Football’s Ghosts

By Brian Phillips  |  10 Feb 2015

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Green Soccer Journal, Winter 2010

In the age of YouTube, they’re everywhere. I’ve been watching old game films, the frosty, crackling stuff shot by Mitchell & Kenyon in the early 1900s and by British Talking Pictures in the ’20s and ’30s. You know the kind I mean: Liverpool versus Newcastle in 1901, mustachioed titans with belts on their shorts lunging at the ball through a quiet storm of static. Most of these clips are only a few minutes long, so you can’t get a good sense of the gameplay. What you can get is a sense, amazing or eerie depending on how you look at it, of the living past. The camera pans across the crowd, and all the jovial men in their careful black hats look like they’ve come back from the dead for a Saturday’s entertainment.

There’s a famous moment – this was caught on film – from the 1930 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Huddersfield Town. It’s the first half, and the players are trotting about in their sped-up, black-and-white way, when suddenly a gigantic airship, the Graf Zeppelin, comes yawning out of the sky over Wembley. It floats above the stadium, throwing an enormous shadow on the pitch. The crowd point and murmur. The spectators were annoyed that the German ship disrupted a thrilling game, or so the story goes. But it’s also the case that German airships had bombed London during World War I, and there’s a weird unease that seeps into the footage as the zeppelin passes. To the people in the crowd, most of whom had lived through the war, it must have felt as though the past had returned and was looming down from above.

I saw a smartphone commercial the other day that said we’re living in the future. That’s a cheap metaphor, but if it has any truth as far as football is concerned, it must be because of the unprecedented accessibility of the past. Not just half-forgotten matches, but goals you’ve read about, moments from your childhood, are all there for the watching. YouTube turns football into a kind of pointillist recreation of history. You can skip from Alex James to Didier Drogba in an afternoon, and if you go in with the right mindset, 2010 and 1930 will seem just about equally real.

That can be an unnerving feeling, of course, and it may have as much to do with the way modern media desaturates the reality of the present as with its power to restore the reality of the past. Either way, in a history-obsessed game, it’s never been easier to feel a sense of continuity between ourselves and fans who died before we were born. What’s the difference between you in your replica kit and one of those flickering, suit-wearing spectators from 100 years ago, after all? Time flies, especially when technology makes it possible to leap to any moment. If we’re living in the future, that is, then the present is the past, and we’re already among the ghosts.

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for sports and culture website Grantland. He was formerly the editor of Run of Play.
The Contract One Step Beyond