Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Blogs Should I Read For the World Cup? Part 3: The Run of Play

Yes we all know it was going to happen.  Might was well get you all on board now.

In my other life, I sing in a well-respected Toronto-based choir.  The conductor is famous for his full-bodied direction on stage, a habit that has garnered him the nickname "twinkle toes."  He is also known in singing circles for his absurdist directorial metaphors, which involve floating elephants, swinging handbags, a giant Michelin Man walking on the moon.  While they're hard to get used to, they oddly make choirs sing the way he wants, i.e. they usually work.

I made my first comment on Brian Phillips' site Run of Play almost two years ago, on the Inner Life of Didier Drogba.  Most blogs about soccer, even the best ones, usually depend on words.  Here instead was a photo of a weird hotdog statue squirting ketchup on his head, which the reader was supposed to look at while listening to Duke Ellington and somehow conjure up the inner thoughts of a highly paid Ivory Coast native who plays for Chelsea FC.

This sort of thing is difficult to pull off—too obvious, or too opaque, a blog like this can easily slip into hipster narcissism.  In my two years as an avid reader, I've always been amazed how the Run of Play always works. 

Thankfully, Phillips mostly relies on words (although for a long time his "About" page featured a seemingly unrelated collage of images, which said more about RoP than any blurb ever could); he is one of the best living soccer writers I have ever read, and has had as much influence on my approach to soccer as Brian Glanville's The Story of the World Cup.  A recent example: a post on former Chelsea manager, Avram Grant meeting Cheslea in the FA Cup final with Portsmouth.  In one paragraph, Phillips tells you all you need to know about Grant's time with the West London club:
Grant was not only the least likely possible candidate to bring tidings of fun to the people—a sludge monster with jowls of doom and a baleful croak of a voice—he was also completely untested. Chelsea was his first job outside Israel, which meant that, as far as the narrative megalith of English-speaking soccer was concerned, it was his first job, period. Before it, he had merely drifted through the machinery, looking for strings to pull and scenes to stand behind. So now the least obviously entertaining life form in the galaxy was promising entertainment; the least experienced coach in soccer was promising superlative victories; a man with no apparent claim to straight-faced hubris was calling down the gods in a granitic, expressionless monotone. It was a script, it was obviously a script, even if he’d volunteered it or had it willingly coaxed out of him. But he was the one reading it, and that was all. 
Compare this to Chelsea's Wikipedia page, which blandly declares "In September 2007 Mourinho was replaced by Avram Grant, who led the club to their first UEFA Champions League final, in which they lost on penalties to Manchester United. Grant was sacked days later and succeeded by Luiz Felipe Scolari in July 2008."  Phillips brings you the surrounding season-long drama—the journalistic bleating, the hubris of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic—in one paragraph, and now you're up to speed on most of the overarching narrative of the 2007-08 Chelsea season.

Except the site is much, much more, especially now.  Phillips recently redesigned Run of Play as the home of a new serial drama based in New York during the 1920s, Brooklyn Asylum FC, and not surprisingly, Phillips proves he also adept at writing fiction.  His prose betrays his love of imagery, and in five short installments we are already very a part of Gershwin's New York, following a pretty successful year for the title club.  A taste, Phillips vivid opening description of a crammed speakeasy: 
At Pharaoh’s they were coming out of the trenches again, thousands of them, pouring down the side of the crumpled napkin, running in waves down the polished grain of the bar. The guns roared down on them from the batteries on the mirror-shimmering gin shelf and their lines broke and they fell in piles, but still they kept coming. The officers pressed down on their helmets and screamed, urging the men forward. The barrage blew huge chunks out of the level wood and whiskey and bodies and shards of broken glass and scraps from somebody’s old racing form went spinning. Everything was spinning, the cheap chandelier and the armies and the old man and the faded curtains with the mock-Egyptian print. Sam’s jaw was crushed against the back of his wrist on the bar and the ragged lines kept coming.      
There are blogs and there are blogs.  Run of Play is an online series of thoughts and reflections about a niche interest, so in that sense it is a blog like any other.  Except Phillips pushes himself, his point of focus, his writing, his design, beyond print journalism, beyond sports writing, beyond fiction, beyond what many imagine might be capable for a individual soccer site.  He pushes to remind everyone that the web affords the freethinker a lot of room to push.  This is the glory of the internet, and if you read Phillips long enough, it's hard to think what other sport could have inspired this sort of achievement.  (I would recommend something to listen to while reading, but Phillips has of course already thought of that.)

Will Cover: England, USA
Good to Read: At the end of a long day reading through match reports and player transfer rumours.
Wine:  Forget wine, how about a nice glass of Hockley Dark?


Nick said...

How curious- first thing I read on RoP was the Inner Life of Cesc Fabregas backed with Charles Mingus.

football gifts said...

Thank-you, I will follow this Blog with interest.

'Sean' said...

Richard, I know you and your work largely from Brian's site, and I missed this when you posted it ... annnnnnd yes.

I think RoP is one of the ongoing creative triumphs of the English-language internet. I'm sure my view is skewed by the manifold similarities between Brian's aesthestic and mine, but even allowing for that, damn.

My word verification for this reply is ectard. Ectard, [n], [ant: entard], [no definition: undefined]. This seems related, somehow.

Brian's posts make me feel the same way: As if I'm about 10 seconds and one insight away from decoding the universe.