Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Barclay's Premier League: Burnley vs. Arsenal 4/11/2015

In popular memory, sports break down to fleeting moments -- the brilliant goal, the pennant-winning home run, the career-ending knockout.  The rise of the highlight as a feature of first evening news programs and then Internet videos confirms this.  What can get lost is the mundane, work-a-day aspect of so much sports broadcasts.  The soccer match I'm going to write about tonight, despite being fairly important for both teams involved, oozes with that average, week-in-week-out feel.  It's a match between the second-best team in the league and the second-worst, where the result was never in doubt.  The British commentator at one point makes a wry quip that Arsenal star Mesut Ozil wouldn't have circled this match-up on his calendar when he signed up with the club, with the implication that, despite being given a plum TV spot, few fans would do the same.

European soccer leagues, where the most important domestic title is won in the round-robin league and not a knockout tournament, place more importance on these ordinary matches -- last year, a slip-up against lowly Crystal Palace may have cost Liverpool the title.  This importance is offset by the disparity in quality in these leagues, where most games involving elite teams are seen as a fait accompli, and any unexpected result is seen as a major embarrassment.  This game is theoretically vital for both teams -- Arsenal need to win if they have any prayer of catching up with league leaders Chelsea, while Burnley need to haul themselves out of the relegation spots, but the difference in stature between the two seems makes it seem anything but epic.

And indeed, the gameplay is far from memorable.  It's one of those games that is euphemistically called "scrappy", meaning basically that there are a lot of fouls and clumsy passes, and neither side performs all that well.  Arsenal score once and seem to be content to hold onto their lead for the rest of the game, with both of their highly-touted forwards rather muted.  Burnley put through a few good efforts on goal, but all are comfortably saved.  The game ends up as everyone envisioned it, and the commentary immediately begins focusing on the future: whether either team can achieve their goal before the end of the season.

Even the goal is scrappy, with the ball wildly careening around the goalmouth before bouncing off Aaron Ramsey's knee and into the net.  It's a play that seems more the result of numbers and dogged determination than actual skill, although doubtlessly Arsenal have practiced such set-ups on the training ground ad nauseum.  The number of strikes and deflections before the goal seem only fitting for a game that was defined more by hard work than brilliance.

So why do we watch these games, beyond a bizarre investment in the fates of professional athletes who have momentarily pledged allegiance to a particular brand?  Do we just gamble two hours of our time in hopes that something exciting will happen?  There is the fact that these games are part of an ongoing narrative, a narrative that at times threatens to overwhelm the action -- but the main beats of these stories, Arsenal's surprising ascendancy and Burnley's gritty struggle to remain in the Premier League, have been repeated better elsewhere, as in Arsenal's 4-1 triumph over Liverpool the week before or Burnley's improbable victory over defending champions Manchester City.

But still, there are operatic tones to the game that engross even as the stop-start play repels.  Burnley emerge as genuinely heroic figures, or perhaps tragic ones.  Every week, they seem to be trapped in a Sisphyean struggle, battling against the inevitable power of money and history [1].  In seemingly every game the commentators remark that they have put up a good performance in a losing effort.  In another context, their constant fouls would be seen as no more than dirty -- witness the hatred reserved for midtable Stoke City -- but here they take on the air of pluck, a lightweight intelligently tossing sand into his much larger opponent's face.  One constantly has the feeling that Burnley is not far away from a heroic equalizer, but despite Arsenal doing everything to let them back in the game, the moment never fully comes.

If you're into English nationalism, which many Premier League fans are, there's an added resonance to Burnley's struggles.  This is a team composed predominantly of non-celebrity English players, with names like Tom Heaton and Danny Ings, hailing from a small and predominantly white city and playing out of a stadium named Turf Moor.  They seem to have strolled out of a hazily-remembered but often discussed footballing past.  On the other hand, Arsenal is a team who were among the first to bring in foreign players, and are now dominated by them -- they are sponsored by Air Emirates, whose name adorns both their shirts and their stadiums.  I'm not suggesting that the gallantry of Burnley is entirely dependent on nationalist sentiments, but one finds a hint of them in an announcer's shocked statement that not one Arsenal player on the field is English, or the frequent press grumblings about "foreign mercenaries".  If we are inclined to gravitate towards underdog stories in sports, we must remember that such stories can be used to any kind of political end.

In the end, the game is forgotten almost as soon as it is over, with both teams heading towards more important chapters in their stories.  Perhaps there are those in the stands who will look back on this game as a landmark, their first live match or the site of a first date, but for most it will vanish into the endless roil of spectacle and boredom.  Arsenal are competing for different stakes than Burnley, but they are also finding themselves struggling against the weight of already-established history, with a large gap between themselves and the leaders and a dwindling number of games to make it up in.  Nick Hornsby once wrote that soccer fans exist in a constant state of bitter disappointment, and insignificant but tragic games such as this provide a clue as to why.

[1]Which is not to say that Burnley is noncommercial, or in any way rebelling against the oligarchical nature of modern soccer -- if anything, their goal is to become a major brand just like Arsenal.  But in sports, teams come to embody things that are not entirely logical.

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