Published On: Wed, Oct 3rd, 2012

Life’s a Pitch: The Passions Of The Press Box – Review

‘Passion. That’s this book, and football, condensed into a single word.’ These are the lines that open Marc Watson’s afterword to Life’s a Pitch, an anthology of oddly personal articles by various sports journalists on the subject of their football allegiances. The reality of football is, of course, much more complex than Watson’s statement would have us believe.

One of the aspects central to football culture is its mythopoeic power – that is to say, the way that football can be narrated and re-narrated, the myths and legends that arise and compete in its arena, and the sheer process of verbal rumination that keeps the whole boat afloat. At least to the same extent that football allows us to follow the trajectories of great (and not so great) athletes, it also lets us study the course by which stories bloom, flower and wane; and this topic is at least as relevant as the athletic performances themselves.

We mention this subtle aspect of the sport not to invalidate Watson’s argument, but to contextualise it – the notion of ‘passion’ as the sport’s basic denominator is itself a common and important football myth. It is one of the arguments that we (mostly) agree on, providing a shared platform from which to discuss football.

Most of the contributors in the book, including the writer and editor Michael Calvin, seem to concur with Watson’s statement. The articles making up Life’s a Pitch are primarily autobiographical, relating the way that their authors bonded with their favourite clubs. Many of them are about small or relatively unsuccessful teams, like Watford, Tottenham Spurs or Montpellier, and the accounts of how these writers followed their teams across their misadventures, with nothing to cling to but a thread of hope and – of course – their undying passion, can often be quite touching. Make no mistake, this is not a history of football, nor even a history of the clubs involved. It is a history of passion. The anthology reveals Watson’s agency, which Calvin obviously shares.

This is both the book’s major strength and its weakness. For anyone with a genuine and sufficiently literate football passion, it makes for an interesting read. Some of the writers are easy to empathise with, and it gives a rare look into the hidden biases of professionals who are otherwise compelled to be nonpartisan and rational (if not cold) in their reports. On the other hand, the subjective focus of the book makes the numerous articles too disjointed to be informative. There are some incisive historical vignettes, like the story of Stan Collymore at Southend United, but mostly you don’t close the book feeling like you have learnt something about any given, unified subject – except perhaps for ‘passion.’

This is perhaps the most revealing aspect of this book, if we take it for what it actually is – that is to say, a book about British football journalism and its interpreters. ‘Passion’ is as good as any other word to describe the underlying common narrative, the myth or logos that defines this particular sports culture. And it is, indeed, specific to this culture – it is not universal, whatever your local supporters may have you believe. The way that Italian sports journalism (to which this site is indirectly bound) approaches the subject demonstrates some of the differences.

Books such as La Fiamma Rossa by Gianni Mura (arguably the greatest contemporary sports journalist in Italy) emphasize the inorganic nature of a sport, rather than its primal fulcrum – in this case, the way that cyclism is embedded in the localities and the traditions crossed by the tours, rather than being an end in itself. Mura himself once wrote an article associating each of the Azzurri players who beat Germany in 2006 to a sophisticated brand of wine, highlighting the fact that aspects of the Italian culture as different as wine-making and football can be ineffably, mysteriously linked.

Another difference between the British and Italian approach to sports journalism, also revealed in Life’s a Pitch, is the interpretation of time. I am reminded of the difference in the way that the respective capitals, London and Rome, shape their identities. London always understood itself as a city that is fundamentally modern, periodically erasing or overwriting its own history, either by burying the River Fleet below its urban sprawl or by tearing the Stone of Destiny from the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey. Rome always saw itself as a city that is historical in every sense of the word, and this was already true when the city was ancient, when it mirrored itself in the foundation myths of Romulus and Remus and the archaic legend of Aeneas.

Similarly, British journalism as it is on display in this book (and notwithstanding a few contributors of foreign heritage, like Dominic Fifield and Laure James) is essentially positive in its reminiscence of the past. Articles will end with thanks to their team or to the families and societies that inoculated their support, or with throwbacks to football hymns and other signs of the way their ‘passion’ endures. Italian sports journalism is unconditionally, invariably nostalgic.

Mura himself exemplifies this, but perhaps the best case-study in recent years is Valerio Magrelli’s Addio al Calcio (2010). Like the authors in Life’s a Pitch, Magrelli exposes a ‘confession’ of his life as a supporter and amateur player. Unlike them, he looks back with a sentiment of poetic melancholy, leaving us with an unmistakable impression that something has ended, never that it endures.

Given these subtleties of football culture, it is perhaps a little disappointing that none of the writers in the book stop to question what their ‘passion’ actually is, and what it says about the culture in which football subsists. But perhaps such a topic goes beyond the ambitions of this deliberately intimate anthology. It makes for an interesting read, probably best suited for dipping into casually rather than steaming through cover to cover, but a valid addition to the library of any genuine football aficionado.

Life’s a Pitch is an anthology compiled and edited by Michael Calvin, published this year. FIF received an invitation to attend the event. We would like to thank the contributors, as well as the organisers at BT Vision.

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