Euro 2004

Euro 2004 provided another opportunity for the English football fan to indulge himself in a heady cocktail of national pride, foreign beer and misplaced optimism.

If football has been compared to religion it is not only because of the communal ritual it entails but also because of the fervour with which the devoted fan worships his team. Following a team and travelling to distant parts to watch them play turns the ardent fan into a pilgrim whose loyalty is rewarded by feelings of pride and optimism, and a sense of common purpose.

A cynical observer might point out that heartache and disappointment are quick to follow as the team fails to deliver its anticipated promise, and from there it is only a short step to anger and aggression. Like worshipers of antiquity, the fan’s priestly representatives are quick to turn on their fallen idols by ‘slaughtering’ them in the pages of the press, only for hope to be resurrected, phoenix-like, at the start of the next international campaign.

Yet how is it that the English football fan seems incapable of learning from experience? Why should the sense of pride be so excessive in the first place? Why the irrational optimism?

There is no doubt that Freud, had he been alive today and had he shown the slightest interest in sport, would have made a direct comparison with the history of Judaism. In Moses and Monotheism he states:

“Primitive peoples used to depose their gods or even to castigate them, if they failed to do their duty in securing them victory, happiness and comfort….. Why the people of Israel, however, clung more and more submissively to their God the worse they were treated by him – that is a problem which for the moment we must leave to one side.” (Vol 23, p112)

Somehow or other, belief in this ‘grander conception of God’ as Freud puts it, increased the sense of pride of the Jewish people, and in order to explain the phenomenon Freud employs a telling analogy:

“… we may perhaps make it easier to understand if we point to the sense of superiority felt by a Briton in a foreign country which has been made insecure owing to an insurrection… Thus, pride in the greatness of the British Empire has a root as well in the consciousness of the greater security – the protection – enjoyed by the individual Briton.” (p112)

Could it be that, for the English football fan, consciousness of the British Empire more than half a century after its disappearance somehow functions as what Victorian anthropologists called a ‘survival’ in the national psyche?

I do not think so: surely it is the traumatic loss of empire which is more likely to have left its mark?

Freud presents us with another connection between the Judaic god and English football when he speaks of the intellectual attainment that such a conception of god entailed. He says that in the idea of a god with no name and no image, “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea – a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality…”

Now let me admit at once that anyone who has seen the behaviour of English football fans abroad will not immediately equate it with intellectual activity. Yet what else can we call a triumph of hope over experience if not a victory for conceptual possibility?

And renouncing the robust delights of victory for the milder pleasures of the imagination, brings with it an increase in pride.

“All such advances in intellectuality have as their consequence that the individual’s self-esteem is increased, that he is made proud – so that he feels superior to other people who have remained under the spell of sensuality.” (p115)

So could it be that the sense of superiority still displayed by the English long after the Empire has evaporated to dust, is based not on their ability to win but on their (nearly) unrivalled ability to lose? One imagines that, like the true believer, the true fan clings more and more tenaciously to his team the worse he is treated by them. When there is only one team (or one god) to follow, you don’t have much choice!

More on football

In the English team’s ability to lose and the fan’s capacity to feed himself with the manna of conceptual possibility rather than the solid taste of victory, we found a possible reason for the unaccountable pride of the English football fan. Freud suggests that there is another reason for pride which is connected to a further turn of the screw of instinctual renunciation, but this time it is something deep in the structure of the game itself.

Instinctual renunciation brings pride. “The ego feels elevated; it is proud of the instinctual renunciation, as though it were a valuable achievement.” (Moses, p117) “When the ego has brought the superego the sacrifice of an instinctual renunciation, it expects to be rewarded by receiving more love from it. The consciousness of deserving this love is felt by it as pride.”

Freud argues that the demand for instinctual renunciation plays an important part in all religions, and this is the foundation on which the ethical precepts of religion are founded:

“The prophets are never tired of asseverating that God requires nothing other from his people than a just and virtuous conduct of life – that is, abstention from every instinctual satisfaction….” (p118-119)

In his theory of the primal horde Freud shows that it is out of the instinctual renunciations demanded by Totemism that the social order is built up. Worship of the totem animal keeps different groups separate; Exogamy joins groups together; Equality of the band of brothers (who committed the primal crime of parricide in Freud’s account) restricts the inclination to violent rivalry amongst them. Similarly, in the life of an individual, renunciation is demanded under the threat of punishment from the father.

When we play a sport, especially a team sport, we repeat something of this momentous process of development. Freud adds further depth to his speculations when he considers the concept of ‘holiness’ or the ‘sacred’:

“What is sacred is obviously something that must not be touched. A sacred prohibition has a very strong emotional tone but has in fact no rational basis” (p120)

The prohibition is there to avoid putting oneself in a situation of danger – to avoid punishment from the Authority. Freud is clear what the threat consists of.

“When we hear that Moses made his people holy by introducing the custom of circumcision we now understand the deep meaning of that assertion. Circumcision is the symbolic substitute for the castration which the primal father once inflicted upon his sons in the plenitude of his absolute power, and whoever accepted this symbol was showing by it that he was prepared to submit to the father’s will, even if it imposed the most painful sacrifice on him.” (p122)

Why does a game reproduce this process? Because all games are organised around prohibitions and taboos which function as the ground upon which the ‘rules’ of the game are built. The prohibitions embody instinctual renunciations, or the renunciation of those urges which would put the subject into a situation of danger. Football more than any other game embodies a taboo, and it is this central axis which has allowed it to achieve the global dominance it has.

And would you believe it? Football embodies the primary prohibition which creates the sacred – the taboo on touching. Soccer and ‘sacer‘ may not have the same etymological root, but this primary taboo creates them both.

So the next time you are walking across Hackney Marshes and you catch the common cry “up his arse!” (meaning ‘mark the player closely’), remember that you are witnessing a sacred act of renunciation and not a licentious ritual of homoerotic excess.

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