Football’s rhetoric of suffering

Today’s players and managers frame football as a process of pious struggle, vacillating between anguish and redemption. In the wake of Covid-19, can football maintain its self-pitying rhetoric?
Gareth Southgate misses penalty at Euro 96
Gareth Southgate after missing his penalty during the European Championship Finals semi final between England and Germany at Wembley, on June 26, 1996. Germany won the match on penalties. Credit: Stu Forster/Allsport/Getty Images
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Just before his death in 2016 Johann Cruyff, widely regarded as one of the best players and managers in the history of the sport, reportedly said: ‘Football is not about suffering. It’s about enjoyment’. But the most famous disciple of the philosophy of Total Football was wide of the mark. In today’s game, the opposite is true. Over the last few years, a new idiom has emerged, dominating how football professionals describe the physical and mental agonies of the game. I call it the rhetoric of ‘suffering’, and it describes a kind of sporting bildung, drawing on a cache of religious ideas to imbue the narrative of football and its protagonists with a deeper spiritual meaning.

There are three major inflexions of this rhetoric. The first is that of suffering as punishment, usually at the hands of a superior power. The Italian Antonio Conte, during his time as manager of Chelsea (2016–18) and at Inter Milan (2019–21), consistently invoked the idea of suffering to describe the physical and spiritual punishment he expects his team to endure when facing strong opposition in the UEFA Champions League, European club football’s most prestigious knockout competition. ‘We know there are moments to suffer for every team against Barcelona’, Conte said ahead of Chelsea’s last-16 tie against the Spanish club in March 2018.

Before Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat at the Camp Nou in the Champions League in 2019, Jürgen Klopp said: ‘Will we suffer? Oh yes, 100%.’ For Conte and Klopp, suffering is couched as an exercise in virtuous self-flagellation, a period of punishment that demonstrates sporting virtue and worthiness. Only those who suffer in this way deserve the spoils of victory and entry to the promised land. As Pep Guardiola said ahead of Manchester City’s 2021 Champions League final against Chelsea: ‘Most of the time in finals, you have to suffer’, he said. ‘We suffered in the games against Borussia Dortmund and Paris [Saint-Germain] in the quarter-finals and semi-finals. We suffered, the opponent was better, but we stuck together. […] Better players can struggle, but you have to handle it. The guys who can suffer, will suffer. We’ll have to suffer to win.’

Another variant of the rhetoric of suffering is the invocation of purgatory or exile. For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United, being cast out into the Europa League (European club football’s secondary cup tournament) in the 2019–20 season was a form of suffering. ‘We’re a big club’, he said. ‘The longer you’re out [of the Champions League] the more you suffer’. Here, suffering is an exile from the divine grace of Europe’s top table, a period of wandering in the footballing desert. Leeds United’s 16-year absence from the English Premier League following their relegation in 2004 has frequently been described as an ‘exile’. For the former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernández, speaking in 2019 as the coach of Qatari club Al Sadd, merely being without possession of the ball is a form of exile and ‘suffering’.

As well as punishment and purgatory, suffering can also be a form of ritual purification, a bodily and spiritual ablution to discipline and prepare players before the season. When Mauricio Pochettino arrived at Tottenham Hotspur, he declared: ‘Our philosophy is “suffer in training so you don’t suffer in the game”’. In 2019, the then manager of Reading Jose Gomes said the purpose of an intensive training camp and pre-season in Spain was ‘to let [the players] suffer’. ‘The idea is to give minutes to players with enough intensity to let them be ready for the first game in the Championship. But also’, Gomes said, ‘to let them suffer with the strength of our opponents. They must fight a lot to follow all our rules’. How do we make sense of all this ‘suffering’?

What all these various appeals to suffering have in common is the promise of redemption. On the other side of all this terrible suffering – for the chosen few – lies footballing salvation: a victory, a promotion, a championship. Here, football borrows from Christianity, the religion distinguished from all others by its emphasis on the necessity – in fact, the virtue – of suffering now with the promise (or hope) of being rewarded later. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ suffered in order to redeem sin, and urged those in the early Church to ‘arm yourselves with the same attitude’ (Peter 4:1). Believers are promised ‘eternal glory in Christ’ but only ‘after you have suffered a little while’ (Peter 5:10). Like today’s managers urging their players to expect pain on the road to victory, the Bible reassured persecuted early Christians that ‘suffering produces perseverance’ (Romans 5:3–4) which ultimately leads to ‘praise, glory, and honour’ (Peter 1: 6–7).

The origins of football’s self-conscious narrative of persecution, its new mindset of suffering, are unclear. Certainly, the connection between sport and virtue has a long history. For both Plato and Aristotle, rigorous athletic training and sporting skill were signs of nobility and arete (excellence). In The Republic, Plato recommends ‘physical education […] principally for the benefit of the soul’. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle sees inthe victorious Olympians an allegory and a model for the properly ethical life. But the Greek tradition of arete is closer to virtue than suffering.

Modern football has from its inception been associated with religion. Following the 1835 Highways Act in Britain, the ancient and chaotic pastime of folk football – often violent clashes played by hundreds of men between rival towns – was outlawed. The game was saved from extinction thanks to England’s ‘public’ (meaning fee-paying private) schools, which rationalised the anarchic traditional game and channelled football’s physicality and team tactics to inculcate ‘muscular Christianity’, producing the next generation of England’s ruling class. However, for the elite schoolboys at Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, football was not a rite of Christian penitence or punishment but a form of bootcamp for social domination.

It may be that this new inclination to suffering, real or imagined, among those in the game today, bespeaks a deep sense of guilt about the shocking avarice and essential uselessness of contemporary football: ‘all that money for 22 men to kick a ball around’ (some variation of which phrase the game’s critics never tire of uttering). It is admittedly difficult for any football fan to justify the fact that Sky Sports, BT and Amazon paid a combined £4.8 billion for the right to show English Premier League games from 2022–25. Perhaps the rhetoric of suffering is a way for players and managers to express their individual piety in contrast to the institution of football surrounding them which, with its governing and ownership structures, its hierarchies, its wealth and power, is among the greediest and most corrupt on earth. For Premier League players, framing their day job as a tortuous journey of physical and mental anguish might alleviate some of the guilt and embarrassment of earning on average more than £60,000 a week.

It is, of course, an old cliché that football is like a religion. But today’s players and managers frame the sport as a process or narrative of pious struggle, vacillating between anguish and redemption, exile and return, a cosmic battle between sin and salvation fought by saints and devils led by philosophers (or long-ball philistines), in terms that bring football and Christian soteriology ever closer.

But in a world radiant with real pain and death in the wake of Covid-19, can football maintain its self-pitying rhetoric? In the face of genuine suffering, those in football might want to think more carefully about how they describe their day job. Perhaps a return to the Cruffyian ideal is required, to reacquaint those involved in the most popular and lucrative sport on earth of the immense privilege and rare joy of being paid to play the beautiful game.

Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). He writes for The Times, The London Magazine, The Spectator, The Fence, and others.

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