End of August. Time to update one of my all-time favourite football cartoons. If I remember correctly, it dates from 1992, but it never seems to become obsolete. You just have to update the text of the first three panels of the strip with what you see in the television news, and you can be sure that the fourth one is as valid as ever. (Of course you can feel FREE to replace ‘Bundesliga’ by ‘PremierLeague’, ‘Süper Lig’, ‘Primera División’, ‘Ligue 1′, ‘Extraklasa’, ‘Superligaen’ or whatever else you fancy). The cartoon will work in all European languages, and it would do so even without any words. In the continuous flow of unpleasant news, the start of the new season is always a most welcome interruption, and a moment full of fresh promises.
‘Season’ is a curious word to describe the rhythm of the championships. Very appropriately, football has borrowed its time frame from the world of the theatre: each season is both a drama in itself and a long sequence of individual dramas, with their unity of time, place and action, with heroes and villains, intrigues and narratives, story twists and surprises. The season has a more or less solemn opening, one or several climaxes, regular cliff-hangers, and, inevitably, a dénouement at the end. And the World Cup or continental championships may easily be compared to international summer festivals such as Edinburgh or Avignon, where legendary performances are remembered, new trends are spotted, and stars are born. More than fifty years ago, the screenwriter and director Oliver Storz conceded in a newspaper article that ‘a good football match is always better than a bad theatre play’. For him, football was the modern form of popular culture in the sense of the commedia dell’arte, where ‘the time frame is defined, the characters are stock characters, the plot lines are given, the audience knows the actors and the roles they are going to play.’ (Stuttgarter Zeitung, June 1958.) It certainly is the most accessible of all forms of drama. Like a puppet show for children, it produces instant emotion in the audience and the excitement does not diminish with repetition. Quite the opposite: there is even a certain delight in finding the same characters and plot options again next time around. The magic of a puppet play only works if children are capable of forgetting everything else around them while it lasts. Once the play is over you kindly remind the kids that ‘it’s only a story!’ This is how they learn that both the total immersion and the capacity for ironical distance are necessary ingredients for the full enjoyment of the drama. It’s just the same with us grown-ups. We may not watch puppet plays anymore, but we found an even better commedia dell’arte to replace them (even if ‘it’s only a game!’). And we don’t seem to mind repetition. Season after season.