The men without disgrace

TW: men’s mental health

Elizabeth Bishop, one of the great American poets of the mid-twentieth century, lived in Brazil for 15 years, between 1951 and 1967. During the course of her time in Brazil, Elizabeth Bishop lived in an apartment overlooking Rio’s Copacabana Beach with her partner Lota de Macedo Soares, a prominent Brazilian architect. In a holiday magazine on Brazil for Time, published in 1963, she writes: 

Like the heroes of Homer, men can show their emotions without disgrace. In their superb futebol (soccer football), players hug and kiss each other when they score goals, and weep dramatically when they fail to.* 

Football’s cathartic shocks seem to be an intriguing yet bewildering source of interest for Bishop. It comes as no surprise at all to any avid football watcher that the game can unapologetically set any feeling alight – frustration, glee, regret, euphoria, misery- but it comes as a novelty for the outsider, Bishop. She believes that football has the power to rupture the façade of masculinity; she is surprised at how the game can be a unique 90 minutes in which a man can unleash what he has reserved within himself. A football match is that designated moment of emotional freedom in one’s day.  

Mr Brewer in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway reckons football to be key to ‘manliness’. Septimus, Clarissa Dalloway’s alter-ego in the novel, is ‘promoted’ through the army ranks due to the disciplines he gained from playing football, as ‘advised’ by his boss Mr Brewer. The irony there is that this discipline is lost: Septimus suffers from shell shock after the Great War and spends his time grieving for Evans, his friend from the war. Though the mention of football is only a passing comment in Mrs Dalloway, that mention seems to be one which bears much significance in the development of Septimus’s character, and the way the lessons of football have effectively failed him. Though the social and historical contexts of Woolf are very different to Bishop, football remained to be a source of leisure and cathartic release for many in early 19th century England and 1950s Brazil- the famous Christmas day truce of 1914 being but one example where soldiers replaced gunshot hostility for friendly footballing rivalry. Though it might be a hypothesis to say so, Mr Brewer’s misjudgement of the morals and disciplines that football offers could be an indirect cause of Septimus’s struggles with mental health.

Football conceived of as a discipline ultimately fails Septimus, and the shameless display of emotions in Brazilian football shocks Bishop. What Bishop and Woolf’s texts suggest is that football is not an enactment of masculinity, but is rather a moment of escape from the customary gender role-play we perform every day.

That unforgettable image of Paul Gascoigne crying, English football’s mad-man, nation-sweetheart, is one particular moment in which football managed to completely emasculate England’s manliest of men. Gazza’s virility had been shattered with these tears, but there was no shame to it all; the country had sympathised and quickly forgiven him in this hopelessly romantic moment. 

One would hope that all men privately weeping at home would feel absolved of shame from watching Gazza cry, David Luiz burst into red-eyed tears after defeat to Germany, as well as Beckham, Buffon, or Terry in other historic footballing moments. Even Diego Costa cries, according to Mourinho. One would have hoped that since the time of Mrs Dalloway, football’s on-field freedom of emotion would have been passed on beyond football and let men in other walks of life to freely express their emotions. And yet, suicide is the “biggest cause of death for men under 35” and an eighth of men suffer from “one of the common mental health disorders” in statistics taken from 4 years ago. Needless to say, the pandemic has been an especially difficult time for people suffering with mental health problems. Within football, the Heads Together campaign by The FA and the Duke of Cambridge have brought this discussion of mental health to the fore. 

If one can fall into a pit of sorrow and despair over the course of 90 minutes without any sense of shame or embarrassment, why can’t we take one minute more to cry ‘without disgrace’? But then again, perhaps I am the modern-day Mr Brewer, misjudging what lessons there are to take from football myself.

Image credit via Snappy Goat

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