In any sport, the idea is for the superior individual or team to use their superior talent and tactics to overcome challengers to win games, and ultimately, championships. That competition, and the conclusion where ‘the best team wins’ is surely the essence of sport in its purest sense, and so, equally surely, if anything gets in the way of that zenith, it should be unwelcome, right?
This is where, most recently, Bradford City fans would start to cough awkwardly, as their team were the protagonists in arguably the most feel-good story of British football this year, defying critics, better teams, and the odds to make the fabled trip to Wembley for the League Cup final. Not at all to diminish the Bantams’ achievement (indeed, to laud it more), with the best will in the world, Bradford City were certainly not the superior talent over most of the teams they defeated to get there which included no fewer than three Premier League teams. If sport was as narrowly deterministic as that first, ‘pure’ definition, then Bradford City would have no place in that game and the final would be just another Manchester derby for just another trophy. Bradford City, and fans of the countless teams with historic upsets under their belt, are surely very happy that their is more to sport than the best team winning. Immediately, this seems to have very little relation to the goal-line issue, but the relation starts to become clear when you realise why we treasure these moments so much, the reason why sport is a treasured arena rather than a bland annual talent contest – the story.
While a sportsman or team performing to their fullest and ‘reaching the mountaintop’ is a great, inspiring story, it is just one of almost countless stories; and though Bradford City’s success owes nothing to the lack of goal line technology, their story shows that there are interesting alternatives to stories of ‘pure’ sporting greatness. Bradford City’s was one of giant killing; underdogs bloodying their betters and giving unfulfilled fans something to finally cheer for but the stories seem countless – local rivals facing off for bragging rights in a match which would otherwise create few waves on the footballing world, former players returning to the grounds of their abandoned former team, a country in need of a confidence boost being provided with it by a big win. None of these stories require the best team to win, or amazing skill, and neither do they represent the full spectrum of stories. This is where Andy Kaufman, and his personal approach to entertainment comes in.
For every triumph like the one described, there is a victim or an antagonist – it must be so. What it is important to remember though, is that the horrible, sinking feeling, or anger in some cases, felt after being on the wrong end of a great sporting story, is no less valuable an experience. Andy Kaufman is a hero of mine in his originality, bravery, and commitment to his art, whatever you would describe his art to be. Notorious for never ever … ever breaking character (to the point where very few people actually have an idea of the real Andy Kaufman was like, and where many believe him to have faked his own death), you wont find an interview where Andy himself theorised on what he did. Thankfully, for those not well-enough versed in Kaufman to see it as self-evident, his best friend and sometimes writing partner, Bob Zmuda explains Andy’s approach to entertainment succinctly in in his book Andy Kaufman Revealed:
“It’s not that Andy disliked his audiences; on the contrary, he loved them, but he sought to redefine the relationship between a performer and the crowd before whom he or she stood. Andy’s goal was to foster an environment where neither the audience nor the performer had any expectations from one another. That sounds impractical, if not ridiculous – entertainers entertain – but on many occasions I saw Andy take the stage to face a happily expectant group only to leave then irritated, confused, angry, even infuriated. But never, ever bored. Even after he broomed the Improv with the full Gatsby routine, people returned to see what Kaufman was going to do next.”
Once again, you may ask what on Earth tis has to do with goal-line technology, but once again, the answer is closer than you think. While Andy Kaufman had his fair share of crowd-pleasing, funny routines which made his audience smile and laugh hysterically, he also believed that ‘entertainers’ only catered to a small part of the audiences needs by desperately trying to please them and be liked; he understood that confusion, despair and anger were incredibly valuable emotions to be encouraged as the very experience of emoting on such a high plain was something life-affirming and something much more memorable than sitting there half-chuckling at uninspired ‘routines’. It is said that Kaufman even enjoyed being angry – and it is certainly true that moments of fury can be a tonic for the senses, and even the catalyst for greatness (see CM Punk’s infamous ‘Pipebomb’ promo or Howard Beale’s ‘Mad as Hell’ monologue in the masterful movie ‘Network’). This is what we feel when we are on the wrong end of an officiating decision in football, or sport generally – fury, indignation, and an even more insatiable need for justice, be it later in that game, or in future games.
But one thing is for sure, those moments, captured in some of the most memorable snapshots in sporting history, are never forgotten. They are the source of righteous “what if” rants that give extra purpose to wronged supporters for years to come, as well as coy or even smug delight at ‘getting one over’ your rivals. Now imagine a world where these controversies are eliminated, where the fifth goal in the 66 final is just another goal, rather than still an unresolved topic of debate; or where England fans couldn’t still cling on to the notion that if Lampard’s goal against Germany in 2010 would have counted, it could have completely changed the game and it was just an impressive goal, forgotten about after the tournament. I think it would be pig-headed not to admit that something would be lost from the game in such circumstances.
One of Kaufman’s most iconic characters was Tony Clifton, apparently based on a real person though this has never been verified, a broken down, has-been club singer with a penchant for offending the entire audience, there for a pleasant evening’s entertainment. In a particularly trollish part of his routine, the MC for the evening would ask that all patrons extinguish their cigarettes and cigars or else Tony would not perform due to his “delicate vocal chords”. After everyone had grudgingly done this (sometimes with expensive cigars), Clifton would burst out on stage with a cigarette in his mouth to begin a set of terrible singing and non-stop insults. While this is intentional bating, and the officials in these games make honest mistake, they are the objects for the same ire – the linesman at Wembley is Tony Clifton, the Uruguayan referee in 2010 is Tony Clifton just as Luis Suarez is Tony Clifton. They are infuriating, but they make the game far more interesting than it would be without them.
(The essence of Tony Clifton, sullying sleepy daytime television with his disgraceful behaviour)
And as ever, the story is king. For every wrong done to a team or sportsman comes an impetus for sweet justice, and it was perhaps the sweetest karma that 44 years after Geoff Hurst was awarded a goal that probably shouldn’t have been awarded against Germany, Frank Lampard’s goal against the Germans was not awarded. And surely the next times England face Germany, they would relish a similar decision in their favour as payback.
This, however, will not be possible, thanks to the onset of goal-line technology.
The science will outweigh the story, and the spectators. The lifeblood of football is the people. One of the reasons it is so beloved and followed is it’s simplicity, and how it can be played and enjoyed by basically anyone with a ball and some friends. You don’t need a special ball or goalposts to get the ‘full experience’ and it is indeed an earthy, human experience, prone to flashes of human brilliance, exemplified in the Messianic figure of Maradonna, flashes of human controversy, exemplified in the Messianic figure of Eric Cantona, and flashes of human fallibility in the not-so-Messianic figures of match officials. And though I’m not pretending that goal-line controversies are the be-all-and-end-all of this element of football, it is a much unwanted blot on its copybook. The idea of a piece of technology playing arbitrator in this human experience, and robbing us fans of such succulent stories so Sky Sports and ESPN can simultaneously add to the glitz of their presentation (they will no doubt have on-screen alerts whenever a goal is scored) while detracting from the talking points and punditry makes me feel very uneasy.
And while I realise the irony of championing controversy for the emotional effect it can have by trashing a controversy due to my emotional response, this isn’t the same – its the relentless marching of progress for progress’s sake. Once it is implemented, it will no longer be a source of debate, it will just be a source of resigned sadness for a sport which is being cleansed of its grubby parts which make it so interesting, and slowly becoming less and less a spectacle of and for people.