The Ghost Games And The Bundesliga

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Jonathon Reid @mrjblade

“It’s life Jim, but not as we know it”.

Iconic words uttered by Mr Spock in the original Star Trek series way back in the 1960s, and apt for the times we find ourselves in right now. Much like football, Star Trek has become something far different than what it started out as back in in its original incarnation. Buried under years of pop culture, nostalgia and, frankly, better interpretations since; to view the original show now is to watch something deeply kitsch and bordering on camp. The bright colours, the obvious sets, the rubber suits and make-up; the future doesn’t look great for Jim Kirk and his pals through the lens of 2020 and sixty plus years of innovation since.

And yet there unquestionably remains a power and draw to the show even now; something eminently watchable and comforting about it in even in its most basic form. Maybe it is those bright colours and soft-focus lens, the reliance on tropes well-worn, or just simply the romance of a good story well told whatever the setting. Sure, there’s plenty of poorly designed props and William Shatner being, well, William Shatner. But there’s also real chilling horror, big ideas and William Shatner being an old-school, capital H, hero as James T Kirk. It might be basic but, if you’re a fan, it’s Trek in its purest form.

Romance really is what defines the show, despite the wink to the audience and the dated designs. Suspension of disbelief is key, and its at the heart of so many things we love as a species: theatre, art, cinema. Perhaps a better example is in ‘All I Want for Christmas is a Dukla Prague Away Kit’ by Half Man Half Biscuit and the world’s best Subbuteo reference, “He had all the accessories required for that big match atmosphere/the crowd and the dugout and the floodlights too/You’d always get palmed off with a headless centre forward/and a goalkeeper with no arms and a face like his”. For someone like me, born at the tail-end of the analog-era, that’s a life’s worth of investment summed up really. Star Trek had dodgy sets and so did we, but there was still tons of drama at least.

I mention all this because that’s what, in essence, we had this weekend as football returned to TV screens in the form of the Bundesliga. Predictably, the return raised many eyebrows before a ball was even kicked given the ongoing pandemic, but they were raised further still as the games got under way. As we all sat waiting for Dortmund v Schalke, we weren’t greeted by the familiar hum of fans and a wash of flags in the Yellow Wall.

Instead, a palpable and heavy silence as players shuffled awkwardly out onto the pitch, no pre-match photo or handshakes, and then only the constant thud of a ball being kicked like a dripping tap. The coverage too felt oddly synthetic, a mostly empty TV studio in white, punctuated only by Owen Hargreaves looming like an image of Big Brother in the background. Later, a hastily arranged Skype call in which a view up Paul Lambert’s nostrils featured heavily, and the odd bit of guests talking over each other in split-screen, like a bad Brady Brunch with poor keying. Football isn’t this, football is the start of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Thunderous roars, deep intakes of breath and then euphoric releases. Instead we were given awkward pauses, and that horrible, horrible silence, echoing back through everyone’s microphones and speakers. That horrible heavy silence of shuffling feet and loaded words. And then Haaland scores.

Haaland scores and it’s bedlam, ecstasy. For five brief seconds, everything slides into place and football is football again. Haaland scoring what will no doubt be an iconic and historic goal, followed by what will definitely be an iconic and historic celebration. Suddenly there are stakes, the players forget themselves and tackles start to fly in, the game tunnels into narrow focus on individual battles and becomes about stories.

The artifice and surrealism of the situation fades into the background, and those of us who stay through that first awkward fifteen minutes find ourselves in a familiar place. The clichés return in full abundance, Schalke are quite literally playing the occasion, Dortmund the game. It doesn’t last, nothing can unfortunately, soon the game sinks back into that now familiar and eerie silence. But for a brief moment we’re somewhere else, back ‘there’, before whatever ‘this’ is became the new normal. Football is in many ways about escapism, but now more than ever it seems we suspend our disbelief and are taken into places familiar, but at the same time completely alien, for a few thrilling seconds.

All of this of course, is a very romantic view of a deeply surreal moment in human history. Every person who tells you football isn’t important is completely right, it is fundamentally 22 people kicking a ball around and not a lot else.

Everything else is the audience, suspending their disbelief and buying into what’s in front of them. And yet there is still something important about football, whatever form it might take. Whether it’s escapism, identity or even just background noise, it does have a role and deeper significance. German football in particular has the fan at a foundational level, everything is centred on and in aid of them, what they represent, what they bring to the sport. Shorn of this it is a very odd beast, but it is still football. Arcane? Yes. Familiar? Definitely.

Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the quote “football is the most important of the least important things”, attributed to everyone from Arrigo Sacchi to Carlo Ancelotti, because it so eruditely pinpoints what football is. Again, it is completely bananas that we give so much of ourselves to something so inherently meaningless, but the giving in many ways is the point. The investment into something other, for a brief time, lets you escape into something different, something bigger than you.

That ultimately isn’t romance, just a sketch of the mechanics of what happens. It’s simple, basic even, but it’s tangible and a feeling we’ve all known and come to identify with. That sense of investment and the thrill it brings.

As the games roll by on Saturday, I ponder on this question for hours. What does this mean, football? I know it means something, I know those who say it isn’t important are right, but it does mean something. For a long time, all I can come back to is that idea of suspending our disbelief. I think for hours about films like Avengers: Endgame – the highest grossing film of all time no less – which are 95% CGI apart from the actors themselves, but they still mean something. Devoid of all those effects, there’d still be important character moments, drama and subtexts.

Those are still important, even without the trappings we’ve become accustomed too, I puzzle on that for hours. Later, I stumble across an interview with Haaland post-match, where the question of why the team went to applaud an empty stand comes up. His answer is simple and brims with the confidence I increasingly admire him for, “why not”? And that brings me hurtling back full circle to where I started: it’s just football isn’t it? Why not? Does it need a point?

All the high-budget production, the slick interviews, they’re all add-ons. It doesn’t matter if you have dodgy sets, there can still be tons of drama. My own investment in Dortmund and the Bundesliga is the same, living alone away from home, with friends on gap years and nothing to do way back in 2012. How is that important? Why is it relevant? It isn’t. But it’s on, it’s something to do, why not? It’s just football, go from there. We all want this to be over, so things can be back to how they were, but for now they can’t. But this at least is a window back into the things we had and proof, for me at least, that those things are still important. Ultimately, it’s the investment and the stories we all bring to this that go on to be important. It’s life Jim – but not as we know it.



 

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A final musing on this is that line itself. It never happened. It’s not spoken in the original Star Trek at all (neither was ‘Beam me up Scotty’ as it happens). It’s a misattribution from a novelty single, that has made it’s way into wider culture. Fitting really I guess for the times we live in, with the increasing focus on ‘fake news’ media bias and social media hearsay, mostly CGI films, and the repeatedly amplified silence of Zoom calls. I’m guilty of this as much as anyone, in many ways it has become how we live now, locked into our social media avatars and rattling around on trains all wearing headphones to block out the silence and low-hum around us.

There is real chilling horror and big ideas at the heart of modern life, just as there is in the fiction that reflects it, but I’ve never been one for navel-gazing too long and hard at them if I can help it. We can all find meaning where there is none if we stare hard enough, and believe me, there is none. But the fiction becoming the truth isn’t anything new, and it can still be just as important. Does it matter if it was Sacchi or Ancelotti said that line about football being the most important of the least important things? Only if you’re in court I guess, the important part is the body of what they were driving at, the message, whoever said it.

The silver lining of all that has gone on in this pandemic is a renewed focus on the importance of the simple things, and people finding innovative ways to stay in touch and communicate, to connect in a direct a way as possible. The stories we tell ourselves ultimately become the truth, and that is more important in many ways. I could, and frequently have, bored people with the stories of Liverpool’s 13/14 season and what it means to me – sometimes even more than actual things we have won like the European Cup.

I know I’m not alone in that, any fan will be able to mark time around big games and give you a point-by-point replay of their life, their story, without being able to tell you a thing about what happened on the pitch outside of the goals. That is romance, of course it is. But simultaneously it isn’t either, it’s life – their life – but as they know it. That sense of community is vital now more than ever.

I’m sure there’ll be a variety of ramifications from this weekend’s games, and I’m keen to see peoples’ reactions as much as anyone else, hopefully with the safety of everyone involved paramount and front and centre. But for now, this is the only way back we have to how things were, pared down to its simplest form and without any of the involvement we’ve come to know and love. When we look back, we won’t remember the strange studios or the silence, we’ll point back to the goals, the stories, the moments that happened in the games. We’ll discuss this ‘now’ as the start of getting us back to ‘there’, wherever there is. It’s strange yes, and the sets are a bit dodgy, but fundamentally it’s just football, why not?

Up the Reds, and stay safe.

This whole thing is open to interpretation so feel free to drop me a line on Twitter about how you found the games if you watched, and what your thoughts on the whole thing are! @mrjblade.

Jonathon Reid

 

Jonathon Reid @mrjblade

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