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Case Study

The Psychoanalysis of Soccer

Stephen Longstaffe forwards an analysis by Marcel Sturrock, Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at Watt University College (motto: “Watt U.C. is what you get!”), and the author of This Game Which Is Not One Half, Trevor.

Psychoanalysis’ scientific status has recently has been questioned by scholars working in the so-called ‘hard sciences’. Their claims have been convincingly refuted elsewhere, and it is to be hoped that they soon accept the truth that psychoanalysis is not only a science, but is itself a hard science. Is not one of the most common reactions to classic Lacanian formulations that they are ‘impossibly’ hard? But psychoanalysis can also easily be demonstrated to have an empirical foundation, as confirmed by my recent researches into one particular area, football (‘soccer’, for readers unfamiliar with European critical terminology).

There are more than twenty-two agents at play on this particular discursive field. Psychoanalytic terminology describes their activity so well that one might almost imagine it had been thought of whilst watching the sport, instead of through the rigorous clinical analysis of terribly serious cases.

The Officials

Consider: what is a referee to many fans, but somebody who lacks the name of the father? Do not the fans chant, “Where’s your father, referee?” A paradoxical figure, who is both within a spectacle and needs spectacles. A man whose possession of the Lacanian P must be disguised – usually within a specialised container, the ‘whistle’. When rules are transgressed, P itself becomes unstable, oscillates, within the restrictive boundaries of the ‘whistle’.

The referee, impossibly, confronts that which is beyond language. That which is abject – that which is ‘foul’ – which must be, paradoxically, read and recorded, literally inscribed – for here there is no ‘foul’ outside writing: in this case, the writing of the referee in, significantly, a little book. But is it the foulness of vomit, or of blood ? Yellow or red? How can one decide, when that which is yellow, doubled, becomes not itself, but the Other – inevitably the red? For are not all cards always already read?

Consider the assistant referees. Liminal figures, marginal figures, yet central. Again paradoxical, they must remain in touch yet never be, as the referee is, in play. They are excluded from the spectacle proper, yet they often need spectacles even more than the referee.

The Players

The metadiscourse of football is laughably transparent in psychoanalytic terms, from its casual use of barely-concealed sexualised terminology (‘penetration’ and its cognates, ‘studs up’, ‘ball-winner’, ‘the tackle’, ‘shoot out’, ‘penalised’, ‘sliding in recklessly’ and the relations between ‘dribbling’ and ‘shooting’), to the more complex modalities of ‘flat back four’ (one only need think of flat-back-four-play for the link to become obvious). To extend Lacan’s successful use of mathematical terms and analogies, if football is a game played with head and feet, then the true mean is the genitals, and sexuality is, rightly, a key term in the analysis. So transgression of the flat back four by an attacker (or ‘offside’) produces an answering raising of arms in a phallic salute, usually bringing the referee’s P (see above) into play.

Consider the ‘free kick’. The Ball (B) is placed in front of a Wall (W) containing lots of other, smaller, balls (b). The best interests of the team seeking to transgress the opponent’s goal line (L) is expressed via the equation

B / W (hence) B / b

But sometimes if B / W then NOT B / L.

Hence the occasional tactic, best expressed as B into b. In this case, b is likely to be completely factored.

Consider too the goalkeeper. His function (for the sake of the team) mimics the repetitions of childhood, risking the most shaming defilement of the mouth of the goal. For do not only the greatest goalkeepers consistently keep their sheets clean?

The dynamics of the game itself are predicated upon psychoanalytic narratives. For example, as the match goes on, the clash between the Real and the Imaginary becomes obvious, for the Imaginary always exceeds the Real, especially in the case of Carlisle United. Moreover, Freud’s account of the dream and dream-work is still crucial to the analysis of the match, the main processes at work being displacement (of managers from the stands to the dugout), condensation (usually right over the bit of the stand you are sitting in), and, of course, substitution. The operations of substitution on a player often signify to the skilled observer the possibility of transference (or at least, transference neurosis) at a subsequent stage.

The Fans

The battles between rival fans over possession of ‘hardness’ (“Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough!”) clearly relates again to psychoanalytic theory in its foregrounding of epistemological problems. Is it possible to know whether one is hard enough? It is not possession of hardness, but the knowledge of such possession, which hinges on the anxious if. Unfortunately, the language of formal logic, thanks to Lacan generally so useful in psychoanalysis, is of little help. At first sight, if T is You Thinking You’re Hard Enough, and C is Coming and Having a Go, then we can write

If T then C.

But signification itself evades this resolution, for we are faced with the contradiction at the heart of the beloved chant: how can one be coming and having a go? This contradiction only approaches resolution in the fans’ reactions to the game on Saturday nights, when it is possible to observe many who, evading the Ego and Superego like so many Ronaldos, are as near to The Unconscious as makes no difference. Successive governments have recognised the dangers of this in their attempts to inspect every fan’s Id before the match.

The French

Although Arsene Wenger can justly claim to have moved beyond Lacan’s petit (a) in his unique midfield deployment of Petit (E), it is to another Frenchman that we must turn for the most obvious confirmation of football’s psychoanalytic roots. Eric Cantona was one of the most influential and gifted players of recent times. Mercurial, unpredictable, match-winning, the fans’ reactions to him confirmed Freud’s most fundamental insights. Crucial to Freud’s theory of infantile development as set out in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), is the ‘fort/da’ game. These syllables were Freud’s interpretation of the noise the infant made, which symbolised its recognition of its lowly place in the world and its desire to control all life’s unpredictable ways. The infant in the pram discovers its own power over its environment by controlling the object, sometimes near, sometimes far, revelling in its own sense of exerted power. Yet, as is often forgotten, the infant was too young to articulate the words ‘fort’ or ‘da’. Rather, the noise, as you will need no reminding, was ‘Oooh/Aaah’. Hence, what may have seemed to the ignorant to be merely a childish pun on Cantona’s name is actually a more truly childish recognition of the infantile position Cantona’s skills placed his many admirers in – the position in which, as their other Cantona chant confirmed, they didn’t know why they loved him.

Will this be thought to have done for now?

© Dr Stephen Longstaffe 2008

Stephen Longstaffe is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Cumbria.

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