10 important dramatic lessons we learn from football

It’s a World Cup year, so loads of people suddenly start to develop at least a scholarly interest in football as a broader socio-cultural event, rather than the bloatedly obscene waste of emotional energy that English football basically is. These newcomers say things like ‘football’s quite exciting, isn’t it?’, to which followers of football smile knowingly, with a keen internalised sense of ‘OH CHRIST, IF ONLY YOU KNEW…’

Inspired by this reaction to one of the best World Cups in most people’s living memory, I present some vital lessons football teaches us about good drama, and which might explain why a relatively large number of dramatists choose to torture themselves in this specific way. If you’re snooty enough to wonder how the two can usefully be compared, consider this: football is played by multi-millionaires whom everyone still believes are working-class heroes; theatre, by contrast, is made by people working for very little money whom everyone assumes to be incredibly rich. THAT is a serious PR job, right there

[NB: This list wasn’t actually composed during the World Cup. It was actually drafted some time ago, just after the amuse-bouche of the 2014 Championship Playoff Final between Derby County and my dearly-withstood Queen’s Park Rangers, who scored the only goal of the game in the final minute of normal time. I’ve attempted to update it as far as possible with matches you’re more likely to remember and/or care about]


1. The antagonist doesn’t know they’re the antagonist

Drama is conflict, and the beauty of sport in general is that what each ‘character’ wants will ALWAYS directly conflict with what the opposition wants. You can EASILY grow to hate anyone who wants to thwart you, even if it’s actually nothing remotely personal, and in any other given situation they might well want you to win. Even Luis Suarez isn’t a pantomime villain out to make you hate him – he’s totally ambivalent about what you think and is just doing what he thinks is right. Similarly, if you throw a character into a drama that exists for no reason other than to be knowingly evil, you’re doing a disservice to yourself, your audience, and humanity in general.


2. Goalless subtext can be just as much fun as high-scoring thrillers

Brazil-Chile was one of the most engrossing games of this World Cup. It was also a 1-1 draw, decided on penalties. Sure, we’re all thrilled by the lunatic thrills of Spain-Netherlands or Germany-Portugal, but some times it also points to a lack of proper content/ability. Switzerland-France had even more goals, but was it actually memorable? Was even Spain-Netherlands genuinely thrilling by the time the 4th and 5th goals flew in? You don’t have to over-stuff drama with incident. It can make you look like Casillas.


3. The result is more fun when it’s not obvious

No one remembers predictable results. Nobody even really likes them, even when they’re on the winning side. Everyone loves Costa Rica because they shouldn’t have qualified, but they still did. If you’ve written a passage of drama with an obvious conclusion, ask yourself if you’d actually enjoy watching it. My only quibble with Jerusalem is the third act, which basically just plays out everything that’s already been suggested in the previous two without any particular surprises. That’s like watching Cameroon-Brazil. Your audience switches off relatively early because it’s happening just like they expect. Yes, Greek theatre has a great tradition of this, but personally I’ve always found this more cathartic then interesting, suggesting as it does such unhelpful ideas as ‘destiny actually exists’.


4. Gratuitous illogicality ruins everything

If you make a dramatic event happen for no reason other than to be dramatic, everyone with a brain will revolt at the idea because it’s jarring and stupid. Similarly, if you are Brazil-Croatia referee Yuichi Nishimura, and award spurious penalties for bafflingly contrived reasons, everyone will hate you. However…


5. Set up the context sufficiently well, and any crap decision can pay off

Gary O’Neil is a QPR midfielder who was sent off in the playoff final for fouling Derby’s Will Hughes when he was through on goal. This initially seemed an appalling decision on his part, as it meant the mighty Hoops had to play the final third of the game with only 10 men against an energetic Derby team galvanised by the apparent advantage. However, it COMPLETELY worked out because Derby did not score, and QPR did. It was therefore, in retrospect, an amazingly heroic act by Gary O’Neil, which teaches us that characters can do incredibly shitty things for very good reasons. One of the reasons I love Breaking Bad so much is because irrational character decisions can be completely logical in context.


6. No obstacle to what a character wants should be greater than the character themselves

As per point 3, nobody likes insurmountable foes. The best character-drivers are those which they are capable of overcoming by examining themselves. Luis Suarez, for instance, is a multi-millionaire who could easily access information about the kinds of treatment he can get for constantly biting people whilst at work. He is not a seriously-disabled person on income support. Yes, he needs help, but he needs help FOR THE PURPOSES OF FIXING HIMSELF – no amount of help will be effective without his desire to examine himself and grow as a person. He simply is not interested in doing this, and that is why he is not dramatically interesting, and why we shouldn’t feel sorry for him.


7. The stage will not always suit the most able players at any given moment

The beautiful thing about humans is that they might rise to any given occasion or might not. Derby County’s Jake Buxton was possibly the player of the game against QPR, but he was nutmegged at a crucial moment by Rangers’ largely anonymous winger Junior Hoilett to set up the winning goal. Any little moment might be dealt with badly and change the outcome, speaking of which…


8. Don’t feel the need to be kind

When the cross came into the box, it came straight to Derby defender Richard Keogh. All he had to do was smash it away. He misjudged the cross and it bounced off his leg to QPR striker Bobby Zamora. This happened:


A couple of minutes later the game ended, and this was the shell of poor Richard Keogh:


Similarly, here is Chile’s Gonzalo Jara after missing the final shootout penalty against Brazil:


Life is cruel. You can be as kind to your characters as you like, but this reinforces all kinds of unhelpful ideas such as karma, natural justice and an interventionist, benevolent God, which ultimately keep characters from changing their circumstances themselves. Embrace the pain and hope that Keogh and Jara emerge stronger some day.


9. It might not make sense until it’s finished

In the build-up to QPR’s goal, I said aloud ‘Is this ACTUALLY how it’s going to be?!’ Football matches are retrospectively-constructed narratives. You can make TOTAL sense of any game once it’s over, largely because humans naturally look for narratives just like they look for human-type faces in things. This is the logical universe, so, looking back, why wouldn’t this play out like a coherent story?


10. WOULD. YOU. BE. LIEVE. IT?!                NO!

This is BBC London commentator Phil Parry being unable to process how everything worked out for QPR: http://deadspin.com/bbc-announcer-goes-bonkers-as-qpr-scores-90th-minute-wi-1581083245

Has your audience seen this story before? What can you do that will make them feel like this? If it doesn’t occur to you to do this, then… well… remind me why you’re doing this?