Can you play football without balls?

A guest post by R.M. Christofides

The study of football often meets resistance on these shores, a hangover from the Thatcher era’s view of it as unworthy of comment, a stupid game for stupid people, a culture of common sense anti-intellectualism in which Hillsborough was blamed on drunken hooliganism and tactical coaching was considered an effete indulgence. A few head-in-the-sand traditionalists aside, no one today doubts the value of sports psychology in football, with cognitive behavioural therapies commonly used to create positive associations for the professional’s psyche. What, then, can psychoanalysis offer?

Sports psychology‘s most prominent exponent has been Dr Steve Peters, who advocates the need to manage the negative impulses of a player’s inner ‘chimp’, with the ‘chimp’ an analogy for the anarchic drives of the Freudian unconscious that break through into everyday life in the form of repetitive destructive habits. Visualisation, for instance, gives players a strategy for controlling individual behaviour, but the narrative approach of psychoanalysis has a lexicon for explaining the broader discourse that regulates team behaviour.

In the hierarchized, macho world of men’s football, the manager occupies a symbolic position at the helm of a club, setting the ethos and ambitions of the team. From a psychoanalytic perspective, managers are symbolic Fathers, cultural positions equivalent to the biological father and identified with society’s codes of conduct. According to Freudian psychoanalysis, the resolution of Oedipal tensions – giving up exclusive attachment to the mother and accepting paternal authority – results in a healthy, well-adjusted adult, and paternal figures outside the family, such as religious leaders or heads of state, continually reinforce this process. Freud’s great successor, Jacques Lacan, considered this a linguistic process: the social codes we automatically follow everyday could not exist without a language to name them. Symbolic Fathers are the walking, talking embodiment of these rules, powerful dummies of a quasi-divine ventriloquism. The analogy with the dressing room’s mini-society is obvious: the linguistic code of the manager controls the rules for sporting success.

With the cold finger of mediocrity tapping him on the shoulder after a draw with Hull City, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently gave an uncomfortable interview that demonstrated how a manager’s tone affects team behaviour. Frustrated by an inability to deal with muscular counter-attacking opponents, Wenger damned Hull’s reactive style with faint praise while bemoaning poor refereeing. Adopting the moral high ground when physical opponents disrupt the raking flow of Arsenal’s rapid-fire passing is a familiar theme, Wenger’s insistence throwing into relief the catastrophic defending that led to one of Hull’s goals. As Mohamed Diame bundled forward, he clearly, if not aggressively, fouled Mathieu Flamini. A free kick was not given and play continued. Despite being well positioned to intercept, the covering defender, Per Mertesacker, stopped, expecting the free kick and allowing the onrushing Diame to score. Cue exasperated, scandalised protests. Wenger’s frequent sense of entitlement had clearly transferred to his players, the controversial goal etching onto the pitch Wenger’s narrative of bullying opponents and complicit referees.

Across London that same afternoon, Wenger’s nemesis, Jose Mourinho, watched his Chelsea team beat Crystal Palace in a blood-and-thunder London derby. Asked what had produced the victory, Mourinho took a journalist’s note pad and wrote down two words: ‘Big balls’. Reproducing the modern game’s machismo or playing on it for effect, Mourinho’s antagonistic discourse of bold resolution feeds a battle-hardened mentality in his players. The immediate contrast made by numerous analysts was that Chelsea would never be bullied or distracted like Arsenal. It would contravene the manager’s code of relentless focus, discipline and determination, a code evident in the words and gestures Mourinho uses to order the entire symbolic environment around his squad.

Mourinho’s demi-god status at Chelsea contrasts with the earlier failure of ‘Big’ Phil Scolari. A paternalistic manager who psychologically profiles players, Scolari was successful with the exclusively Catholic, Portuguese-speaking dressing rooms of Brazil and Portugal where his religious and nationalist motivational language found easy traction. (The debacle at the 2014 World Cup was more the collective failure of modern Brazilian football than of Scolari specifically.) In Chelsea’s polycultural atmosphere, Scolari could not find a common cause, a lingua franca, around which to rally a diverse squad. He could no longer speak as a symbolic Father. Elsewhere, the paucity of female managers, even in the women’s game, can partly be put down to the organisation of clubs around aggressive masculine figures, a structure embedded in football worldwide since the game spread globally in tandem with industrialisation.

The symbolic Fathers of psychoanalysis represent a set of rules, a political or religious or philosophical dogma that lives and breathes in the language these paternalistic figures use. In football, the match is often won before victory is planned on the training pitch or visualised in a green room. In football, victory or defeat often begins with the symbolic word of the ballsy manager. 

R.M. Christofides is a literary scholar and the author of Shakespeare and the Apocalypse 

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