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Flight Simulator: On the Hyperreality of Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale may actually be a cheater, when in actuality, he isn't.

Scott Heavey

The last time we saw Gareth Bale, he was limping into the dark, accordion-like tunnel at Craven Cottage, holding the back of his prodigious left thigh. Spurs were 1-nil up on Fulham through a long-distance rocket shot from Sandro, but that hardly seemed to matter; the story of the evening was Bale. Bale of the suddenly dodgy hamstring. Bale of the dive. Earlier in the match, Bale had driven in from left toward Mark Schwartzer's goal, gathering pace as he went, only to catch the toe of Steve Sidwell's boot, mid-tackle. What happened next was less of a fall and more of a modern dance move; Bale, having come into contact with Sidwell's foot, arched his back, threw up his hands and, for a moment, flew through the air in a perfect half-arc before crumpling to the ground. The moment actually had a kind of beauty to it, until Bale rolled over, raised his hands, and was greeted by the sight of referee Chris Foy reaching for his yellow card. Gareth got booked, then he pulled his hammy, and then he was gone, hobbling off the pitch and into the dark.

And now it's late December, and that means that BPL fans are treated to the most wonderful time of the year: the festive period glut of matches, during which teams position themselves for the second half of the season run-in, when January transfer needs come into focus and the early shine of unanticipated positive results begins to tarnish. (I'm looking at you, West Brom.) And it is also the case that sometime soon - at the Lane on Saturday versus Stoke, or perhaps to Villa away - one Gareth Frank Bale, aged 23 years, will step back onto the pitch in Spurs lilywhite and inevitably reignite the debate that has roiled along the periphery of most every match in which he has participated. At the heart of the argument sits a seemingly important question, one that could come to define how Bale is seen (and treated) as a player for years to come: does Gareth dive?

It's certainly an argument we've had here. Members of the CFC community have gone back and forth as to a) whether Bale throws himself theatrically to the floor in search of ill-gotten free kicks or cards against opposing fullbacks; or b) whether Bale is moving at such incredible velocity with such precarious balance that any touch will send him tumbling to the turf; or c) whether Bale is protecting himself from the Charlie Adam-type wrecking ball tackles that have thrown him off his stride and at times caused serious injury; or d) some combination of the above. This debate is made doubly divisive by current technologies: high-def, slo-mo, gif-heavy instant analysis that, for all its pixels and perspective, lends surprisingly little by way of definitive proof of wrongdoing on the part of suspected divers like Bale, Busquets and Suarez.

Take, for instance, the aforementioned incident involving Bale and Fulham midfielder Sidwell. After Bale was booked by Foy for diving, the following gif made the rounds:



One of our strengths as a community is our ability to analyze. And so we did. We set to asking whether there was contact in the first place (looks like it); whether Bale's pace would have taken him over (I dunno, maybe?); whether or not Bale embellished his fall (that back bend is pretty impressive); all the while attempting the foggy arithmetic that might lead us to some kind of truth regarding whether or not Bale actually dove.

And if you'll remember, these conversations have gotten us nowhere. We've asked the same question about Bale's booking against Liverpool in the match previous, as well as the infamous "protective maneuver" in response to a perceived incoming walloping via Aston Villa keeper Brad Guzan. (Gif evidence is provided below.)



These conversations - and the larger question of whether Bale simulates fouls to gain unfair advantage - intrigue me. They remind me of a larger conversation that has swirled about the literary studies world in recent years, one that has only grown with the advent of new digital spaces which ask us to create ghostly pixelated avatars for/of ourselves. It's a conversation that centered around two French literary theorists and one deeply confusing idea. The theorists are Jean Baudrillard and Gil Deleuze. The idea is simulacrum.

Like most French literary theory - hell, like most philosophy in general - the ideas of Baudrillard and Deleuze are difficult to decipher. And I think you should bear in mind that I'm not the best guy to do it for you. I taught critical theory once at the undergraduate level; it did not go well. Nevertheless, I want to give what I hope is a brief, lucid and accurate introduction to what Baudrillard and Deleuze were thinking about. It will be basic, which means it will be reductive, which is a cardinal sin when philosophizing. That said, I think even a diluted dose of French postmodernism might help us frame our understanding of Gareth Bale, as a player and as a simulator.

Whenever I struggle with literary theory (that is, all the time), I find it helps to give examples. So here's one Baudrillard gives, by way of Jorge Luis Borges: Say you want to make a map. What is a map? Well, a map is a representation of a place, a miniaturization from a forced perspective that can help us understand our surroundings. But say you wanted to make the most detailed map you could. In Borge's story, the cartographers tasked with accomplishing this goal end up producing a map the size of the earth. It is an accurate, detailed copy, one that totally subsumes the thing it represents.

This is our world, Baudrillard says. (In fact, he calls it "hyperreality.") We have made so many copies of things, and made so many copies of those copies, that the objects to which they refer have receded into the far distance. Deleuze uses Andy Warhol's Pop Art as a further example of simulacrum. Warhol took recognizable images - Campbell's Soup cans, Marilyn Monroe head shots, Elvis-as-cowboy - and reprinted them over and over, using brash coloring, imperfect printing methods and the proximity of multiple prints to reveal how a copy of a thing can shake itself free of its referent and become something else. This, Deleuze says, is simulacrum.

So what does this have to do with Gareth Bale? Well, if you think back to our arguments about whether Bale dove in a particular situation, and whether or not the accumulated evidence suggests that Bale can accurately be labeled a "diver," and you consider the instruments we use to judge said events, the gif in particular owing some of its cultural weight to Pop artists like Andy Warhol, the parallels, I hope, begin to come clear.

Or let me put it another way: Think about Bale falling over after a challenge. For whom is he simulating? Well, there are several different audiences watching any given moment in a match. There are those watching at the stadium. There are those watching on various screens via various means of broadcast in various places. There are the 21 other players on the pitch, who, while their attention might actually be elsewhere, can be said to have an awareness of their surroundings, and particularly of where the ball is. And last but not least, there are the two linesmen and the referee, who are tasked with the impossible: to immediately read and interpret the actions of 22 individuals at any given moment, to apply a legal code to those actions and make appropriate decisions as to actuality, severity, location and punishment of any infractions. (These are exactly the problems that the NFL, with its over-reliance on replay technology, irrationally hopes to eradicate. Put another way, the NFL would like the whole game to be a little less human. But I digress...) And the last audience is Bale himself. There's that famous scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex (But were Afraid to Ask) where, in the midst of a passionate romantic encounter, the movie ventures inside Allen's brain (and, yes, his genitalia), where little men monitor the situation from behind Allen's eyes and engage the appropriate physiological response. The conscious mind is in some sense an observer, albeit an intimate one. So as Bale comes to the moment of contact (or lack thereof), any number of forces, physical, psychological and cultural, come to bear. There are the pressures to exert a measure of order in a game that is inclined toward chaos. There is the pressure to protect oneself from harm. There is pressure to find an advantage, as advantages often lead to winning, which is, after all, the goal. And there is the overwhelming hum of the collective attention of thousands upon thousands of conscious minds focusing on that one moment, and your place in it. That's a lot of pressure. Enough to make you fall over, I should think.

Last season, Gary Neville spent 15 minutes on Sky Sports exploring simulacra - that is, dives and diving. It's mostly brilliant, minus the hints of xenophobia. Here it is:

Neville calls going to ground easily in search of penalties "the reality of the game." Deleuze and Bauldrillard might correct him by suggesting that what he's really talking about is the "hyperreality of the game," where what is "really" a foul is obscured and marginalized to the point that what looks like a foul, is one.

So take that Fulham booking again: How do we determine whether Bale's tumble to the floor is a dive, or a foul? What, in this case, is real? Was Bale simulating, or was he impeded? Or was it something in between? Was Bale cheating, or merely playing football in the hyperreal, wherein the actuality of what might have once been understood as a foul has recede under the multiplicity of simulations that flash before our eyes, sped up and slowed down, underlined, highlighted and diagrammed, spooling out over and over and over again, while the real recedes to a pinpoint of light, one bright pixel, and then flickers out and is gone?