Summer has arrived. And in the absence of the usual pulsating weekly encounters punctuated with thrilling goals and flooded with indomitable passion, we have to settle for the next best thing – transfer speculation – the time of the year when almost anybody and everybody is linked with, well, almost anybody and everybody.
This is when, for a few moments, one is allowed to imagine, hope, as to what might be – even if it never materialises – everyday brings with it a new story, a new exclusive, a new quote, closely analysed, to decode a player’s possible intentions.
Perhaps though, amidst all the noise, hype, speculation, we could allow ourselves a moment of quiet reflection, a little bit of a meditation – upon, specifically, a moment harking back to September of last season.
On 27 September 2014, with his team protecting a 2-1 lead, Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney brought West Ham’s Stewart Downing down in a somewhat irregular manner.
Which is, strictly speaking, accurate, but also akin to saying that FIFA, under Sepp Blatter, somewhat mismanaged funds – that is to say, a massive understatement. A more accurate description of the incident would be to say Rooney whacked Downing at the thigh and brought him down.
If one wished to be kind, one might say his tackle was clumsy. To which others might well claim it was less of the order of a tackle and more of the order of street-fighting.
Regardless of the nature of the tackle, his actions came in for fierce criticism from many quarters – most of which generally accused Rooney of being irresponsible, possessing a lack of self-restraint, and losing control of himself yet again.
Clearly, this incident was proof that Rooney still suffered lapses in judgement and therefore wasn’t fit to wear the captain’s armband. They all, naturally, sort of missed the point.
Except for Louis van Gaal, who told us in his usual clipped manner:
I call that a professional foul. Maybe you don’t want to hear it, but in professional football you make professional fouls.
It’s admittedly unlikely, but perhaps even Louis didn’t realize the significance of his simple response – even if simple responses are indeed often the most telling.
In those few words, he highlighted the fact that these are professional players – people for whom football is merely a job, who play the game merely for a living (a living which, it must be said, is a very good one, but is a separate matter altogether).
Most importantly, and at the risk of appearing banal, professional footballers are not amateurs. We must be careful of the illusion, tempting as it is, that professional players are elite versions of ourselves; neither do they play a more polished, and altogether much better, version of the game we play
To be sure, it’s the same game. And they are, most definitely, much better players than amateurs. But as Louis reminded us, professional footballers approach the game differently. Professional football is a competition where there can only eventually be one winner: for one to win, everyone else must lose – and everything one does is geared towards this.
Which isn’t necessarily the case in amateur football. This is not to say amateurs don’t compete – the aches and strains that follow every kick-about in the park attest to that. Free of any sort of formal competition, we still tackle hard, defend tough and celebrate our goals with passion. Some might even run.
But amateur games epitomise competition of a different sort, perhaps competition in its truest sense – to strive (petere) alongside and with (com) our opponents, in an effort to raise ourselves to greater heights – all the while recognizing, and admitting, when one has been fairly outdone.
In this sense, it’s really a personal contest. And when the game ends there’re no man-of-the-match or golden boot awards to be handed out – the only affirmation ever comes from within.
This is why the defining characteristic of any amateur kick-about is that there’s never a need for a referee, never an impartial arbiter needed to mediate proceedings.
Any open space; bounds are arbitrarily declared; maybe there aren’t even proper goalposts; but a goal is demarcated by a pair of shin-pads, or a set of bags; the crossbar is set at a reasonable, imaginary, height; someone yells ‘Start!’; fouls occur – naturally; goals are scored – ideally; occasionally, rules are made up on the fly, to suit a specific situation (is it a free-kick or penalty? If penalty, where shall the penalty spot be?); and then, at some point, the game is brought to a close by consensus, or more likely, by general fatigue.
Amateurs regulate and govern themselves – perhaps themselves governed by the tautological nature of their game – there is nothing to be gained from the game but the game itself. Here, an intuitive understanding of fair play reigns; and the answer to the question of why one plays football is inevitably the same for any amateur: for the love of the game.
Which, as much as the players may claim to disagree, is hardly true of professional football; in fact, one might even go as far as saying that the nature of this game runs contrary to any notion of love.
In this domain, the only thing that ultimately matters is the final result. The rules are clearly laid out and we must always have the arbiter to enforce them – no professional game can proceed without a referee.
And everything that happens on field – whether or not within the Laws of the Game – is designed to contribute to the end result. Thus, fouls, yellow and red cards become calculated, strategic, moves – rather than warnings for genuine errors – and all aimed at gaining an advantage.
Now, instead of the game being governed by love (amare) it’s governed solely by its Laws – and any notion of a spirit of fair play is gently eased out of the picture; because, strictly speaking, every action during the game is accounted for in the Laws and with the referee present to enforce them, we have no need for any sort of spirit.
Whether this results in situations that are intuitively, markedly, unfair is quite beside the point, and irrelevant: playing with, within, around, the Laws of the Game is the mark of the professional.
Thus, the professional foul becomes accepted to the point that it has been named such.
Possibly the most famous demonstration of this came in 1998 when Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought down Newcastle United’s Rob Lee.
With the scores level at 1-1, in a match United couldn’t afford to lose if they wanted to remain in contention for the title, Newcastle caught United out on the break and Rob Lee found himself all alone in United’s half, with just the goalkeeper to beat.
But as he raced towards goal, United’s Norwegian man caught up with him, extended a leg, and clinically brought him crashing to ground. Solskjaer was duly sent off, exiting the field to the rousing applause of the Old Trafford faithful – they saw it as an act of self-sacrifice, of one player placing the interests of the club above his own.
Yet, every football fan watching that must also have felt a twinge of unfairness, however slight, even if club affiliations resulted in any such twinge being firmly ignored. We certainly know how Sir Alex Ferguson felt.
As Solskjaer tells us:
I stepped out of line and he put me in my place in front of everyone. I was called into his office next morning and had to pay a fine. He wanted us to win but he did not want us to cheat. He didn’t want to be associated with that and he was right.
In one sense, Sir Alex was mistaken, Solskjaer never cheated, he merely played by the Laws of the Game – committing a foul and accepting the accompanying cost. At the same time, it isn’t particularly difficult to see why Sir Alex was furious with Solskjaer.
The Laws were never written to provide for fouling, they were written to curb it, this is why Solskjaer’s actions intuitively struck Sir Alex as unfair, and perhaps also why Solskjaer, upon reflection, agreed with his assessment.
All of which is not a criticism of the professional game, far from it; it is merely a recognition that the nature of the game is different – a nod to the economic nature of the professional game, where every decision is really one that is measured in cost-benefit terms, rather than in relation to the spirit of the game.
Returning to Rooney – as tempting as it is, it would be too easy to describe him as having ‘lost his head’ and succumbing to a ‘moment of madness’. For that would also mean accepting that dear Wayne was beyond the point of reason when he committed his indiscretion.
Which doesn’t necessarily let the captain off the hook, of course – but it certainly lets the game off. The more disturbing, and perhaps more painful, reading of the situation would be to admit that Wayne didn’t lose his head, nor did he give in to a moment of madness; rather, he made a calculated decision to hack down Stuart Downing. He just wasn’t very good at disguising it.
This might be why there was such an eagerness to repeatedly label Rooney’s foul irrational and incomprehensible. Not out of any desire to make sense of the situation, of what Rooney did, but precisely to attempt and ensure that Rooney’s actions remained beyond sense and reason.
Because only by continuing to insist that his tackle – and anything in the same vein – doesn’t make sense, is out of place, can we continue to relate to professional football, continue to believe in an idealised, romantic version of it.
It allows us to identify with professional footballers, and believe that they’re just better, faster, fitter versions of ourselves, operating at a level we too could have achieved had we wanted to.
More than that, it lets us imagine that the game still involves a modicum of love, amare, and still remains a version of the football us amateurs know, as opposed to something that’s dead, devoid of spirit, entirely transactional, purely economical. And castigating Rooney’s actions as inexplicable is how we continue to pull the veil over our eyes – a veil that, one must admit, is comforting.
Perhaps this explains why Louis van Gaal’s straightforward response was glossed over in most of the post-match coverage. Which is a pity because he really did hit the proverbial nail on its head: when Rooney brought Stewart Downing down on 27 September 2014, he didn’t just commit a foul – he committed a professional foul.
And, possibly because of its unusually blatant and undisguised nature, it momentarily unveiled the truth: any notion of love in, for, the professional game is merely illusionary; even as it is the very same illusion that we continually tend to, and reconstruct – for nothing else but the love of the game.