Screenshot from British Pathé film “200 Year Old Football. Whole Town joins in Annual Shrove Tuesday Game” (1924)
I have a fantasy that elite, televised football in 2014 is played in goals resembling the ones seen in the still above, which is taken from a 1924 British Pathé film depicting the annual shrovetide football game in Alnwick, Northumberland. I have a fantasy that Ōllamaliztli, the pre-Colombian Mesoamerican ball game, made it through the colonial period unscathed and that the finals of a grand televised tournament are now played annually at the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza, which will by necessity have been embellished with modern-construction grandstands (maybe these grandstands will be “in keeping”, I don’t know). In both these fantasies, there is a continuity between a distant past considered as having something of the uncanny about it and a readily-identifiable present: I get to consume the Alnwick shrovetide game, or aspects of it, in the same way I might sit down to watch the Champions League final in three weeks’ time. I fantasise about what geographically-particular and all-but-lost genera of the species “ball game” might look like if filtered through – or forcefully smushed up against – the visual infrastructure of the contemporary globalised sports spectacle. In this gleeful conjuring of anachronisms I am no doubt guided by the work of painter Jacob Kerray, whose ‘Prince Khan Noonien Singh of the United Great Khanate Principalities 1993‘, for instance, is a concatenation of historical references somehow held together and given their ultimate determination by the presence of a pair of Adidas football boots.
The critical possibilities opened up by this fantasy can be imagined like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illustration: it all looks different depending on which way round you read it. Straightforwardly, to prepare the Mesoamerican ball game for 21st-century spectacular culture would be to necessarily divest it of some of its originary ritual and cosmological significance, although this clearly hasn’t stopped some attempts at touristic revival. Equally, to re-design the Alnwick shrovetide game for television would be to open it up to the selfsame forces that have in recent years turned soccer into an oligarchs’ playground. I wouldn’t wish Aseem Allam on anybody, and yet I can’t deny that the desire I invest in the game of football is inexorably bound up with the commodified way in which it has been delivered to me since infancy, probably in ways I don’t fully understand.
On the other hand, the notion of flower-adorned goalposts as a central prop in a televisual sport spectacle (as opposed to a documentary one) implies the importation of an altogether foreign context to that televisual infrastructure, just as much as it implies the subsumption of its materials by television and all it entails. The fantasy of tuning in to Sky Sports 3 (let’s be realistic) for “Scoring the Hales 2014: Live!” enables, somewhere down the line, the realisation that the World Cup Final and the Kirkwall Ba Game are distant cousins. Separated by many centuries and many levels of bifurcation, we can nevertheless draw a familial connection between Manchester City’s upcoming Premier League title-decider against Everton and the folk football games staged on the Isle of Ely and Holland Fen in 1638 and 1768 respectively, which provided a means for communal defiance against the enclosure of common lands. And in this sudden reminder of the submerged carnivalesque inheritance of modern football, to borrow a phrase from Horst Bredekamp, ‘resonates the hope that of this noisy jubilation something salvageable remains, something the football community has not been offered for a long time: “joy”, “spontaneity”, “emotion”, even “ecstasy.”‘
by Luke Healey (with thanks to Daniel Davies for the Bredekamp translation)