Wednesday, June 04, 2008

BLOGGER INTERVIEW! :: The Run of Play

Brian Phillips, proprietor of the blog Run of Play, writes about football in a fashion no one else quite matches. His style is, to sum up Valley Girl-style, super-weird. At the moment of this writing, for example, his second-to-lead item concerns "thoughts on the 6+5 rule expressed in terms of Handel's Water Music." Phillips puts football, culture, history, art and style and his own sensibility into some kind of bloggish particle accelerator; results often beguile—see his take on Arsenal's email autoreply system, linked below—even if you can't quite make out what the fella is on about. Shall we learn more? I bloody well think so.


Q: Tell us how and why you started this blog.

At some point last fall I started thinking about how strange it is that we want sports to be played with style and flair, but we're content to read sports coverage that's overwhelmingly predictable and dull. This is especially true, at both extremes, of soccer: we like teams to play with originality and joy and show us amazing things, and then we follow them through sports pages that are full of cliches, demagoguery, and lies. I started wondering what sportswriting would look like if it were carried out in the spirit that we want players to bring to the game: what would a soccer article in the style of Garrincha look like? And I thought of a blog that would cover the game in a way that was more sharp and playful than what I was used to reading, that would be free to be as absurd, dramatic, or critical as I wanted, that would toy with material, that would try new things.

In the end, though, I didn't actually start the blog—I just talked about it, and then one day my wife surprised me by opening a Blogger account on my behalf. So basically, I decided it was time to take a stand, and then took it the second my wife had set everything up for me and told me what to do.

Q: How has the blog evolved, and what do you find most rewarding about its continued existence?

I've spent a lot of time trying to work out how much I need to cover the news and how to set the balance between more abstract or conceptual posts and posts that rely on more conventional argument and opinion. I go through phases when I feel like I need to cover every transfer story and phases when it seems okay to spend a week ignoring the rest of the soccer world and writing strange fantasias about the email autoreply system at Arsenal. I've probably felt more free to do the latter as the audience has grown, but the blog is still only a few months old, so everything is still an experiment at this point.

Easily the most rewarding thing about The Run of Play is hearing from the people who read it. Many, many more readers have adopted the blog than I ever expected, and their comments are consistently funny and surprising and smart. I've been surprised by how ready people have been to follow to whatever weird place I want to go. That especially has really been gratifying.

Q: To my mind, what distinguishes Run of Play and your other football writing is your sensibility, which seems attuned to the strange undercurrents that run through the sport. You wrote an article about Bristol Rovers' link to the American folk giant Leadbelly, for instance, and you sometimes veer into an almost Surrealist style. So what do you look out for? What goes into that stew?

One thing is just to try to stay in touch with the ways in which the contexts of the game are changing. I'm an American writing largely about the European game for an audience that's divided between the US and the rest of the world, with regular commenters in India, Australia, Italy and Texas, many of whom follow local teams, many of whom follow teams that are hundreds or thousands of miles from where they live. Globalization has thrown everything up in the air in ways that are both exhilarating and frightening, and I find it helpful to see echoes of the game's strange new patterns in strange old patterns like the Leadbelly/Bristol Rovers link, or the story of the connections between Jack the Ripper, a pre-WWI soccer team in an English mental hospital, and the martyrdom of the first English saint that came to light after Manuel Almunia revealed that his house was haunted.

Q: Your "Portraits" are...unique. Please describe how you assemble them.

With the weekly Portrait feature I try to evoke something I see in the character of a player or manager in a way that's unexpected and striking. The idea is to show the reader these familiar figures in a sudden new light. Practically, that can mean just about anything, from putting a picture together with a song to writing about Peter Crouch in the voice of Cormac McCarthy. There's not really a pattern, except that they're usually preceded by panic, and, if they're any good, followed by much more panic.

Q: You have written about this a bit on Run of Play, but how would you say your writing is influenced by your American environs?

I'm planning to offer more MLS coverage in the future, but up till now I've been in America writing about a non-American game of which I have relatively little actual experience. I think that's been more helpful than harmful, honestly, because while there are certainly people who will dismiss anything I say on the grounds that I "can't possibly understand," it's actually useful for the sort of writing that I'm doing to have some distance from the fan and media cultures around the game—it makes it easier to keep an individual perspective. Background noise from 606 is that much less likely to infiltrate the way you think about, say, Eriksson getting fired at Man City.

The flip side is that there will always be aspects of foreign leagues that seem bizarre to me but totally natural to the people who are closer to them, and I have to keep in mind that my first reaction isn't always the best one to bring to a post. But then, sometimes it is. Sensitivity isn't everything.

Q: How do you think the, if you will forgive the term, "soccer blogosphere" has affected your experience as a fan of the game?

I don't follow many soccer blogs, but the ones I do follow have offered me the analytic and stylistic edge that I miss most of the time in the sports pages. For whatever reason—probably because sports is in many ways an exercise in making and telling stories—my experience as a fan seems to be incomplete if I can't supplement games with prose that gives me new ways to see what I'm seeing, if that makes sense. That's never been an easy thing to come by, but I find I can get it from sites like Pitch Invasion (where I've also been lucky enough to do some writing), and SpanglyPrincess, and Treasons, Stratagems & Spoils, just to name a few. I don't mean to suggest that there are no journalists who are writing well about the game, because there obviously are. But there's no doubt that in the last couple of years my experience as a soccer fan (and as a reader!) has been more enriched by the amateur blogs I follow than by what I've read in the papers.

Q: If the Internet did not exist, would you be writing about football?

If the Internet did not exist, I would be slowly turning a paper map right-side-up and upside-down in the middle of a crowded street in a city I did not recognize, wondering desperately if I would ever find my way back home. Writing about football would be the last thing on my mind.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

malformed URL in the Bristol Rovers article url.

joe

8:02 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Zach-

Thank you for providing this window into the extraordinary mind of Brian (and Spangly Princess, too).

At first, Run of Play scared me.

Now it is among the very first feeds I check on my little web-phone (I speak this at 6am EST).

I am not yet a good judge of RoP's value-proposition for me. Is it like oxygen? Or more like my good, good cry when Maradona whipped off his Argentina strip to reveal his Boca colors, which we knew were always closest to his heart?

This was in the midst of his testimonial match at la Bombonera; the crowd -- well, I have never heard such an extended rumble in the outpouring of appreciation as the noise coaxed him on to several laps. He cried unabashedly and blew kisses on the trot.

And as I knelt three feet from the television in lacrimal spasms, water pouring out of my face, it was then I knew how much Maradona -- he was in my thoughts every day down at the park -- to me is football and football is in me -- the stitches, the panels, the weight, the sounds & grass-smell of September -- and it was then I began to recognize that the game, its many rich, dark & mysterious layers of subtext, tells me how I am.

So it is, perhaps, with Run of Play. Thank you, Gentlemen. Ladies.

Sam | cl.theoffside.com

6:13 AM  
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