The Freud Museum

Events Archive

24 May 1998

Football Passions

Conference Report

On June 12 1998 the largest television audience for any sporting event were glued to their sets watching the World Cup Final between France and Brazil. A few weeks earlier the first ever conference bringing together psychotherapists, academics, footballers and fans, took place at Chelsea Football Club in London. We were there to celebrate the game we love and to explore what it can tell us about human nature and our natures.

Organised in four sessions the conference discussed the pull of the game itself; the psychology of players and teams; its cultural meanings; and the passion of fans. Speakers came from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Psychoanalysts Leon Kleimberg and Arturo Varchevker; analytical psychologists Andrew Samuels and Renos Papadopoulos; academics Rogan Taylor and Barry Richards; Tom Watt the actor and writer; Trevor Brooking the former England international; the journalist Amy Lawrence; writer Anne Coddington and philosopher Mark Perryman. The whole event was expertly refereed by Chris Oakley and Andrew Blake.

One theme that recurred throughout the day was about the power of the game itself. Why should this game in particular have achieved such cultural dominance and have such a hold over people? Using his experience as a former anthropologist, Rogan Taylor from the Liverpool University Football Research Unit (yes, there is such a thing!) looked at the game as a ritual performance. Involving a difficult task (scoring a goal), it is carried out with the handicap of a taboo on using the hands. There is an inbuilt frustration that fuels the game's dynamic. Other speakers took up similar themes - the regulation of emotions and aggression through the rules of the game (Barry Richards), the triumph over handicap (Leon Kleimberg), the fascination with the game as a spectacle (Amy Lawrence). Rogan Taylor was surprised that Freud never specifically wrote about football - considering the outstanding Austrian side that were playing in the early 1930s!

A playful attitude to the topic was illustrated in a bravura performance by Renos Papadopoulos. Taking as his starting point an early visit to England by Jung he reported on a little known exchange of letters with Freud, initiated after Jung attended a match at the Woolwich Arsenal. Freud, of course, was working on Totem and Taboo and the description of this great social ritual, resonant with primal significance, was of great interest. As he performed the piece with due academic solemnity Renos gradually removed his jacket, put on his scarf, donned a red and white bobble hat and finally revealed himself as the rabid Arsenal supporter he in fact is! Other aspects of the ritual were discussed in Andrew Samuel's fascinating paper. In a reversal of expectations he saw the fans as the 'priests' performing a healing function, and the game itself as an embodiment of anxieties about the integrity of the male body. Tom Watt wasn't entirely convinced. His own oral history research revealed a multitude of reasons for the passion of fans, their attachments to particular clubs, and also their ambivalence.

Yet is it purely a masculine activity? Anne Coddington was sure it was not. In the 1920s there were many women's football teams that drew huge crowds. Gradually they were undermined by the male domination of the Football Association and only now is the women's game coming back into prominence. Moreover there is a great tradition of women who follow football as fans, the subject of her recently published research. It is also the case that the game is being taken up by many women in the United States, a thought that might horrify some of the die-hard supporters discussed by Mark Perryman in his paper 'What's so New about the New Football?'.

The interview with Trevor Brooking was a highlight of the day. In a wide ranging question and answer session he talked about the way we learn the game as children (where parent's expectations and desires may undermine children's confidence); the relation of players to clubs and each other - with rivalries and friendships between different types of footballing personalities; the importance of self awareness and individual responsibility for players at the highest level, and other topics. Without using Bion's felicitous term, he addressed the continuing application in English football of what might be called the 'military metaphor'. Players as foot soldiers taking orders from officers (coaching staff) and generals (the manager). Instead of seeing the players as the main resource of the club in terms of ideas and experience they are infantilised and regarded as incapable of creative thought. Brooking recalled how international players were not even allowed to keep their own passports for fear that they would be too irresponsible to look after them.

As might be expected, this conference was widely reported in the local and national press and even had members of parliament asking questions on BBC Radio! It was also the most complicated to organise. It was in no small measure due to the help of Barry Richards and Ian MacRury (University of East London) and Andrew Blake (St Alfred's College, Winchester) that it all came together so successfully. A book based on the papers at the conference is currently being prepared for publication in 1999.

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