Umberto Eco, deconstructor of football

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Umberto Eco, 75, hung over from jet lag and downing Macallan whisky on doctor’s orders, parries with Financial Times writer Jan Dalley (Dec 15). Despite a gamut of conversation, from potential fiction projects to beauty to the yoke of slavery accepted when cracking open a lobster claw, Eco flirts just twice with football-related chatter.

The first comes during a discourse on charm when the University of Bologna semiotician, now retired, acknowledges the lures of AC Milan owner and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. “[He] is a midget,” says Eco, “but he has charm.”

Eco considers that his own fame in Italy devolves from one comment in the early 1960s regarding civilization’s compulsion to “worship superior beings—the Greek gods, the knights of the round table, superheroes.” But television has mediated the desire, such that models, unlike the incomparable Greta Garbo, now “look like everyone else” and fallen individuals gain prominence so that “everybody can exercise his own sense of superiority.” We are uncertain, though, if footballers fit into the same paradigm.

Yet Eco has written, in the essay “The World Cup and Its Pomps,” that, to him, football long has been “linked with the absence of purpose and the vanity of all things.” We write on May 27: “The football supporter, according to Eco, is a voyeur—nonparticipant—compensating for the ennui of routine by focusing on a game that, like Groundhog Day, is structured to repeat on successive weekends, for seasons on end.”

Given that mundane life-sustaining tasks—such as hammering open a crustacean to harvest its succulent meat—constitute slavery in Eco’s system, this must be all the more true when watching soccer on TV. For having watched and enjoyed Arsenal-Chelsea on Sunday, therefore, we feel a sense of shame rising.

Cancel the Christmas lobster, let’s go pluck some berries.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] extending Umberto Eco’s comment on the “meta-” nature of writing about sport (see 16 Dec 07 and 27 May 07). Such commentary, or “sports chatter” in Eco’s phrase, consists of [...]

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