Psychoanalysis and soccer

Chris Oakley, in his book ‘Football Delirium’, places great emphasis on intensity and its benefits, whether for fan or for player, and believes it can be elicited by footballers noted for their explosive, even their excessive, qualities.

Chris Oakley got back from Venezuela, where he had been attending the Copa America, concluding with that surprising Final in which Brazil unexpectedly breezed past Argentina, 3-0. Surprising in its own way was that Chris should get back to Hampstead to resume his practice as a distinguished psychoanalyst. In that very North West London upmarket suburb where the great Sigmund Freud himself spent his last years, having escaped from his native Vienna and the Nazis.

Now Chris has published a highly unusual book ‘Football Delirium’, in which he applied a psychoanalyst’s shrewd and original insight into the game which, by his own admission, continues to obsess him. He is an impassioned fan, but for many years he was a passionate player, playing goodish class Saturday amateur football in and around London. An active career brought to a sudden and brutal halt at the age of 48; otherwise, he insists, he would still be playing at the age of 63.

He remembers what painfully happened all too well, and all too ironically, for it was one of the players of his own club, Hampstead Heathens veterans, who crippled him, however inadvertently. The match was played on the fringes of London at Tolworth against the veterans of a famous club, the Corinthian Casuals, who turned up one man short. So the Heathens sportingly lent them their own, big centre-forward, the last of their men to arrive. Late in the game, it looked as if the big fellow was about to score. Chris, admitting it was a foul, rashly thrust his leg between those of his opponent, who twisted, inflicting agonising pain and a badly torn cruciate ligament. No more playing football.

Note that Chris is a psychoanalyst, not that dubious phenomenon, a sports psychologist. Steve McClaren, England’s struggling manager, trails one around with him, but to uncertain purpose. The psychologist, employed previously when McClaren managed Middlesbrough, was seemingly unable to save him from what seemed a nervous crisis early last year when, the account of Gareth Southgate, then the club captain, now their new manager, tells us that senior players had to take over the team.

I shall not easily forget the first football psychologist I ever met. It was in Gothenburg, at the beginning of the 1958 World Cup finals and he was attached to the Brazilian team, which would triumphantly win the title for the first time. He came from Sao Paolo, a small, unshaven man with spectacles and grey jerseys. He told me he didn’t believe in addressing players individually, because that made their problems bigger, but neither did he believe in haranguing them in groups. He strongly advised Vicente Feola, the plump and rumbling manager, not to pick either the 17-year-old Pele, or the dazzling but unpredictable Garrincha. As we know, as soon as these two marvellous players came into the team, for the third game, they changed everything.

Pele, of course, scored half a dozen goals including two gems in the Final in which Garrincha, with two amazing, jaguar swoops, made two first-half goals for Vava. Shortly before the Final, Danny Blanchflower, the outstanding skipper of a brave Northern Ireland side, told me he had been to Vicente Feola’s Press conference, in which a journalist asked him what he thought of the psychologist, to which the interpreter replied, “Senhor Feola is not saying he wishes the psychologist would go to hell; but he is thinking it!”

Oakley, who, at the other, lesser end of professional football has tales of being cautioned by police at humble Scarborough, for abusing a linesman, and of even standing on the crumbling terraces of second division Limerick in Ireland, has highly original things to say about what football means to players, as well as supporters.

“There’s something that religion does that for many people football provides, which is an intensity of experience.”

He places great emphasis on intensity and its benefits, whether for fan or for player, and believes it can be elicited by footballers noted for their explosive, even their excessive, qualities. “There are players like Craig Bellamy, probably because of their unhinged potentiality, that’s what they bring to the table… Football is hypnotic, we’re mesmerised by it. Eric Cantona, of course, had it in spades. He always played somehow on the edge.”

He draws an interesting analogy between psychoanalysis and soccer: “The analyst is the one who’s supposed to know, in football what we have is the team, and the team are supposed to win.” But, as he pursues, the psychoanalyst won’t always know and cure, just as the team will not always win. “At one level we want goals, the more the merrier for our favoured team. Yet what psychoanalysis brings to the table is that so often, unconsciously, we are after something else. And that might be described as a commitment to frustration, to disappointment. Which, after all, is indeed the lot of the majority of football fans.”

He admits that he can still be thrilled by the sight of a football stadium, seen suddenly from the window of a train. “A stadium, like a church, has the potential for exerting a fatalistic fascination, an insistent attraction for any cultural morbidity. Unwaveringly drawn by the click of the metallic turnstile to that towering eminence on the hill, for within its fastness is the place for ritual worship; not so much God, the particular footballer, but football itself. Football as spectacle. All this is informed by an in-mixing of fear and the magical, but ultimately framed by the impressive reassurance of defeat.”