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Order 1, Chaos 0

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Nedim Bajrami scoring for Albania against Italy, Dortmund, Germany, June 15, 2024

What’s the expression? Make space in your calendar? Clear the calendar, wipe the calendar, bin the calendar? Kick the calendar: into next week/next month/next year/the long grass/the weeds? These quadrennial summer international (soccer, if you must) football tournaments—biennial, if you allow the ever more hideously distended 48-team-or-is-it-128-by-now FIFA World Cup as well, next due all over North America in 2026—they happen mid-month to mid-month, so during the finals of the so-called UEFA “Euros”—which used to be a petite competition, but now like everything else not struggling to exist has become bloated, twenty-four nations (in the finals: are there even that many European countries?), sixteen sides make it through from six groups of four (including four “best” third-placed sides), then knockout, a total of fifty-one games to be played in ten German cities, the final conclusive or convulsive encounter in Berlin on July 14—nothing goes, from mid-June to mid-July. Did we “stitch two summer months in one?” asks the poet Robert Lowell. Well, yes. 

You will find me for the duration parked in front of the TV, which is not mine—call it a TV of convenience. I haven’t often lived with a TV, which makes me helpless when confronted with one. My consumption of sports, from when I was a boy growing up in Scotland, was via the radio on Saturday afternoons. Anyone less naïve than me would have known that there is always a game of football going on somewhere in the world—or tennis, or cricket, or boxing, or rugby, or just about anything. But in the beginning, these things were always on Saturdays, and only ever on Saturdays. When Saturday Comes is the name of an English football magazine. As a reason for living, to use a sporting metaphor, those Saturdays beat most things. 

Anyway, I graduated from “Sports Report” (on the sofa, with soft drinks and confectionery), to “Test Match Special” (as connoisseurs of the form will tell you, best during rain intervals when there is no play to describe), to a haphazard jumble of online newspaper minute-by-minute descriptions and match-reports. I remember following an exotic form briefly vouchsafed me on Yahoo, that diagrammatically tracked the progress of a football on a football field over ninety minutes. The freeze-dried version. In my general consumption of sport, I am used to perplexity, delay, ersatz, a degree of abstraction verging on bloodlessness. There’s something Spartan about it. It’s somewhere along the continuum from indulgence to mortification. And it mustn’t cost anything. So I have never owned a TV or understood or sought to make my laptop into one, say, by subscribing to a sports channel. But when an actual TV and a major free-to-air sporting event present themselves, I am dead to the world. 

Anyone can watch a final or even a semifinal, a contest between two well-drilled, -financed, and -favored teams. In football, these tend to be disappointing games, either one-sided or attritional, rarely memorable. Quite simply, too much is riding on them; the hope of winning doesn’t stand a chance against the fear of losing. (It’s the opposite of tennis, where the more interesting games come in the later rounds of tournaments.) The test of the enthusiast, the devotee, the maniac are the early, obscure, often entirely inconsequential “group” or league games, which are generously scheduled at the rate of three a day. That’s six halves of football, spaced (Western European time) at 3 PM, 6 PM, and 9 PM (or 2 PM, 5 PM, and 8 PM in the UK), and, with highlights and warmups and postmortems and studio chat, can quite easily mean the cathode ray tube coming on at lunchtime and staying on into the white night, with further knock-on effects on one’s timetable and the rest of life that you can imagine. Already, I dread the thinning of the field, the schedule going to two a day, then one. Not to mention the blank days between rounds. Were I Catholic, I would say: “Father, I have sinned, I have been watching the Euros.”

For productivity, income, self-respect, gamma rays, leccy bill, consumption of crisps and beer, all bad, yes, but imagine missing Italy–Albania, with the Albanian forward getting the ball straight from a catastrophic Italian throw-in and hammering a near-post goal past the 196 cm Italian goalkeeper, Donnarumma, within less than thirty seconds. (All right, they lost eventually, but for a while, the word would have been magnifique.) Or some team’s volleyed pass to volleyed cross to volleyed finish (goal!), alas, chalked off for offside. But it happened—I saw it. Anything involving Georgia, this year’s dark horse, or this year’s pale gray horse, Austria. Or the games between Ukraine and Romania (a most unexpected 0–3), or Austria against France (France won by an own-goal) or favored Belgium losing to Slovakia. I could go on. 

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Much of the joy is in these distinctly hopeless Eastern European nations being brought together for a week or two from their various unheralded clubs in dim leagues here and there for the rare experience of being amongst themselves. Yes, they may sometimes have some noted star players (Škriniar, Schick, Kvaratskhelia, Mudryk), but for the most part they are nobodies, these midfield fetchers and carriers, tireless full-backs, one-trick forwards (but it worked!), sumptuous goalkeepers, the bottom of the football pyramid. I call it the Croatia principle. The underdog, the surprise team. (Croatia, having long since joined the ranks of established sides, grew old, and failed this time to qualify for the knockout stage, along with Albania, Hungary, Czechia, Poland, Serbia, Ukraine, and of course Scotland. So much for the threat from the East. And of course the threat from Scotland.) As the first round ends, I have the sense I am running out of games to watch, I fear “normal service” is about to be resumed, and the semifinalists will include most of France, Belgium, Germany, England, Italy, and Spain. But for now… 

*

Football is always about the dramatization of hope over experience (Archie Gemmill against Brazil). The combination of inertia, the folly of human endeavor, globalization, commercialization, the ever-more-fantastic use of technology, the butterfly effect, and universal coaching (deny space, deny the ball, deny overlaps, commit the professional foul) has led to properly functioning, as it were, textbook football becoming—quite intentionally—completely unwatchable. Everyone understand that a game is won on the margins, from the way your attackers defend and your defenders attack. Anything else is Roy of the Rovers stuff, sentimental twaddle. In the end, money talks, the favorite comes first, there are no comebacks. The final score is: Order 1, Chaos 0. 

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Romelu Lukaku celebrating scoring during a qualification match, Stockholm, Sweden, 2023.

Football’s only saving grace is that it occasionally springs leaks. It’s actually not completely predictable. It’s not a paper game. The system fails. The bank loses. Chelsea, under their new venture capitalist owners, spends the better part of a billion dollars buying certifiable stars at the top of the market, and can’t stop losing. My “own” side, Manchester United, with a billion fans worldwide, has played for a decade as though afflicted with dry rot. At some level, the game is about morale. It’s one for all and all for one. (It’s why England hasn’t won anything since 1966. Whoever coined this year’s ecological slogan “Fossil Free Football” forgot about England.) 

Football is a crazed bid for compensation, for escape, for some transcendent atavistic loyalty. Some howling stomping braying clannishness in the time of international capital-flows. Where the traveling Dutch fans turn anywhere they go into the inside of a food processor doing carrots for slaw. Where the uncouth English boo the other side’s anthem at the beginning and their own team at the end; where they reward their perfunctorily clapping manager with wanker-signals. (How English is that? As English as tax cuts and class warfare. As English as tea at three. As English as the obvious sideways pass played carefully and slowly.) Football is both separate from reality, and a part of reality. The great Australian poet Les Murray has a phrase for justice: “the people’s otherworld.” That’s what football is. The people’s otherworld. It’s a form of justice. Justice for half a city, a city, a region, a country, a political system, a government, a leader (Orbán). It’s “Well, we’ll always have”—not “Paris,” but “football.” 

The Euros are good for that. They shuffle the pack. The matchups are different. Original. You watch for the small nation with the unpronounceable names. The country you couldn’t find on the map (it’s low-down on the right-hand side somewhere). The team with the fearless, eccentric goalkeeper. The pell-mell, the kick-and-rush, the hell-for-leather. The one that plays as if there was no next round, and indeed no tomorrow. (As maybe there isn’t. Take a bow, Georgia.) The side not in pink boots; boots, even before they went pink, seeming increasingly to resemble ballet shoes anyway. The one with the atonal anthem. With old players (not Ronaldo, not Pepe) and old playmakers. You watch for a tackle (a thing that Pep Guardiola, coach of Manchester City and the greatest living trainer, doesn’t teach, because he thinks it shouldn’t happen—it’s what I mean by system). A so-called “reducer.” Or the opposite, also not meant to happen, a player carrying the ball for twenty or thirty yards (Mikautadze, Calafiori) in the opposition half. Formations left to take care of themselves and a rapid counterattack in a broken field. Finally—the revelation of this year’s model, seven of them already—the own-goal, which is something that happens in life, though not in American sport.

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So much in football seems merely preordained, immutable, set in its ways. Ritualistic. The players, cameras up their noses, lining up in the corridor. The teams coming out on the pitch, holding small uniformed children by the hand. The latest atrocious haircuts, currently the lick of hair up the central scalp, the ears left high and dry. Beards by the dozen. Tattooed throats. The fuse-bomb on the head, on the curve of bone behind the ear (Brozović). The weird shirts: Germany’s superfood berry smoothie, someone’s baby blue, Belgium’s clotted blood that is so unappetizing when sodden. Then the team photo. The handshakes and the exchange of pennants. The huddle. The ball played back to the goalkeeper. The attempt to play out from the back. The ball reaching the fullback, who plays it back inside. The central midfielder dropping back to collect it from the center halves (who aren’t supposed to be able to pass). The resemblance to foosball, with the formations tracking each other. Then the awful goal, if there is one. The unbearable Ronaldo, seemingly composed these days of microplastics. The knee-skid. The can’t see can’t hear celebration. The baby rocking celebration. The baby sucking thumb celebration. The other manager berating the so-called fourth official in an area designated for that purpose, the official also designated for that purpose. The kicking of the water bottle. Managers writing by hand on pieces of paper. Substitutes being briefed by adjutants from laptops. Players coming off and hand-clapping the length of the bench. Post-match conversations between individuals on the same side or on different sides with hands held in front of their mouths to prevent lip-reading. The analysis after, first the articulate Germans, and later the reported ferocity of the English (“shit” was Gary Lineker’s description of their play) that puts their meek team to shame.

Because when a goal occurs, it is a malfunction, someone’s fault. Your midfielder hasn’t been tracking the run of the opposing midfielder. Your fullback has been caught way up the pitch. Your center half—all two meters of him—has mistimed his jump. Your goalie has dived over the ball. Your goalie was unsighted, his view blocked by a defender. When a goal occurs, football has failed. So often a goal is squalid, not worth seeing twice, not worth seeing once. Your chubby nil (never zero) has turned into a skinny one. But remember, there are so many ways of not scoring a goal. This isn’t handball, where anything between twenty and forty goals per side is the norm (and in a sport with thirty-minute halves, at that). Much less basketball. Hands are easy; feet are hard. So football is costive. Nil-nil: it happens. A draw (not a tie) is fine, a perfectly valid result. A goal is—what? A byproduct? Not quite. But what the economists call an erratic item, certainly. Not dependent on superior possession or quality or coherence or tactics. So much goes against it. The forward slices his shot. The defender blocks it. The goalkeeper saves it. The attacker leans back and heads over. Loses his head and shoots over. There was a foul somewhere in the buildup. A handball no one saw. A handball everyone saw. The VAR—the Video Assistant Referee—in some basement offsite isn’t happy. The actual referee is called upon to watch a slow-motion replay at the pitch side. Everything in slow motion looks criminal. The most blameless sequences of action look criminal. Your goal is canceled. Chalked-off, they say. Football has won again. 

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