I know more than a few men who perform for work. Tim plays a serious and together corporate manager. Rick jokes along with the tough banter of other men he doesn’t really like. And Luis crunches his numbers and makes line graphs and presents them with smooth confidence to colleagues. These are not actors: they are just men doing their jobs. But they are performing day in, day out, aren’t they? Isn’t that what we’re all doing at work?
Performance is perhaps more obvious in footballers. I am not talking about their athletic flamboyance. Or their artistry of punching the ball onward with their toes through moving obstacles. These things serve their aims of moving the ball to the back of the net. They perform in entirely different ways that are both unnecessary when you think about it and yet absolutely essential to their sport.
Footballers throw tantrums when the referee says they’ve done something wrong. Challenge is an affront to their competence. Their protests are as much about protecting their competence as they are about trying to affirm their innocence. You can know this for sure because half the time they are not even innocent of the foul. They tried something cheeky and the ref caught them out. Footballers have no humility. They’ll push another man onto the grass and still look astonished when they are shown the red card.
This look of shock they give—their mouth forming a perfect o, their eyes stretching wide—is developed over the years and rehearsed almost as much as their tackling tactics. I find it really funny. It is the grown-man equivalent of the boy who gets caught with wet sticky chocolate caked around his mouth and still protests with absolute certainty that no, he did not eat the chocolate. Can you imagine doing that at your work? Can you imagine yanking a colleague’s computer from its cables and smashing it onto the carpet tiles—and then holding your hands up and crying “Injustice!” when the boss comes over and says you might want to leave? Footballers do this all the time. And we love them for it.
The other thing they do that we love them for is succeed. They go out into battle and they win and we love it. The ball flies past the keeper and warps the entire net as it hits it and we cheer and the striker holds out his arms and shows us his ecstasy and his colleagues pile on him to show their love and admiration. Once again there is no humility here. Goal celebrations are not a restrained affair.
With 50,000 people cheering from the stands, a footballer who just scored can hardly give himself a wee smile and then merely head back to the circle for the game to recommence. As the watchers watch and the cameras zoom and the other team’s players take a deep breath, the scorer parties with exuberance, with defiance, with joy and pride. It is an expression of male emotion matched in the stands and at home on the sofa and in the pub with pint glasses thrust into the air. People say men don’t show their emotions or their love for each other. Watch a football game, watch the watchers, and you’ll know this isn’t true. Men love, men cry. They are proud and they are vulnerable. They show all these emotions and more in the moment their hero punches the ball into the back of the net. And also when he falls down after a bad tackle, a heartbreaking collapse into obscurity as the damage to his ankle means he won’t play again in this match.
That player rolls around in the seconds before the physiotherapist arrives, performing. He may truly be in pain. But he’s got to make it look really serious. He’s got to broadcast that pain to the stands, and to millions watching at home. Like a clown wearing big red lips so the crowds up high at the top of the big tent can see his expressions, the injured footballer exaggerates. The funny thing is that most spectators know this is a dance. They roll their eyes and call him a pussy.
But what happens after the player has been carried off stage? Does he still ham it up? Or is he, well, more normal? What about his colleague, who is known for outrageous shirt-over-the-head goal celebrations? Or the player whose face scrunches into a rage when confronted by an officious ref? Backstage, do they still perform?
The answer is in a wonderful film called Fulboy. I just watched it as part of a film festival in London. The filmmaker is called Martin Farina and his brother Tomás plays in an Argentine football team. Because of this connection, Farina is allowed into the hotel rooms and the locker rooms where the players spend their down time together. He shoots them talking to each other, messing about and kissing their handheld plastic statues of the Virgin Mary. Obviously they all talk about the interloper. There is a somewhat gripping scene in which one of the teammates makes it very clear that he is uncomfortable with the camera. He says it is only because it is Farina, Tomás’ brother, that he is even entertaining the idea. But he looks tense. He’s on a hotel bed with his mates around him, topless and showing his physical strength—but not flaunting it. For once, as he explains his unease, he is using his words not his body to communicate. A few hours later and he’ll be on the pitch battling against 11 other bodies and working with his legs, his arms, his chest.
But here in this hotel room the footballer is calm and still and thoughtful and talkative. Others are more taciturn of course, perhaps because of the camera, perhaps because of their nature. But Farina still captures their spirit. Off the pitch these men are relaxed and playful. There is no edge to them. They are not as they are on the pitch, when they are little balls of potential rage, of bound-up energy, of supreme confidence. In the locker room they are playful and they are tender. They help each other with career advice. They wrestle like puppies.
Through Farina’s lens this team is homoerotic. I wonder whether they knew they would seem to be so when they agreed to let him film them. Farina makes a point about it. His camera lingers on their hard and fit bodies. He films a man’s crotch in close up as he pulls on a pair of boxers. He shoots them in the shower, sometimes touching each other, not sexually. One player sits in a low chair, his legs splayed wide, and Farina lowers his camera to the same height as the crotch and holds it there. This is not merely an effort at titillating a gay or a female audience. It is a way of exploring these men’s bodies in a way they are not usually. On the pitch, men’s bodies clash and bash into each other, either in a tackle or a celebration. But here, in the hotel rooms and the locker rooms, they are tender together. Not sexual (necessarily). Just friendly and loving and comfortable with each other.
But of course it is intensely homoerotic. So much so that the film was selected to be shown at Flare, which is London’s LGBT film festival. I sat and watched Fulboy in a cinema screen filled with gay men. We were all mostly calm; of course there were a few titters when Farina captured part of a testicle bulging through a hole in a player’s boxers… The thing is, watching Fulboy as part of a queer film festival adds an extra element of intrigue to Farina’s project. I do not know whether he fancies the men he’s filming. In any case, his project is to show these men in a different light. To show that footballers are warm and tender—and to reveal just how much of a stage the pitch is. Playing is performance. Most footballers are so good at it that they come to stand for perfection. They are idolised by boys. Their arrogance is accepted by us all; more—it is encouraged.
But behind the scenes they are other things. Fulboy shows much more that these footballers—that men—can be. It reveals perfectly the performance of manhood on the pitch, and the calmness a man can feel when he can can strip it off and relax in the hotel room afterwards.
Here’s the trailer for Fulboy: