Simon Critchley in Conversation: Talking about Thinking About Football (…or Soccer)

To mark the occasion of Simon Critchley’s newest book What We Think About When We Think About Soccer (Penguin Random House), Research Matters sat down for an hour-long conversation with the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy about the “beautiful game.”


Research Matters: I want to start by talking about time, or actually about temporality. One of the recurring themes in the book is the way soccer helps to explain the peculiar way our perception and affective experience of time are neither linear nor constant. Where are you coming from philosophically here, and how does soccer help punctuate and organize our experience of time?

Simon Critchley: Philosophers for the last century—[Henri] Bergson, and most importantly, [Martin] Heidegger—have been trying to talk about the experience of lived time; to advance the claim that lived time is not the same as clock time. Clock time is your sequence of now-points—not-yet, now, no-longer-now—as a linear, uniform continuum. Various philosophers have been arguing, rightly in my view, that that’s not how we live our fundamental experience of time. Time is something that is not linear. It’s not governed by the clock; it’s shaped by the environment, by the world that we’re inhabiting at that time.

In soccer, it’s a particularly compelling and obvious point. You have linear chronometric time, the 90 minutes of the game plus injury time, into two nearly divided 45-minute halves. So there is the objective measure of temporality. Every game lasts as long as the last game. But our experience of the time is very different. So you could do a kind of Einsteinian twin example and say, “Imagine there are twins watching the same game and they support opposing teams. The game is 1-0. One of the twins supports the team that’s winning, and the other twin supports the opposing team.” Their experience of time is fundamentally different. For one, the last minutes of the game—the injury time—are an agony of extended duration. For the other, time seems to accelerate, contract. So there you have an example of the way our experience of time is shaped by this game and how in passages of play [are] completely recognizable, but when you think about it strange things happen with time. That time can suddenly compress, that there can be a movement—a throw in, a flick-on, a movement between two or three players and then let’s say a shot or a goal—and that ten minute sequence of play can be experienced as a second. And they can be replayed! So time compresses and can have this largasso stretching effect.

This is what a lot of people who don’t get about football is that it’s fundamentally about time, but the time is not the stacatto stop-start of most American sports, whether it’s the stop-start of basketball or the usually stop-and-then-occasionally-start of baseball, which of course make perfect sense commercially. American sports were shaped for advertising, whereas football is this extended field of more or less movement. The question is what is happening at any one point. Something is always happening, but people aren’t necessarily scoring goals. So this idea that football is boring because it’s not 57-52 at the end of the game fundamentally misses the point that it’s about watching this extended flowing movement. That’s the joy of the game, it’s watching. There can be fantastic games where nobody scores.

RM: There’s something to be said about the way that is integral to the game, right? The management of time, especially in the midfield. People like [Javier] Mascherano are good because they can control the pace of the game, and move that pace in the direction that benefits the team. He can extend moments or quicken things. There’s something about the way the manipulation of time is part of the strategy.

SC: Yeah. Very clearly in the Argentinian game, the Uruguayan game, and the Italian game. Those three football cultures, which are incredibly important, are about time management and the idea that what looks to other eyes as a cynical, defensive football—that’s the game. I talk in the book about the joys of defensive football. The classical Argentinian teams I grew up watching were brilliant defensive teams that played in the Italian style. You set up to stop the other team scoring, and then maybe get a goal yourself. And that can be ruthless, but there’s a real beauty in that.

I think also about the phenomenon of cheating. I think there’s something really interesting. The dream of any sport is that there will be constitutional clarity about what’s going on and video evidence or whatever it might be. In many sports that is the case. In soccer, it’s not the case, strange things happen every game and that’s not because football players are bigger cheats than other players but because there’s something about the relationship between law and the bending of law that is essential to the game. The objective of the game is to win. And if winning means bending the law, then you bend the law. And the art of a great player—a great defensive player—is knowing how far they can bend that law. That’s a subtle and often invisible art to the amateur, or to the person who just wants to see goals, because they’re not watching how the game is actually played.

Mascherano is a good example of a player who can, in a sense, not necessarily do much in a game. He’s a brilliantly gifted player, but he doesn’t have to do much given that his mastery of space and time organizes—makes the whole thing cohere. You need a player like Mascherano, as [Diego] Maradona said a couple of years ago. The Argentinian team is Mascherano and you find 10 others. His is the first name on the sheet. And these players are not really understood.

“Argentina did not play well today, but it also didn’t allow the opponent to play well, and that’s important.” – Maradona, 2014.

Another great one—there’s a photograph of him in the book—Claude Makélélé. Same thing. He used to be called the water carrier, cause he just carried the water. He just carried the team. There’s a great player called [Nemanja] Matić, played for Chelsea last year, same thing. So what interests me in football is that stuff. It’s not obvious. Football is a subtle art.