FOOTBALL AND DELUSION
Mickey Blue Eyes
"delusion / n. 1. A false belief or impression. 2. Psychol. this as a symptom or form of mental disorder."
THE CONCISE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF CURRENT ENGLISH. Page 357. (Clarendon Press, 1995).
"McALLISTER: Quite an interesting class you gave today, mister Keating.
KEATING: Sorry if I shocked you, mister McAllister.
McALLISTER: Oh, there's nothing to apologise for. It was very fascinating, misguided though it was.
KEATING: You think so?
McALLISTER: You take a big risk by encouraging them to become artists, John. When they realise they're not Rembrandts, Shakespeares or Mozarts they'll hate you for it.
KEATING: We're not talking artists, George, we're talking free-thinkers.
McALLISTER: Free-thinkers at seventeen?
KEATING: Funny, I never pegged you as a cynic.
McALLISTER: Not a cynic, a realist. "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man."
KEATING: "But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."
KEATING: No, Keating."
DEAD POETS SOCIETY. A film by Peter Weir (1989).
"--- To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be."
LAST POEMS, XXXV. By A. E. Housman (1922).
Football, our national sport, always has been and always will be riddled with delusion at all levels. The ironic and faintly amusing thing is, few supporters and administrators are willing to admit this openly, while still others kid themselves they are holders of The Only Truth. Some even rationalise delusion into a notion that if only someone would listen to them everything would be alright. For those mentalities at their worst, everyone is wrong but them and the answers - always their answers - are simple. At that level it becomes the sort of wilful ignorance that borders on, if not actually, a mental disorder. To confirm this, if you can be arsed, you need only listen to the average radio phone-in or read the average message board. However, those are the extremes; of course there are many lesser variants.
Nevertheless the behavioural roots run deep, apparently all the way to the origin of species. Since delusion appears to be part of human personality one presumes Nature evolved it for a reason we can never really know. For now all we can guess is it is for some reason part of the survival instinct. (For another definition see here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/delusional-disorder, and at other similar links). Which means humans will, if received needs be, defend it as savagely as a dog defends its food. Nor is this reaction limited to social class or wealth. That means events can get ugly indeed when delusions are challenged. History shows some people are even ready to die or kill rather than abandon them. In football we haven't yet descended that far down the evolutionary ladder, though there have been occasions when the game got uncomfortably close to it. For instance use of the word "hate" is routine amongst knuckle-dragging Neanderthal fans. All for a game where twenty-two men kick a ball around a field for ninety minutes.......If that isn't delusion, what is?
Now it is perfectly obvious to a fully-functioning, reasonably sensitive human being that all organised professional sport is utterly trivial when compared to global problems of poverty and oppression. Many millions of innocent lives could be saved or improved if wealth in sport was diverted to humanitarian causes. But this will not happen under present circumstances. Likely only a major cataclysm could cause such a cultural change. Example, it took two world wars to suspend professional sport for the duration. So even if there is general reluctance to accept the triviality of sport reactionary elements of the establishment are well aware of its usefulness, just as Ancient Rome despots were well aware of the expediency of games in the Coliseum. Efficiently managed, crowds in stadia pose little threat to the status quo because they are too busy watching, cheering or jeering the spectacle, or being diverted by useless gossip and attendant propaganda. A crude equilibrium is maintained, emotional energy and frustration released. The same applies to almost all popular culture and most expressions of nationalism and congruent racism. People are unlikely to organise mass dissent against the established order if they are preoccupied with playing fortunes or absurd notions of "exceptionality," which is the ultimate delusion. They might grumble and change officials or players but they won't actually change a system where it matters.
This is how and why a combination of apathy and delusion thrives and blocks genuine progress and improvement. Delusionists are part of the problem and not part of the cure, which is why sensible men and women will have no truck with them. Delusions should not be confused with genuine vision, sensible ambition and talented creativity, though culprits often do just that. The Enlightenment long ago proved that a single discovered scientific reality is much more wonderful than all ridiculous superstitions, delusions, drugs and street-hysterics combined.
Currently, science identifies a hierarchy of individual and mass delusion. The former can network quickly to the latter, particularly through the internet medium. But such reaction can also lead to short-lived delusion-as-novelty; no sooner does one mirage vanish than another one must appear as a matter of necessity. Thus, the requirement for delusive novelty can be just as addictive as any other obsession. This kind of extreme short-termism bedevils Western society and culture at almost every level. Hence in football an inability to tolerate the ebb and flow of playing fortunes. At its most absurd one imagines every club has to be eternally "successful," and all in the same instant. At times it is a manipulated comic pantomime of mass hysteria, much like most radio, TV and print news. Small wonder some supporters fall victim to "delusions of grandeur," a self-deceptive persuasion that you are much greater and more powerful and influential than you really are.
Unquestionably this has something to do with an individual search for self-empowerment, that one has least some control over one's life. This might also partly explain sheer vehemence and poison spewed all over football when fortunes take a turn for the worse. All that single-minded concentration and commitment in support has to go somewhere if it doesn't lead to success. There is no time to really care or to accept the old dictum that all creativity is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration. Someone or something has to be held immediately responsible if all that irrational emotion is to be justified. At which point wilful ignorance of consequences can take over and memory can be erased - one of the reasons Orwell wrote, "Whoever controls the past controls the future." Example, few who went through it will forget the way substantial numbers of Evertonians turned on some members of the great late 1980s squad as they grew older and lost their form before moving on. The same can be said of every club and its fans. There is nothing new about it; it is the most sickening sight and sound in the game. And I haven't the slightest doubt it would be repeated if David Moyes manages against the odds to produce a great team.
Football crowds are no more immune to this human default now than any other mass of people in the past. For confirmation of this you need only view flickering old black and white film stock showing crowds around the world cheering their young men off to useless slaughter in the trenches of the First World War, or the infamous Leni Riefenstahl film Triumph of the Will. Or you can consult the appalling history of British and US imperial military staffs since the Second World War, or the hubris of, for instance, George Patton, Adolf Hitler and Robert E. Lee amongst many others. Hubris and delusion run through human history like twin cancers eating away at civilised instincts. Under certain circumstances it can subvert an entire nation and its culture, for which see accounts of Nazi Germany and other totalitarian systems. In the present day you need look no further than the Western swing toward ultra right policies during the last generation. It is all too tediously familiar despite the use of greater subtlety and sophisticated methods. Football is merely one popular expression of it.
Media ownership is an important key in all of this. And while the internet is rightly vaunted as having great potential for independent opinion and delivery of facts it should be remembered the same thing was said at the dawn of printing, radio and television. In fact the internet can actually make manipulation and creation of delusion easier, much as it did with previous media. An independent voice is all very well but it is useless if it cannot translate into a coherent and organised body of opinion. Mainstream media does this through monopoly ownership and co-ordinated repetition of its owners' propaganda. Independent voices are simply ignored or quickly isolated and ridiculed, which, ironically, is also one of the reasons delusions can rise and fall so quickly.
It is mainstream media and its journalists who have manufactured the main tool. This is the contrived disconnection between real meaning and words, mostly seen in the tabloid form of journalism, though it has steadily invaded so-called "quality" media too. Tabloid journalism inevitably cuts short nuance and sensitivity and creates cheap emotionality and reaction - the aim of all conscienceless propaganda. You can see this in football with repeat scatter gun use of exaggeration and farcical hyperbole, in the use of words like "awesome," "fantastic," "fabulous," "incredible," "amazing" and many others to describe quite ordinary athletic acts. Small wonder, then, the most impressionable fans, especially the young, repeat the method and devalue the whole footy experience. When journalists concentrate on the most successful teams they inevitably magnify the one-dimensional delusion that the only thing that matters is their interpretation of the game. This is reductionism at its poisonous worst. And none of this takes into account outright lies such as the evil rightist propaganda spread by Rupert Murdoch's editors and journalists in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.
Part of football delusion is the creation and destruction of personality cults, as it is in show business, politics and in commerce. Heroes and villains matter because they provide focus. When this is fused with the biggest delusion in football, that all playing problems can be solved by money, the circle is complete. The first casualty of delusion is reality. Its affect on vulnerable young players is demonstrable, though that can also be attributed to innate personality characteristics. But personality cults are also just an excuse to scapegoat someone, a truly cowardly form of activity even when there is some truth in the accusations.
In the end the point about football delusion is that it actually undermines genuine ambition and dreams of collective and individual fulfilment. It is shallow, useless and regressive, unreal in conception and worthless in application. It is cultural poison. If the professional game is to have any future it should do much better in ridding itself of delusion and delusionists at all levels, let alone the liars and spivs currently infesting it. Fans can do their part by researching and understanding the functions of trusts and supporters unions - and then applying them sensibly to their long term activities. It's either that or wait for a non-existent billionaire with a billion spare cash he's willing to put into the club over two decades to buy new players and build a new stadium, all the time aware the whole thing could go to hell in a hand basket.
Reality and construction are the twin targets, not delusion and its necessary ally cynicism.