In 1972, four half-hour episodes on the BBC changed how we approached visual culture and how we saw the world around us. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, once described by a critic as “Mao’s Little Red Book for a generation of art students”, was not only a landmark in the history of arts broadcasting but according to the Guardian also signaled “a key moment in the democratization of art education”.
A playwright and later a Booker Prize-winning novelist, Berger would emerge as one of the most prominent art critics of our times. True to his unwavering commitment to the fight against all forms of injustice, he would also pen a series of articles and essays on society and politics. He passed away on 2 January this year. This piece is not really an obituary nor is it an analysis of his life and works. It is about football, or as Berger would perhaps have put it, what we see when we watch football.
On 13 June 2014, the Netherlands handed defending world champions Spain a humiliating 5-1 defeat. In the days which followed, the image dominating newspapers, social media, and sports and news channels was that of Robin van Persie suspended mid-flight, right after heading the ball that would beat Casillas and open the Dutch scoring spree. It was a magnificent feat of athleticism resulting in one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history. But what do we make of the image?
For a person who had not watched the match (or replays or highlights clips), the whole game would be condensed into that one image. If one chose not to read the report of the match, they would never know of the opening goal – Alonso’s penalty – nor would they know anything of the other four Dutch goals of the match. Given the importance given to that one image, they would perhaps assume that van Persie’s goal was the winner when in fact it was an equalizer. About the goal itself, they would also not know that Daley Blind had provided the assist – a fantastic one at that.
One would think that the true context of the image could thus only be understood by a person who had watched the match. However, how far is that possible either? The image that we see on our TV screens or the monitors of our laptops and tablets is taken by a mounted camera which moves. This movement makes a lot of difference on how we view the game for the focus of the image and therefore our eye is always on the ball. When Daley Blind has the ball, our complete attention is focused on him – we do not quite notice the moment when van Persie begins his run, neither do we notice how Arjen Robben draws away Gerard Pique from van Persie’s path.
If one stretches the idea of context further still, it is easy to conclude that only a person who knew that Spain had beaten the Netherlands in the final of the previous World Cup, or knew that van Persie, Blind and Dutch manager Louis van Gaal were scheduled to be reunited at Manchester United right after the World Cup, in short, one who actively followed the sport would understand the importance of the goal and the celebration that followed (van Persie high-fiving van Gaal – another photo that went viral on social media).
A photograph is the result of a photographer’s decision that an instant is worth recording. In his essay “Understanding a Photograph”, Berger explains that the essence of a photograph is the simple message – “I have decided that seeing this is worth recording”. According to Berger, “a photograph whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.”
Thus what goes missing from the “Flying Dutchman” photo of van Persie is everything that led up to that moment. While the photo invokes all that is missing from it, this invocation is only realised and understood by the viewer who has prior knowledge of the context and larger background.
At the heart of any football match is the concept of space and time. How each player reacts to these two factors determine how good they are as footballers. In Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner describes a photo taken at the De Meer Stadium in 1995, the year van Gaal’s Ajax was the best team in the world.
“Tearing forward, the Ajax ‘shadow striker’ Jari Litmanen has the ball at his feet near the centre-circle. Ten metres ahead of him, centre-forward Patrick Kluivert is a ball of coiled energy, surrounded by defenders, but poised to make his move. Left-winger Marc Overmars and right-winger Finidi George are already running into space. Behind Litmanen, the three other members of the midfield diamond that day, Edgar Davids on the left, Arnold Scholten on the right and Winston Bogarde behind, are advancing with cool menace.”
The photo was taken by Hans van der Meer to depict what he calls the “moment of tension”.
According to him:
“There are one or two moments when a situation develops and you understand something will happen. This is the moment of tension, of possibility. Everyone in the crowd shares this tension. The pleasure of going to a football game is that you all feel this together. It’s like chess. When newspapers report a chess game, they don’t show you the final move. They show you the position ten moves from the end because that is the most dramatic situation. The midfield is often more dramatic than the penalty area. The moment of the goal is not particularly interesting. What happens just before the goal: that is much more interesting.”
Van der Meer never takes photos of Ajax matches from the sidelines or from behind the goal. He works high in the stands, usually near the halfway line. This enables him to depict the concept of space that close-ups taken with long telephoto lenses at ground level fail to show. In van der Meer’s photographs of Ajax, we can see Total Football at its peak.
Similarly, while the press waxed eloquent about Conte’s defensive organization in Euro 2016, the small clip that truly revealed the discipline and structure of the Italian team was taken by a more-or-less static camera, which never once zoomed in on any particular player, from somewhere right above the opposition goalposts.
Instant replays right after goals generally show just the assist and the final shot. Here too there is a sort of hierarchy of screen-time. The assist is shown once, maybe twice, but the final shot is shown four or five times that and from varying angles. The pass which led to the assist is often not shown. For a goal resulting from patient build-up play of say 20+ passes, the instant replay would perhaps show only the last two or three and the final shot.
The same however does not hold for a goal that results from a solo run. Each replay in such cases show – from various angles, at various speeds – how the individual managed to dribble past four or five defenders, as the case may be, before slotting in the ball at the back of the net.
Football coverage today focuses mostly on the individuality of each player. We live in the age of the spectacle and the constant, unwavering focus on the individual has ensured that players are at all times going through a sort of screen-test for the television. Through TV replays and photos, we are invited to share in and feel the ecstatic joy, pain, agony, frustration and disappointment of individual players. The performance of a team is reduced to a set of individual statistics – goals scored per game, bookings per season, average tackles made, distance run per match, and so on.
Somewhere we lose the sense of the team, the collective. For teams like Guardiola’s Barcelona, Heynckes’ Munich, Conte’s Italy and Löw’s Germany, it becomes almost impossible to ignore the almost clockwork working of the team as one single unit. They are heralded as “revolutionary”, “unique”, “spectacular” – except the fact that the fundamentals of their styles or philosophies have already existed for decades.
The spectacle of individual feats of athleticism, heroism or bravado while dissolving the concept of the team also in a sense suppresses the rigorous training exercises, the hours spent at the drawing board by managers trying to figure out the right formation and squad before each match, the work put in by the coaches and support staff. Hand in hand with this form of live coverage and photography is the fact that most top-flight clubs today do not have open training sessions. They are closed off to the public and when on occasion they are opened, the public sometimes have to pay an entry fee.
Stadiums do not allow spectators to bring cameras to football matches. On the other hand, clubs playing non-league football or in the lower leagues freely allow the use of cameras. Several of these clubs are fan-owned and supported by people from the working class. Taken by the fans, photos of these matches are also significantly different. Taken mostly from the stands, many of these photos are full shots of the pitch. Close-up shots are few – how many working class folk will be able to afford the expensive telephoto lenses anyway? More importantly, one will invariably come across photos of the winning team celebrating with the fans after the match gets over. In modern top-flight football, there is a tangible distance between the fan and the player they support.
Training behind closed doors and with an unwavering focus on his individuality, the football hero of yesteryear has now been further elevated into a god. The stadium becomes a sacred space – tellingly, Chelsea wants its new stadium to be a “cathedral” of football – where the supporter can witness the battles of the gods. The sacredness of the stadium is absolute. Football governing bodies discourage and penalise any form of political statement inside a stadium – even if the statement made is against any form of injustice. The sacred arena of the modern gods can obviously not be polluted with earthly, mortal things like society and politics.
Taschen’s book on football photography in the 1970s is entitled Age of Innocence. An apt title perhaps – the 1970s was the sport’s last gasp before Big Money corporate entities swallowed up all its aspects. The decade marked the final time footballers were stars but were still, at some level, ‘our lads’. Players openly spoke out about politics and contemporary issues, fans, even those of top-flight clubs, often clashed outside the stadium over issues of race, fascism and immigration, clubs were focused on the community and community-building, and tickets were cheap. As Ed Vulliamy wrote in The Observer, “there was an innocence, not least in the presumption by thousands of teenagers from Merseyside that one could saunter down to London and watch a Cup final by bunking in.”
The first World Cup to be broadcast on television was that of 1954. In the early days of the video camera, football matches were generally covered by two cameras. The intention was to document the event rather than uphold the spectacle. With the 1966 World Cup in England, everything changed. This was partly because, barring the United States, England had the best TV network in the world at the time. Moreover, the nature of the broadcasting contracts ensured a more direct involvement of TV companies in the tournament.
Unlike previous affairs, whole tournaments could now be condensed into single images invoking the “prime spectacle” – Bobby Moore on the shoulders of his England teammates holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft (1966), Jairzinho lifting Pelé up as the latter looks directly at the camera with a clenched fist in the air (1970), Beckenbauer grinning as he lifts the World Cup trophy (1974), Daniel Passarella being carried by a crowd as he holds the World Cup trophy in his hands (1978) and so on.
The Coca Cola Company entered a formal association with FIFA for the 1974 World Cup and became the official worldwide sponsor of the 1978 World Cup (they have been sponsoring it ever since). The tournament was held in Argentina, which at the time was being ruled by a military junta led by General Videla – a regime responsible for the murder or “disappearance” of around 30,000 dissidents.
With the sport becoming a full-fledged business opportunity with the dawn of the Premier League era in the 1990s, and the disparity between clubs increasing post-Bosman Ruling in 1995, it is perhaps of little surprise that the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the guardians of the Laws of the Game, moved to make the removal of jerseys during goal celebrations deserving of an automatic and compulsory yellow card. Removal of the shirt, of course, would mean that the name of the corporate giant sponsoring the team would not get automatic screen time when the camera closes in on the player.
A footballer endorsing a commercial product was a novelty and a rare occurrence in the 1950s. With the increasing commercialization of the sport, today it is a common sight. The bodies of sportspersons and athletes have always been sexualized and fetishized. Product endorsement today naturally has a sexual dimension – male footballers often appear on advertisements for underwear brands and their female counterparts pose for photoshoots for magazines like Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. With their bodies commodified as well as sexualized, footballers today are in a sense, doubly objectified.
Our first introduction to football – or a form of it – comes usually from a parent or a guardian-figure playing around with a ball at his/her feet. As children are wont to do we seek to imitate that person. This fixation on the individual perhaps increases and is intensified as we grow up watching football coverage focused on the actions of individual players. Modern football coverage itself aids and abets in creating a mystical cult of genius around footballers, which in turn deeply influence the politics and economics surrounding the sport.
The point of this piece is not to imply or state that close-up shots of the game or footballers are somehow inherently bad. Rather, its point is to suggest an alternate approach to how we watch a football match or any sport for that matter, and of course to reclaim it from the private corporations that are alienating the fans from the teams and players they love and support.