In Praise of Football
For all the commercialisation and scandal, football remains the purest and most demotic of cultural modes
Football has received significant bruising over the past twelve months: racial abuse cases, the re-emergence of match-fixing scandals in Italy, Turkey and elsewhere and increased concern over foul play, underhand tactics and abusive competitors have given outsiders an ugly impression of the sport. This image was only exacerbated by London 2012, as the state of modern football was held up against the 'Olympic spirit', highlighting, for some, that football is the vulgar relative of the idyllic summer games. But if we look beneath the problems, we can posit that football is not the barbarous culture of animosity it is sometimes made out to be.
At first glance, increasing corporate ownership and monetary obsession and the decreasing moral values of the sport look like legitimate reasons for abandoning the Premier League. I do not agree. Watching live football is, I believe, fundamentally a unifying experience with infinite scope for social change and artistic beauty. Being given the opportunity to witness this first hand is a privilege that should not be taken lightly.
The moral core of the sport is not in decline, despite increased media focus on prejudice; football is arguably still the most egalitarian of sports and one that continues to set a positive example for the rest of the world.
Prejudice saturates — dominates — every sector of human society; those critical of football's regressive attitudes reflect a perverse misunderstanding of the sport's representation of social reality. There is no evidence to suggest that the percentage of football fans that perpetuate racism is any higher than the percentage that perpetuate it in the general population. The reason figures appear higher than other major sports is that no other sport is as classless, universal and representative of society as a whole. Tennis, for example, does not need to confront racist chanting; the nature of the sport means its prejudices are played out more subtly than in crude chants. Football does not have a racism problem, society does; the problems within the sport are a reflection of deeper societal issues.
Football is not prejudiced. A minority of its supporters are, a minority of people are. The persistent condemnation of their actions by the educated governors of the sport is likely to reform perverted world-views and align supporters with the egalitarian principles that the sport is built on. It should be celebrated that acts of prejudice are called out so fiercely by competitors, officials and fans within the game. Football is not declining morally — it is growing. It is still the sport we look to to instigate social change and unite communities.
The post-structuralist Terry Eagleton once remarked that football is "several light years ahead" of socialism, providing an "experience of solidarity[...] to the point of collective delirium". Football offers the tantalising possibility that it could have been you that made the grade. And it could have. In a world in which the disparity between rich and poor is increasing, football remains the biggest industry in which the truly impoverished individual is given the platform to display imagination and artistry, with the chance of being rewarded with a wealth and status ordinarily reserved for the bourgeoisie (to use 'bourgeois' in its strictest Marxist sense).
With the measly possessions of a Coke can and two jumpers, a group of individuals is instantly transformed into a united cooperative, capable of remarkable displays of selfless teamwork and individual skill. Children from poor backgrounds demonstrate a level of intelligence and technical precision they will rarely be given the opportunity to show outside the football pitch; an opportunity to validate their self-worth. A street child begging in an African village can, through an ingenious weaving of condoms into a bouncing sphere – a creation built by street children across East Africa, find a sense of purpose in one of the few art forms available to them to express their creativity, passion and human will.
The sport is becoming increasingly corporate; ruled by sickening quantities of money, football increasingly resembles the ultimate capitalist venture. Clubs become businesses; fans become customers; athletes become commodities. Elite sporting occasions are glossed with phoney narratives by corporate TV executives. Moments of stunning athleticism are repackaged as Hollywoodesque plastic perfection and used to sell newspapers.
The key difference between football and other art forms is that it can never be fully commercialised. The Marxist academic Theodor Adorno described the modern culture industry, in particular Hollywood and pop music, as "a machine rotating on the spot". When art is commercialised, its creative content becomes driven by monetary success, stifling innovation and instigating cyclical ideas that stunt the development of culture, producing docile consumers of repetitive art. Sport can never be reduced to this state. Just as the child escapes daily concerns on a football pitch, so too do the athlete, and the spectator, escape the corporate net; the white lines of a football pitch symbolise the absolute severance of monetary obsession and artistic endeavour. Granted, players may play for win bonuses, for better contracts, for offers from richer clubs — but the art form itself, the creativity on display, the performance that we come to watch, is not defined by these factors. Money may drive individual player interest but it does not direct the discipline itself, as, for example, the pop music industry drives the style of music created. Money can dominate the politics of the sport, but once on the field, the game is indistinguishable, in principle, from children playing on the street. Corporate dominance is not a valid reason to stop watching such talented athletes.
In our postmodern world, supposedly devoid of objective meaning, sport offers something concrete amid the chaos of daily life. Western industrialised society has come to represent a bitter environment of individual greed, the ultimate climate of wealth disparity, a place of alienation — in short, the antithesis of a 'big society'. Georg Simmel's belief that the metropolis generates indifference, apathy and an alienating monetary obsession, that "one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in the metropolitan crush of persons", rings as true today (for some of us) as it did in the early 1900s1. But for 90 minutes people from contradictory backgrounds become a collective force sharing in the universal language of football. 22 people kicking a ball on a patch of grass becomes the primary focus and concern of thousands of people united in a shared moment of solidarity. It is a brief glimpse of utopia.
And what spectacle is it that defies the regular organisation of society? It is a performance by 22 immaculate athletes. If corporate ownership is ruining competition, at least the increased monetary concern has dramatically advanced investment in technical ability. Within seemingly narrow parameters, individual athletes display remarkable moments of innovation and technical assurance. The scope for creativity — utilising a ball with a 22cm diameter on a pitch roughly 110m long and 70m across with 21 other autonomous players providing countless other variables — could be seen as equivalent to the scope for an artist painting on a canvas. This theory has been proposed by the writer David Foster Wallace, whose theories on tennis are equally valid to football: "match play is not a fractal matter of reducing chaos to pattern, but of expansion[...] 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." The number of variables, folding on top of one another, makes each moment in sport uniquely creative. Athletes are artists, blending a unique mix of human intelligence, integrity, skill, courage, unity and creativity. It is a spectacle that celebrates an extraordinary species capable, somehow, of a subtle blend of ferocity and beauty. In the words of Foster Wallace, "Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war."
The highest adulation is given to those world-class athletes who combine the sublime with the tactical; a complex combination of highly refined technical artistry and semi-illogical moments of creativity. This is the beauty that Foster Wallace speaks of. There is logic behind the collective satisfaction in a well-timed pass or ingenious finish; they require a high geometric intelligence and instinctive vision comparable to that of the painter or the poet.
There are few moments in life that compare, emotionally and spiritually, to the feeling of witnessing a goal. When else have you jumped up and down in life, through nothing else but pure pleasure? The purity of the emotional impulse of a goal is beyond the descriptive capabilities of language. It is abstract and irrational and it is because of this, not in spite of this, that the feeling of ecstatic joy, euphoric completeness, is rarely replicated in any element of human life. It is a momentary glimpse of salvation, a fleeting emotion of euphoria that brushes with a feeling of oneness. In this way, more than any other, can football be considered a religious experience. Crucially, this experience is not the worshipping of a super-human deity, but the celebration of our own species' creative potential.
Corporations may be masochistically driving the sport towards obliteration but, for now, they cannot touch the complex and enigmatic art displayed on one small patch of grass. It is an art form, an experience, that is rarely replicated in any other aspect of. The image created in the media, particularly in light of the Olympic Games and the positivity that surrounded it, is not necessarily a fair reflection of our game.