On The Guardian‘s beloved column “The Question,” Jonathan Wilson has launched a curiously fascinating inquiry, based on new evidence, about the changed conditions of play in the 1920s, implying that the W-formation was already widespread before Herbert Chapman used it to secure Arsenal’s dominance at the end of the decade and in the first half of the following. Like so often for Wilson, the John Dos Passos of football tactics, his writing is both a way to explore interconnected histories and a nifty way back in time—like a portal to a heavily forested network where soccer formations block the trail and hang like great three-dimensional spider-webs, big as weather balloons, thick as cotton candy. And indeed, apart from the hard facts on the goal-scoring frequency of the withdrawn inside-forward, who doesn’t like a tribute to a now-vanished sport diorama where a lone maverick gains reputation as a tactical mastermind, heavy defeats with Newcastle and Southampton demand tweaks and changes, and a columnist who called himself ‘Cherry Blossom’ makes a point about the pivotal possibilities of feeding the strikers from deep in the game’s future? Short passes and the 2—3—5 are all fine, but without the pencils running riot in the press box, what a shame.
At the time in which special film reports of the games that Dynamo Moscow played, on its 1945 English tour, with Chelsea, Cardiff and Rangers were prepared for cinema distribution across the country, the celebrated composer Dmitrii Shostakovich praised the team’s achievement as the product of Soviet society. The lesson to be learned from this campaign was not about an old school of football, but one about collectivism, organization, and the unbending will for victory characteristic of the Soviet man. Even though the impact of the Dynamo tour, in terms of propaganda and investment, has been already assessed in a few occasions, one would also hope that the event offered an alternative focus to determine what kind of soccer fan Shostakovich could be said to be. Thanks to an exceptional essay published by the site Football in the Gulag, a knotted headscarf of international sports diplomacy and dance metaphors, it is now possible to form a substantial opinion about Shostakovich’s Russian ballet The Golden Age as a cultural representation:
Depending on whether the spectator at hand is a working man, an ambassador, or a coach, the cultural performance on show can be read as a ‘simple’ sporting match, or as a tussle between rival political systems, or as an opportunity to advance policy, or as valuable training. It creates and choreographs shades of cultural grey. The narrative of ‘The Golden Age’itself may be based upon successful footballing tours made by Soviet teams in the 1920s. Football was the first sport exploited in this manner; it was emblematic of the working class, and had since at least 1910 been the most popular sport in Russia.
I only know the suite made in 1930 from this grotesque football revue, which opens with a double fugue—a drunken, vaudevillian, ‘street’ fugue grown out of a third-class night club mood where soccer players turn into allegro barbaro characters. (In 1977 the musicologist János Maróthy described how the ballet’s score—a hard nut to crack for a Hungarian at the time—was continuously changing into caricaturistic, and the caricaturistic into macabre.) Shostakovich’s football is a world of ceaseless iridescence and mass hysteria; it is, perhaps, a kind of jazz, a fraudulent way, as Football in the Gulag suggests, to “rejuvenate the classical by streaks of city life and populist melody.” And yet, because of its specific characteristics, even with socialist realism and its caricatures, the game builds a bridge, and not a wall.
I have a certain fascination with The New York Times’ weekend sport section, which I read with anthropological zeal. Recently, I found on page D3 a copy of this picture, showing how fans flocked to a Chicago football game against Wisconsin in 1904, issued together with extended commentary by Barry Bearak. I’m a sucker for facsimile editions, or diaphanous player-figures that look like the wilting, overgrown plant life of an old page design. The University of Chicago used to have everything from the small to the massive, the odd to the vintage, the practical to the whimsical. In the memories of a former cheerleader, people were there as much for the giant kazoo as for the football. Instead of marching, fans moved about to imitate the concept of Brownian motion, the random movement of particles. (Much of this goofy heroism can also be applied to soccer in the U.S. at large, given the obvious differences in the time-frame.) At one point, Bearak’s account turns into something gorgeous, visionary; and we get to hear old battle-shouts that truly make justice of Chicago’s reputation for ascetic intellectualism: “Themistocles, Thucydides/ The Peloponnesian War/ X-squared, y-squared/ H2SO4/ Who for? What for?/ Who we gonna yell for?/ Go Maroons!”
With a fairy tale levity and the humour of an essay on riddles by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, Supriya Nair has also written, on The Run of Play, a story about ephemeral stadiums. She discusses in ethical/associative and, by extension, music/theoretical terms Turkey’s radical solution for curbing crowd violence in the country’s stadiums. By banning men from attending games, the Turkish Football Federation has created an historical aural canvas, an uplifting moment “when you heard,” as Nair writes, “the singing in Fenerbahce’s stadium pitched some octaves higher than usual.” If Nair’s essay was ever put into music, it would be in C major, a key that, as most trained musicians become aware of, has connotations of prelapsarian simplicity. Which is precisely why it is not an easy key for the Fallen Man of San Siro to be composed in—consider ‘the objectivity of money’ pursued by Galliani, his large shiny forehead reminiscent of that shudderingly shocking Telly Savalas, or Allegri’s introduction, amid muscular ecstasy and victimization, of midfield artlessness. Nair’s fantasy of “feral big-match nights” in Milan may support the grandeur of a full-scale apotheosis, but it is rarely chosen as the key for confessions so intimate, adult, and emotional like the ones of her piece. ♦