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.

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Aesthetics and Justice

Minerva, blindfolded

The crux of the problem is the Hand of God goal and whether, if you could, you would go back in time and stop the referee from awarding it. This is where you confess to the moon that you view the sport a certain way and that you think of it as a game or a story. I think of it as a story, which is why I wouldn’t change anything about the Hand of God goal even if I had control of all dimensions. But it’s easy to understand both viewpoints.

If soccer is a game, then the rules are the truth and the Hand of God was a travesty, a moment of supreme falsehood in which all the structures of the game broke down completely. If a game is rigged it isn’t a game (it becomes a story); fairness is the basis of all athletic competition; and when fairness doesn’t exist all that can result is shame, outrage, exploitation, and grief. Undoing the Hand of God would be a way of restoring integrity to a moment that lacked it. Maradona cheated, the end.

If soccer is a story, then things get more complicated, because the narrative can take in anything and because its aesthetic greatness doesn’t depend on the sympathy between actions and the rules. You wouldn’t stop Macbeth from killing the king, because then you wouldn’t have Macbeth. From the perspective of the game, the Zidane headbutt was at best a distraction, and at worst a disgrace; from the perspective of the story, it was a moment that instantly and utterly transcended the match in which it took place. (For the rest of your life, unless and possibly even if you are an Italy fan, you will remember Materazzi for provoking the headbutt before you remember him for scoring Italy’s equalizer.) By the same token, the Hand of God was too great and all-comprehending a moment for the rules to have created it: it was a total summation—of Maradona’s character, of the nature of that rivalry, of everything on up to the international climate in the years after Falklands War and arguably the entire 1980s—that couldn’t possibly have existed if it weren’t at a slant to the rules. Lose that and you’re left with a fair, pure, antiseptic match that fulfills the ideal of the sport but sacrifices almost all its truest and deepest significance.

So what does that say about bad refereeing? Probably nothing, except that in this as in all things we’re approaching the verge of a paradox. The “game as a story/save the Hand of God” line makes no sense as an argument for design; that is, you can’t tell FIFA, “please make sure your refereeing isn’t perfectly fair because a certain amount of bad refereeing enhances the narrative of the game.” There’s no doubt that a certain amount of bad refereeing enhances the narrative of the game, but that isn’t FIFA’s angle, and in any case giving match officials a certain quota of blown calls to reach would just trade epic accidents for bureaucratic stupidities. The Hand of God wouldn’t mean anything if it had resulted from discretionary refereeing choice built into the rules of the game, because you can’t program spontaneous mysticism.

What that means is that, if we care about the sport as a story, we have to hope that the people in charge of running it do their jobs just badly enough to ensure that the Hand of God is possible. The wider the circle within which you’re willing to see the game as aesthetic, in other words, the more you wind up relying on chance and accident. If soccer is only a game—that is, aesthetic only in the most limited and technical sense—then it can achieve perfection as a deliberate design or as a successfully realized intention. If it’s a story—that is, aesthetic in a more primary sense—it can’t. If you want a masterpiece, the artist has to screw up. The lamest defense of bad refereeing in the world is “human error is part of the game.” It isn’t; but it is certainly, and problematically, part of the story.

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Aesthetics and Justice

by Brian Phillips · April 20, 2010

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