In the introduction to his particularly funny commentary, Philosophy Football (Penguin), which describes “what might have happened to the world’s greatest thinkers if their brains had been in their boots instead of their heads”, Mark Perrymann relates how the idea first came to him to couple football with philosophy. He tells of how, inspired by the desire to become the “sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction”, he contrived a goalkeeper’s shirt emblazoned with a quotation. “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” This sagacity, of course, is ascribed to Albert Camus, the most famous practitioner of the complimentary arts of thinking and keeping a clean sheet. The success of this idea has led to a proliferation of shirts and a thriving trade that retails the aphorisms of such disparate thinkers as Antonio Gramsci, Umberto Eco, Sun Tzu and Simone de Beauvoir.
The book that accompanies the series, Philosophy Football is a quasi ulna fantasia, where “Eleven great thinkers play it deep”. It is indeed an imaginative interpretation of the philosophical positions of the aforementioned in terms of qualities recognisable to the followers, of what Peel called, the “beautiful game”. My favourite example comes from the chapter on Wittgenstein. “Opponents found his game difficult to read. In fact, everyone found him difficult to read.”
However, it is not the case that the two disparate activities of philosophy and football have never been brought together before for humorous effect. An early Monty Python sketch memorably staged a match between Germany and Greece that ended prematurely when Nietzsche, arguing with the referee, called into question the very purpose of the contest. Nevertheless, while the affinity between philosophy and football is easily established, it occurred to me, as I read Perrymann’s book, that football was being used as a very malleable illustration of more general philosophical positions. This is all very agreeable and engaging but it neglects the inherent characteristics of the sport that make it what it is. In other words, I began to wonder whether there was a discrete philosophy of football, a set of concepts and questions intrinsic to the understanding and contemplation of the game, a specific branch of philosophical thinking comparable to the discipline of Aesthetics or Ethics.
Pondering this conjecture and taking a tip from Pele rather than Camus, it seemed to me that art not morality may be the most appropriate place to begin. The thought suggested itself that, football, like art, is a kind of performance appreciated through the categories of form and content, which are discriminated for the purposes of analysis but in practice are indistinguishable. From the perspective of form, football clubs confront each other in a manner comparable to that moment in Hegel’s Philosophy Of The Right when the state evolves into the idea of a ‘nation’. ‘Nationhood’ is understood in terms of individual qualities, a subject in its own right, a spiritual identity derived from geography and the general will of the people. Thus Perryman’s club, Tottenham Hotspur, represents itself to itself and to the football public at large through certain quintessential attributes. In the case of Spurs this is the romance of the Glory Game, a cavalier style of play associated with the club’s most successful season. This differentiates it from its competitors, the more pragmatic or defensively orientated sides, such as the traditionally’ boring’ Arsenal.
The spirit of the club is a synthesis of locality and history that transcends the particularity of the current crop of players and those responsible for the day to day running of the corporation. The most important role is that of the manager. Indeed, although the validity of the Cartesian subject has been successively brought into question by thinkers from the continental tradition, football, phenomenologically, seems to refute this scepticism. Duality is alive and well in the manner that football is reflected upon by those who reflect upon it. The mind of the manager finds expression through the actions of the body of players on the field. This model of volition, essentially Aristotelian, is confirmed by the assignment of praise or blame for the success or failure of the team. There is never any question about who deserves the credit for the performance of the players. The stoic acceptance of the inevitability of being sacked gives the manager the appearance of a tragic protagonist, the individual who sacrifices themselves for a higher ideal, the catalyst and dynamo of the German Idealist conception of History. Thus the narrative that the club tells of its illustrious past is marked in terms of epochs, the successive tenures of managers, for instance the eras of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish at Liverpool.
This concept of agency finds its apotheosis the Science of football, the harnessing of technology and psychology with tactics, as practised by the Dynamo Kiev coach Valerie Lobonovski. His accomplice is Professor Anatoly Zelentsov. Together they were the brains behind the formidable Soviet national team of the late eighties, the appropriately nicknamed, Red Machine. It is here that the form and content of the philosophy of football coalesce. Its substance, the concrete embodiment of the Idea, the particular football match, appears to be a spontaneous spectacle, but like art, is in fact the product of deliberation.
Although the intentional relationship between artist and art object is a problem for aesthetics, not so for football. Tactics and realisation are more intimately bound than score and performance in music. The historic vindication of this idea is the knighthood bestowed on AIf Ramsey and the current enthusiasms for the sport amongst the public at large.
It is no coincidence that the game’s popularity has spread to all social classes since the introduction of continental players and coaches. Becoming cosmopolitan has enabled football to relinquish its working class roots and thus broaden its appeal. Traditionally system builders with exotic names, like their philosophical counterparts, European minds such as Ruud Gullit and Arsene Wenger, have maintained a conceptual integrity, a consistency between theory and practice, that approaches the conventional definition of a philosophy. In the former’s case a derivative of the Left Hegelianism of Dutch total football, named by Gullit himself – Sexy Football.
Could football’s allure simply be the same as that of philosophy in that it seeks to overcome the contradictions of reality? This is why Mark Perryman’s book works so well and why, unfortunately, Eric Cantona’s analogies were not as pretentious as they first appear. Football is best understood as a contemporary equivalent of Kant’s aesthetic idea. Form confers a recognisable purpose upon the object of contemplation, a teleology that engages the understanding, which is ultimately undermined, in genuine works of art, by a purposeless content inspiring the imagination. So it is with football, only in a more exaggerated manner. The comic Nietzsche in the Monty Python sketch was mistaken to question the point of the game. For like art, the very fact that it takes place confirms a metaphysical yearning, a spiritual desire on the part of a people for a coherent destiny, a destiny whose point is that it is pointless. If that seems a little far-fetched, watch the World Cup next summer.