Because after all, “it’s only football”
There’s a passage near the end of Jonathan Wilson’s new book The Barcelona Legacy in which Ruben Jongkind details the aim of the Cruyff Football project’s work with the Beijing Montessori Institute, asking “How can we develop total humans? Not only the player but the player who has also the behavioural characteristics of a Cruyffian footballer such as creativity, problem-solving skills, positive growth mindset, self-regulation skills, respect, thinking outside only the small world of football, helping others to become better. How can we connect the educational process to football and take football as a point of departure for education?”
You could take Scholars FC, then, as some small way of attempting to answer these questions. Scholars FC is an extra-curricular group which runs one afternoon a week at Regents Park Christian School in Sydney, Australia, when the rest of the students have started to leave for home and around 15 students from the ages of 14 to 17 choose to give up their afternoon to learn about the wonders of football. These are students who generally would do something else if offered an alternative to having to read, but through reading The Blizzard have begun to see how even football can be written about in articulate and clever ways. We have taken our study of English Literature, then, onto the pitch.
There is an idea in teaching practice of meeting the students where they are at: of finding routes into the course content which will pique the students’ interest on the way and help them to engage with the learning. This was our motivation in starting Scholars FC: to meet a group of students who are passionate about football and less passionate about the dramatic musings of William Shakespeare and other such literary figures and use the game to teach them a whole range of skills which they can apply to their English studies and their lives more broadly.
We began with an analysis of possession and long-ball football as two differing approaches to how the game ought to be played. The students viewed the highlights of Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Barcelona in 2012 and promptly fell into the trap; they commented on Barcelona’s dominance throughout the game, the number of players they seemed to always have around and ahead of the ball in their 3-3-4 formation, and the sheer volume of white Chelsea shirts who were always behind the ball and getting in the way of shots. As the highlights ended with Fernando Torres’s infamous rounding of the goalkeeper and calm placing of the ball in the back of the net, you could see the look of disbelief on the students’ faces – but how could a team with so much of the ball and so many attempts on goal lose to a goal like that?
Their first task was to write an essay in which they evaluated whether possession or long ball was ‘better’ as an approach to football. This was an interesting exercise insofar as it showed how the same question can create different responses from students whose minds work in different ways. One student wrote a well-argued and rationally sound piece in which he proposed that if possession meant you had the ball more of the time, and having the ball was required to score, then possession must be better. Another student went for more of an argument from aesthetics – if football is known as “the beautiful game” and passing football is what makes the game beautiful, then possession must be better. Strangely, few of the students opted for long ball as the better approach. The following week, we played an hour-long game of five-a-side in the school hall in which one side had to play with a possession style and one side had to play with a long-ball approach. The possession team won the game early, although as the high press wore on, the long-ball team began to enjoy more shooting opportunities.
We then moved on to analysing the different roles that players can take up on the pitch. Students are very quick to describe someone as a ‘centre-mid’, and less quick to analyse their role as a number 10 or a regista. Similarly, they are quick to write an essay about Romeo and Juliet in which they say it’s a play about love without going into much depth. And so the education really began. We’ve had students analysing the difference between Claude Makélélé and Andrea Pirlo as versions of a deep-lying midfielder, evaluating how Lionel Messi has changed the way that the idea of a number 9 is viewed, and how Dani Alves changed the way a full-back interprets their job on the pitch. The aim is to use this understanding to give the students specific roles to take up when we have our next Friday afternoon game: the students will play as a wing-back one game, then the sweeper, then the deepest midfielder distributing the ball. Slowly, the students are talking more during games, calling for moves, reminding others of their role when they encroach on the wrong area of the pitch, and beginning to move and speak like a team.
It’s having a clear impact off the pitch as well. A second group exists in the school called Plato’s Cave, which is principally concerned with developing students and preparing them to be excellent in their final English courses. A group of 20 students sat down one morning and read Uriah Kriegel’s essay on how Guardiola’s philosophy came across some problems in how it was implemented in his first season at Manchester City (Issue Twenty-Six). We’d been trying to teach the students how to think about different readings of a text – analysing it through a particular conceptual lens – and here was Kriegel offering a Nietzschean reading of Guardiola’s passing football, with Shakespeare and German military theory making appearances as well. The students seemed surprised that such excellent writing could be put on paper about football – because after all, “it’s only football” – and I was very happy to show them that excellent writing, big ideas and football can coexist on the same page. The Blizzard has become the model of excellence for a few of these students, and changed their mindset about writing as an art form.
Arsène Wenger gave an interview with L’Équipe in 2015 in which he said “I am only a guide. I allow others to express what they have in them. I have not created anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man.” In a different way, this is how I see the role that football is playing in the lives of these students. There is an idea in the field of education that if an individual’s level of understanding of a skill or topic is truly advanced, then they will be able to transfer it to a different context. That’s our great hope: that by taking our students away from the text and towards the pitch, we will develop their creativity, how they solve problems, their ability to articulate how they feel and resolve conflict, their analysis and argumentation skills – and we’ll help them to take these skills across to English, to History and to life. It is a school with some literacy challenges and not all of these students dream of achieving A-grades in English. But by beginning with football, we may just help to bring out what is beautiful in all of them.