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What Do We Mean When We Call Football the Beautiful Game?

Posted By Brian Phillips On August 30, 2008 @ 12:01 pm In Uncategorized | 19 Comments

What every small child understands about football is that the game is a Manichean struggle to define the nature of the universe and that beauty and chaos are the terms contesting the definition. This is because football, compared to other popular games, is frequently boring and random, and because we perceive it as boring and random when the complexity of the forces at work within it becomes so great that we can no longer associate outcomes and causes. Tactics, individual decision-making, technical skill, team rapport, wind velocity, pitch conditions, and the influence of the crowd all become muddled together and the ball seems to go where it goes for no particular reason. Conversely, we perceive the game as beautiful when a clear intention emerges to triumph over the arbitrary swirl opposing it—when one set of tactics overcomes another, when teammates pass the ball as if they could read each other’s minds, when a piece of brilliant skill produces the illusion that a player is controlling gravity.

Since this is so obviously an analogue of our own position in the world—uncertain whether our lives are governed by chance or by guiding intention, in the midst of forces we cannot control and do not understand—I think that the beauty of football is primarily a consolation, and that when we call football “the beautiful game,” we don’t mean that it is, but that we hope it will be.


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