Not A Safari

South Africa's World Cup, as seen from New York City

fleetness, furtherance

The schoolboy poet is involved in the games, but rarely is he ever the best schoolboy athlete or the focus of the activity. Even when he stands in the middle, he stands to one side, tracing arcs, noting the game’s intangibles. This is how it is in James Joyce, in Seamus Heaney, and in Orhan Pamuk: an involvement that focuses on everything but the writer’s own singularity. What’s evoked rather is a kind of collective soul. Take for instance this, from Heaney’s “Markings,” which is like a capsule world history of boyhoods:

Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
As the light died and they kept on playing
Because by then they were playing in their heads
And the actual kicked ball came to them
Like a dream heaviness, and their own hard
Breathing in the dark and skids on grass
Sounded like effort in another world…
It was quick and constant, a game that never need
Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.



Filed under: magic, peroration

a family in newark

Filed under: magic, unexpected


The insouciant sweep
of arm (he means you
to think “matador”)

after he stabs
yet another ball
into the back
of the net.

Filed under: magic

the geometers II

Football isn’t only dance. It doesn’t exist for its own sake or for the sake of its appearance. It has, as does any other sport, in-built agon. One main brief of all sport is to gain a result out of an oppositional situation. You are tested against an opponent (as in football) or against a field of opponents (as in golf).

This oppositional brief often contradicts the other important brief, the aesthetic one. To play beautifully is not always sufficient to guarantee victory over opponents, nor does victory always come about through beautiful means.

I am thinking of Xaviniesta and La Furia Roja again.

Their (I wish to say “his,” so linked are the two in my mind) footballistic intelligence, running in an inevitable but unpredictable circuit through David Villa, David Silva, Jesús Navas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, and others, depending on Obelix’s* requirements in a given game, is called ticky-tack: short, smart passes, played along the ground (or “on the floor” as is sometimes said).

Ball comes to feet and in that moment, there are geometric questions that can only be answered by instinct and experience. The ball comes to you and you must pass it on; the number of bad decisions available tends towards infinity and, because football is oppositional and because there is a fit and highly trained professional athlete bearing down on you at speed with the sole intention of dispossessing you, the number of good decisions tends towards one. The angles, even with a second’s lag, quickly become impossible. You must find the one right decision, the least bad decision, so that the ball arrives safe at the next teammate’s feet in a way that gives him the second or two necessary to gather himself, and he must decide correctly too, and the man after him too.

Watching Xaviniesta, one is awed at the timing and perpetual correctness of the decisions. In any position there is a move to make and it is generally made without the benefit of a television camera’s aerial view.

You don’t hear Xavi or Iniesta’s name much when a game is being called. The ball rarely dawdles on their feet, and yet it keeps coming back to them. Xavi, who plays the more central role, generally completes 90% of his passes in the course of a game. The ball’s will and his will are united. It, the ball, wishes. It wants.

The art historian Alois Riegl described “Kunstwollen” as the tendency of forms to seek out, in the course of historical progression, their ideal forms, and I feel there is something correspondingly teleological about the mind of the ball when it collaborates with the mind of Xaviniesta and their Spanish comrades.

Will is expressed, and this is perhaps why, in the fulfillment of the aesthetic brief when Spain (or its club cognate, Barcelona FC) play, there is a satisfaction that can surpass mere victory. Ticky-tack is asymptotic towards a goal, yes, and goals do come, yes, sometimes in great numbers, sometimes not.

At times, the ball does not desire to leave its state of euadaemonia within the polygons. It hungers for the continuity of these blessed geometries, and so the passes ramify forwards backwards crossfield into the penalty box then out again and out to the corner and back to the center and on and on as if (as it indeed is) it were an end to itself. To aid this literal down-to-earthness, most players for La Furia Roja are around five foot seven or five foot eight. They are suitably close to the business.

Alas, life teaches that it is the inelegant teams at times, teams poor in possession and rich in aggression, that win titles, teams like Italy (or its club cognate, Inter). Little matter. Satisfactions vary, and to enter into agreement with the ball is a tremendous one.

*Obelix: current coach of La Furia Roja, Vicente del Bosque.


Filed under: magic

the geometers

The interlocking motifs of fifteenth-century Hispano-Moresque textiles in which the idea of the eternal order is evoked by infinite pattern, by return and reworking, by form, lines, angles, and colors, patterning that outlived the caliphates of Al-Andalus, qualities for which even the Christian kings of the Reconquista reached when they wanted to evoke luxury, refinement, and the persistence of higher things in base material, is associated in my mind from time to time with the angular mode that now dominates Spanish football, the intersecting polygons of Xavi and Iniesta, or rather of the collective emergent mind one might name Xaviniesta, in which, quite apart from the creation of goals, footballing victories, and delirium in the minds of opponents, one senses a sensitivity to abstractions and a command of intricate geometries that is like a succession of rooms for the imagination and that, were it to be mapped by the placement of a spooled shuttle on the ball, might restore in visible form the intermixed Mudéjar heritage of Spain herself.

Also, Xavi looks like an Arab.


Filed under: magic


Let us admit this as a general fact: it is amazing how quickly other people can get over what pains you, and though I see it sitting there—the temptation to make this about something serious, I mean—I’ll shimmy to its side and talk instead about something graver than death itself: our feelings when we lose a football game or when we fail to win one in which we expected to do better than tie.

Everything about this matter of losing is in question—the earth trembles because it is unsure of its grounding—and this intensifies the pain involved. We are bewildered about the very material of the “our” in question. Are we homooúsios (of the same substance) with the eleven men who play for us on the field—I am certain that scientists will discover that spectators’ neurons are activated in ways parallel to those footballers they are watching—or are we merely homoian (of similar substance) with them? We are angry that our vociferous involvement, even at televisual distance, was insufficient to sway the outcome. We are confused at how much deeply loss plunges than victory elevates, one a springboard, a matter of a few feet, the other a diving bell, ominous and far-fetched.

Above all, we are tainted by the bitterly concentrated flavor of a game in which we have been vanquished not by the opponents’ skills or by our own foolishness but by the misjudged intervention or miscalculated disregard of the referee. A murderous thought against this man boils on the shorelines of our brains like frustrated surf, it’s unfair, it’s unfair, though our expectation has never been that the game will be fair, only that it will be unfair in a way that favors us, and from the time we were very young, we have instinctively known that little joy would remain for us in this cosmic matter of football if the videographers, stenographers, and other mortuary specialists were allowed to grasp the game with their deadening fingers, to attempt to “improve” it, and to leave to chance nothing of what happened to have been seen or what happened to have passed unseen.

Keep your improvements. We prefer football.


Filed under: magic, pessimism, unexpected


Dutch fans assemble in the early morning to see their team play Denmark.

Filed under: magic

and then time

So that after a while you get felt up by time. You, locked up in the game’s sense of dimorphic time, first half in which time is of no essence, second in which it is all that matters.

How long is a minute? It depends on what you’re on what you’re after whether that thing you are holding is a one goal lead please God let’s not let it slip or a hope to cross out a one goal lead cross it out and replace it with a one goal lead of your own. That’s two goals you’re asking for. You eye the clock at sixty minutes, and what an eternity, as Billy Blake almost had it, that whole half-hour you have left.

A minute later what happened to the time, seventy already? Christ.

Maybe we can equalize now, now, and sneak a last minute goal later, eighty, eighty five. The pacts with the Almighty begin, you haven’t equalized yet, a draw for heavens sake never mind the win, time loses its mind and the minutes reck, less and lessly, eighty six, eighty seven, a sudden jump to ninety, then the surreal zone of stupid hope and extra time.

Sometimes what you want there happens, usually not, but there are no atheists in extra time. All credit miracles.

And then you’re shat right out of the marvelous as you knew it ref’s peep peep peep out of being extraed and extraordinaried back into inelastic time of: ordinary time.

Me, my sense of the game’s time began to develop in the early 1980s and show a child the way to go for when he is a man he shall not depart from it.


Filed under: magic, peroration

the vuvuzela

The vuvuzela: a fever, impolitic, a site for mass hallucination, plastic in which time becomes deliriously plastic, a mask assumed for non-mortals, overtones roiling somewhere to the left of human hearing, black magic.


Filed under: magic, music