In the 11th minute of a match between Arsenal and Newcastle at St James’ Park in 2002, Robert Pires’s typically incisive pass to the feet of Dennis Bergkamp gave no indication that something extraordinary was about to happen. Yet as the ball approached, Bergkamp flicked it one way and twisted the other, in a moment of perfect symmetry as player and ball swivelled in unison. The sudden flurry of activity confused the crowd, astonished both sets of players and left Nikos Dabizas lying dumbfounded on his backside. It is a rare and special occasion when an event occurs that, for a brief moment, is entirely incomprehensible. It takes several replays of the goal to understand what has happened1. As bodies twist and flail, as the ball moves impossibly into a goalscoring position, the spectator is left with a chilling sensation that the universe has just skipped a beat; the laws of physics have kinked. The feeling is fleeting, but it is profound. The perceived limits of footballing creativity have shifted. This footballer has not just performed a practised trick; he has imagined and performed a new skill, adding a new technique to football’s repertoire.

‘Creativity’ is a word used frequently to define the attributes of the footballer. Is this really the same ‘creativity’ that defines the artist? For some, art holds the potential to offer salvation from the struggles of the human condition and, if this is so, then it owes its cathartic, liberating, redeeming qualities to the creativity of the human imagination. Can we attribute these life-affirming concepts of creativity and imagination to footballers? Does the player create and invent in each scenario, using their imaginative faculties to compose a new piece of art each game, or are they merely the result of rigorous training and highly refined problem-solving skills? In short, is the player an artist, or a machine? 

For some, a motivation beyond the aesthetic process — the result — immediately negates the possibility of accepting sport as a valid art form. With an ultimate goal subsuming creativity or aestheticism, football can, theoretically, alter its means of completion without affecting the outcome. But whether it is awarded an artistic definition or not, football — in both playing and watching — seems to offer the same emotional rewards as any art form. Even if this is merely a delusion, accepting sport as art is not necessarily a prerequisite for the acceptance of creativity as an invaluable feature of the game, which is a more pertinent question here. Those who dismiss the coexistence of sport and creativity would question whether a skill performed within the rules and boundaries of football can be considered truly imaginative. Imagination in art immediately invokes ideas of freedom, of inventing something new, which, by definition, must occur outside the remit of current ideas and is consequently free from constraint. How can something be considered imaginative, if it is boxed in by narrow parameters of currently existing ideas? It is here that our notion of the athlete as machinery takes form. Some would argue that the self-imposed parameters within sport, from the size of the pitch to the number of competitors, limit this freedom for creativity. With a fixed number of variables, athletes seek improvement not in intelligence or imagination, but through physical repetition, attempting to hone technical skills until each new scenario is easily calculable and each new variant controlled. It is not creating the new, but harnessing the old.

So how does this argument explain what was witnessed at St. James’ Park, when 52 000 people saw Dennis Bergkamp perform an ingenious movement, that until then had seemed impossible? Well, it doesn’t. The idea that sport has no scope for creativity, or indeed can be seen as a formulaic march towards a result, is entirely inadequate. Is the painter not similarly restricted by the dimensions of the canvas and the physical properties of painting? Clearly the painter is not entirely in parallel with the sports personality, but the painter does share the same confinement and containment as the footballer, which, paradoxically, does not limit the opportunity for creativity to flourish.

David Foster Wallace describes sport’s paradoxical relationship to creativity with the kind of poetic beauty that only a literary genius and obsessive sports fan is able to: “Locating beauty and art and magic and improvements and keys to excellence and victory in the prolix flux of match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern, but of expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth — each well-shot ball admitting of n possible responses, 2n possible responses to those responses, and on into a Cantorian continuum of infinities of possible moves[...] beautiful because infoliating, contained, this diagnate infinity of infinities of choice, is mathematically controlled but humanly contained.”

Practising a long diagonal pass, for example, is not “a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern”. It is eliminating the need for technical focus, because when the situation arises in which the pass needs to be made, the variables (weather, terrain, player positions, speed of run, etc.) will be unique to that moment, never to be repeated or emulated. Each pass, each touch, each microscopic movement of any single player, changes the game and creates the “Cantorian continuum of infinites”. Each moment is creative, because each moment is a never-before-seen scenario in which players must consider, adapt, and imagine afresh. The technical artistry, much as it is for the painter or musician, simply helps fuse the relationship between mind and body, allowing for the imaginative flow of the individual to pour effortlessly into the physical realm. The footballer is a creative artist, composing with each touch and adding to the “aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth”.

Not only can we consider the footballer creative by applying a ‘chaos theory’ concept to the sport, but also as a result of the enclosed boundaries — the rules and regulations — that seem to inhibit creative potential.

The negative interpretation of self-imposed rules in sport is flipped by Jean-Paul Sartre, who thought ‘play’ “releases subjectivity” by virtue of being created by humans. “Man apprehends himself as free [in the act of play]; through it he escapes his natural nature; he himself sets the value and rules for his acts and consents to play only according to the rules which he himself has established and defined”. Freedom is thus a core principle of sport, as the human controlled parameters set limitations that, counter-intuitively, create opportunities for ingenuity and offer freedom from the hindrances of the natural world. By limiting the variants and confining the art within set rules, participants are forced to confront these walls and create “Cantorian infinities” within the chaotic web of variations and responses. The limitations — in our example, the four white lines of the football pitch — create a “little reality”, in the words of Sartre, developing a stage in which imagination gains amplified significance. Being self-contained and defined by its own rules, a platform for ingenuity is provided; without this focus the chance to create rarely arises. Chained within a specific framework (unnatural and disconnected from day-to-day reality), the opportunity for creation, distortion, expansion, is heightened against the backdrop of an open-ended universe. Once playing, whether on the school field or at Wembley, we become free to infuse the rigidity of self-imposed rules with our creative impulse. It is a bizarre and confusing paradox, but one that explains our love of sport. It is an unreality, a constant, that we can believe in, and one with a self-contained infinite scope for the expression of creativity. To return to Wallace, we are faced with a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice, mathematically controlled but humanly contained”.

It is no surprise, then, that involvement with sport is so deeply spiritually rewarding. 

The power of creativity for the individual is of great significance, a concept reaffirmed throughout the history of Western philosophy: William Wordsworth, after decades of anguish and an unfulfilled search for the perfect poem, eventually realised that fear and isolation are overcome by realising, and celebrating, the human mind and its ability to create concepts — such as beauty and love. Similarly Nietzsche, prophesying the birth of the all-knowing Super-Man, saw that the alienation implicit in the human condition is destroyed by the recognition that unhappiness is simply a creation of the mind. These imaginative powers can be harnessed and championed, instead of being cowered from. 

In sport — in all art — the goals of these philosophers have already been achieved, as we watch and participate in events that celebrate the powers of human creativity. What we find from this experience of artistic endeavour is that the act of creating holds meaning in itself. The result matters, of course, but if league tables were dissolved tomorrow, we would still watch and we would still play. Wordsworth, lost in the chaotic flux of a godless reality, found his quest for the meaning of life futile and ultimately unresolved. His attempts at capturing life’s essence in a poem were unsatisfactory. But what he did find, while exercising his imagination and creating his timeless poetry, was that the meaning he was searching for was present in the creative journey itself. It is not what is created that offers salvation, but what is illuminated in the midst of creativity: the excitement, the pleasure, the warmth and satisfaction in exercising the human mind. Indicative of her Modernist contemporaries, Virginia Woolf felt this same sense of harmonious calm in the act of creating. Since life can appear as nothing more than a chaotic fluctuation of particles — fleeting and futile — then meaning is not a goal to be strive towards, but something found along the journey. With echoes of Wordsworth, Woolf wrote on her final philosophy of life: “What is the meaning of it all? The great revelation had never come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark”; matches which, for Woolf, sparked when the imagination was exercised. Experiencing creativity, whether walking round a gallery or sat under the floodlights at St James’ Park, gives us our miracle.

Our experiences with art show us that watching the artist’s act of creating holds just as much significance as displaying creativity ourselves, their ingenuity symbolic of the imaginative capacities of the human mind. Our celebration of it is a celebration of the species as a whole — a species capable of creating a sport, of creating stadiums that hold tens of thousands of people, and a species capable of creating atmospheres in grounds that send shivers down the spine. Creativity, in truth, is ubiquitous in football, and as Dennis Bergkamp performs a skill of beauty and elegance, it is all of us that benefit from the profound sense of happiness, the sense of meaning, that this creative act induces. The football stadium is a beautifully self-contained reality, independent of the incoherence and abstraction of the real world, and a place where the creativity of the human mind — glorious in its very existence — infuses the event with a deep spiritual worth that reverberates around the ground, enriching both players and fans. In the words of Woolf; “I reach what I might call a philosophy, that behind the cotton wool there is hidden a pattern. That we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; the whole world is a work of art; we are parts of that work. We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”