Cargo Cult Football and Paolo Di Canio

There is an idea in anthropological circles about cargo cults in Melanesia.  The cults seem to derive from a clash of Western cultures with a lot of material goods and with the complex rituals of exchange and societal prestige found on the islands, often based around “Big Men” [who could give a lot and gain respect and debts] and “Rubbish Men” [who couldn’t].  The cults used rituals that mimicked the perceived behaviours of the Westerners with a view to encouraging the ancestors and deities to assist in providing the same material wealth and therefore prestige to the more deserving and rightful people, the islanders.

There are examples of the islanders building replica aeroplanes from sticks even air traffic control towers and radio headsets, which at first view are comical and slightly tragic.  Such immediate interpretations should be revised when the actual rationale and culture behind them is understood.  The islanders were adapting their experiences of foreigners, particularly during the Second World War, who would arrive, build things and await the seemingly inevitable delivery of vast material wealth or cargo and adapting this to existing worldview and culture.

The idea has then been appropriated by scientists, notably Richard Feynman, and software engineers to describe behaviours and practices that look like either science or engineering but, in reality, are nothing more than an ill-informed replicas of the true and required actions and processes.  For example, and to the uninitiated, it might look like software programming, but in reality it is useless and shows a complete and utter lack of comprehension of the fundamentals and reasoning that achieve correctly functioning results.

And now to Sunderland AFC, the football club that I naively choose to describe as mine.  After the reckless appointment of Paolo Di Canio as manager in April, he has been sacked after losing 3-0 to West Brom on Saturday and then suffering a “player revolt” during a meeting at the training ground on Sunday.  I am not unhappy with the news since I was not at all happy with his appointment [see here and here] however it does lead me to the inevitable worry that if the directors could manage to appoint this fool in the first place then who will they manage to appoint this time.  I am not confident.

Di Canio, to give him some credit, spoke sense about the culture of professionalism that the club and players needed to introduce.  It was the methodology of achieving this that smacks of Cargo Cult Football.  Players can be encouraged to eat a carefully designed diet, follow personalised exercise regimes, and practice and work hard in training but if the players are not encouraged to buy into the system and cannot see the improvements then there will not be any success.  Di Canio missed the main point, the players need to accept and support the system otherwise it is doomed.  They are the people who will implement the systems, irrespective of any comical wailings and touchline tantrums.  Di Canio’s tactics of the public haranguing of players and of egotistical boasts [as well as the heinous crime of referring to himself in the third person] did nothing but undermine his stated objectives.  By focussing on things that look like coaching but not realising that the key thing is the support and buy-in from the players, Di Canio created his own little Cargo Cult on Wearside.  Unfortunately for him, he was the cult’s one member and Big Man.

So what now?

Di Canio was not at the club for very long but has perhaps managed to kill off his hopes of proving that he is the “top manager” he claims.  There were enough events and statements to show that Di Canio believes that he is the centre of the promised football revolution but, unlike many cults which tend to be millenarian in nature, football is based around results and preferably ones that are quickly achieved.  Di Canio shares the worst win record for Sunderland managers with Howard Wilkinson who have managed the club for more than ten games.  There are no encouraging results here.

Some might suggest that he should have been given more time, but given his track record and the reported collapse of relations with his players, there seems to be little point.  We, along with our neighbours Newcastle United, are firmly establishing the North East for comedic appointments and sackings.

And again we are without a manager and we are bottom of the league.  The rumour mills soon suggested Roberto Di Matteo as a replacement but now the suggestions are that the directors are keen to have an British manager with Premier League experience.  The list of available managers makes grim reading.  To quote a film, it’s not the despair.  I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.


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