Premier League

Unai Emery, Poonam Raut and a Persian Carpet

In the years that followed the First World War, British high society was a peculiar and easily lampooned place. The works of PG Wodehouse demonstrate that well, but Evelyn Waugh produced no less preposterousness.

Unlike Wodehouse, Waugh travelled, and one of his earlier writings on such subject, Labels, saw him leave the UK for parts that he himself knew were becoming well-trampled by the well-heeled, with the traditional ‘Grand Tour’ locations no longer on the itinerary.

North Africa became an area that was better known, with places such as Cairo, Giza and Port Said entering the British consciousness; while air travel made Europe closer, going further afield was still usually the bastion of the bigger ships and cruise liners.

The British thirst for knowledge, for art and for antiquity ensured that museums in these far-flung places were well-attended by visitors, even if they weren’t always sure what they were seeing. Waugh might not have been the typical travel writer, but his appreciation of quality was respectable – this is a man who condemned the nightclubs of Paris for their mediocre Champagne, remember – and he noted the difficulty of being exposed to this new culture.

Having been brought up in Western culture, with all that entails in terms of artistic movements, and progression; that of the Renaissance, of modernism, being exposed to Eastern art, with its repetition of shape, colour and pattern, Waugh found it impossible to judge its quality.

It is an immutable truth that one is unable to judge how good something is when there is no frame of reference, or little frame of reference, to work from. I have seen precisely zero MMA bouts, and so if I were to watch one, although I could perhaps read a little ahead, it would be difficult to know what made them good or bad.

It is an issue I tackled head on at the London Olympics, spending a considerable time in the build-up to the games watching Rhythmic Gymnastics and learning what constituted artistic quality in that discipline, so that when the competition did come around, I knew what to look out for and was able to judge further than ‘Wow, how did she do that?’

That problem is one that you see played out from weekend to weekend, as supporters of one specific sports culture struggle to assimilate their expectations onto another. Perhaps it is most apparent in the difference between men’s and women’s sport and those who are unable to appreciate the latter because they are only able to contextualise it against the former.

Women’s football is not the same as men’s, and to view it as such is to miss out on much of what is good in the game; but in order to appreciate it, one has to put some time in to ‘learn’ the game. Luckily, thousands of fans are beginning to do so.

The same is true of women’s cricket, which has been particularly pro-active in its promotion. In some competitions, women’s games are played on the same grounds as men’s, giving a pan-gender double header, but the major broadcasters treat women’s cricket with the same reverence as they do the men’s game – the likes of Nat Sciver and Poonam Raut are viewed as fabulous cricketers, their gender immaterial. Long may that continue.

An element of that lack of context, I would argue, comes in the expectation of football in different countries and what supporters expect. I experience that detachment sometimes when I tune into an A-League game or a J-League match; the style of football is so alien to my eye that it can be difficult to marry it to the sport as I know it.

When players move to the Premier League from abroad, it often takes a length of time for them to acclimatise as the English style of football, even though played by a great deal of non-English players, has retained the undercurrent of intensity that always permeated the game in the past.

Likewise, although Serie A has a rightly deserved reputation for historical meanness, it has a fine history of teams demonstrating world class attacking flair; recent years, and investment, have seen a return to something like those times again.

Yet English supporters still watch Serie A and complain it is too slow and tactical, while Italian club fans watch the Premier League and bemoan its lack of guile. When one has been brought up to enjoy something, it can be difficult to comprehend or appreciate that which is ‘other.

I’ve tried to put my finger on why that is often, and never quite found an adequate conclusion. Australian players, to my eyes, seem to be playing percentage football a lot of the time; their ponderous build-up play bereft of sparks of inspiration, and demonstrating a lack of willingness to attempt different techniques to break down defences.

Perhaps it is simply experience. Just as Waugh might have learned to appreciate a Persian carpet if he allowed himself the time, a Chelsea fan might find much to admire in Empoli if they allowed themselves the opportunities to watch them often enough.

That argument would ensure Unai Emery is given a berth of understanding as Arsenal coach. His style of play is likely to finish up much more pragmatically than Arsene Wenger’s did (and remember the step from George Graham’s Arsenal, who still haunted Highbury on the Frenchman’s arrival) but it will be difficult to know quite what represents the true Arsenal for quite some time yet – there won’t be enough evidence built up to know.

In short, while there is a great desire for people to appear knowledgeable and ahead of the game today, it is sometimes impossible to do so. One has to be ignorant in order to gain knowledge, and there is no shame in that.

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