It starts with the build-up. People swarming outside before they take their seats to watch the action. The agonising development of tension as the stage is set and the story unfolds. Baying crowds, surging emotion, warring factions, competing discourses. Conflict. Resolution.
I’m talking about theatre; theatre in the most conventional sense, where actors re-enact narratives designed to evoke a reaction from a live crowd. But I could just as easily have been describing the events which take place up and down the country on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, in colossal stadiums and in local parks, watched by millions on a weekly basis.
Despite what many would have you believe, football and theatre really aren’t so disparate. Both have their conventions, their fans, their superstitions and their critics. For example, the ritual of the introduction of the teams which takes place at the beginning of a match is a sort of reverse curtain call for actors; teams emerge, acknowledging their fans before the action plays out, rather than taking their bow after what might end in humiliating defeat. Backstage at the theatre, hundreds of actors still live in fear of mentioning ‘The Scottish Play’. If they happen to let it slip, they must go straight outside, spin three times, spit, swear, and then knock on the stage door before they are allowed to return, lest the spectre of Macbeth place of a curse on the whole production. Footballers have their odd superstitions too; David James had more superstitions than teams played for, and who could forget Laurent Blanc planting his lips on the shiny scalp of Fabien Barthez before every game during the 1998 World Cup? The things actors and footballers will do for ‘luck’ are bemusing to fans of both disciplines.
Both mediums present a struggle, a clash between opponents battling to become victorious, whether pre-scripted or not. The Montagues and the Capulets, or the Reds and the Blues. One side must overcome the other to emerge the winner.There are techniques and schools of thought within both; Constantin Stanislavski believed that actors could learn to convey real emotion by accessing their own bank of emotional memory, while many managers and coaches in football adhere to the belief that making their players practice penalties and set pieces will imprint the action in their muscle memory and make it more easily accessible on the big stage. Johan Cruyff, Helenio Herrera and Sir Alex Ferguson are the theatrical practitioners of football, while Michael Chekhov, Bretolt Brecht and Harold Pinter are the celebrated coaches of great theatre. Magical things happen under their tutelage, and their guidance and teachings will form the basis of teams and stories for centuries to come. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sam Allardyce might have more in common than many realise: their style is strident, loud and brashly effective, and you might sigh if you find yourself having to sit through ninety minutes of it.
There are familiar discourses throughout both disciplines. The ‘magic of the cup’ trope is akin to the ‘rags to riches’ tales that have enthralled audiences when performed on stage for centuries. The football clubs with the rich owners and the exorbitant transfer fees are the pantomime villains, waiting in the wings to lure another young starlet into their clutches. A burgeoning partnership between two strikers is as beguiling and captivating to watch as a flourishing friendship between two characters, or an epic love story that defies the odds. The own goals, sloppy back-passes and goalkeeper errors are the farcical, slapstick element. A through-ball assist is the equivalent of the big reveal at the end of a mystery, the moment the knots are unravelled and everything just makes sense.
What of the player stepping up to take a deciding penalty? This is where the two worlds vastly differ, and can never be compared. You could go to the theatre with the intention of watching the same play for the fifth time, safe in the knowledge that it will end in the same way it always has. The lines will be the same, the inflections, the delivery, the lighting and even the breathing patterns of the cast members are rehearsed to perfection so that audiences at touring productions will see the same show whether they are in Brighton or Birkenhead. The only thing that there is a chance will be different is the cast. In the world of football, the chances of seeing even a slightly similar game twice in a lifetime are slim to none. A fan could go to a game between the same two teams five times and see two wins, two losses and a draw. There might be injuries, penalties, red cards, hat tricks, abysmal errors or moments of magic; it is impossible to know. Whether they are fielding the exact teams in exactly the same formations is irrelevant. No two games are the same, no player can put in an identical performance to his last, no two passes are equal in trajectory and speed, no two goals are equal in magnitude or greatness. They are incomparable. Every act is individual, every movement creates a different outcome and for every outcome there is another opponent to be taken on or record to be broken.
Theatre’s rehearsal process is based entirely upon extracting identical, consistent performances from a cast, whereas the training rituals in football are simply arming their performers with the resources they require to go out on the pitch for ninety minutes and improvise. Tactics and formations combine with imagination and skill, equipping each player with the means to write their own script. As convincing a theatrical performance as there ever was could not match the inimitable anguish or unbridled joy that comes from the unpredictable unfolding of each narrative.
The beauty is in the realisation of the unknown. Perhaps the most famous playwright of all had it right when he said ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’.