The Beautiful Game, Part Two
by Brian Phillips · September 1, 2008
Football is beautiful—that is, aesthetic—in the same way that all sports are aesthetic, because it rests upon a set of rules that are designed to realize a specific kind of experience: designed, in other words, not only to make the game fair, but to give it a particular style. Basketball would involve largely the same concepts if the rim were fourteen feet high or if the court were twice its current size, but the style of the game, and the moves and strategies you would be likely to see while watching it, would be radically different, as is already the case between, say, football and futsal. We like to talk as if justice, or at least balance, is the only object of the rulebook, but in fact most rule changes in most sports are primarily focused on style and intended to encourage a desired approach to play. Think of the changes to the back-pass rule or the offside rule in soccer, or of the introduction of the shot clock in the NBA.
Because different sports are designed to embody different styles, it ought to be possible to talk about the meaning of one game or another, although in practice this is seldom done outside an at least implicitly moral context. (Baseball encourages the virtues of patience and strategy, basketball encourages the virtues of creativity and improvisation.) It should at least be possible to say that the flowing, angular, aerial style of basketball encourages a different mindset and suggests a different way of looking at the world from the short bursts of complex violence that dominate American football, and that the appeals and connotations of each game extend far beyond their secondary grounding in morality.
So what does football “mean”? One way to answer the question is to note, as I did in my last post, that the relative complexity of the game—a large number of players moving simultaneously on a large field with very few stoppages of play—leads to a high degree of confusion. Compared to other popular sports, there are many forces interacting simultaneously and their interactions are remarkably sustained. We might think of this as imposing a high degree of resistance, both to understanding (in comparison to, say, tennis, soccer is hard for a novice fan to follow) and to the emergence of clear intention (what players mean to happen is seldom entirely clear, and even more seldom what actually happens). Another way to describe this would be to say that where many other sports attempt to create an arena in which the randomness, flux, and contingency of life—the forces that work against our own everyday intentions—are largely excluded, football conspicuously lets them in, in such a way that when a clear intention does emerge, when a player scores an improbable goal or completes a visionary pass, it often carries with it the special exhilaration of seeing an affirmation of the potential of the human will.
It’s clear, for instance, that football is unique among major sports in the extent to which its fans believe that there are good and bad ways to play it. Certain styles of play in every sport accumulate a vague air of moral authority, but these are usually based in some idea of efficacy or tactical soundness; the overwhelming consensus in favor of attacking football, on the other hand, has nothing to do with winning and even causes footballers and football fans to disavow the importance of winning with an astonishing regularity. Danny Blanchflower is its conscience, not Vince Lombardi. What positive, attacking football has in its favor is not that it works more effectively than defensive football but that it sets itself sharply against dullness and randomness and creates opportunities for players to impose a perceptible shape on the game. Defensive, “negative” football, by contrast, tends to work in concert with the natural entropy of the game and to lend itself to long stretches of uncertainty and stalemate.
The rules of football could be changed in such a way that those forces would have less purchase on the game—even something as simple as restarting the clock at regular intervals would probably have this effect. But to do so would be to reduce the joy that accompanies football’s moments of beauty and also to change the meaning of those moments. I wrote in my last post that the beauty of football lay in the way a fluent purpose could suddenly sweep over the chaos of the match. But its higher beauty is surely that it comes so close to surrendering itself to that chaos in the first place: that it allows the tragic and the absurd to be let loose on the pitch, so that its players, though often succumbing, can sometimes meaningfully overcome them.
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