Blogging after the Zonal Marking Hype

I. Plasma Grenades: A Post-Homeric Overview

At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at JFK airport in New York, I looked for a soccer magazine—not that I really expected to find one. But there were nine: three hardback copies of Four Four Two, a declining tactical shape but a magazine preferred by ancient schoolmasters and modern would-be warriors because of its glossy pages strumming the four-string lyre to celebrate the bulging heroes of various football clans; one refulgent cover with several endorsements on the back; one paperback going rhythmic alongside the most arresting results of the month; the inevitable gadgets with a macho cast of players; and finally a highly colored storyboard emphasizing the succinct eloquence of the Letters to the Editor. Coaches and players were picked up and then prematurely abandoned like children thrown from the walls of Troy during its sack, according to the narrative of the so-called ‘Little Iliad’. Sports and epic, together, is just too much fun, from the Byzantine millennium to the Terminal 2 bookshop.

In the U.S., of course, soccer is not pervasive in the way baseball and football constitute a truly national epic: the ultimate exchange rate of glory, pointless episodes in the history of humanity elevated to World Championship. I have yet to meet an airport customer who could not recite hopes and tragedies of the upcoming Super Bowl or who would not feel at ease with the numbing display of each pub, where plasma grenades of ESPN speak to people’s infancy in the way a voluptuous, nymphomaniac Helen—if you believe what Agamemnon swears—was the central focus of the quarrel in the Trojan War.

Homer, again. Looking at the rack of soccer magazines with the appropriate, sadistic melancholy, while a misty nunnery of passengers is lounging for early boarding, makes you think of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording Serbian singers in 1934 (yet another similarity, another parallel between epic tales and soccer storyboards). Just as Homer blurs the impossible coexistence of archaic chariots with the hoplite phalanx, of single combats with walls and trenches, so too American sports media collapse old firms and new markets—to channel an extreme, weeping emotionalism for the benefit of male, often college-educated, military history and war-book buffs.

Presumably, to experience the nasty fun of confusing the battle tactics of different eras, one would do well to access on a daily basis the forum of Zonal Marking. As a passerby of Terminal 2 I could do so only by subscribing to unlimited internet roaming for the handsome fare of $3.10 per minute; and I thought, once you are cut off from the real matches, what could be more appropriately abridged than a zealous consultation of Zonal Marking? In this, Michael Cox’s site achieved the status of a Loeb volume for soccer lovers. Think only of the difference between the dust jacket of a philological edition of Homer, say the Teubnerian Iliad, with the indispensable, though not uncontroversial, Loeb format: its literal yet stylish accuracy, its facing pages, its suitability for air travel (and a cheap replacement it is too when left aboard).

Like the hellish vicissitudes of an epic scroll in Ancient Greece, the hieratic front page of ZM is too concerned with pioneering statistical analysis to consider its own promoting of the chalkboard as a mythology, however familiar and ubiquitous this form is among the many admirers of the site—some talented observers of tactics, other merely content to replicate a mainstream image that is both cleverly entertaining and easy to clone [1].

The Guardian‘s Michael Cox—trained in a newspaper that tries to make of the incorporation of social networks its hallmark in the sport section—is the most fatherly Father Zeus among current tacticians. He had equipped himself with Aphrodite’s seduction gear, duly supported by heat-maps, diagrams and chalkboards. He has a Poseidon-like freedom of action (I continue with Homer) to help the coaches he likes, like Carlos Dunga or Marcelo Bielsa, even when their teams underachieve. Also, he possesses an Odysseus-like intelligence, both cunning and entrepreneurial, which allowed him to settle ZM at the very juncture where the whole sport of football was transitioning from the wide-ruling, oral improvisations of the working class to the re-compositions by well-educated performers. For the many readers and followers of Cox the protracted omission of a team from the analysis of ZM is a major loss and spells doom—a case of hubris for arrogance, or too many scholia for incompetence. After a battle, the bodies of conservative coaching choices are left as spoils for dogs and birds.

A granular, running biography of the game that pingpongs back and forth from the technical side-line and the action on the pitch, Zonal Marking has the Babylonian goal of simply placing soccer in square brackets. Every midfield socket, every wing lightbulb can bring down the hull, as in a downmarket replay of the Titanic. In this respect, Michael Cox aims to establish the textual supremacy of the game in the way the old librarians of Alexandria fought with Homer and struggled with the authenticity of its text. The knowledge of scholars such as Zenodotus, Aristophanes and Aristarchus was very hard won by compiling glossaries of Greek; similarly, Cox interrogates dozens of available footballing witnesses—some smaller than before, like in the case of coalescing South American teams, others post-colonial, like in the flashing idea that somewhere in Africa, out of necessity or acumen, the presence of sweeper in a 3-1-4-2 formation felt necessary again—in search of general scribal errors, omissions, and interpolations.

After all, both in its written execution and in its oral circulation, soccer presents to its fans an archaic language that is as ancient and revered as Homer’s dialectal jumble. Cox’s excisions of detail are often too frequent not to be recognized as a subjective reading, but his much greater offence is an outright mutilation of the nature of the game. Sometimes he omits or downplays entire episodes because they left too subtle a tactical trace: a slippage of the referee, a goal scored against the run of play. When I talk with my friend Roberto Beccantini, a talented commentator for La Stampa of the Olympic school, he explains to me that shapes and formations are like slices of bread or railroad tracks; what’s important is what you put on top. Nobody before the current Zonal Marking hype would dream of deleting parts of the received soccer canon, let alone entire sequences leading to a memorable goal. Nobody would make of a scoring striker an insensitive oaf if he stiffly applies to tracking duties.

Michael Cox is a genius and a fabulist; he is soccer’s Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German adventurer who kicked poor Homer out of history only for the Iliad to be treated as a historical source. Looking at the plain before Troy from a mountaintop on the island of Samothrace or at the pitch of San Siro from its last ring, the ugly terzo anello, your vision is boundless and piously god-fearing. The spectators flock to ZM because they are used to its deconstruction: a frequently repetitive and intermittently gruesome Iron Age rendition of Bronze Age combat.

Unlike Homer, who makes the Iliad begin in medias res, with the action underway, and supplies the necessary context through scattered flashbacks, Cox always starts each piece on ZM with a tiresome summary of the heroes assembled, introducing the protagonists only to reveal the indispensable enlistment of tactical options that should make us care for such characters. On top of that, a series of shrewd electronic tablets, true descendants of the writing surfaces of Mycenaean Greek life, displays scenes of battle re-written as if seen from above. Even the most dramatic soccer scenes, violently or erotically charged like in a Cecil B. DeMille canvas, are inscribed in a reciprocal balancing of the teams formations. Inevitably, Cox’s vision, whether he indulges in deference to the kings of the game, a Messi or a Ronaldo, or whether he beats up a bully boy, like Odysseus with Thersites (the nearest thing to a bolshevik), enhances the tragicomedy of the cavorting gods in the terzo anello.

II. Chalkboard Inc: Drone Landscapes

It’s not that I would hazard to challenge the merits of Michael Cox’s enterprise. On matters of tactics there is no disputing, and some may still find inspiring that his ‘chalkboard poetry’ functions less as a supplement than an antidote to the bitchy vulgarities of the specialized press. (In the past a stronger claim to football connoisseurship came from an uncle who saw Omar Sivori or Pelé playing, while these days it derives from following the most remote and esoteric teams, as if including Homeric readings and variants from half-buried papyri of the Black Sea.) Nor would I presume to impugn the qualifications of ZM as a translator of collective shapes. Apart from his human generosity, Michael Cox is like a land artist who seeks to reinforce the presence of the pitch itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality—a Paul Cézanne aspiring to make visible how the world of soccer touches us.

My preoccupation is another, and it goes beyond the issue of Homeric anachronism. The insistence of Zonal Marking on the chalkboard is a perspectival paradigm ultimately refined for the pleasure of the eye. The chalkboard is a web, an architecture, a visual pyramid followed at a great distance, even though, conceptually, its division into distinct banks of players has a lot in common with the genealogical trees of Darwinian biology and even more with the graphs of textual criticism. The major point of contact, as far I can see, between the football chalkboard and philology is that the best way to comprehend a structure is by looking at the ‘negative’ on the overall picture—two manuscripts that are discovered part of the same family because of the errors they bear in common, or the way a squad organizes itself when the adversaries are pushing on the front foot or the enemy goalkeeper is kicking the ball at the beginning of the action. There is no doubt that a formation is better seen when the team is without the ball, just like mistakes and not correct variants decide about the division of a philological tree.

The similarity, however, only goes so far. Zonal Marking is rarely interested in assembling synoptic analysis of what different teams, which play with the same formation, really have in common, and the site is even less interested in working with faults and mistakes. (At times, in fact, one has the feeling that every single post depends on the final result of the match for its title, and labors to arrange a technical explanation for the reasons why it could not have ended any other way than it did; it’s almost like Hegel’s apology of the Prussian State, and his dream of a plausible end of history.)

The chalkboard is ocularcentric; its privileging of the eye carries a very modernist ring to it. Its theoretical background can be found in László Moholy-Nagy’s concept of the hygiene of the optical, the health of the visible that slowly filters through [2]. In the proposed skyline for Buenos Aires, whose sketch (reproduced above) was presented in a lecture of 1929, one can see that Le Corbusier’s city is a city of the eye, one of distance and exteriority. Le Corbusier, however, in the words of Juhani Pallasmaa “was an artistic talent with a moulding hand, and a tremendous sense of materiality, plasticity and gravity, all of which prevented his architecture from turning into sensory reductivism” [3]. The motorized movement of the arrows and the process of chalkboard planning of Zonal Marking, on the other hand. have favored the disembodied idealism and the schematized vision of le regard surplombant, as defined by Jean Starobinski, the look from above. Machine-made materials of today avoid the patina of wear, and emphasize a continuum of time. Computer imaging tends to flatten what was once the magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacity of soccer imagination by turning its design into a passive visual manipulation—a retinal journey optimized for robot navigation as in this video.

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Heidegger’s speculation that the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture has certainly materialized in our age of the fabricated, mass-produced, manipulated image of football. As highway signage networks are adapted to assist a looping instrumentation of car drivers, we are extracting media and meaning from the soccer park according to the same directional refocusing, the framing geometries of aerial geotextiles. The future of the game would still be for humans, of course, but optical and textural concerns will predominate haptic and muscular needs. We can even identify this transition in the debate whether Messi or Maradona is to be considered the ultimate king of Argentinian soccer. Maradona was operating within the traditional cultures of the game, guided by the body in the same way that a bird shapes its nest. Clay and mud architectures of Maradona’s game seem to be born out of muscular and haptic senses rather then the eye; and his cipher is a sense of total fusion, seen with Napoli and characteristic of indigenous settlements. Messi’s brilliance, instead, is unquestionably born in the era of optic bias; his achievements have to do with the suppression of the plastic. Messi’s style of play trains you and relentlessly ask you to open your eyes—which is necessary to enjoy his masterly play of masses brought together in light.

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In this sense, the rise of Zonal Marking and the promotion of technological aids for the enjoyment of football deliberately aim at ageless perfection and the ideology of youth. The justification of hybrid shapes such as the ‘inverted winger’ or the ‘false nine’ are conveying a significant process of erasure of the fear of death. Transparency and passing have substituted the traditional mechanisms of the game in the search for goals; weightlessness and flotation have nearly driven the ponderous striker out of business. This complex transformation, as reflected in the chalkboard, has eradicated from soccer traditional smells and physiological conditions in the name of ocular hygiene. There have been, perhaps, radical impairments—or, better put, deskillings—as Theodor W. Adorno provocatively argued was the case with the fetishistic ‘regression of listening’ in modern audiences of music [4].

Zonal Marking is a case worth studying in a late capitalism that operates through artificial stimulation, manipulation, maybe even derangement of the senses to achieve constant instigation of a new consumer demand. By foregrounding the importance of new communicative devices that enhance the visual range and acuity of football, Michael Cox promotes the possibility of a “grand narrative for the eye,” capable, at least in Western societies, to dislodge the most ‘primitive’ or ‘infantile’ behavior associated with the game. The chalkboard is a metanarrative that posits a general deodorization of modern soccer smellscapes.

To challenge this experiential manipulation, whose basis is still that old Cartesian subject/object dualism, it may be helpful, I would argue, to situate us in a more fluid, immersive context, where stark oppositions between formations and shapes are understood as themselves contingent rather than necessary. Maybe it is even useful to mobilize and refashion a taste for flaws and blind spots as evidence for the ultimate beauty of soccer. In a 2011 essay aptly titled “The Divine Optician,” historian Jessica Riskin shows that Charles Darwin himself, who worked extensively on the alleged mechanical perfection of the eye, was conclusively debunked by the observations of Hermann von Helmholtz on the role of the moving body in producing visual experience [5].

It is time to call into question the binary system of Saussurean semiotics, in which meaning is based on difference. We don’t recognize a 4—4—1—1 as a 4—4—1—1 because it matches a list of features that all of these formations must have, or because it is different from a 4—2—3—1. We recognize it as a 4—4—1—1 because it resembles our mental image of a prototypical 4—4—1—1 formation: the structured resemblance to a prototype or ‘best example’. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work on the category of the ‘game’, such prototypical formations in soccer have “fuzzy” boundaries: there will be instances (reactive movements, isolated patterns of play) that cannot be definitely included in or excluded from the category. A football has a gradient structure, with some members closer to and others further away from the tactical prototype. The implicit dualism of a forum such as Zonal Marking should be eventually transcended along a gradient of deeper resemblance and with reference with extralinguistic patterns of knowledge and belief. The beauty of soccer does not originate only from prototypical effects, or from training exercises, but also from polysemous elements, and players whose game can be extended by metaphor or metonymy.

The chalkboard functions as a horizon, a strategy of containment for the real business of when “time turns” in sports. As a reader, I am not able to wrench a collective ideal from the perspectival canvassing of ZM, but the increased attention on the role of players who act ‘in the hole’ (which is, arguably, one of the most tangible improvements that the site had promoted among soccer fans), will, perhaps, cause a novelistic turn. Fredric Jameson speaks of a setting in Honoré de Balzac that functions as the ‘still point’ around which the disorder and urgency of fiction coalesce [6]. Similarly, the deep-lying playmaker works in a hollow whirlpool, spinning the narrative out of a central point. When you step completely outside the football terrain, like a hero on the walls of Troy, it is a void at the heart of events and acts that offers a different analytic rotation—a hole in the plot in which the gigantic system of soccer pivots as on some invisible axis. ♦

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NOTES

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[1] The imitations of Zonal Marking are countless, and all the more significant because, in a blogosphere where originality and creativity are supposed to come as a premium, the children-sites tend to replicate not only the style of arguing of the mother-ship but also its graphic layout.

[2] As quoted in S. Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 96.

[3] J. Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin. Architecture and the Senses (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley, 2005), p. 27.

[4] T.W. Adorno, Essays on Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 288-317.

[5] J. Riskin, ‘The Divine Optician,’ The American Historical Review, 116 (2011): 352-370.

[6] F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

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  1. […] Republic) alternate between the interior and the exterior, as between the capacity of the football park to project or absorb light. With greater distinction than in other aspects of the social life of working class people, in the […]

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  3. […] with countless cuttings collated over a generation (a mode of retrieval akin to the contemporary pursuit of the internet for various manifestations of digital material). The transmission or transfiguration of such graph, […]

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