It’s interesting how so much post-Gelsenkirchen talk has wound up focusing on what a trio of ex-players back in a Dublin television studio thought of it. There was a time when sport used to be about sport. That faded when so much of sport became about the chat surrounding it. Are we now at a stage where chat about the chat is where it’s at?
Opinions, of course, are famously like backsides: everybody’s got one, and everybody thinks everybody else’s stinks. Messrs Giles, Brady and Dunphy poo-poohed the style of Ireland’s 1-1 draw against the world champions Germany, an opinion they are paid to give, an important ‘conversation’ distinction which nevertheless hasn’t stopped people zeroing in on the pundits.
All of which is good news for them and their employers, but which somehow has managed to switch a substantial amount of focus away from one of Irish footballs greatest ever results. It appears talking-heads can actually be more interesting than the game itself, a curio that would probably be acknowledged with an intellectual sigh somewhere in Italy if Umberto Eco gave even the faintest of fiddlers for anything to do with football.
It was 1969 when Eco wrote his famous essay about “Sports Chatter” in which he argued that the boundaries between sport as activity, and simply talking about it, had got so blurred that chatterers think of themselves as participants. And if sport is waste, which he argued it was, sports chatter is a glorification of waste, but a dangerous one as it diverts public energy from so much that is validly important.
Forty-five years on , and nimbly skipping over validity definitions for the moment, Eco’s argument that most people much prefer talking to doing can hardly be dismissed anymore as a grudge by someone whose schooldays might have been tarnished by being forced to go in goal.
For an awful lot of people, actual between-the-lines sport, its huff-and-puff mechanics, is comparative ‘muzak’ to what really counts, the seemingly endless “conversation” surrounding it.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in football. What was once about going to a stadium is now an experience swamped in the sort of gadgetry which can make standing on a terrace seem quaint, although with the option of going home afterwards to watch parsed-down, easily digestible highlights, accompanied by studio chatter, which in turn provokes chatter about the chatter, all of it perpetuating the idea that it’s about football when in fact a lot of the time it just isn’t.
An awful lot of supposed football fans aren’t really fans of actual football at all but the circus which goes on around it, the sort of circus that makes three guys who haven’t kicked a defender in anger in at least three decades newsworthy.
In this case they’re news because they appeared to pee on a euphoric mood of national celebration with actual football detail of a sort that didn’t chime with a last-minute, plucky, boys-in-green storyline. But detail is for anoraks, a bit boring. And just as Eco predicted, football has become about so much more than mere sporting detail.
The game can be anything you want it to be, baby; political, moral, money, sex, conflict, an overwhelming torrent of context which the bare mechanics of 22 two people chasing a ball can’t possibly compete with.
Roy Keane’s new book for instance is about many things, but football is well down the list. At heart Keane’s storyline is political, the politics of a middle-aged man unable to comprehend why The Man isn’t fair, ordinarily an adolescent issue which, nevertheless, plenty other middle-aged men clearly haven’t come to terms with either, but who lack the opportunity, the articulacy, or the ghost-writer to so vehemently express their angst.
It’s fascinating stuff though, a morality play in its way, just as is the current debate about whether or not Ched Evans should be allowed return to the game after serving a sentence for rape. You don’t need any actual knowledge of football to comprehend the nuances of a tawdry story replete with such an accessible assortment of tabloid-tweeting-trolling prejudices.
Who needs to know what "3-5-2" is to appreciate the relentless wave of "Mourinho taunts Wenger" type headlines which reduce tactical complexity to bite-size personalised convenience and contribute to a 24/7 yellow-tickertape soap-opera which is no more about football than Neighbours is about life, but with managers hogging the lines because players are, you know, too dense to say or do anything bar play, or go dogging.
That Giles & Co might be correct in what they said about the Germany game is actually mostly irrelevant. What isn’t irrelevant is why so much has been made of what they said. It was opinion, the sort of chatter that Eco dismissed 45 years ago, just as he would dismiss this chattering about chatterer’s chat, because it’s inconsequential to what really matters.
Where he’s vulnerable is that people somehow continue to insist on judging for themselves what really matters to them, rather than what should. It is perhaps the blind-spot in the old boy’s idealism, a reluctance to accept that sport can actually generate the sort of interest and passion which the political culture so conspicuously fails to.
Passions remain resolutely subjective. Eco simply never possessed one for sport, the sort that continues to make us shout at the telly and yelp ‘did you see that’ to the person sitting next to us. Sport without chatter would be empty. But chattering about the chat over the chat is surely going too far. So I’m going to stop now.