What Soccer Can Teach You About Literary Analysis

Football can make you a better reader. If you’re not forcing your child to watch the sport, you’re failing as a parent. It’s no coincidence that important economists are always Brazilian.

In King Lear good guy Kent trips bad guy Oswald and, in doing so, calls him a ‘base football player’. But that was many seasons ago, long before the rise of the English Premiership. Now, football is almost fashionable, almost cultured, almost deserving of a BA course.

You can be both intellectual and a football fan. Consider Jean Paul Sartre, both French AND a philosopher, who wrote in his essay ‘Critique of Dialectical Reason’: ‘In a football match, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team.’

Truly, everybody’s a coach nowadays.

So let these words guide you as the referee’s whistle might:

If you’re a parent, kick your kid’s A Very Hungry Caterpillar into touch and switch on NBC Sports. Your child can always read in the off-season.

What will they learn about fiction and how will they learn it? Plot, setting, character, theme, structure, language, narrative, and conflict (and their effects upon the reader) can all be better understood through studying the English Premier League.

Plot, as your kid can already tell you, is the series of events that make up the storyline. In King Lear, an aging king’s retirement plan creates discord and disharmony. You only need consider Manchester United’s recent history to ‘get’ the universal/timeless quality of this conceit.

But it’s the cumulative effect of the author’s plotting that creates memorable, moving stories. Without knowledge of what has happened before, Gloucester falling off the (pretend) cliffs of Dover is comic. When I was fourteen, I supported Sheffield Wednesday and that year Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup final. The winning goal came at the end of extra time of a replayed tie. The final minute of two hundred and ten. And this was my team’s second cup final that season, the previous being the League Cup, in which they had also been beaten. Again by Arsenal. And that’s why I sobbed into the sofa. Context enhanced the meaning of the moment.

The more sophisticated a literary text, the more significant is its use of setting. Rather than merely using description to enable to reader to better visualise the plot, writers might employ setting for a number of reasons. It may be as a form of characterisation, such as Oscar Wilde subtly representing Dorian Gray’s hidden secret by use of a hidden room in which to hide his secret portrait, or as symbolism, such as the phallic imagery of the Spire in William Golding’s The Spire.

I like my characters contrasted against setting. As recently nicked by Woody Allen, A Streetcar Named Desire is the best example of this. Tennessee Williams has the seen-better-days yacht of Blanche de Bois’ middle-class pretentions break against the rocks of working class San Francisco, as embodied by Stanley and his vest.

Why do I appreciate this disconnect between character and place? Because I’ve been schooled in the tradition of the FA Cup, where ‘big’ clubs like Manchester United are forced to slum it at ‘small’ clubs like Exeter City. And, occasionally, their discombobulation leads to a giant-killing. The most famous example is non-league Hereford United beating top-flight Newcastle United in 1972, the two clubs then separated by the chasm of five divisions.

Clearly, what makes such ‘underdog’ victories attractive is the very American idea that we each possess the exceptional ability to better our betters, to transcend our limitations and succeed in Gatsby-like ways, albeit without getting shot. The character of Oliver Twist is the most obvious literary underdog. He sweeps up the league tables from workhouse to country estate like a Victorian version of Swansea City.

Charles Dickens explores the theme of class in Oliver Twist, as British writers do in all British novels ever written. All texts possess their own recurring ideas, much as all football seasons do. You need only enter ‘theme’ and ‘football’ into Google News to see how journalists with BAs in English like to explore the idea, especially at this time of the year. For example, the theme of Arsenal’s recent past has been ‘thwarted ambition’. As much as Lenny desires rabbits, so Arsenal fans crave silverware, the cyclical nature of John Steinbeck’s work mirroring the vicious circle of disappointment in supporting the Gunners. Every season promises so much, until…

Football agonistics claim that the structure of a football match makes it likely that nothing will happen and that this creates an inescapably boring spectacle. We of purer mind realise that the fine margins in victory lead to greater tension in viewing. As Martin Amis notes: ‘It’s the only sport which is usually decided by one goal, so the pressure on the moment is more intense in football than any other sport.’

But tedious matches exist. We’ve sat through dull 0–0 draws. But as much as ‘Good’ depends upon ‘Evil’ to derive meaning, the football fan requires memory of goalless draws to fully appreciate the 4–3 thrillers. Much as reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries further enhanced my appreciation of Richard Ford’sCanada.

It is the nature of competitive football that all seasons build to a tense conclusion. This calendar year is exceptional in this regard, even in the usually predictable La Liga, where unfancied Atlético Madrid beat Barcelona and Real Madrid to the title.

It is experiencing Manchester United’s last gasp European triumph in 1999 and Manchester City’s last minute two-goal, title-winning blitz in 2012 that has taught me that the whole must be completed to appreciate the individual parts and, as such, I am one of few who can claim to have finished both Moby Dickand the Harry Potter series*. You may very well criticise Herman Melville for holding back the whale until the very end of the novel, but that doesn’t make it a lesser book. Metaphorically, the same is true of football.

As the same verse collection can contain both the Miller’s bawdy tone and the Knight’s courtly tedium, one sport (football), one league, can showcase both Barcelona’s delicate tiki-taka and Atlético Madrid’s muscular approach. And, unlike Chaucer, you can experience the thrill of tonal contrast within ninety minutes and without a Middle English dictionary.

Tone is to language as boots are to feet. There exists both the muscular verbs of the Premier League and the more forward-thinking European lexis. Compare Amis’s brutal description of London Fields’s Keith Talent (‘Keith didn’t look like a murderer. He looked like a murderer’s dog.’) to the experimental style of José Saramago (whose death was mourned by the black armband-wearing Portuguese football team during the 2010 World Cup) and his single-sentence pages.

Although I enjoy novels with story, books with purpose to their narrative, I understand that to be considered literary, you must do away with such cheap concessions to entertainment. If The Pale King, by pseud’s favourite David Foster Wallace, were a football team, it’d likely be Sheffield Wednesday, my team, a mid-table Championship team. They are currently fifteenth of the twenty-four clubs in the division below the Premiership. If not equivalent to The Pale King, a closer match might be Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies, a novel about a man who stays in bed and dies. In Wednesday’s case, it’s less interesting than that – they don’t die. They don’t get promoted, the don’t get relegated. They don’t win cups, they don’t buy exciting players. They just are. They exist, nothing more. Life, eh?

Listen to the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast to understand the importance of the idea of narrative in football. It can be a fun drinking game to take a sip of sloe gin at every mention of narrative (and ‘paradigm’) too but – warning – you may get very drunk.

Literary theorist Clint Eastwood said: ‘Drama usually has some sort of intenseconflict.’ Clearly, football has too. But, English soap operas aside, there’s more to fiction than arguing, as there’s more to football than men kicking a ball about. JB Priestly thought so and he was a proper writer:

‘To say that these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.’

Tragedy is a word carelessly used, but any Englishman will recognise the World Cup semi-final of 1990 to be as worthy of the term as all of your Antigones and Oedipus Rexes put together. If I’d not experienced the heartbreak of Chris Waddle missing England’s final penalty, I might never have cultivated both the emotional and literary intelligence to cry when Lear asked dead Cordelia to stay awhile. Indeed, Peter Shilton, much maligned for not stopping any of Germany’s penalties that night, might have mourned the passing of a (feminised) potential World Cup final with Lear’s own lines: ‘I could have saved her. Now she’s gone forever.’

I think I’ve made my point, the previous paragraph being an example of bathos.

The link between analysing football and analysing literature is best summarised by the one quotation known by lovers of both book and ball, by a man who as a teen played in the most existential of all positions, that of the goalkeeper:

‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.’

Albert Camus. Author, philosopher, footballer.

*A lie. I never even finished the first one.