A Philosopher’s Guide to Football


In a piece originally published on Some Goals Are Bigger Than Others, Thomas Pitts takes a swipe at one of football writing’s most misused and abused clichés…

If there is one thing that annoys me most about football, beyond even the rampant capitalist simulacra, the utterly offensive salaries, the corrupt governing bodies and the vast legions of, well frankly, fucking idiots who ruin it; it is when somebody, anybody, talks about a ‘footballing philosophy’.

A philosophy you say? Really? Please educate me on Barcelona’s take on the Phenomenology of Spirit? Or how Brendan Rodgers’ ‘pass-and-move’ (what bloody else happens in football, do tell?) ‘philosophy’ for Liverpool is deeply connected to Heidegger’s concept of dasein?

Of course, I am being ridiculous. But this is only to draw attention to a more serious point: there is indeed a connection, mostly untapped, between the esoteric realms of philosophy and the ‘world’ (eurgh) of football.Well, perhaps it is more an anthropology, but I shan’t bore you on the infinitesimal boundaries between ivory tower social sciences.

As Umberto Eco has said, “Football is one of the most popular religious superstition nowadays. It is the true opium of the people today.” And indeed, as something that acts as a social opiate, it must therefore be the goal (sigh) of some form of detailed critique.

Why does a game that is so odious off of the pitch still hold the breath of hundreds of millions of people world-wide?

Even philosophers such as Albert ‘Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I have learned from football’ Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre (a member of an Ecole Normale Superieure XI) were players in their youth.

“There is such a thing as everyday, ordinary, vulgar ecstasy; the ecstasy of anger, the ecstasy of speed at the wheel, the ecstasy of ear-splitting noise, ecstasy in the soccer stadium.” Said Czech novelist Milan Kundera.

It is interesting to note that none of these quotations have come from Englishmen. What a surprise.

But the man who, for me, really touches on the real connections between man (the concept, not the sex) and football is Cesar Luis Menotti.

Not only was he just as suave and cigarette-laden as any French philosopher, he is somebody from inside the logic of the system of football, a successful player and coach.

It is he who has said “To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people”, and that “Our football belongs to the working class and has the size, nobility and generosity to allow everyone to enjoy it as a spectacle.”

And I think this is precisely it. Football is a hyper-condensation of grand narratives, or in the words of my favorite poet, Pier Paulo Pasolini, “Football is the last sacred ritual of our time.”

It is the remaining space in contemporary culture where physical and aesthetic narratives can intertwine on a strata that is, if only with regards to class, completely inclusive.

But what do I mean by this? I think the fact that football and sport in general is essentially an ‘atextual’ cultural practice, unlike film or visual art, and is instead an aesthetics of movement, of violence, but also of the relations between different kinds of players and different kinds of teams, leads to such inclusivity.

And indeed, is this not the essence of tactics? The aesthetic relation between certain modalities of thought, the mirage created by a team so finely in tune with each other that works relentlessly as a machine, each player forming his own individual channel through which the ultimate goal of the team can flow and prevail?

But this is not a symbolic physicality like dance. A pass or a shot is not a symbol. Of course other things around football are hugely symbolic, and often these are the worst parts of football, the cause of segregation and real violence.

It is instead a sport of ‘concrete’ relations, and the last remaining space given to us for emotional excess. Where else are we allowed to scream our pleasure in delight at the most ridiculous thing: a piece of leather nestling into a bit of mesh?

This is Pasolini’s meaning – so disconnected are we from the positive side of excess, the Dionysian, the excesses of emotion instead of consumption, in contemporary society that football remains as the final ‘ritual’, the final space in our social atmosphere where such events of bliss and sorrow can be created in a manner that can be experienced by anyone regardless of their race or education or gender.

If there is a footballing philosophy, this should be it.

@_tompitts; @the_false_nine

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