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Football: From Logos to Telos

Can there be free kicks without free will? Or is there no such thing as a free kick? These are two questions about the philosophy of football not investigated here. Andrew Belsey.

There are some unsurprising connections between philosophy and sport. Michael Brearley was, for a while, the England cricket captain who had a first-class degree in philosophy and had been a philosophy lecturer. But this should raise no eyebrows, since cricket is obviously a game that ought to be described as “philosophical”, in all the meanings that this flexible term can have. (Look at Geoff Boycott, an obvious philosopher if ever there was one – though not exactly in the Brearley mould!) But football? Surely nothing could be less philosophical than the game that consists of twenty-two people kicking a spherical object around the park?

Wrong! Football is paradigmatically a philosophical subject. I swear that on the day of the first round of the FA Cup I turned on the radio and heard the presenter say: “Crawley are two-nil up, scorers Kant and Hume”. And there isn’t a football story in the press these days that does not manage to drag philosophy into the discussion. Here is a typical example from The Guardian:

Charlton has long since risen above the status of mere football manager. In Ireland he has become a philosopher with a fishing rod, dispensing worldly wisdom between matches when not preoccupied on some river-bank.

Well, it’s a start. But before continuing on this theme, perhaps there should be a serious intermission.

For it was Bill Shankly, wasn’t it, who said that football is more important than life or death (which perhaps explains why there is no chapter on football in Jonathan Glover’s book), but this now sounds like an echo from an earlier, more innocent age of sport, before Heysel, before Hillsborough, before the recent case of the Texan woman who plotted to murder the mother of the girl who had replaced her own daughter in the local cheerleaders team. Nowadays sport is life or death. (Jonathan Glover, please note.) Witness the casualties of the boxing ring, or the behaviour of the players in the Rugby World Cup which made it clear that it was not a substitute for war – it was war.

But enough of these gloomy thoughts, for this is supposed to be a humorous column, and one having something to do with philosophy. So back to philosophy’s connection with football. While the Taylors, the Cloughs and the Atkinsons eat their hearts out at the deficiencies of the coaching manuals, perhaps they should turn instead to the collected works of A.J. Ayer, especially the earlier volumes.

Why Ayer? Because at least someone in football has been reading him, and deriving some benefit. For earlier this season a football reporter in one of the quality dailies said that Barnet, newly promoted to the Football League and now heading the 4th Division table, had an attitude to the game that was “positivist”.

Only one football team in the top British leagues has any claim to scholarly status: Hamilton Academicals. But academic interest in football is not confined to one town in Lanarkshire. Economists have studied the parlous finances of league teams, while sociologists investigate violence in and out of the ground. But insolvency and hooliganism are the downside of football, and of all the scholarly professions it is only philosophers who can contemplate the game in true Corinthian spirit.

It is fairly well known that A.J. Ayer had a season ticket at White Hart Lane. Of course, it had to be Spurs – can you imagine a philosopher following Arsenal or Leeds, though I suppose Liverpool or Manchester United could just about make out a plausible case. Anyway, picture Freddie in the stand, surrounded by a like-minded set of fanatics from such football-mad spots as St John’s Wood and Hampstead, and all of them entranced by the artistry that flowed from the feet of those nimble dancers of that sacred turf, from Blanchflower and Greaves in the old days to Hoddle and Lineker more recently.

What Ayer was planning was the ultimate coaching manual, though unfortunately he was never able to complete the project. It was to be a method that would take his beloved Tottenham back to the top, and keep them there. It was to combine the calculating (or logical) approach to the game with the scientific (or positivist) approach, and the resulting book would have been called From the Vienna Circle to the Centre Circle. It would have shown how to transform the teleology of football into actual goals – lots of them. I know this sounds a bit metaphysical, but strict positivism is no longer the in-thing, is it?

But instead of Ayer’s moderate metaphysics we have only that ontological oddity, Paul Gascoigne. I sometimes find myself wondering whether Gazza is merely some sort of Italian pizzaflavoured ice cream. Or not, as the case may be. But when it comes to philosophy he is clearly not in the same league as Brearley (or even Boycott), as this extract from The Independent makes clear:

Gascoigne’s philosophy (always look on the bright side) set the tone in the Spurs camp yesterday.

This was an incautious statement, coming as it did on the eve of the Cup Final. For a start, “Always look on the Bright Side” was never a Tottenham song: I believe Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday are currently contending for it. But further, it was clearly tempting fate, for in The Life of Brian the song was, as I recall, sung by Eric Idle while being crucified. And, remembering what happened in the match, it is clear that Fate responded. Kicking balls can be painful, especially when they are your balls.

Still, Gazza had done better in the semi-final against Arsenal, although even there we can’t get away from philosophy, for that performance inspired someone described as the deputy editor of City Limits (and who therefore ought to know better) to pen this for the benefit of Guardian readers:

As the ball scorched its way through the Wembley air bound irrevocably like some leather Exocet for the corner of the net it screamed out for epistemological confirmation.

It called, he went on, “for dissection, discourse, a dissertation.” Or perhaps just deconstruction? After all, everyone has epistemological confirmation (= knows) that footballs are not made of leather these days. Writing like this can only be described as an own-goal, bound irrevocably not for the back of the opponent’s net but for Pseud’s Corner.

Which is more than can be said for my final extract from the press:

Oh we hate Arsenal and we hate Arsenal!
We hate Arsenal and we hate Arsenal!
We hate Arsenal and we hate Arsenal!
We are the Arsenal haters!

This, we are told (The Guardian again), is a “Tottenham chant that encompasses issues of philosophy, grammar and logic”. Oh dear, what a come-down from the elegances of Language, Truth and Logic, not to mention the lost manual. Come back, Freddie Ayer! But up there he just smiles as he watches Empyrean Wanderers versus Elysian Casuals. Of course, every match ends with each side scoring an infinity of goals. Positivism has been transcended. You don’t need any sort of coaching manual in Heaven. They already play like angels.

© Andrew Belsey 1991

Andrew Belsey lectures in philosophy at University of Wales College of Cardiff

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