Football: A New Tragedy

The financial inflation of modern sport has taken a toll on widespread attitudes towards it. Numerically, sport remains the world’s most popular entertainment method. However, as transfer fees and salaries get progressively astronomical, the looming notion that athletes do not deserve such reward for partaking in what is ‘just a game’ has cast a shadow on the way sport is viewed in modern society.

Sport - despite its enduring popularity – has always been seen as a lesser art, a begrudgingly relevant yet contaminant slice of society which has its place, but nothing more. Compare this to attitudes towards the theatre, a ‘high art’ if you like, and the differences are remarkable. West-End playgoers might wrinkle their noses at the prospect of spending a Wednesday evening at a cold away match in Leeds, the thought of trading an interval Sauvignon Blanc for a half time pie too alien to even comprehend. Even Cicero and Plato’s laws stated that ‘theatre should be kept free from the bloody sport of the Olympic games’.

This is, frankly, wrong. Drama and sport are similar - so similar, in fact, that I would go so far as to argue that spectating a modern football match is the most tangibly accurate modern analogy to attending a play in Ancient Greece.

The civic importance of Athenian theatre was massive, tragedy a large constituent factor of both the political foreground and the everyday life of the Athenian citizen. It would have taken one small trip to Manchester in 2009 to witness firsthand the similar way in which sport dominates a city. Manchester City, having - in a controversial move - bought striker Carlos Tevez from their local rivals United, worked with the council to erect a huge new ‘Welcome to Manchester’ sign on the road entering the city. The face on the sign? Tevez’s of course. The religious and political nature of Athenian theatre also resonates with modern football. One must only go so far as Glasgow to see the religious undertones of the ‘Old Firm Derby’, Celtic vs. Rangers here a controversial microcosm for the city’s divided religious roots. For politics, the similarly fiery ‘Derby Della Capitale’ between Roma and Lazio is a visible representation of right and left wing politics colliding, the stadium acting as a platform for these differences in belief to be expressed.

Even structurally, the two worlds collided. An ancient Athenian entering the theatre might pass statues of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus on the way in, not dissimilar to the statue of legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly outside Anfield, all figures celebrated for literally winning the first prize.

Manchester City's 'Welcome to Manchester' sign incensed their local rivals
Manchester City's 'Welcome to Manchester' sign incensed their local rivals

Football is oft referred to in scriptural terms, ‘you can’t write this’ and ‘it was not in the script’ being popular go-to commentator buzzwords, and the similarities between football and Greek tragedy extend beyond the structure and into the ‘scripts’. Book 23 of Homer’s Illiad sees Epeios win a boxing match, and the importance Aristotle gives to tragedic language comes into play here, Epeios’ famous (and justified) boast before the match being one of the section’s most memorable:

‘I say I am the greatest...It will certainly be done as I say - I will smash right through the man's skin and shatter his bones. And his friends had better gather here ready for his funeral, to carry him away when my fists have broken him.’

Language holds a uniquely vital place in football too, with punditry, commentary, journalism and radio all contributing to the pulsating, vibrant world in which the sport dwells. Perhaps José Mourinho was channeling Epeios in his first press conference as Chelsea manager, his words - ‘Please don't call me arrogant, but I'm European champion and I think I'm a special one’ – having a similar resonance. 23 major trophies later, his doubters, much like their Trojan counterparts, would have to begrudgingly agree.

Mourinho is often cast as a villain in football’s scripts, and the concept of a successful villain provides another link between football and tragedy. Nessus, the unseen evil presence looming over Sophocles’s ‘Women of Trachis’, is responsible for the hero, Heracles’ downfall. The rugged hero’s death at the hands of ‘the seething, treacherous lash of black-haired Nessus’ may just as easily be transposed onto the treacherous palms of black-haired Luis Suarez, using his hands to deny the heroic Ghanaian national team a historic first ever semi-final at the 2010 World Cup. Just as Nessus lorded over proceedings while absent from the drama, a sent-off Suarez, celebrating Ghana’s missed penalty and subsequent defeat provided a similar absent evil.

There is, of course, a point at which tragedy and football differ. For tragedy, generally, is written with a cathartic function in mind, to a certain social and civic end. The Greek audiences communally witnessed uncomfortable, tragic events at the theatre in order to experience tragedy in a somewhat separate, sanitised environment. Leaving the stadia and resuming their quotidian life, they are further incentivized to never allow that experience, that feeling of sorrow, of defeat, to leave the bubble of the ‘entertainment’ they have just witnessed.

Football is a different beast. ‘I have given up trying to predict what will happen in football’ said Henry Winter following Manchester City’s last-second title victory in 2012, and he is correct. For football, despite the tragedy, conjures moments of pure elation, of positive emotion. City captain Vincent Kompany, speaking of the same moment, recounted fans ‘crying on the floor, and other guys were pouring their eyes out – these guys are strong personalities so you don’t see them getting emotional often.’ Greek-style moments of tragedy are forgotten in seconds as the ball flies into the net with seconds to go, despair replaced with elation, the ‘footballing gods’ having the final say in a different way to their Greek counterparts.

In any case, the similarities between drama and football are many, and clear to see. Just a game? I don’t think so.