The Absolute Fake is offspring of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.
Think about Disneyland, Vegas, Major League Soccer, Qatar hosting the World Cup, or the USA hosting the World Cup in 1994. What do all these things have in common? They are Absolute Fakes.
Disneyland is a place where fantasy literally comes to life as kids get to meet the cartoon characters they watch on TV every morning. Vegas is a similar, though more adult in nature, simulacrum of fantasy — a place where we are promised “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” a place to escape the confines of social norms and do things you would never do, even though you are actually doing them.
And like Vegas, Qatar springs from the middle of nowhere, a pile of sand, to host a World Cup. A nation with fewer citizens than the town I live in, they have no real team, they have no football infrastructure and they have no actual infrastructure to host millions of football fans. But they are set to give us all the greatest simulation of a World Cup the world has ever seen.
But before Qatar bought and paid for the World Cup, the USA put on our own version of the Absolute Fake. The USA were the trail blazers and in many ways we have always been the pinnacle of the Absolute Fakes.
The quote at the start of this piece is from Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality. Following in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville, Eco travelled to America to observe first hand American culture and try to understand how this behemoth of selfishness, greed, and crassness is so effective at exporting its culture. How is it possible that something so obviously contrived, like Disneyland, can be so appealing that they have locations in France, Japan, and China? Eco finds his answer in the phrase “hyperreality”.
What sets the United States apart from the rest of the world is that we often seek to directly replicate reality with a duplicate. And the closer that duplicate can be to the real thing, without actually being the real thing, the better.
One of the many examples Eco cites is LBJ’s library. In Austin Texas Johnson created a library that not only contains millions of pages of documents from his tenure as President but also acts as a museum, a Wunderkammer as Eco calls it, for all the relics of his Presidency. And there in the middle of this orgy of wax figures and videos is a full scale replica of the Oval Office.
It is an Oval Office that will never change. It is an Oval Office that will never be besmirched with the stain of a sex scandal. It is and always will be an Oval Office that is far more polished and far more perfect than the actual Oval Office. This is hyperreality. This is the Absolute Fake.
But Eco sees the Absolute Fake as more dangerous than simply being an exact, hyper, copy of something else in reality.
The aim of the reconstructed Oval Office is to supply a “sign” that will then be forgotten as such: The sign aims to be the thing, to abolish the distinction of the reference, the mechanism of replacement. Not the image of the thing, but its plaster cast. Its double, in other words.
The sign seeks to be better than the reference and one could argue that LBJ’s Oval Office has achieved that goal. The real Oval Office is where real things happen; where decisions about life and death are made, where people make errors of judgement, and it is where Donald Trump may sit one day.
In 1988, the USA won the rights to host the 1994 World Cup and it was a shock to the world. The Brazilian delegate, Guimaraes Octavio Pinto, was quoted saying that ”taking the World Cup to the United States is like taking the World Series to Brazil.”
The New York Times put the USA’s bid in perspective, one we have heard repeated ad nauseum in the nearly 30 years since:
Soccer’s lack of popularity in the United States was regarded as the one weakness in the American federation’s bid. Billed more than 20 years ago (1968) as ”the game of the future” in America, soccer has struggled to fulfill its promise on a professional or world-class level. Leagues have come and gone, and the game has prospered only at grass-roots and school levels. Americans, interested in so many other sports, have never been as attracted to soccer.
But the reason FIFA gave it to the USA was simple:
”The United States is the only unconquered continent in the soccer set,” said Peter Pullen, a member of the Brazilian bid delegation, expressing a common opinion within the FIFA family of 158 nations. ”There is a great potential for economic power, and a lot of people can make a lot of money if the games take off.”
USA went on to host the World Cup and it was the highest attended World Cup of all time.
Two years later, the USA formed a professional football league.
“Fake it ’till you make it.”
Major League Soccer was formed 20 years ago. And the new football reality in the USA seeks to supplant the reality of the thing it signifies.
I took my daughter to see the Sounders play NYCFC yesterday. I took her to see the Disneyland of football.
In our stadiums, the tannoys, and yes I used that word ironically, blare out with a British accent to remind you that this is a non-smoking stadium. In the stands our fans roll out the tifo which a tradition borrowed from Italy and has no precedent in the USA until the last few years.
Fans sings songs, like British football fans. They yell “puto” when the goalkeeper takes a free kick, like Latin American football fans. Our fans call themselves “Ultras” and they appropriate the look and attitude of “hooligans”, replete with death skull symbols, lightning bolts, and all of the imagery of the far right groups in Europe.
Even stranger is that among some fans the old, pointless, hooligan culture has crept in and there have been skirmishes between NYCFC and NY Red Bulls fans, which I assume must be a battle over which of them has the biggest claim to have the least history as a club.
This type of fan fighting is unheard of in other American sports where fans often sit next to one another in the stadiums, comfortably cheering for the opposition and proudly wearing their favorite team’s colors.
And what are these fans fighting for? On the pitch is a product that is an Absolute Fake. How else to describe a sport where retirees and wash-outs from other, better, leagues come to pick up their last few paychecks? Major League Soccer counts as its stars Kaka, Lampard, Gerrard, Dempsey, Pirlo, Robbie Keane, David Villa, and Drogba. But those are the obvious targets to pick on, the real problem is the next tier of players feature wash-outs from Europe: Nelson Valdez, who last played for Borussia Dortmund in 2010; Tim Howard, who was cut by Everton; Clint Dempsey, who was never as good as his ego; Altidore; Giovinco; Ridgewell; Higuain; Morales; and so on.
I watched Pirlo, Lampard, and David Villa play yesterday. They play for NYCFC. In a league of fakes, they are the fakest. They were formed just a few years ago using billions of oil dollars. They have no history, so they bought some history and brought in three of the greatest players of all time to play for them. Their coach is Patrick Vieira and he was also one of the greatest of all time.
I told my daughter “see the guy with the long hair, that’s Pirlo, he was one of the best players ever.” And Pirlo did his thing, spraying long passes all over the pitch just like he did for Italy when they won the World Cup in 2006. But when he does it now it feels hollow, like he’s just a copy of himself making those passes. An automaton.
The best player on either team was in green. Osvaldo Alonso dominated the midfield. His incisive passing combined with his spacial awareness means that he is king of his area. He’s a real football player, in his prime, playing football for the Sounders. He is the kind of player all MLS team should be going for. Instead, they build around the absolute fakes.
Playing retired players on plastic pitches in NFL stadiums is the present without depth which gives rise to the absolute fake that is soccer in America.
As I watched USA flame out against Argentina in the Copa America I couldn’t help but think that this was a direct product of the missteps of Major League Soccer over the last 20 years. Our football has no depth and it gets exposed time and again.
People complain about the players. “The players need to be held accountable” said Colin Cowherd, demanding that US Soccer fans ask for more from their players. This follows the main strain of commentary from the pundits after USA was blown out by Argentina: that the USMNT needed to kick more, fight more, “get up the noses” of the Argentinian players. It was also a line repeated by the USMNT manager, Jurgen Klinsmann.
I disagree with all of them. Sure, ask that Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley show more spirit. Ok. Fine. But while you’re holding those players accountable soccer fans in the USA need to hold the clubs and the US Soccer Federation accountable. We have had 20 years to develop talent in this country. We have had 20 years to learn to play the game. And what we have done, instead of investing money in the grass roots, is bought players like David Beckham, a guy who spent much of his MLS career playing football in Italy so that he could earn the right to play for England.
With MLS and the USMNT set up the way they are and as long as fans, like me, keep attending matches that are the footballing equivalent of LBJ’s Oval Office football in the USA will remain an Absolute Fake.