The Media, Transfer Gossip, and the Soul of Football

Nuns playing footballIt’s not usually my style to criticize the media. Bloggers do too much of that sort of thing already, and frankly, when it comes to the football press, I can’t imagine a better system for keeping up to speed with the inner world of Tony Mowbray. Reporters seem to be everywhere; I honestly don’t think anyone has ever backed anyone else without the press being there to record it.

Half the time, the media actually anticipates my desires: there I’ll be, browsing through the headlines, with no thought of wondering how much muscle Emanuel Adebayor has put on during the past five months, when along comes Sky Sports with a meticulously sourced piece to tell me. Before I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” I was in the dark and I didn’t even know it. After I read “Adebayor – I’ve Bulked Up,” with its thoughtful allusion to yesterday’s Daily Mirror and its carefully placed section break (“Muscles”), my world is a richer place.

I’ve been especially conscious of this over the past few days as, for one reason or another, I’ve been thinking over the question, “What is the soul of football?” Some people will tell you that the soul of football is a solitary child dribbling a ball under a street lamp while his heart fills with left-wing political principles. Others would say that the soul of football is a beautifully executed Johan Cruyff stop-spin leading to a magnificent goal. Still others would argue that the soul of football is a mysterious twinkle which Sepp Blatter keeps hidden in his eye.

But me? I think the soul of football is transfer gossip.

The pope and footballers

Think about this. Where else in the universe of sport do we encounter a realm of such perfect ethereality, such boundless creativity, such unrestrained enthusiasm? Spirituality is to each person what each person believes it to be (™), but isn’t there something spiritual about the thousands of items of transfer gossip that pass by us every day, airy and largely unseen, like angels’ whispers? “Are you a Tottenham fan?” the wind breathes. “Take heart, there’s hope”—and then, murmuring something about “Cardiff’s 18-year-old Welsh international defender Chris Gunter,” the voice is gone. “Do you love Chelsea?” it sighs into someone else’s ear. “Nicolas Anelka thinks he deserves to play for you.” And the wind doesn’t even snicker—not once.

Like the soul, transfer gossip comes into the world—no one knows from where; passes through the world—no one knows how; and departs the world—no one knows why. It can’t be bound by the crude material of fact, or even of sensible opinion. If it wants to say that Ronaldinho is going to Chelsea, it just says so, animating itself insubstantially, like the soul. For some people, it may be “unfounded” or “dishonest” or “impossible to prove.” It may be “unbelievable.” But then, doesn’t faith mean believing in the unbelievable? Isn’t that how we recognize the soul?

Sun bursting through clouds.I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m not going anywhere, most likely, just meandering through the space available: like transfer gossip, like life. If you think, “Wait, what’s the argument?”, well, this is football writing, after all. You had to kill the hours between work and dinner somehow, and you already know about Adebayor’s vitamin regimen.

When the body dies, the soul is the last thing to leave it; one day football too will pass, and when it does, my guess is that the last thing we’ll see, after all the clubs have folded and all the fans have gone home, is not the spirit of youth or the pageantry of national competition, but some twenty-third century newspaper report asserting that Yakubu is being linked with Middlesbrough. It won’t say by whom, and we won’t ask. It will just drift away, rustling, on a rising current of air, while the clouds part, and sun breaks through them.

Brian Phillips is contemplating a £650 move to Partick Thistle at The Run of Play.

Photo credits: (1) Quotidian!; (2) kilastravels; (3) danielygo.

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