Football on stream
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
As France prepares to host the Euro championships this summer, it’s a sobering thought that it’s probably an event the country’s security services could happily do without. But on the field of play itself, the hosts have deprived themselves of their star striker Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), over the matter of a sex tape that implicated another player, Mathieu Valbuena. It’s an unsavoury episode with a suggestion of blackmail. The manager Didier Deschamps (captain of the World Cup winners in 1998, and of the European champions two years later) decided that it simply wasn’t possible to overlook Benzema’s errant behaviour.
France have hosted the European championships before: in 1984. They won. (It's worth bearing in mind that the two occasions when France have hosted a big tournament,1984 and 98, they've won. What price a hat-trick?) Their captain was also their leading goal-scorer (with nine of France’s fourteen goals in five matches), Michel Platini. I didn’t watch any of it – and was probably only vaguely aware that the event was taking place, even though I’d spent the first five months of the year in the country as a student. I don’t recall there being any build-up to the tournament. How the profile of the game has changed in the past thirty years! But I do have recollections of Platini’s subsequent stellar performances with the Italian club giants Juventus.
Platini is now principally known for his close alliances as director of the European organization UEFA with the disgraced former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter. Indeed, Platini has been suspended from the game for eight years. It’s looking like a sad end to a glittering career in the game.
Will the writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint be attending any of this summer’s matches? Fitzcarraldo are about to publish his Football, in a translation by Shaun Whiteside. It’s a short book – under a hundred pages (the French edition was brought out last year by Toussaint’s regular publishers Les Editions de Minuit).
Toussaint opens with a warning: “This is a book that no one will like, not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual”. That’s characteristically playful of him. While we’re about it, what is an intellectual? It’s a term that seems constantly to require definition – and to defy it.
Football is only partly about football. We revisit the writer's childhood. Later there's a description of an encounter with Jeff Koons and his young family. Toussaint has been present at two World Cups – Japan in 2002 and Germany in 2006, but doesn’t describe the matches he saw in any detail (although the English edition includes his separately published Zidane’s Melancholy, a meditation inspired by that player’s sending off in what turned out to be his last game for France, the final against Italy in Berlin). Living in Brussels for many years (he is Belgian), Toussaint never attended a match, he reveals. In common with many who like the game, he doesn’t follow a team. His presence in Japan neatly coincided with a book promotion tour (several of his later novels are partly set in the country). But he describes in almost nerdish detail his journeys to and from the stadia, who he sat next to, how irritating they were, etc. It’s all quite entertaining.
Ronaldo (the first one) wheels away after scoring for Brazil against Germany in the final, Yokohama, June 30, 2002
Come the 2006 tournament, he applied online for several tickets and congratulated himself on his purchases only to be met with the message Ausverkauft (sold out). I can empathize: I had a similar experience with the 2012 Olympics in London when my “purchase” of tickets to six events yielded just one actual set of tickets. Watching sport live, it seems, has never been more popular.
By 2014 (Brazil) Toussaint is in his writer’s retreat on Corsica – no TV, no internet. He has come to work but he cracks and buys an internet package to watch a match on his laptop – “en streaming“ in the French version – there’s a storm and he loses his connection. He tries the radio: there’s a power cut, just as a penalty shoot-out is about to take place. He finds an old transistor in the house – panic over; relief! How daft that football – twenty grown men chasing a piece of leather around a field – can have that effect on an intelligent individual.