally autonomous, or equally open to new experience; or perhaps we just haven’t had the opportunity to access these experiences in our lives yet. And therein lies the bitter truth that we have a hard time trying to admit to: We’re not all that attached to our own autonomy, but rather to general truths and their more or less faithful copies – stereotypes, which are a much more socially popular means of communication than confession. We thus shouldn’t look for the reasons for football’s enormous popularity only in its sufficiency to established social models (business), games of chance (betting), illegal benefits (match fixing) or the tendency to see order in the world (statistics), as most football fans don’t participate in, or at least don’t benefit from, any of these. We should rather look for them in our dedication to the power of stereotypes and the social acceptability of their use in the given context.

In a time when politics as the most important non-distraction and the world is becoming less and less inclined to make quick conclusions and less and less susceptible to established beliefs, and thus increasingly open for new faces and electoral gambling, football has become the last popular fortress of anticipation based on past experiences. It’s thus no coincidence that people watching football games on TV are so likely to verbally abuse unreliable goalies, sluggish defenders, midfielders who resort to ‘alibi’ passes, attackers who only use their left legs ‘to get on the bus’, as well as, on the collective level, the relentless Germans, the playful but tactically weak Africans, the defence-minded Italians, the combinatory Spanish, the disciplined Asians, etc. A secure and ordered world is a predictable world. And the more the political sphere loses because of its increasing unpredictability, the stronger the loyalty to football. Watching a football game, there are few joys greater than witnessing the expected result of the game, as this is a direct proof of our inborn or obtained power of anticipation, of something, in short, that has been and has become ours. Of course, football fans can be greatly enthusiastic about less predictable results as well, but this is all due to a combination of schadenfreude and the undermining of established ideas about traditional rivals. That is, it’s much easier to forgive ‘our’ team for a bad result, when it’s due to actions carried out in affect or other excesses that have nothing to do with the established conception of play, than when it’s due to them abandoning their principles. We identify ourselves with our team ever since we had chosen ‘our’ club or country – of course, when this is not wholly determined by our patriotism and when our enthusiasm can be measured using political beliefs.

Finally, a fan’s mindset is also reflected in the text you’re reading right now. Namely, it’s not a coincidence that I started my writing with an old joke that I’d hardly remembered and had to fake a narrative dynamic, in order to bring it back to life. It was very suitable to my current need to sneak into the imminent World Cup a country whose team will not play at this tournament but whose fan I’ve been since early childhood. Just like everything that we love about football and that allows us to relax, tease each other and fume, this move is again – predictable.

Urban Vovk

was born in 1971 in Kranj, Slovenia. He graduated in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts. He works as a freelance writer, editor, translator from former Yugoslavian languages. To date his texts have been translated into eleven languages. Since 2004, he has regularly taught in workshops for creative critics writing. He has written numerous forewords to books by domestic and foreign writers. Currently he is working on his 5th book, 16th book-lenght translation and as an editor at the Beletrina publishing house.

Photo by Maj Pavček