The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
We have a natural fascination with movement, rhythm, and the interaction of objects—especially the human body—with gravity. When a cat sees a dangling string, it tracks its motions obsessively; in the same way, when we see a ball flying through the air or bouncing along the ground, it naturally draws our eye. Add this to our inherent susceptibility to color and it becomes one of the bases of our primary sense of beauty. It is because these elements feature so prominently in the way our minds perceive the physical world that we emphasize them so strongly in our artistic representation of that world through painting, music, and dance. A football match combines some of the same aesthetic attractions that we find in the arts (in the bright colors, the acrobatic movements, the spontaneous shapes of the formations, the not-quite-predictable arc and rebound of the ball). But unlike the arts, which remove these attractions into a realm of unreality, a realm precisely of artificiality, sports shows them to us in a way that makes them seem part of the natural unfolding of the world. Like the real world, a football match has no single guiding intention, no meaning to intuit. A football match is contingent, is up for grabs; unlike a ballet, it has no predetermined plan or outcome. Sports shows us something like the real world, in other words, but with our aesthetic proclivities turned up.
We also, I think, have a natural interest in watching people do things well, especially rare or difficult things, especially when they involve a degree of risk or physical daring. Sports gives us an arena in which we can see uncommonly fast, strong, agile, and flexible people testing one another in a way that ensures we will frequently witness extraordinary feats. The thrill of aesthetic pleasure that we feel for such feats is intensified by a feeling of admiration for the flair and confidence of the people who perform them.
I think we could say, then, that if our interest in the competitive nature of sporting events—in victories and defeats—has its basis in one of the darkest parts of human nature, our interest in the style and flow of sporting events has its basis in one of the best. The one draws on our tendency toward conflict and aggression, the other on our ability to find beauty in the world and in our way of interacting with it. When this works, sports gives us a way to transcend our destructive side by using it as fuel for something creative. When it doesn’t (as we’ve seen, unfortunately, any number of times in football), it can subvert our creative side by giving us a pretext for actual violence in what ought to be only a game. I think we see the best more often than the worst, which is one of the reasons I choose to follow sports.
by Brian Phillips · October 25, 2007