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Football promises to be a book no-one will like – and delivers

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint is a strange mix of heightened prose and stilted banality.

“This is a book that no one will like,” are Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s opening words, “not intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, or football-lovers, who will find it too intellectual.” This is a bad start – the fans v intellectuals divide was a false stereotype even in the 1980s – and the essay then goes quickly downhill. Jointly with Ashley Cole’s memoir, My Defence, Football is the worst book on the sport I have ever read – a demonstration of how not to write about it.

Toussaint, an admired Belgian novelist, comes from a francophone intellectual tradition that still generally dismisses football as beneath contempt. However, many clever people outside this milieu are football fans. In fact, quite a few of them have written cleverly about the game since Nick Hornby and Bill Buford started a new literary wave 25 years ago.

Toussaint seems unaware of all this. Instead, he starts from the premise that he is the first “intellectual” to notice the topic. Most European football fans, he explains, “are male, violent, racist, full of beer or wine”. Images of football on television are “trivial” and “profane”. It is therefore intrinsically interesting and terribly amusing that a brilliant novelist such as himself should be a fan, too.

Toussaint tells us that he is even capable of being as stupid as ordinary fans: “During a match I am in a state of simple-minded comfort, the more flavoursome for being accompanied by a temporarily acceptable intellectual regression. I become biased, aggressive, vehement, combative, I insult the referee, I curse and castigate him. I vilify the other team.” This could have come straight from what is arguably the worst piece of would-be highbrow football writing in English, Salman Rushdie’s 1999 essay for the New Yorker, in which he casts himself as an average, unthinking fan who has “lost his heart” to Tottenham Hotspur.

Loving football doesn’t justify writing a book. I love chocolate cake but I would struggle to work up a thousand words on it. Most good books about football are about more than just football. They are about a place, a time, a society and personal relationships. Hornby’s memoir, Fever Pitch, for instance, is a social history of Britain from the 1960s through to the early 1990s. It’s also a funny yet serious psychological investigation – Hornby delves into his life to explain how supporting Arsenal helped him cope with difficulties with girls, his parents’ divorce, and so on.

But Toussaint’s book is set in a vacuum, with the author as the only developed character. Sometimes he goes on press junkets to World Cups in Germany or Japan; sometimes he watches matches on TV, alone at home. He does make a few worthwhile points. “The nature of the wonder that football provokes derives from the fantasies of triumph and omnipotence that it generates in our minds,” he writes. “With my eyes closed, whatever my age and my physical condition, I am the star striker who scores the winning goal [et cetera].” (For an 85-page book, Football is surprisingly wordy.)

He observes that the sport needs to be watched live, because when you do so, “football time” merges with real time and seems to become life itself. And, like other writers before him, he notes that football can serve as a kind of madeleine that returns us to childhood.

But beneath the heightened prose and Shaun Whiteside’s stilted translation, there is a lot of banality. Here, in a single passage of reheated journalism, Toussaint repeats pretty much every single cliché about Brazilian football:

[I]t’s always Brazil that I carry in my heart when it comes to football – what would football be if it weren’t for Brazil? – with its artistic play, its technique and its grace, its lightness and speed, with its immemorial yellow and green and its colourful supporters, its carnival queens in bikinis with gold tiaras in their hair, their bare bellies and their skin tanned and palpitating in the summer evening . . . the carnival got going, drums at the front, and started to come down the stands . . . to go and dance an endless samba beside the pitch . . .

Other passages are plain weird:

Nothing can happen to us while we are watching a football match: as in the advantageous frontal proximity of a woman’s sexual parts in certain positions of the act of love, which instantly disperses the dread of death, which anaesthetises it and melts it away into the moisture and sweetness of the embrace, football, while we are watching it, holds us radically at a distance from death. I am pretending to write about football, but I am writing, as always, about the passing of time.

There’s also a rambling skate over the surface of Japan (humidity, some rain), a meeting with Jeff Koons (who turns out to be a good guy), some reflections on Zinedine Zidane (a melancholy artist) and many welcome blank pages. The opening words nailed it: this is a book that no one will like.

Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski is published by HarperSport

Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint and translated by Shaun Whiteside is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (85pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther
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Marvel’s Black Panther and the politics of diverse superheroes

For a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, the film will be a seminal moment.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved superheroes. I’m not sure what came first: the animated adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men or Superman. But it was the X-Men – humans who have evolved to have superpowers – that I fell in love with. The first film I saw multiple times in cinemas was X-Men 2, and the first comic book I ever bought, aged 14, was Astonishing X-Men.

The opening roster: Cyclops (white), Emma Frost (white), Kitty Pryde (white), Wolverine (white), Colossus (white) and Beast (blue). It never particularly bothered me that none of them were black. What I liked about the X-Men was that I recognised something of myself in them. They were social outcasts, feared and distrusted by humanity – the superhero community’s equivalent to the chess club in a school full of all-star athletes.

Perhaps that was why I never particularly cared for the adventures of T’Challa. A rare black superhero, by day he was the ruler of the secluded and hyper-sophisticated African country of Wakanda, and by night he protected his nation from its enemies as Black Panther. Empowered not by mutation but by magic, and aided by his vast wealth and martial arts training, T’Challa is as far from a social outcast as it is possible to be.

Unlike the X-Men, who tended to have an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the Marvel universe, T’Challa is a power player. Just two years after his introduction in 1966, he had joined the Avengers series, Marvel’s line-up of the world’s mightiest defenders, formed to defeat threats that no hero could tackle alone. In the 1970s, he was even asked to join the Illuminati, the secret cabal of Earth’s most influential superhumans, but declined. He is Wakanda’s defender, and his opponents operate on a global scale. In one memorable scene during Christopher Priest’s 1998 tenure of the title, the Black Panther saw off the full force of the American government, including its superheroes. I first encountered him in a gentler 2005 storyline, in which he briefly married the X-Men’s Storm. (It didn’t last. Marriage, rather like death, is only ever temporary in the world of Marvel Comics.)

Perhaps if I had been raised somewhere different, T’Challa would have excited me more. But in the hyper-diverse part of London where I grew up, being “black” was never rare or interesting enough to form part of my identity. If someone had been asked to find me at school, describing me as “black” would have been only marginally more useful than picking me out as having two arms and two legs. Instead, my identity came from the things that set me apart, and defined my friendships: a love of indie music, video games and science fiction, all of which put me firmly in the “social outcast” category along with my beloved X-Men.

For me, blackness was incidental; for T’Challa, it was essential, even though his creators, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were both white. Part of Lee and Kirby’s genius was that they were continually borrowing from other places and ideas in a bid to keep the Marvel readership growing and to see off threats before they arrived. They already had a large nerdy and predominantly white readership: they wanted to reach out to a new audience, and so the first black superhero in mainstream comics was born.

The Black Panther name came from an African-American tank battalion that fought during the Second World War. In an astonishingly poor piece of timing, Black Panther appeared in stores in July 1966, and in October 1966 Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panthers, a far-left black nationalist political party, in Oakland, California. In the 1970s T’Challa’s alter-ego was briefly changed to the Black Leopard to avoid the association, but the rebrand didn’t stick.

As a result, T’Challa is one of just four Marvel heroes whose character is inextricably bound up with his race. (The other three are Captain America, an ordinary, white Second World War soldier given extraordinary powers; Patriot, the black present-day teenager who adored him; and Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest opponent, whose experience as a Jew during the Holocaust convinced him that humans would never accept mutants such as him as equals.) To my teenaged self, all of that bored me: better to save my money and spend it on X-Men.

So why am I so excited that Black Panther is the latest Marvel superhero to make his way from the comics to the big screen? Partly because the year I turned 18, two important things happened to me: the first was that I went away to university, and the second, not-unconnected thing was that I spent what at the time seemed an extravagant amount of money on a Batman costume. 

People often talk about their time at university in a series of clichés – I learned how to think, I found myself and so on – and here’s mine: I became black at university. Not because I experienced any racism worth talking about but simply because for the first time in my life, anyone describing me could mostly get away with “black”. At the same time, liking indie music and science fiction stopped being a distinguishing feature and became almost as everyday as my blackness had been.

As to the Batman costume, so desperate was I to ensure I got my money’s worth that I actively sought out fancy-dress parties and wore it under the thinnest of pretexts, adding the cheapest of modifications to make it fit the theme. At one point, I donned a Hawaiian lei and attended a holiday-themed party as “Batman on vacation”.

During that time, I discovered two things: the first, happily, was that a surprising number of people had a thing for Batman. The second, less happily, was that a surprising number of people felt very strongly that a black man couldn’t be Batman. Up until that point, I had seen Black Panther as an essentially dull character enlivened by a series of writers – Christopher Priest, a legendary graphic novelist, and the television producer Reginald Hudlin – who, much to my surprise, chose to slum it on the title. But as a student I began to understand why these two talented black writers found Black Panther so appealing. (Since then, the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has taken over the title, foregrounding the political question of whether T’Challa has a right to rule.)

The appeal of Black Panther only grew after I exchanged one crumbling and largely white Victorian institution for another in Westminster. The recent commercial success of Hidden Figures, a Hollywood feel-good film with a largely African-American cast, and the critical achievement of Moonlight, an art-house film about a black gay man, have begun to change the landscape.

If Black Panther, which not only has a black lead but a majority black cast, succeeds, my dream of seeing a screen superhero who is incidentally black – an X-Men film with a black lead; a reimagined Tony Stark/Iron Man; or perhaps even a mainstream Miles Morales, the young black teenager who in 2011 replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in one segment of the Marvel Universe – might get a little bit closer.

But I appreciate now that for a young child whose blackness is more important to them than mine was to me, Black Panther will be a seminal moment not because of what it might portend, but because of what it is. 

“Black Panther” is in cinemas now

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist