David Winner

David Winner Interview

When a million fans descend on South Africa in June, far greater numbers of people across the globe will be massing in front of screens to take part in the unfolding action.
Who better to analyse this growing cultural phenomenon than David Winner, author of that extraordinary dissection of Dutch football 'Brilliant Orange', a sensual study of the English game 'Those Feet', and the jet-setting football travelogue, 'Around the World in 90 Minutes.'
Sean O'Conor sat down with the much-praised writer in London to discuss the changing face of football as another World Cup looms over the horizon...

Sean O'Conor

In your last book you travelled around the world watching the World Cup with local fans. What did you learn beyond the fact football is now a global passion?

I had intellectually expected that but not emotionally. I was not particularly looking forward to going to Argentina because it was a long haul and I had memories of 1978 but I totally fell in love with the place, 90% of which was the experience of watching it with Argentinians - that was beautiful. There was a lot of sadness, but the tears were real. Of all the fans I met, they did the least dressing-up even though Buenos Aires was festooned in blue and white.

And how was the winning country, Italy?

Italy felt a little passive, none of the Korean thing of shouting your team to victory and using what James Fraser in 'The Golden Bough' called "Homeopathic Magic": You shout at the TV knowing they cannot hear you in the stadium but it is a perfectly psychologically good thing to do because you are involved in the drama. But in Italy they were waiting for something to happen and then they went crazy.

I have lived in Italy three years and I still don't really understand Italy and its football culture very well but there was something slightly muted about the celebrations. It was not unmitigated joy and triumphalism, partly because it came on the back of all that corruption, the policeman being killed etc. It is not much fun going to a game in Italy. It can be horrible so I stopped going to games there for the same reason I did here in England in the 1980s - I don't want to get knifed or beaten up.

At France '98, I noticed Brazil had an international following, more a club than a country

What I have found is that once the game starts you are all in a shared, equal and imaginary space, whatever your nationality, culture, religion or whatever. A lot of people are still taking time to twig that televised sport is the key cultural form of our age. This has extraordinary power and everything else pales in comparison.

It is not just that they are watching. People watch Friends, 24 or Lost, but when they watch football they are completely absorbed and passionate about it. They care in a way that you never see for a film apart from the way that Star Wars has built up a following over 30 years. I mean whole nations come out onto the street to express their involvement in the drama.

Being in Korea in 2002 was unforgettable. Surely no land has ever been so mad for their team

It looked gob smacking - half a million kids in the square singing for eight hours - amazing. It was nationalism for sure but it was warm, inclusive and beautiful. When you see pictures of Argentina in '78 a chill goes through you because you know the background to that tournament and you see the hysteria in those faces and it is ugly. I have Argentinian friends who disagree and I loved visiting there but I still think there was something very dark about those celebrations. Korea in 2006 when I was there was very uplifting in comparison.

I think Asian fans are leading the way with their passionate but fun-loving style

It is very gentle and very passionate at the same time and it is also playful and sexy. I have zillions of photos of the crowds in Korea - offering us food and making colourful displays with their flags.

I must say I sometimes thought they did not know the difference between a full-back and a goalpost but it did not matter. There is a lingering resentment towards Asia among British fans who feel they have served their time standing on the Stretford End in the 1970s and so a 15-year-old Japanese girl with a picture of David Beckham cannot possibly be counted as a fan. I think that is crap. If you are emoting and getting involved in the drama you are just as much an authentic fan.

My relationship with Dutch football was similar. I used to go to games in Britain but had this thing for a team I had really only seen on television but ended up writing a book about and meeting the guys.

I am priced out the Premier League and I resent that because I loved being part of the match-day experience on a regular basis

I have been priced out too from the Premier League but funnily enough I have found the same camaraderie I used to find on the North Bank with people standing in particular places in a couple of pubs in Rome I go to. In each place there is a different coterie I have become friends with.

One of the best things of being an ex-pat is meeting for football in pubs

It really is isn't it? I suppose churches or political organizations served those needs in the past but football does it for us today. It has also gained in popularity as other kinds of stories decay. 20 or 30 years ago people would organize around trade unions or parties but we are completely bored by politics in Britain now as the questions have become managerial rather than personal. Whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron should become our leader does not evoke in the depths of our being the same loyalties and passions and sense of identity it used to.

Television used to be two or three channels in Britain and everyone used to watch a programme and talk about it. Now everyone is reading and watching something different to each other so football is one of the few mass uniters in our culture.

We know the football stars but who are the TV celebrities now?

Big Brother, which is dreadful of course but set up like a game. Its unscripted nature has a similar appeal to football's because you cannot guess the ending like you can with a Hollywood movie. Who for instance could have penned the beautiful mad, unpredictable drama that was Zidane in 2006, that will remain in our consciousness for decades.

Good stories need good characters, and maybe heroes and villains

Every drama needs protagonists and in football there is a collective personality - the team. Star individuals help but that is not the whole story. So you need a villain for the drama. A World Cup without a villainous German team that everybody hates is like Star Wars without Darth Vader - it just would not work. It is usually Germany or Argentina who everybody hates. Germany were very nice in the last World Cup so Portugal stepped up to the plate. Portugal were just repellent, their rampant cheating against the Dutch was so unpleasant that whoever put them out was alright by me. They were horrible!

Getting back to the mythos thing, with the Zidane head-butt, people immediately started interpreting it in colourful and jokily wrong ways. In Holland, a writer for NRC Handelsblad, a guy called Abdelkader Benali wrote that Zidane had become a god, doing a Christ-like thing, voluntarily dying for our sins. Another said it was the noblest thing what he did because he threw away a chance of the ultimate prize to uphold the honour of his family, so there are some things sacred beyond money, success, fame etc.

Zidane would probably find these things somewhat fanciful but it is still interesting how these things resonate and throw up these interpretations. In doing what he did Zidane became a fictional, mythical character. In the same way the fictional, mythical George Best is still alive.

Or Maradona

Indeed, who is probably the greatest mythical character in the history of the game.

George Best

I made a pilgrimage to Best's house in Belfast and Matthias Sindelaar sites in Vienna, doing what my ancestors did with religious shrines

I did a very similar thing and visited Johann Cruyff's childhood home in Betondorp (concrete village), down the main road South-West out of Amsterdam to this estate just across from Ajax's old ground De Meer. When I went there about ten years ago it was this one little patch of Amsterdam where there were no immigrants and nobody was speaking English. It was like a little frozen piece of '50s or '60s Amsterdam. Everyone looked old and had never left the place. And I eventually found his house. His dad had died when he was very young but his mum still lived in that area, though the locals would not tell me where.

Anyhow there was an old woman coming out of the house in question and when I asked if it was Cruyff's house she said yes and invited me in. She said no Dutch people come there but there is a constant stream of people from Catalonia. For the Catalans it was a pilgrimage to a holy place. So you adopt the old rituals just as Christianity adopted those of earlier religions.

Are footballers really on a par with saints?

Great footballers are much more culturally central today than say great actors who everyone knows. In Scotland for instance, what would be a more important place, Celtic's ground, Rangers' ground, Hampden Park or Sean Connery's birthplace?

George Best is the most important person who came out of Northern Ireland in the last hundred years. He not only bridged the Catholic-Protestant divide but the North-South and Ireland-Britain one too. He consciously avoided all the sectarianism and tried to be there for everybody in what were very hard times.

In Holland in the same way, the most important person of the 20th century was Johann Cruyff. I don't think there is any debate about that. But there is a great snobbery in Holland among some people, who think that culture and football are not connected.

I tell them 'You're nuts - you should be using your great footballers to project a beautiful image of Holland in the same way Pele and the Beautiful Team made people forget Brazil in the 1970s was racked with one of the most vicious civil strife and a monstrous military dictatorship'. Everyone thinks Brazil is Pele, lovely girls, music and pleasure and the dark side is nowhere in people's minds as a result.

Germany has rightly and cleverly exploited Franz Beckenbauer- he is the most important German of modern times, no question. Yet the Dutch elites leave people like Johnny Rep, a magical person, virtually unemployed, or just a coach for a minor team. He is warm, funny and just like the way he plays.

There are these generations of great Dutch footballers. Now Gullitt, Rijkaard, Bergkamp and Van Basten have all retired. Van Basten is actually a bit aloof but Bergkamp is a sublime character.

I have found the Dutch rather divided on their great players

There is what the Australians call the tall poppy syndrome. Gullitt was a bit too aware he was great when he was playing, which was part of what made him great too. But the Dutch like the self-effacing, boy-next-door crap, which is crazy because these people are special.

I have always thought football offers men a unique forum in which to show their emotions

There is an easy warrior-tribal fantasy to enter into. I read a lot of the hooligan books and they all get very sentimental in middle age about the extreme violence of their youth. There is some similarity on a pathological level to the Freikorps, the WWI stormtroopers who became a proto-Nazi movement, who spawned a strong literature which expressed ideas of maleness and comradeship and views of women. But these memoirs were also very sentimental about extremely violent deeds. They were written in the late 1920s to early '30s and became the favourite reading material for SS battalions going into Russia - truly deranged, psychopathic stuff. There is an element of that in those hooligan books that is really disturbed, hooliporn I call it, pretty creepy.

I avoid those folk and their books like the plague, but I confess to liking Colin Ward's 'Steaming In' as it seemed so tongue-in-cheek

I hated that, because he was an Arsenal fan in the same years as me and I was going to some of those games and remember seeing Arsenal hooligans and thinking 'Fuck off, you're ruining the thing that I love.' There was one game he described in 1975 I think when about 10,000 West Ham fans invaded the North Bank at Highbury. Then they tried it again the next year and somehow everybody on the North Bank that everyone started hitting them and it was almost beautiful citizens' revolt. He describes that quite nicely, but enough of the hooligans, bugger off.

The football boom of the last decade seems to have drowned them out at last

A communal thing started in England with Euro '96 and has continued, with the big screens etc. I almost cannot believe pubs are selling tickets to watch the game when it is on TV. But again, that is the need for communal experience. People gather in bars, cinemas, parks or piazzas to feel emotions together. There used to be a lot of hooligans and a few fans but now it is the other way around.

Though I don't go to as many games as I used to, I find football ruling my diary more now

Yes, there used to be a circle of football friends and then your other friends. Football has opened up and now it is certainly hard to afford to watch a Premier League team home and away unless you are a merchant banker. There is a term in film theory called suture - which Lacan talked about in extremely convoluted semiotic incomprehensible rubbish, is that you don't just identify with the drama on the screen but you get involved with it, become a part of it and enter that imaginary space. It becomes part of your life.

You can do the same watching football on a screen but on one level we are distanced from that drama by not being in the stadium itself but we share the experience intensely. Even when you watch a bad movie you start to care at some level about the characters and it is kind of the same with football. You get involved with it. Football on screen is a much more democratic experience than live football because everyone can afford to watch TV more or less.

Are 'armchair fans' real fans? That is the big question for us who stood on terraces

Tens of millions of those who watch on TV never used to watch before. Is it better to go to a game? In some ways it is better not to go. I would say it is different but just as valid. So all those Asian girls with pictures of Beckham, that is fine. Many people sneer at that. And all those journalists and fans who howl with derision when Man Utd tour Asia or America have missed the point somewhat. The club might be doing it for money but the consequence is that the game expands in a cultural way and it is spreading to places it had never visited before.

Watching streams from foreign TV stations is a recent arrival into many football lives

I much prefer a commentary in a language I cannot understand as it is like a mood music and I cannot stand a game where Clive Tyldesley is commentating like a headline machine - putting it all together and making it lifeless; I hate American baseball commentary as they will not stop talking. F**king shut up! I was in New York for Italia '90 and watching the World Cup on American TV was unbearable. They were saying stupid things so loudly and intrusively I switched to the Hispanic channels.

I didn't understand a word of Spanish but I fell in love with Andres Cantor and took to taping his commentaries and playing them back in the middle of the day. His take on the Italy v Eire Quarter-Final was the most magnificent piece of commentary I can remember. His voice was cracking, whether because he had been commentating so much or whether he realised it was a doomed Italian team he was watching, but it sounded romantic.

Donadoni hit the ball, Bonner saved and Schillaci netted, but as soon as Donadoni hit the ball he started screaming, "Toto, Toto!" before Schillaci entered the fray, so prophetic. Only on about the fifth 'Toto' did the crowd join in. It was drenched with emotion and drama no actor could have done better. It was like Richard Burton in Spanish - a beautiful voice speaking pure football and it sounded operatic.

A lot of these streams are Asian, a looming presence in football

There is condescension towards Asia because they have not yet produced a compelling team. The 2002 South Korean team was by far the best there has been but when you look back at that tournament you notice the dodgy refereeing decisions and you wonder. I one time I met Guus Hiddink I said thank you for that cup run, I really enjoyed that. He told me he was standing outside the Italian dressing room as they smashed it up and told me, "Yeah, I don't really approve of violence but I enjoyed that!"

Hiddink is the most impressive football man I have ever met

He's got it, hasn't he? There is a deep calm about Hiddink, an almost spiritual presence or at least a strong emotional resonance, karma. In the Australia v Japan game in 2006 when the Aussies equalized late, one of them ran over to him to say shall we close it down, expecting him to say keep it tight and he said, "No, keep attacking." That is most unusual in world football these days. Such a shame he didn't become England manager.

Have you watched any US soccer?

What MLS games I have seen on TV I have struck by the athleticism of it. Compared to the Championship here it seems a lot more physical and they were all good athletes but tactically it is still poor. There do not seem to be a lot of players who understand the rhythms of the game. I liked Claudio Reyna. He seemed to be able to control and understand the shape of a game, a proper player as opposed to someone like Cobi Jones who was just an athlete really. He had skills but obviously had not grown up with the patterns of the game like a European or South American.

I have always thought Americans lack that game-savvy

Maybe if they just took some time out and started going to games and watching how it moves, they would understand a lot more.

It would be interesting to see what Hiddink could do with the USA after what he did with Australia. That was a country like America with no basic understanding of football but a very good understanding of sport, physicality and aggression, even when they are playing cricket. Hiddink made them into an impressive team and were only cheated out of the World Cup by Fabio Grosso.

David Winner

Will you write another book about football?

I am really interested in the narrative structures of the game - what draws us into it. So I am probably going to come back to that in a book. Baseball has a beautiful mythos and the literature surrounding it is much more developed than that around football. A film like 'The Natural' you could not do in football because the rituals are different and yet football has a global reach baseball will never have. It is these rituals I am interested in - this accidentally perfect form of 90 minutes which grips people whatever continent they are from.

The way Liverpool came back from 3-0 down to beat Milan, the way Arsenal stole the title with the last kick of the season in '89 were fantastic dramas. Or how the Red Sox beat the Yankees in 2004 - a perfect drama with a back-story, a curse of 90 years, the social backdrop, and the city rivalry etc - a fantastic story. When the White Sox won it the next year, it was like 'Jaws 2' because they had just seen it the previous year.

I want to link football to notions of myth and storytelling going all the way back to Aristotle, but I am worried in case I make it too academic and boring!

© Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile.com

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