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Mon 23 September 2019
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A study of Aristotelian “catharsis” and the plays of Bertolt Brecht should be obligatory for football managers, argues Alexei Sayle.

A while ago, ex-footballer Liam Rosenior wrote in a newspaper that he found himself bewildered by the brutal treatment of Slaven Bilic, then manager of West Ham and by all accounts a thoroughly decent man, from his club’s own fans.

That unreasoning behaviour had made Liam question his own ambition to one day manage a Premier League football club. For five years, he had been taking the Uefa pro licence manager’s course and – though the curriculum covered personal anxiety management, the media, group psychology, team-building and cultivating relationships – he still wondered whether it could really prepare him for the stress and scrutiny a manager must simply accept as part of the job.

Liam’s suspicion that the Uefa course is inadequate was correct because it’s missing one vital element: a study of the ancient world. Specifically, an examination of “catharsis”, a concept originated by Aristotle in the Poetics.

If he understood catharsis, Liam might be able to console himself with the knowledge that the vicious abuse hurled by fans is not meant personally, rather, those supporters are attempting the purification and purgation of emotions – particularly pity and fear – through the witnessing of art or spectacle.

These people were consciously or unconsciously indulging in catharsis, using football to empty themselves of wild emotions before they returned to their workaday existences.

In the 90s, Alan Sugar owned Tottenham Hotspur, a period he subsequently described as “a waste of my life”. In an interview during that period, he talked in a bemused and angry manner about how Spurs supporters he encountered, normally sober and cautious individuals, accountants and lawyers, would urge him to behave in an extraordinarily extravagant manner, stating he should buy this or that player for ludicrous sums or adopt particularly wild and experimental tactics on the field – schemes of an idiocy they would never consider in their professional lives.

Again, what Sugar failed to understand, was that these people were consciously or unconsciously indulging in catharsis, using football to empty themselves of wild emotions before they returned to their workaday existences.

Whether catharsis is an effective psychological strategy for football fans remains questionable.

I imagine the Zenit Saint Petersburg supporters who greet dark-skinned opposition footballers with monkey chants, the Polish fans who routinely call each other “Jews” , or the supporters of Beitar Jerusalem who chant “death to the Arabs”, do not return to their post-match lives shriven of racism to work in the community bringing understanding. Rather, as studies have suggested, while “blowing off steam” may reduce physiological stress in the short-term, it may act as a reward mechanism, reinforcing and promoting future outbursts.

Recently, football matches have become a locus for all manner of strange ceremonies and rituals. Most prominently there is the creeping of Remembrance Day backwards from November to late September. Not long after the last day of summer, Premier League players, their shirts adorned with giant poppies, are forced to stand in circles, their heads bent in solemn remembrance of their Cameroonian or Paraguayan grandfathers who weren’t killed in the Great War.

Also, no match now seems complete without 60 seconds of clapping on the 17th minute to memorialise a 17-year-old supporter of the club who recently “lost their battle with cancer”.

Supporters are attempting the purification and purgation of emotions, particularly pity and fear, through the witnessing of art or spectacle.

It might not matter that these rituals are empty wallowing in sentimentality except that I worry that, if people are encouraged to indulge in all this fake emotion then when a real crisis happens, they won’t know how to respond and their emotional healing will be hampered or even negated. That in the civic sphere, those who have been regularly taking part in these displays of ersatz sentiment will have lost the ability to separate the politician who is sincere and nuanced from the one who is simply a vacuous populist.

So, what are the football authorities to do about this?

One vehement opponent of catharsis was the German playwright Bertolt Brecht. He believed that allowing the audience to lose itself in the fictional world of a play meant it became a kind of narcotic, dulling them to the injustices in the outside world. His answer was “epic” or “non-Aristotelian” theatre. In epic theatre, the audience is constantly reminded they are watching a performance, with actors playing multiple roles and frequently addressing the audience directly out of character.

So, perhaps, football could adopt a Brechtian approach. Harry Maguire might be bearing down on a goal when he pulls on the shirt of whoever Leicester are playing against, runs up the other end and scores for the opposition. Theo Walcott might abruptly stop playing and inform the crowd of his despair at the world economy then sing a song.

And Eric Deir could pretty much carry on as he has been doing.

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