The arts editor of The Age called me a few days before the 2008 Grand Final wondering if I could string together something about art and sport. Just happened to have something lying around! Earlier in the year I’d been working through André Gide’s diaries; here was a chance to use his oddly gleeful discovery of volleyball.
The claim that the arts are a sworn enemy of sport has a ritualistic quality. The ceremonial pillorying of sport is an incantation declaring the triumph of the aesthete. André Gide reported on an old bohemian who was congratulated on his fine state of preservation—this in 1930s Berlin, when being a bohemian was hard graft, not a weekend hobby. ‘I’ll tell you my secret’, the aged reprobate whispered, ‘no sports’.
Gide, a Nobel laureate, was neither bohemian nor jock, and yet he experienced a moment of epiphany playing volleyball. ‘This game amused me more than I should have thought it still possible, amused me like a child and a god, and especially since I wasn’t bad at it … and how the very gratuitousness of that struggle, of that effort, seems to me beautiful!’
Gide is onto something there and, using the parlance of modern football commentary, I’ll honour the lead. The beauty, the great pleasure of football is its gratuitousness. Many claims are made on its behalf, but football itself makes none. In the heat of play, each lunge, mark and kick is a moment of instinctive, pure presentness; childlike but potentially divine.
You often hear about the physical or mental intensity of a game but the real intensity lies in the way that a football game can explode into improvisation. The game plan, the coaching drills, the whiteboard and the video reviews all evaporate when a player, perhaps subliminally, recalls coach John Kennedy’s timeless exhortation, ‘Don’t think, don’t hope, do!’ In a thoroughly instrumental culture, a means and ends world lubricated by weasel words, football offers the beacon of the unanticipated. If I were being honest about why I love football, I’d have to paraphrase the Sex Pistols; ‘Actually, I’m not into football; I’m into chaos’.
This season, no player has united the infantile and the sublime more effectively than Carlton’s Brendan Fevola. None of the usual footy euphemisms—mercurial, volatile, enigmatic—will do; what he does on a football ground is simply mental. The sight of Fevola lying on his back in the goal square, flinging ball to boot, scoring with a trick shot that would have left Walter Lindrum gaping, was topped immediately when he strode to the fence to share a few bon mots with the Collingwood cheer squad. Impish is the only word for it; a petulant magic promising both majesty and catastrophe. Which is why Fevola’s artistry is best compared to that of Nijinsky; yes, they were both possessed of a majestic leap but their real skill lay in just being possessed. When Fevola plumbed the depths, there were some who suggested it was like watching a train wreck. Yes, but a train designed by Norman Bel Geddes, a wreck choreographed by Merce Cunningham, and filmed by Guillermo del Toro.
The technocratic aspects of football—the stage-managed stoppages, the flooding, the time-and-motion logic of the interchange bench—become a vague, bad memory when a player surprises himself. This year we’ve seen players like Fev, Cyril Rioli, Leon Davis and Dale Thomas agog at their own efforts, as surprised as anyone in the stands that a hurried snap flew true. Their exhilaration is palpable; here are players who’ve learned all the drills and memorised the managerial jargon of the modern coach only to come out the other side laughing as professional football implodes into the sheer absurdity of a freakish goal. Sure, there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ but there are plenty in ‘inimitable’.
Those are football’s moments of transubstantiation, when mere matter becomes divine. Other transformations add to the magic. An empty stadium, intimidating in its sheer mass of concrete and capital, is somehow softened by a seething crowd. For me, the voice of the stadium, a polyvocal buzz emanating from 80,000 throats, is deeply human. The voice of the people in a purely physical sense, uncontaminated by populist political rhetoric. The howl of a football crowd may be demonic—‘My name is Legion’, they declare, ‘for we are many’—but it’s reassuring. This isn’t Angry-from-Altona baying on talk back radio, it’s just all of us. Strangely, the nearest equivalent I’ve experienced is Schoenberg’s staging of the voice of God in the opening act of his opera Moses and Aaron, articulated by a dozen male and female voices, jostling simultaneously in chorus. Spine-chilling in its simplicity, uplifting in its unalloyed union; a mass voice uncorrupted by the mob mentality.
The strange, potentially dark, magic of the football crowd is a glimmer of hope in the commodified spectacle of the Australian Football League (AFL). Like the rogue player who ditches the drill in favour of what the moment offers, the crowd has the capacity to be bigger than the game. I don’t mean that the people will somehow outmanoeuvre the billion-dollar industry that is the AFL. But at the game, in the stands, the crowd is the wild variable. Vast waves of emotion crash around the stadium. Every action on the ground is instantly endorsed or decried.
Buying a ticket doesn’t mean selling your soul to ‘one of the largest sectors in Australia’s sport and recreation industry’ (that’s how the AFL describes itself). Joining a crowd at a football game is a reminder of the truth of Richard Wagner’s aphorism: ‘Joy is not in things; it is in us’.
Originally published: The Age, 26 September 2008