Against Watching

The men’s World Cup ended yesterday, hosted in Qatar, and whilst I would usually have been slowly obsessing about the minutiae of every game and taking joy from the possibility of watching football for 360 minutes a day during the group stages – plus the considerable added time that became a feature of this tournament – this time I didn’t watch. I was against watching. Why? Well, it’s the least I could do to express solidarity with the migrant workers who suffered under the employment conditions in Qatar; and the least I could do to express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community in Qatar. Was this a futile gesture? Of course it was. Did it create change, no, but I just couldn’t watch. FIFA’s process for awarding the tournament is now widely regarded as a corrupt process. Reasons for looking away were many.

Simon Critchley writes about the contradictions of modern football in his book What We Think About When We Think About Football (2017):

And here is perhaps the most basic and profound contradiction of football: its form is association, socialism, the sociability and collective action of players and fans, and yet its material substrate is money: dirty money, often from highly questionable, under-scrutinized sources. Football is completely comodified, saturateed in sponsorship and the most vulgar and stupid branding…

And this is how we end up with Gianni Infantino front and centre at every match, at the final, pushing himself forward, associating himself and the corruption of FIFA with the beauty of the game. Stepping into the healing waters of football and hoping that they will wash away the stains of corruption.

So, what to do? I started to think about how I could explore the moment of not watching, of turning away. I thought about the spaces in which had usually watched the men’s World Cup. In France ’98 I watched the game v Columbia at a friends house in West London – he was an old school friend and I think that was the last time I saw him; I watched David Beckham score a penalty v Argentina in a colleagues office at Dartington College of Arts during a lunch-break; after that there was a lot of sofa watching. I guess I must have watched some games at the pub but I’ve never enjoyed the collective watching of international football. The last time I watched England play in a men’s World Cup game in a pub was the desolate 0-0 draw v Algeria in 2010. England’s failures accompanied by beer have never been a favourite occasion.

Now, in the house, the lounge is the football venue, on the sofa with a cup of tea, scrolling through twitter. So, well, thats it, I’ll document the lounge, the sound of football not being watched, of gentle conversation in the kitchen heard through closed doors, of the wind lightly sounding in the chimney breast, the dog, footsteps on the stairs, a delivery, voices from the street, the X-Box controller, a car passing, perhaps someone watching the game next door. And when?, well, of course, every England match, the guaranteed watch. Despite being Northern Irish I’ve been in England so long – almost my whole life – that I am a follower of English football so that’s the one, that’s the frame.

Listen without headphones on laptop speakers, bluetooth, on your phone. The sound should be lightly audible, a slight presence, insignificant, without note, the sound of absence, of not watching. Do not adjust the volume. Do not listen carefully.

England v Iran – Monday 21st November 1.00pm (GMT)

England v USA – Friday 25th November 7.00pm (GMT)

Wales v England – Tuesday 29th November 7.00pm (GMT)

England v Senegal – Sunday 4th December 7.00pm (GMT)

England v France – Saturday 10th December 7.00pm (GMT)