I write this just hours before the last kick-off in the Premier League, as the regular season makes way for the thrills and spills of cup finals and play-offs. Most summers it can feel like years between seasons – the days blur into each other, routine goes out of the window, humankind descends into innumeracy without having to perform the weekly arithmetic of tables and goal differences. Without football, we descend to little more than beasts.
Perhaps not. Besides, this is a World Cup year. Football is many things to many people. You can’t talk about football ‘in today’s society’ precisely because it isn’t confined to one. China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Ghana and Britain on the periphery of Europe – in any competition, in any region, where there is football, there is fandom. Economically, socially and politically, it’s a global superpower bordering on – nay, transcending – nationhood. It may be our circenses, and a way for a person to identify their self, but despite the enormous capital invested in and generated by the sport, its popular roots run deep. It’s a platitude by now for managers and players to thank the fans, be it David Moyes’ bon mot about “the people’s club”, or Klopp leading a theatrical bow for the travelling Kop, but the game would never have reached its current success without the supporters. Football is one of the consistent means of folk expression in modern times, so to speak of ‘the art’ of football is an uncontroversial statement. It’s an apt title for the exciting series of projects, exhibitions and panels coming to Liverpool this summer to coincide with the World Cup. Appropriately enough, given the issues raised by host nation Russia’s human rights record and the current sabre-rattling over Novichok (or not), election tampering and Olympic doping, ART OF FOOTBALL is not just a celebration of the sport, but an opportunity to examine how a pastime can be a lens through which we can focus on culture, music, politics, and economics.
I DON’T LOVE SOCCER BECAUSE SOCCER HAS NEVER LOVED ME is a graphic design and illustration exhibition that takes inspiration from Umberto Eco’s slightly sniffy 1978 essay of the same name, a showing that forms one of the major backbones of the month-long Art Of Football programme. Writing in the wake of the kidnap and murder of former Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro, Eco targeted the vacuousness of peripheral footballing culture (punditry, advertising), pointedly asking if revolution would ever be possible on a Sunday afternoon (irrelevant in the face of the lack of a historical tendency for the British to revolt). Liverpool, often a politically charged outclave of the UK, is an integral part of this exhibition’s provenance and not just because of the footballing heritage on Merseyside – the artists featured in this exhibition were commissioned by Ian Mitchell from LJMU’s Liverpool School Of Art And Design (its degree show has been a fixture for industry insiders for a couple of years now) to produce artwork as an interpretation of different sentences from Eco’s essay. An initial collection was first exhibited on the walls of Bold Street Coffee during the last World Cup; several more have been commissioned from an international pool of artists for this year’s iteration – including work by renowned David Bowie and Chemical Brothers collaborators (Jonathan Barnbrook and Kate Gibb, respectively) to scrutinise a tournament whose atmosphere won’t just be charged with competition. From 30th June-15th July, the exhibition will be housed within a dedicated Art Of Football pop-up gallery space in Camp and Furnace’s Gold Room (upstairs), which will also see all World Cup Games being screened.
At its simplest, the scale of football makes it a visual medium – the kits must be distinctive to player and spectator alike from 100 yards away. We all know how red-on-red made Ron Yeats look 10 feet tall, but bold, clear design doesn’t prevent small touches of style that reward the attentive. Those small touches will be up for close scrutiny at THE ART OF THE FOOTBALL SHIRT, curated by fashion historian and “old-school football head” Neal Heard, again hosted within the same Art Of Football pop-up gallery space in Camp and Furnace (open all World Cup match days from an hour before the first game kicks off).
There are some really wild strips on show, including Mexico’s 1998 livery, in jungly shades of green and bearing the gurning likeness of Aztec sun god Tonatiuh. It isn’t all aesthetics though – there are crossovers with music and politics, such as Madureira SC’s 2013 Che Guevara design commemorating 50 years since the Brazilian third division team won five matches in newly communist Cuba. Guevara may have been an Argentine, but he is an icon for leftists across the New World (sadly, Argentina itself is not represented by Ferro Carril Oeste’s new goalie kit with Homer Simpson retreating into a hedge).
Guevara was, along with Fidel Castro and John Lennon, a childhood hero of Brazilian midfielder Sócrates, not just one of the world’s undisputed great athletes, but a man with a remarkable sense of philosophy, politics and the player’s place in the industry of football. He set up Corinthians Democracy in the 80s with his teammates, not just to manage the team, but to protest the military dictatorship running Brazil at the time and encouraging their supporters to participate in democratic processes. The full story will be shown in the film Football Rebels (narrated by Eric Cantona – who else?) at GREEN SCREEN CINEMA at the Isla Gladstone Conservatory in Stanley Park on 9th July (a parallel screening takes place a week earlier at Prenton Park, the backdrop of the communities surrounding our city’s great football institutions adding to the resonance of the subject matter). He also lends his name to the one-day festival at Constellations on 30th June, DISCO SÓCRATES. In addition to a United Nations of DJs offering in-a-nutshell selections of Brazilian tropicália, Senegalese mbalax and Japanese shoegaze (hell, yes), there’ll be live sets from Wayne Snow (Nigerian soul via Berlin electronica), French polymath Oko Ebombo, Egyptian digitalist Rozzma and former BL! cover star MC Gomnam, for all you Farsi rap aficionados out there.
Football is such a total presence that it’s a useful prism for serious matters. However, it’s not quite a universal experience and gaps are notable by their absence. The Central Library will host SOCCERAMA on 12th and 13th July, a symposium of figures from media and academia. Outside The Box will discuss the frequently contradictory dynamics of race, gender and sexuality in the sport. Despite advances in attitudes to race (in Britain at least), what kind of obstacles do fans and players face vis-à-vis the lack of visible LGBTQ role models and why does women’s football not command the same coverage as the men’s sport? Anton Hysén (one of the only out footballers in Europe), Emy Onuora (author of Pitch Black) and Jacqui McAssey (GirlFans) will be on the panel discussing these issues and the ways in which football clubs can genuinely induce social change and help their local communities. The Green Screen Cinema screenings will also feature the brilliant documentary Forbidden Games: The Justin Fashanu Story as part of its programme, a moving tribute to the first – and still only – openly gay man to play professional football in the UK.
Could it be that football’s omnipresence is malignant? Is the globalisation of football worth the entertainment? Some feel it isn’t: just take the founders of AFC Liverpool, formed in 2008 by and for LFC fans who felt priced out of Anfield. Some of the matchday packages on offer today are exclusive to the point of obscenity. FIFA’s corruption is blatant and has no place in the 21st Century. However, maybe dialogue with the footballing cultures of the world – the obscure South American kits, the success of Premier League sides in China and the Arab world – is worth the price of rampant commercialism and gross inflation of salaries. Football is one of the greatest manifestations of the culture industry, but as much as it tries to commodify our attention spans, how successful is that machine. Nobody actually calls it the Barclays Premier League, do they? Football’s working class roots are still around us, particularly on Merseyside where our stadia are (for now) nestled among their supporters’ neighbourhoods, surrounded by the early 20th Century housing that they and their (grand)parents also inhabited, the front doors by which they left to walk to the game.
One of the poignant things about looking at an old photograph of a football crowd is knowing that, despite the low resolution and sheer mass of people there, there are probably grandparents, aunts, uncles (and your friends’ relatives) standing amongst the 30,000 who were there when it was taken. At the Albert Dock, the photography exhibition COMMON GROUND will showcase three photographers’ perspectives on fan culture across the enormous paradigm shift of the last 30 years. Between the late 80s and turn of the century, Tom Wood and Ken Grant documented the transition from terraces to all-seater stadia at Goodison Park and Anfield, and Tabitha Jussa has worked since then to create vistas similar to those old photos of the terraces, but with a keen eye for the socio-political awareness that gave rise to campaigns such as Keep Everton In Our City and Spirit Of Shankly. Meanwhile, local artist Peter Carney has been working with schools and other community organisations to produce TERRACE TAPESTRIES, a series of 32 banners to represent the participants of Russia 2018, and the fruits of their labours will be paraded through the city on the tournament’s opening day, before being displayed at the Martin Luther King building at the Albert Dock, probably the most-visited part of Liverpool after the football grounds. Soccerama’s second panel, The Not-So-Beautiful Game will also examine the newfound wealth in sport, football as a tool of nationalism and what this means for the next generation of fans.
To this writer, the best illustration of what football means to ordinary people is James Slater’s video for Wild Roses, a five-a-side showdown between Bill Ryder-Jones’ FC Nantes and FC Sporting Bastards in West Kirby Concourse. The play is woeful, the sportsmanship non-existent, the victory and loss very, very real. There are no spectators, no officials and no distinction between fan and player, between elite fantasy and scrappy reality (is guitarist Liam Power’s headband a Sócratic act of tribute?). Every chord change in that sweet, tragic song has a parallel onscreen, in a flashback to wet and windswept training sessions on the Dee estuary, all for naught, in diving the wrong way before a goal whose crossbar barely comes up to the keeper’s shoulders and in the quiet search for tactics at the bottom of a pint. These are the emotions and experiences linking every weekend in the life of those with football on their mind, be they at Anfield, Goodison, Prenton Park, Rossett Park, or the Pitz. They put the art in football.
Art Of Football runs for the duration of the 2018 World Cup, from 14th June to 15th July. All games will be screened in the Art Of Football Pop-Up Gallery at Camp and Furnace and are free. Tickets for Disco Sócrates on 30th June are £10. Tickets for the Soccerama symposium are free, but you must sign up in advance at artoffootball.co.uk.