Football and the death of passion

Dylan O’Sullivan deconstructs the nature of sport as a surrogate battleground in the modern age

“It was more than just a game – it was a battle.”

As the human race has evolved over the centuries, our appetite for battle has come under increasing attack. The aggression and tribalism that led our species out of the food chain has been deemed as primitive and something that we should leave behind.

Democratic and liberal ideals are the new established guardians of the human race. The stature of war in society has crumbled. The art of combat, no longer the cornerstone of civilisation, has faded into the books of history and the archetypal warrior has become obsolete.

To a great extent this has been one of our greatest achievements. We live in an era of unprecedented safety and comfort; wanting for little and needing for even less. Yet a sense of detachment never leaves us and we find ourselves missing something.

The spirit of the warrior

“In the environment of suppressed tribal impulses,  a cultural colossus was born to fill the void.”

The spirit of the warrior has never left our stories or our screens. Clashes of human fortitude and faculty continue to intoxicate us. No matter how earnestly we deny our penchant for aggression, primitive impulses lie at the core of our being.We are animals after all. Modern civilised society although preferable is unnatural to us. True ecstasy and exhilaration reside in the realms of risk and danger. Yes we are comfortable, but were we ever meant to be comfortable?

In fact, it is when we are most uncomfortable, at the limits of human grit and endurance, that greatness is achieved. Our need for true competition, for passion, for battle, has never left us. We can feel it bubbling under the surface. In the environment of suppressed tribal impulses,  a cultural colossus was born to fill the void.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, a time of unprecedented peace in Europe, sport became an outlet for primal passions; nowhere is this more apparent than in football.

The societal profits that were once contributed by war – patriotism, passion and pride – had found a new home. The tamed animal within us had found a space to run wild once more. The pitch had become the battleground and the players its soldiers. Forget Julius Caesar; Johan Cruyff and Brian Clough were the heroes of a new era – cultural icons whose names rang through city streets and schoolyards alike.

The great battles of the world were being fought in places far away from the trenches of Maginot, or the snows of the Eastern Front. Now, generals led their legions into the fortress of the San Siro, the beating heart of Milan; onto the ground of Camp Nou, throne of Catalonia. These became the places where history was made; where heroes were born and villians came of age.

The atmosphere was palpable as players put their bodies, their reputations, everything, on the line. Icy nights and days of wind and rain – none of it mattered. True passion was on display. Players collapsed, desolate and in tears, as ambitions died; or ran screaming and shirtless into the crowds when childhood fantasies were realised. Football meant something. It was more than just a game – it was a battle.

The fall of the modern warrior

“The grit, the risk, the fire; everything that made football special is gone.”

As the sun rose over the twenty-first century, football began to lose something: the studs of Eric Catona flying through Selhurst Park, into the bewildered crowd; the hurling of a pig’s head onto the field (following Luis Figo’s move from Barcelona to their arch-rivals, Los Blancos) and Roy Keane, restrained by the referee while shouting threats at Patrick Vieira in the tunnel before kick-off. Somewhere along the line, these moments, though admittedly chaotic, were dubbed as the “dark side of football”.

But in a game of passion, these moments of rage and emotion are inevitable. The sight of players, managers and supporters losing control and overcome with emotion, is cathartic. When our footballing heroes walk off the field in tears, we cry with them. When they care as much as we do, football becomes a shared experience. It allows us the chance to relive the camaraderie, glory and passion of football – if only for 90 minutes.

It is in these moments of charged emotion that we catch a glimpse of the animal spirit within us.  These heart-stopping moments of passion have been driven from the game. To contemporary generations of  spectators, they are merely a part of football’s mythical past.

So, how have the footballing authorities tempered the emotional aspects of the game without diluting the passion on display? In short, they have not. The last decade has witnessed the final drips of passion drain from the game. Players have become mercenaries, flitting from army to army and holding allegiance to none. Managers are tossed from club to club, rival to rival, often being the last to hear about the shredding of their most recent contract. And while the influx of money has surely contributed to this decay of the beautiful game, there is a more sinister culprit; one that as been hinted at thus far.

The unfortunate consequences

“Our fear of our inner beast, our disdain for our true primal selves, has taken another victim. Once again, something is missing. Once again, a vague sense of detachment follows us.”

The physicality and aggression – this dark side of football – that made football what it was, gave it its edge, has been purged from the game. Society’s war against its tribal rots has finally crossed over the touchline. That acre and a half of grassy turf, the last sanctuary for our basic instincts, has been cordoned off. Players celebrating too fervently has become a bookable offence. The crunching tackle, the fair shoulder; both are now deemed too dangerous to play. Even players arguing with one another on the field, conflict in its most innocuous form, has somehow become taboo.

Far from being war, today football is barely a contact-sport. The grit, the risk, the fire; everything that made football special is gone. And in this environment, where passion is proscribed, can you blame the player for caring less? If players are prevented from giving one hundred percent, how can they possibly care one hundred percent? And if the played care less, how can the fans be expected to support hem with all their hearts?

Our fear of our inner beast, our disdain for our true primal selves, has taken another victim. Once again, something is missing. Once again, a vague sense of detachment follows us. Civilised society has gone too far. A glorious release valve for our tribalistic impulses has been filled with the cement of bureaucracy. And when our basic impulses are totally suppressed, one cannot help but predict eruptions down the line.

The spirit of the warrior has nowhere left to turn, and will likely fade into the history books as nothing but a myth. Football, once a sanctuary of freedom in a shackled society, is no longer.