Paulo di Canio: the faith and fascism of football
From Brother Ivo:
Football is, as Jimmy Greaves used to say is 'a funny old game'.
Never was this better illustrated than this week when David Miliband resigned his recently-acquired £75k pa non-executive directorship of Sunderland Football club on hearing of the appointment of Paolo Di Canio as their new manager.
That decision has attracted huge publicity and comment. Some approve his 'principled stand' against Mr Di Canio’s apparent fascist politics, though it has to be said many of those would now be crying 'McCarthyism' if his politics had been of the left. Others, like Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome, used the occasion to revisit the debate 'Is Fascism of the Left or the Right?', whilst Iain Dale pointed out that nobody took much notice when Mr Di Canio plied his trade in the lower ranks of football at Swindon Town.
Brother Ivo doubts this controversy will end soon, however, for there are rich layers of contrast and irony and he predicts that such a story will continue to attract comment for some time.
Yesterday it was revealed that the BBC, which has run enthusiastically with this story, was not unduly troubled by the politics when they signed Mr Di Canio as a monthly pundit for its own website, where they were happy to describe him as 'one of football's most controversial and colourful characters'.
This is plainly a target-rich environment, and as we appear to have have a national obsession for both the game and the cultural politics of left/right, no doubt Question Time and Any Questions will keep the story alive.
Brother Ivo’s own two pennyworth might as well be added here.
Nobody is unduly troubled that Sir Alex Ferguson played for Glasgow Rangers Football Club when it refused to sign Roman Catholic players, or that former defence secretary John Reid is now Chairman of Celtic, whose repertoire of terrace songs and chants periodically praises the IRA. In fairness, the club does disapprove but seemingly cannot extricate itself from its historical roots.
Rather more interesting is Brother Ivo’s realisation that football fans (usually men) will desert their spouses, abandon their children, change their religion, betray their country and even alter their sex; it is, however, extraordinarily rare for such a fan to cross the rubicon and support a bitter rival, whether that be Spurs/Arsenal, Manchester United/Liverpool, or Lazio/Roma.
He understands that it will be a major news story when a Lazio-supporting priest is appointed to work at the Vatican, where AS Roma is the team of choice.
Such is the obsession of fans, that when US fast-food franchise TGI Friday first opened in Newcastle, it was troubled to find that it was attracting few clients, until locals pointed out that their staff were wearing the hated red and white stripes of Sunderland. It is the only such outlet in the world whose staff wear black shirts, which is perhaps rather ironic in the circumstances.
What is this all telling us? It was the late Bill Shankley who said: “Some people say football is a matter of life and death - but it's much more serious than that.”
There is perhaps a hidden truth in this: the game's adopted language and metaphors are those of religion.
Football has its saints, sinners, scapegoats and martyrs. It has its quasi-liturgical year, but when disaster strikes in the form of relegation or elimination, its adherents speak to one another of renewal and resurrection. Disaster attracts the building of makeshift shrines with votive offerings.
Fans encourage each other to keep the faith - and they do.
The late Danny Blanchflower observed that 'It’s not about winning - its about glory'.
An equalising goal can be transformative; a new manager is hailed as a messiah; a crafty opposition striker can be castigated as the Devil incarnate, until such time as he signs for the team, at which point he is welcomed as a repentant sinner.
It also serves as a social glue.
Dr Samuel Johnson once said that he encouraged his dinner guests to 'talk bawdy', for on that subject all men could discourse on an equal footing. Modern society is not averse to salacious talk, but soccer talk especially crosses boundaries of class, race, religion, politics, and even gender.
When the BBC offers six and even seven-figure contracts to its pundits, it is not to provide certainty but to identify talking points. With replays and the internet, each of us may have his or her own opinion and share it. Controversies can be prolonged for days in a way that old print journalism never could. Once, a reporter could record that there was a debatable decision; now it can be instantly replayed and then slowed, digitally examined with computer-generated graphics, and reviewed from virtual camera angles.
The football culture is removed from, but related to, our religious world view. This is both dispiriting and yet strangely encouraging. It may not quite be the subject for a sermon on Intelligent Design, but it does suggest that human beings are hard-wired for hope, transformation and triumph over adversity, however unlikely in many parts of the footballing and non-footballing universe.
These cultural inclinations are not limited to football. In Constantinople, the Charioteer rivalry between the Blues and the Greens was fierce and at times murderously violent. We can see a similar rivalry in the Siennese Palio. One may even find it in the rivalry between the great Opera Houses, where a similar religious language of triumph, character, tragedy or resolution is to be found.
In many forms, mankind is seeking to assuage a thirst for meaning and to receive the satisfaction of his ill-defined longing; the need to belong and a deep desire to feel accepted as part of a worthwhile endeavour.
Those of us proritising a true religion rather than a dim reflection need to learn how to work with that grain of humanity, which is perhaps why God sent us a carpenter to show us how it may be done.
(Posted by Brother Ivo)