ports and literature are often regarded as polar opposites, enacting a series of dualisms. Sports is about the body; writing is about the mind. Putting pen to paper is about brains; chasing inflated objects in competition with others is about brawn. This division has a hallowed place in school clichés, wherein the sports stars mock the pale kids reading poetry, who go home and call the sporty ones meatheads, jocks. Nowhere are these perceived divides truer than with regard to football (soccer), a sport with deeply working class roots. In England, it’s commonplace for football to be caricatured as a dumb, shallow game, played by pampered illiterate players and enjoyed by violent dullard fans. The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges hated football, calling it “one of England’s biggest crimes.” A life of the mind can seem to have very little to do with football – a gentleman’s game, as the saying goes, but played by thugs. The sport itself often does little to refute this view. Within the game, codes of masculine toughness often shade into rank anti-intellectualism. Retired Chelsea and England defender Graeme Le Saux was regarded as a weirdo who was probably gay because he had been to university and read The Guardian.
This divide has always irked me. I adore books, and I adore football. Charles Bukowski declared that “without literature, life is hell.” Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said that “some people believe football is a matter of life and death… I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” I happen to agree with both of them, finding equal pleasure in a scene from a Dostoevsky novel, or a slice of Jack Gilbert’s poetry, and the brutal beauty of this Tony Yeboah volley (which the nine-year old me spent countless hours trying to recreate in his back-garden). Here in Vancouver, I play football twice a week. Travelling to the field on the bus, I’ll often be listening to the The New York Times‘s The Book Review Podcast, or the excellent Book Shambles.
So it is that, over the years, I’ve always enjoyed witnessing incidences where the sport/art divide is breached. I recall smiling at the news that mercurial French striker Eric Cantona liked to peruse the works of Sigmund Freud. I love Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s football-inspired poem “Markings”. Most of all, I was delighted when I read that one of my intellectual and literary heroes, Albert Camus, was a huge football fan. Camus was a gifted player until the age of 17, when he fell ill with tuberculosis for a number of years. The fact that he preferred football to the theatre greatly irked Camus’s friend (and later nemesis) Jean-Paul Sartre. In the last decade of his life, the Frenchman said that “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to football.”
One of the best examples of where football and writing harmoniously combine is in, well, football writing. An excellent example is a book such as David Goldblatt’s masterful The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain (2014), excerpted below. I’ve always thought sports writing is highly underrated. Every year, usually around Christmas, I try and make time for the annual winner of The William Hill Sports Book of the Year (Goldblatt’s book was the 2015 winner). Sports might seem like niche concerns, but they frequently make for unique lenses through which to view society, history, politics, ethics, everything. If you don’t believe me, track down a copy of Franklin Foer’s How Football Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (2006). The individual lives of sportspeople can also make for brilliant studies. Ronald Reng’s A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke (2012) is as heartbreakingly insightful as any novel I’ve read in the last few years.
Below, then, is an example of the supposedly separate spheres of literary culture and football coming together to produce a fine piece of writing. Goldblatt’s sociocultural analysis of the differing fates of the two most famous English footballers of my lifetime encapsulates the brilliant potential of turning a literary lenses on what is typically regarded as a most un-literary of subjects. The excerpt comes from chapter seven of the aforementioned The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain (2014).
(n.b. If you don’t know much about either of these football players, firstly, well done for bothering to read this far. Secondly, here is probably Gascoigne’s most famous footballing moment, and here is Beckham’s.)
nly two English footballers in the last twenty years have reached a level of celebrity that has truly exceeded the sport and its own internal cultures: Paul Gascoigne and David Beckham. Both came from working-class homes. Gascoigne grew up in a tiny council house in Gateshead; his father was a laborer. Beckham was born in Leytonstone in East London; his father was a kitchen fitter. There the similarities end. Gascoigne’s upbringing was chaotic and scarred by family tragedy. Beckham grew up in a very stable environment and was able to flourish at home and abroad, playing in Spain, Italy, the USA and France. Gascoigne was on a downward curve the moment he left Newcastle. He secured his place in the canon of English football at just nineteen with his performance at the 1990 World Cup where he was indisputably the best player on the team. “Daft as a brush” as Bobby Robson had called him, wayward but exquisitely gifted, Karl Miller was already registering the contradictions and frailties of this young man.
‘Fierce and comic, formidable and vulnerable, urchin-like and waif-like . . . strange-eyed, pink-faced, fair-haired, tense and upright . . . “A dog of war with the face of a child,” breathed Giovanni Agnelli, president of [Fiat and owner of] the Italian team Juventus. He can look like god’s gift to the Union Jack soccer hooligan, and yet he can look so sweet.’
Gascoigne sealed his place in the nation’s affections when, towards the end of England’s semifinal against Germany, he was booked, effectively debarred from the final and shed a tear. For a few short years his stock rose, the money flowed and his cover of Geordie folk anthem “Fog on the Tyne,” which he recorded with Chris Waddle, made it to number 2 in the charts. Utterly unequipped to cope with life in Italy and Italian football, his years at Lazio were deeply disappointing. Glasgow Rangers proved a better refuge and for a few seasons he recovered something of his old form, excelling for England at Euro 96. However, over the next eight years his addictions to smoking, gambling, alcohol, junk food and energy drinks sent him into a negative spiral of personal and sporting disasters; a very public divorce driven by his violent behaviour towards his wife, treatment for stomach ulcers, pneumonia, morphine dependence, bulimia, OCD and bipolarity, a terrible media circus of checking in and out of hospitals and detox clinics, climbing on and then falling off the wagon. By 2004 he was virtually unemployable, reduced to turning out for Boston United for a mere four games.
Although an exceptional footballer, Beckham never possessed the footballing talent and invention of Gascoigne. His superb dead-ball skills aside, his main football virtue was as a Stahkanovite team player. Beckham’s genius was to take the raw materials of his body and football career and convert them into a level of global coverage that no player of the era, anywhere, could match. Search engines have declared him among the most sought-after name on the Internet for much of his career.
His arrival in Southern California in 2007 was marked by the social event of the year, a 600-person, invite-only, A-list celebrity conclave organized by his new friends, and fellow stars on the roster of überagency CAA, Tom Cruise and Will Smith. The LA Times gushed at the roster of Hollywood aristocracy that came to greet him: “Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney, Jim Carrey, Anjelica Huston, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen . . . Warner Bros. President Alan Horn and Universal Pictures chief Ron Meyer.” His marriage to Victoria Adams, aka Posh Spice, was the masterstroke, forging an alliance of pop music, fashion, and football, combined with a faultless masculine domesticity and parenthood and a brazen commercial exploitation of his sexuality that appealed to men and women, gays and straights, and most of all to corporations. In an era when as the cultural commentator Mark Simpson remarked, “unmoisturized heterosexuality had been given the pink slip by consumer capitalism. The stoic, self-denying straight male didn’t shop enough,” Beckham was the future. His body, tailored, tattooed, and oiled, appeared everywhere, from Marks and Spencer’s menswear departments to the cover of the gay magazine Attitude. In this respect Beckham was a true original, the first English footballer to venture into sartorial territory once deemed dangerously effeminate—Alice bands and sarongs—and to welcome his status as a gay icon. However, as Simpson, who coined the term, pointed out, Beckham was a metrosexual, whom he defined as “a young man with money to spend, living in . . . [a] metropolis—because that’s where the best shops, clubs, gyms and hairdressers are. He might be gay, straight, or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference.”
If the playing careers of Gascoigne and Beckham took radically different courses, then their retirements are incomparable. Gascoigne has not worked in football since 2004. Over the next decade, he was made bankrupt, treated for pneumonia, fitted with an artificial hip and arrested for drunken brawling and drink driving. His alcoholic dependence was so intense that during a recent detox in America his heart stopped beating. Beckham’s salad days are yet to come. Over his football career it is estimated that he has accumulated a net worth of around £150 million. Yet he will probably make more money after his playing days than he did during them. As the chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment put it, “He’ll have more time on his hands and more time for commercial partners and the brands he can work . . . with.” He has already been at work, acquiring multimillion-pound ambassadorial roles with Chinese football and Sky Sports.
Thus the two most famous English footballers of the last quarter of a century occupy the emotional and financial poles of our age. The glare of the media and the game of celebrity reduced one man to a pitiful, skeletal wreck, yet made the other a ubiquitous brand and a junior member of the global super-rich. They are tangible evidence of our society’s capacity for the extremes of self-destruction and self-promotion, self-hate and self-love, and the harsh epidemiology of postindustrial England; to the poor and damaged, a chaotic existence and an early death, to the rich and connected, a long life of ostentatious consumption and capital accumulation.