Celebrate football’s field of dreams

by Rob Gilhooly

It’s twenty minutes before England’s opening World Cup game at Saitama Stadium and I’m sitting almost directly behind the goal, sacred posts that I’m hoping Michael Owen will tune his gold-plated radar into the moment he walks onto the pitch.

Nervousness sets me off chatting with a nearby couple who, like thousands of others, have traveled halfway round the globe to cheer for their country. It turns out they will only be in Japan long enough to see England’s three first-round matches. Then, it’s a plane to Heathrow and a train back to Berkshire.

“After that we’ll have to watch it on the TV,” says one.

Of course, they could watch all the games on TV. But there is something about this game that compels fans around the world to spend their savings to travel to places as far-flung as Japan. Is it the action, the atmosphere, the goals that triggers this compulsion?

This question is explored with great humor and compassion by photographers Alistair Berg and Neville Gabie at an exhibition titled “Dreams and Goals,” currently showing at the British Council in Tokyo.

Their subjects are diverse. For Berg, they are the fans who spend a huge chunk of their time and money following their favorite team. South Africa-born Gabie, meanwhile, has chosen a seemingly less animated aspect of the game: goalposts.

According to the rule book, the goals on a soccer pitch must consist of “two upright posts 7.2 meters apart, joined by a horizontal crossbar 2.4 meters from the ground.” They must be white and made of wood, metal or “other approved material.”

From Gabie’s photographs, it is obvious that the world’s soccer lovers are not too concerned with the rules.

Take one goal he photographed in South Africa, which was simply made out of two piles of stones, or those in Argentina fashioned from two sticks with a crossbar made from rope. Others are scratched on concrete walls, or crudely painted on the back wall of a church.

“They are all unique,” comments Gabie, who is better known for his work as a sculptor. “Materials are used very creatively. The goalposts are pieces of sculpture, or in some instances, paintings. They are also very particular windows to very particular landscapes.”

This is perhaps most succinctly portrayed in a goal painted on a wall in Northern Ireland. What attracted Gabie was the painting within the goalposts of a hand, which he took to represent that of a goalkeeper. An Irish friend later told him that it was in fact the symbol of a local loyalist paramilitary group.

The most curious aspect of Gabie’s pictures is the absence of people — although one taken in France features two full teams of scarecrows dressed in soccer shirts. Occasionally Gabie had to stop a game and ask the teams to clear the pitch in order to get the shot he wanted.

“That seemed really important,” Gabie says. “Football is all about human interaction, the noise, the passion. I wanted to see if I could reflect that, but through silence.”

On the other hand, Berg’s photographs are anything but “silent,” and people are pivotal to his work.

Berg, who is British, began photographing soccer fans at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. He has since attended soccer tournaments — including two more World Cups — in France, South America, Asia and Africa with the same objective.

“Everywhere I went, people wanted to play whenever and wherever they could, they wanted to talk about football and to be at games whenever possible,” says Berg. “I was amazed at how such a simple game could have such a huge impact on so many lives.”

While it might seem logical to try and depict the charm and magnetic pull of soccer through the players and action on the pitch, not one soccer player is featured in Berg’s collection. Instead, he has focused on the color and vitality of the fans themselves.

This is often shown by their choice of clothing, which not only reflects their identity but also the humor and drama that fans hope to share with other supporters, Berg says

One of his photographs from the 1998 World Cup in France shows a couple of beer-guzzling, tartan-clad Scottish fans lying on the grass under the Eiffel Tower. Adding to the stereotype, one is sporting a (false) bushy red beard.

“I think when fans go to games, they want to communicate their feelings, not just about their team but about their fellow supporters,” Berg said. “Some do so in very unusual and forthright ways, using a lot of humor and, in a way, theater.”

In a similar way, Berg also aims to explore the commitment and passion of the world’s soccer fans during the 2002 World Cup currently being co-hosted by Japan and South Korea.

“To make the commitment to come, they will have strained relationships with families and employers and committed huge sums of money,” Berg says. “You have to ask why they do this when they could just stay home and watch it on the TV.”

Berg and Gabie are perhaps well-qualified to answer this question. Both are self-confessed soccerholics who have spent plenty of time and money (and probably strained a few relationships along the way) not to support any team, but to photograph fans and goalposts. The fruits of that commitment are well-represented in this unique and colorful exhibition.