This was first published on @Medium earlier today. I realise that a lot of my blog followers do not follow me on Twitter, so I am reposting it here. Apologies if you have therefore seen it again.
Talking about soccer – too much, too loud?
In one of his typically witty polemics, Umberto Eco writes, “I don’t hate soccer. I hate soccer fans.” Eco’s issue is the myopia of the soccer (or if you’re European, football) fan: “He has a strange defect: he cannot understand why you are not a fan, and he insists on talking to you as if you were.” Currently, soccer fans are shouting more loudly and more widely than ever before.
The myriad of available published material, online and in print, seems to have increased exponentially in recent years. As with any publishing explosion, quality is mixed and among some genuinely innovative writers and exciting projects, there is a lot of space filled with speculative nonsense or ‘hit’ generating gossip. Some writers have done very well out of the surge, and a cottage industry has morphed; a few bloggers like Michael Cox from zonalmarking.net have been hauled out of the cottage and handed the keys to a much larger house, appearing now on television and podcasts, as well as in established print organs. That this has occurred is a testament both to the talent of such writers, their ability to service a growing need, in this case for astute tactical analysis, and the fact that soccer fans are increasingly vocal in their demands for higher tier writing on their sport.
This change has occurred too in the supposedly ossifying area of print media, where the beautifully designed and, for the most part, written Blizzard magazine, edited by one of the outstanding current football writers, Jonathan Wilson, provides quarterly doses of cerebral writing on a gamut of subjects associated with the game. The demand for and popularity of this magazine, where print production values are prized as highly as authorial ability, is a shot in the arm for those bemoaning the death of the print media.
Unfortunately, as with any growth area, a lot of what has been written, particularly online, is of little merit. Much of the generated content is repetitive, either culling stories from AP or Reuters about transfers or gossip and rehashing it for aggregator sites,or offering match reports of games which are almost always better presented by larger media outlets. There are also the platforms for the hectoring fans Eco so dislikes, offering partisan or vitriolic pieces on why their manager should be sacked or why he should abandon 4-4-2 for 4-2-3-1; these pieces are often the least well written too.
There are, however, gems out there. Whether it is a piece on obscure Eastern European clubs’ rivalries with other local teams, a survey of football in the Caribbean, or an analysis of the intersections of football and politics under various African governments, the internet is providing a forum for the publishing and discussion of more niche, considered articles. These articles are author-driven, painstakingly researched and published by writers who have grasped the opportunity afforded by free content publishing online to develop their passion and share it, even if only with a small audience. While these writers may well have been inspired by the cacophany of soccer commentary (often by an antithetic response to its quality), they risk being drowned out by the greater, lesser body of work.
Eco summarised his discontent with the soccer fan thus: “It isn’t that he doesn’t care a fig that I don’t care a fig. It’s that he can’t conceive that anyone could exist and not care a fig.” The best and most nuanced writing on any subject should allow for the initial disinterest of its audience; it should seek to persuade, to seduce even. Any writer who assumes the immediate and unequivocal interest of his audience as a fait accompli risks falling into the trap evoked by Eco above. Soccer writers seem especially prone to this. The ease of self-publishing, the partisan nature of a lot of soccer writing, and the bulldozing assumption of interest about what is, as we are constantly reminded, the global game, the beautiful game, risks alienating a potential readership and swamping some of the great writing which does exist.
Umberto Eco, ‘How not to talk about soccer’, from How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (London, 1998), pp. 32-35.