|FOOTBALL AND PHILOSOPHY
|Is there any wisdom we can get from watching sports? Why do humans, especially men,
seem to be so deeply interested in either playing or watching sports?
There may be many sociological or cultural reasons for this, yet it seems that the
obsession with sports that is evident in our society reflects something profound about
the nature of being human. In this essay I want to address this possibility: is there a
philosophical reason for valuing sports?
To be more precise, I wish to take an example of a sport in our contemporary period
and analyze it for this purpose. Then we can discuss whether this argument is correct
or not, and if it has any universal applicability.
Thus, let us choose a sport. Say, football. Football is not a bad choice, since it is the
most popular sport in the world. As you finish reading the last sentence, you may have
realized that I am speaking of the sport called ‘association football,’ which Americans,
Australians, and some others call ‘soccer.’ We could take any sport, but for our interest
in having an example, it will do.
Now football is, quite literally, a cultural construct. The rules of the game were
established in 1863 in London, England, by the ‘Football Association.’ Previous to that,
the sport that we now know as the focus of the World Cup did not exist. Other, similar
games may have been played by a variety of cultures, yet the game of not using one’s
hands to propel a round ball across a line demarcating a goal, fielding two teams of
eleven players during 90 minutes, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
What does this historically-located event (the construction of the rules of association
football) tell us abut any philosophical issue? I want to argue that it tells us much in
terms of a philosophical anthropology. That is to say, it tells us about the nature of
being humans qua species. This involves an argument of how we are, what is our
existential condition, and what we should do to achieve our purpose (if any) in this world.
What are the qualities or characteristics of this sport, in themselves and in contrast to
those of other (similar) sports? This will tell us about what football is about. I believe
that after we examine its traits, we can see some central Nietzschean ideas in them.
I believe the central trait of this sport is beauty. Not surprisingly, it is called ‘the beautiful
game’ the world over. In England, the birthplace of the sport, it is referred to as a
‘gentleman sport played by hooligans’ (whereas rugby is a ‘hooligan sport played by
gentlemen’). In Brazil, another country where the game is quite popular, it is termed
‘jogo bonito,’ or beautiful game.
The aesthetic appeal of the game rests on two principal ideas. One, the movement of
individual players, and two, the movement of the team as a whole. For the former, the
individual player must be creative, since spontaneity is the currency of the game. As
there are no fixed positions, each player must decide at each instant what to do with or
without the ball. With the ball, some of the most aesthetically pleasing moments occur
when a player acts creatively to do the unexpected: whether it is a pass that splits the
defense, a dribble that leaves three defenders in an attacker’s wake, or a deft heel
touch that ends in a goal. The team’s movement is best perceived when a series of well-
connected passes establishes a rapid, flowing geometry of triangles and trapezoids on
a field as the ball rolls on the ground. Thus the aesthetic appeal of the game is largely
a result of the creative, free movement of the individual players and of entire teams.
In addition to the aesthetic element of football, another important component is the
agonistic component. Of course, most sports have a competitive element, thus the
agonistic or confrontational character of association football is not unique to it. Most
sports rely largely on competition to make themselves appealing. However, not all do,
and some sports can be practiced without direct competition (many track and field
sports are like that).
Is the agonistic element in competitive sports, including football, of value? The conflict
that exists between teams or between competitors is valued by participants and
spectators because it taps into a deep well of human desire for agonism. The agon in
this case is not the wrestling match the Greeks admired so much; but it is the ‘mano a
mano’ between two men or teams that struggle against each other to both enjoy the
moment of physical exertion and to show who is better. Thus there is a sort of ‘pathos
of distance’ that characterizes all competitive sports: each player seeks to widen the
gap of excellence between themselves and the opponent. In this, there is a display of
excellence or virtue which rests on the struggle. And, this struggle also leads to the
improvement of each participant, for ‘practice makes perfect.’ In this manner, it seems
sports represent the struggle for excellence and for self-perfection that would be the
basis of a particular kind of ethical approach to life.
If this element of agonism is present in most competitive sports, how is it different in
football? For one thing, association football shares with other kinds of football games
the distinction of being among the most physical of competitive sports. Contrary to the
belief by some that it is a ‘soft’ sport, in fact football requires tremendous amounts of
both energy and force. The discharging of energy that it necessitates is perhaps the
most demanding of all team sports. The constant running, ceaseless jostling, and
frequent bodily clashes can lead to physical exhaustion and to severe bodily harm.
Torn ligaments, fractured bones, ripped muscles are part and parcel of top-flight
football. Contact sports thus evince the element of force, power, and strength more
readily that most others (such as golf or tennis).
But even more precisely, the agonistic element of association football is one grounded
on particularism. Against the universalistic element of beauty that it possesses, it also
rests on attachments to particular kinds of belonging. Teams represent one’s
affiliations, one’s identity, one’s background. In most cases, forces of particular
attachment are at work. These are whether they are of national origin (as in the World
Cup), regional belonging (the frequent North-South divide, or the capital-interior gap),
and it is even more pronounced in that quintessentially political unit: the city. Not only
are deep antagonisms rooted in intercity animosity, (such as the Real Madrid-
Barcelona tie) but in football the classic sort of animosity is that between particular
neighborhoods within a single city. Think of London (where the proletarian East End
club West Ham FC can meet the West End’s posh rivals Chelsea or Fulham) or of
Buenos Aires (where the Xeneizes of la Boca face the Millonarios of River Plate). Thus,
football’s appeal is to a large extent a function of the particularisms that it elicits.
Violence, a natural concomitant of agonism, is rarely present on a football pitch, yet it
can be visible in the visceral reactions of fans on the stands. This violence, while
deplorable, is merely a reflection of the innate agonism of humans and of the pent-up
social ills at play. It is not an inherent part of the sport as it is in rugby, American
football, boxing or other sports.
But beyond the seemingly abstract faces of aestheticism and agonism that make
football appealing as it reflects the human condition (showing that man searches for
beauty while he is immersed in constant struggles), there is the more immediate aspect
of how the game is played. This in itself reflects the deeper reasons why football is of
The first element of the way the game is played is that it disallows the use of the hands.
Contrary to popular belief, football is not essentially a sport that requires the use of feet
to move the ball. The game, rather, bans the use of one’s hands. Only as a
consequence of this is the use of feet a prominent part of the game. What this means is
that the game plays with the very essence of what it is to be human qua species. On
the one hand the game disallows the use of what makes humans creatively superior to
all other animals (the hands) and on the other it encourages the next-best thing for
use, the feet, which are what distinguish men from other animals in terms of locomotion
Thus the game breaks the mind-hand nexus that is what has traditionally led to human
progress (through manufacture) and instead compels the participant to forge a new
nexus that is more instinctive or intuitive rather than rational. Far from being able to
manipulate or control the progress of the ball, the player must improvise constantly to
get in touch with the more natural, organic part of his human constitution, the feet
(underscoring man as biped). It is for this reason that this sport is the football game
among a variety that go by that name.
The feet are the main part of the player’s anatomy in playing the sport. They are
directly linked to the ground, that is, to the earth. Thus the game is played in direct
connection to the natural. The aim is to control a thing that must be propelled towards
a goal. This thing is the ball, which is itself usually rolling on the ground, something that
accentuates the naturalness of the sport. The ball is a third element in the game,
besides the two teams. However, it has an ambiguous status. It is to be treated
sometimes as a friend, sometimes as an enemy. When one teams has it, it must protect
it; when a good player has it, he often touches it with the lightest of caresses. Yet, when
one must, one has to strike at it with utmost violence. What intensifies the ambiguity of
the ball’s role is its fickleness: because it is in perpetual motion, its movement is hard to
predict, and its revolutions are as tricky as those of Fortune. Still, she is a friend to the
young and bold, for her movement towards the goal is often most attractive when at the
feet of imaginative, virtuoso players. And, paraphrasing Maradona, in spite of her
capriciousness, one cannot forget the similarity she has to a full moon in the ascendant.
What other components of the sport make it unique and the sporting expression of the
human condition? These are the factors related to the emotions elicited by the game.
Fundamentally, it is a game of extremes. It is a low-scoring game that somehow rises up
the most passionate reactions from fans all around the world. Why? The key is that
there are hardly any breaks in the action, there is a constant push and pull between the
attacking and the defending team (with each switching positions every few minutes if
not seconds), and that there is a growing anticipation and excitement attached to the
possibility of a goal coming. Thus tension is the context of the game; perpetual
expectation that builds up slowly, swells up, ebbs and flows is the emotion that is elicited
from spectators. To be sure it is a spectacle, and when a goal finally arrives after long
intervals of action and near misses, the reaction in the stands can be spectacular. The
reaction is akin to that of the player who scores the goal, which is one of exuberance
and rapture. As the ‘King of Football’, Pele, once declared, scoring a goal is like the
supreme moment of sex: enraptured, timeless bliss. Une petite morte.
While elation is a rare but essential moment in football, its inverse, tragedy, can also be
seen, perhaps even more frequently. Besides being called the ‘beautiful game,’ football
is also called ‘the cruelest game.’ This is because the low-scoring nature of the sport is
such that the team that is winning can easily end up losing in a matter of seconds.
Unlike high-scoring games, tables can be turned quite swiftly in football. A one-goal
advantage, the most common score, can be turned around with one goal by the
opponent, thereby essentially resetting the scoreboard to its initial status. Then, all of a
sudden, a last minute goal can give the team that was losing a final victory. This is most
poignant when games end up with ties and must go to penalty shootouts. Widely
reviled, the penalty-kick showdown in fact accentuates the tragic, cruel character that is
so central to the game. Even if the best team on the field deserves to win, PK’s can
result in absurd travesties of what would have been the just result. In a word, there is
no justice in a game where unexpected cruelty can rear its head.
One of the most salient forms of this is embodied in the arbitrary authority on the field:
the referee (arbitre in French and arbitro in Spanish and Italian). Dressed in black like a
judge or executioner, the referee is the supreme authority on the field; there is only
one, and he chooses whether to consult with his two assistants or not. There are no
video replays, and the referee has been famously known to come up with the most
bizarre calls that fly in the face of both common sense and justice. Does this arbitrary,
autocratic form of rule reflect life? Perhaps it does, since we could say that not only is
life not fair, but, for most people, the political rule they live under is also arbitrary.
The final component of football with relevance to our philosophical concerns is its
ethical dimension. Some say that it is a sport that is fundamentally collectivist, inimical
to individual aims. They assert that it suppresses the role of individuality in sport. To be
sure, football is inherently social. It is, like many others, a team sport, not an individual-
oriented sport like tennis. It is a sport that, while entrenched in the competition against
the opponent, only works when a team works in cooperation. Most team sports require
this. What is distinctive about football? It is that there are no fixed positions. There are
no pre-assigned, structural roles that each player must accept. Defenders can score
goals, attackers must come back to defend. This cooperation is freely given. From each
player, his best qualities are accepted; to all, the rewards of a collective triumph are
distributed equally. It is indeed a social, collective, communitarian sport. Is there no
room for individualism? Answering yes would be far off the mark, since individuality can
be visible in each player’s contribution to the team, in the way he performs it creatively.
More importantly, there is indeed one position open to the unreconstituted individualist:
the goalkeeper. A goalkeeper’s anxiety at the penalty kick is a paramount moment of an
individual’s facing destiny with a monumental burden on his shoulders. Those who
chose that role (as Camus did) can indeed find a place on the wide, open pitch of the
We have seen that football reflects many of the fundamental components of the human
condition, ideas that have Nietzschean resonance. It is centrally concerned with beauty,
yet it is entrenched deeply in the agonistic nature of being human. It is alive to the
tragic twists and turns of fate. The way that it is played is a tense combination of
competition and cooperation dependent on free action and movement. Unlike some
sports that aim at territorial conquest, such as American football, association football
aims at a momentary lapsus of joy. Unlike sports that emphasize individualism and
mathematical accounting, like baseball, football seeks to find a creative role for the
individual within a larger collective, cooperative, social action that is more rooted in
intuition and emotion rather than reason. Unlike sports that emphasize one facet of
human dimension, such as height (basketball), weight (American football), or violence
(rugby or ice hockey), football expresses the plenitude of human powers, ability and
existence. As Nietzsche tells us, within a world that can be cruel and tragic, the aim of
man is the creation of beauty through individual and collective, free action that is rooted
in the human nexus with nature. So it is in the game of football.