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

RM: There’s also something about the manipulation of frustration. With time you get exhaustion, and there’s something about knowing how to know how to manage the opponent’s exhaustion and frustration, and that’s where cheating often comes in. If you can get someone tired enough or angry enough that they make a mistake…

SC: Yeah, then you’ve got domination. The great Barcelona team a few years ago, not now, but a few seasons ago—I remember reading somewhere—most of the goals they scored were after the 80th minute. Because you can set up to play Barcelona, you can study videotapes of the game, and you can stop them playing. But they’re playing with your exhaustion and eventually they will grind you down and in the 85th minute, when the defense is completely exhausted, they will score twice. And that’s a kind of mastery of time. But football is, you know: control the ball, move, pass, control, move, pass, control, move, pass. That’s all it is. If you can do that repeatedly, and there are one or two or three options for every player that receives the ball, then you’re going to score. It’s as simple as that.

There are great goals, beautiful goals, 30-yard free kicks or whatever are all very well. But for me a genuinely beautiful goal is simply, again like a lot of great Barcelona goals, or indeed when Germany played Brazil in the World Cup in 2014. Those goals were incredibly simple and repetitive. They just passed their way through the defenses. Most of the goals were tap-ins. They’d done the work.

So the other thing about football is that it’s about time and different experiences of time. It’s also about space and the interpretation of space. I talk about Thomas Müller, who’s a “fake number nine.” [Note: a “number nine” player is typically a team’s most prolific scorer, typically a center forward]. A fake number nine is simply a number nine who fakes being a number nine because he goes into spaces where a number nine wouldn’t go. So if you’re a defender and you’re marking a center forward, that’s easy, the center forward will be leading the attacking line, all you have to do is keep him out of the game. And he’s brilliant as a player, and he’s initiated that as a technique that is copied pretty much everywhere. There aren’t many classical center forwards in football these days. The attacking side of the team is constantly dropping out of its spatial position into somewhere else and you take the defensive player with you, or you don’t. If you don’t go with the attacking player, they’ll receive the ball, and they can pass and make a goal. If you do take the defensive player with you, you’ve opened space for someone to move into.

So another thing that I think is missed about football is the really subtle way in which good and great players will open space. And that won’t necessarily be through superior technique or speed. A player like, say, Luis Suárez is not particularly fast. He doesn’t have particularly good technique, but he’s a master of controlling space. He can draw players to him. And he’s dangerous by opening space for whomever he’s playing with—[Lionel] Messi or Neymar last season. And then make something happen. And then he’s got that extra. The other thing about a genuinely great player is that there’s often this unfinished weird bit to their character that’s going to lead to Suárez getting sent off for handling the ball on the line—as he did in the World Cup against Ghana (but that was the right thing to do because Uruguay won)—or biting an opposing player (which is wrong). But that’s the package that you have to accept with a really great player. Same thing [with Zinedine] Zidane. Zidane got sent off a lot. He was explosive. There aren’t that many players like that. There’s a tendency towards increasing midfield uniformity in the way that players are produced that goes back to the way they’re being brought through school and youth academies, there’s a kind of standardization. So the Messi phenomenon, the 5’8’’ attacking midfield player—there’s a lot of those out there, and they risk becoming a little bit anonymous; whereas the really great players do something else, without having superior skill or speed necessarily. They can make something happen.

RM: I want to shift from temporality to history. In understanding both football and fandom you really emphasize the theme of history. You talk about the interplay of delight and disgust, for instance when citing football’s mixed political potential and legacy. You also talk about fandom as membership within a history or lineage arranged around the memory of moments or emotion.

SC: This is another deliberate Heideggerianism. Heidegger has this idea of heritage in Being and Time, which is either ignored or treated with suspicion. The way in which you can assume a past and not just be thrown into it is when that past becomes your own. He calls that heritage. I think about that in relation to the experience of history amongst fans. Most fans of most clubs have a particular experience of the history, which is theirs, which is bound up with moments of triumph or with moments of disaster. Very often it’s disaster. So for Manchester United it’s the 1956 Munich air crash that killed most of what was arguably the best team in England at the time, and nearly killed the manager Matt Busby. I was in Turin in October and I watched Torino against Cagliari. It wasn’t a great game, but Turin are the ‘other’ team in Turin—not-Juventus—they’re not corporate, not owned by Fiat. Their heritage is based on the fact that the entire team was wiped out in 1949 when the plane carrying the players crashed into a hill outside Turin, hill on which there was a church called the Superga—into a basilica, basically. The entire team died. So then their heritage is based upon that loss.

In the case of Liverpool, it’s the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, where 96 fans died or were killed by the South Yorkshire police. We choose to remember that and not the Heysel Stadium of 1985 when Liverpool fans either deliberately or through inattention collapsed a wall at the European final between Liverpool and Juventus and 39 Juventus fans were killed. That led to English teams being banned from Europe for four or five years, and Liverpool to be banned for six or seven.

So your history is bound up with these events and there can also be a history of moments. The really interesting thing about this conception of history, or historicity, is that it can be communicated without there being any lived connection between the players who are playing for the team and the history. So the example in the book is the example of a game between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, almost 18 months ago, where Jurgen Klopp invoked the memory of the final between Liverpool and Milan in 2004. And he hadn’t been there and neither had any of the players. But somehow the fans know. The fans are like a living archive of that memory. So it’s a lived experience of history. A lived continuous communicated experience of history and that can be communicated to the team. In a good way (we won that game) or in a bad way. Say [for example], we—England—played Germany in a major competition, and there’s a penalty shootout. There’s going to be one result, which is that Germany will win. Because somehow the memory of having lost three penalty shootouts to Germany [means] you just know that they’re going to win. So the players have that anxiety.

So the weird thing about football is the way great teams can continue to be great teams by participating in that history that they emerge from. And that can lead to incredible pressure. So Argentina is a good case. They won the World Cup twice and have had arguably the best national team in the world on several occasions, and the expectations that the fans have are paralyzing to the team unless they’re communicated effectively. It’s almost like football is much more of an oral sense of history, a folk sense of history, that is passed down and all the enthusiasm is passed down and the coming generations will fill in the gaps. That’s a good and a bad thing, in that it can be obviously patriarchal.

People can become fans of teams. I talked to a guy this morning […] who was from Manchester. So about 10 minutes into the conversation I said: “Are you a City fan or a United fan?” He said, “I’m a City fan, but it was a choice that I made when I was 18.” So he had no connection to Manchester City, traditionally the team from Manchester. United are seen as the glamorous international team. So you can just pick a team. I was doing a thing in London with a woman called Juliet Jacques and Juliet was a Norwich City supporter and had decided to support Norwich City just because she liked the colors they played in—liked the way the word sounded. Often you ask people why they support the teams they do it’s often for weird aesthetic reasons. They like the shirt, the color, the badge, there was a certain player. I was enormously attracted to Peru in 1970 when Peru were in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and they had a player called [Teófilo] Cubillas, a great player, and they were a really good team. But they played in this uniform with this white shirt with this single red sash, diagonal, left to right. It just looked amazing. So then there are things like that.

In my case, it was my family was all Liverpool. My father was from Liverpool. My son is a Liverpool supporter. So there’s a sense in which this is really the only thing we have in common, is this affection for the team. And this idea that [one has] this affection for a place—which is a place that I’ve never really lived in and have no connection with now—but still the dimension of fantasy here is incredibly strong and can’t be underplayed.

This wasn’t in the book, but I was talking to this football writer called David Goldblatt. His political claim is that football is not just socialism—as I kind of wistfully claim—it’s the last memory of social democracy in Britain. To speak in superficial terms, neoliberalism has very coherently and systematically eradicated much of the infrastructure that put together the welfare state, and which gave expression to a certain political view of things that organized say British life between the end of the Second World War until the late 1970s. Football was part of that world, but that world is gone, and football remains a memory of that world, a vestige. And that can go in different ways. There is something conservative about football. I mean rightly conservative, in the sense in which it is an attempt to conserve a heritage, a lived experience against its destruction. Football cultures are built slowly. They accrete and they accrue and they build and take shape. For me, that’s a more convincing model of social change than a kind of revolutionary theory. Football’s not revolutionary. Football is kind of defensive in that sense. It’s about a memory of a way of belonging to a place, to a community, to a people when the evidence for that belonging is pretty slim.

It’s an incredibly powerful medium through which identity passes as a real thing in terms of where you’re really from, who you really are. And also as a fantastical thing, as an identity that you aspire to and live through, a simulacrum of watching this team and the associations that you have with them. It’s real and unreal at the same time. And that’s a philosophical point that football makes, is that football games are entirely real and entirely unreal at the same time.

RM: It’s a game.

SC: It’s a game, and it’s largely seen on television, where it’s saturated with sponsorship and all of that. And I find that when I go to a live game, which isn’t as often as I’d like to go, my fundamental experience is not really being able to understand that I’m there. It feels too much. It feels too fake. There’s something unreal to it.

RM: It feels very primitive. All the chanting, the bodies in the space, the circular shape of the space.

SC: So at the Torino-Cagliari game—it was at the Olympic stadium in Turin—the fans had engaged in a plan to protest because they’re trying to get rid of their coach, who is this Serbian guy, [Siniša] Mihajlović. They’re getting ready to finish and the crowd starts quieting down, and then it gets obviously silent. The team was playing, the match was taking place, but there was this spooky silence and then after 10 minutes, there was this single unified noise, and then they began very slowly to sing one of their songs, and it built and built and built. And at that point it’s terrifying.

RM: You write about the Icelandic team’s fake-Viking Thunderclap. It’s clearly inauthentic but still carries this significance.

SC: God, no.

RM: But it’s interesting because it moves you all the same. Even if you know it’s not actually part of a lineage.

SC: It’s really, really powerful. And what a lot of Americans don’t get about football, because it’s not really present in American sports, is the singing. And it’s not just “let’s go whoever,” or “de-fense, de-fence.” The singing in American sports is really awful. In any football, [it’s about] the songs that they have, and also the repartee—but specifically targeted songs, which are rehearsed for that opposition. So Liverpool has a whole series of songs that are directed at Manchester United, and they will change depending on what happens. And they’re long songs! And for me the fans singing is really, really important. That’s where this lived sense of history finds articulation. It’s through song.

RM: At one point you connect it to tragedy a bit. You associate the audience with the Greek chorus. A fundamental part of what it means to be involved in soccer as an experience is the experience of watching and being watched. The spectating part is not ancillary. It’s a fundamental part of the experience for both the players and the fans.

SC: People talk about the spectator as the twelfth player, but it’s more than that. The fans can fundamentally affect what happens in a game, which is why there is home advantage, which is the most mysterious thing. Why would it matter? That has to be because of the presence of the fans and the effect that has. Through that controlled noise you are making an effect on what’s happening on the pitch. And this is a really important point for me. The fans are not imbeciles. You give yourself over to the stupidity of being a football fan. By definition, it’s stupid. But within that, there’s this incredible intelligence. The fans are a living repository of an incredibly complex wisdom. Which is bewildering, and that becomes the basis for the rationality of football, which I’m sure is similar in other team sports in the US. But the dialogue between fans can lead to people changing your opinion. You’ll meet someone and you’ll have an opinion about who the best player is or what happened in a game and then someone will say “no, I see it this way,” and you’ll say, “yeah, you’re right, I see what you’re saying.” And that ability to change your mind, which is seemingly impossible in most areas of human life—particularly in politics—happens all the time in football. And it’s not as if you’re changing your mind in an empty way. You’re changing your mind where the whole thing is driven by this deep conviction and passion you have for the team. If we’re looking for an example of reasoning in relation to incredibly powerfully-held passionate emotion, then football is one of the things that needs to be looked at.

RM: You recommend at some point that Jürgen Habermas or Habermasians to take a second look at football as an exemplar of discursive rationality.

SC: Yes, there’s discursive rationality probably only in football. And then the question is: is it because it’s play? There’s something about the phenomenon of play, what we do when we play, the way in which when we’re aware of something being play, then we can give ourselves to it as play with intense seriousness. We know it’s just a game, but it’s not just a game. Somehow the contract of play allows for genuine seriousness to manifest itself in ways that in other areas of life it just doesn’t happen as powerfully.

RM: You do speak about repetition being the essence of football. There’s another element connected to the Gadamer bit, which is the deconstruction of the separation between objectivity and subjectivity. One of the recurring claims is that, given its fundamental simplicity, people often play soccer better when they’re immersed in that flow without thinking about it.  There’s another borderline mystical passage where you write about Zidane looking as if his body and the ball look like they know what is about to happen before he can apprehend it. So play is structured repetition but it’s also letting go.

SC: The idea that football exists in and through repetition, I think, is an important idea. That it’s always about the next match, and the next match will be the same, but it will be different. That’s the temporality of a season, or a number of seasons. The other point about subject and object: again, philosophy for the last century has tried to criticize the objectivism of the natural sciences on the one hand and the subjectivism of psychological explanation on the other, and to try and show how being in the world, our lived experience takes place in a domain that’s neither objective nor subjective—the world. That is something that happens in the phenomenon of play. That we’re playing in that space which is neither subjective nor objective, what I call “the middle kingdom,” with a nod to Bruno Latour. And with Zidane, the genius of Zidane, like any great player, is the ability to read that space. There’s a commentary in the movie Zidane, Portrait of the 21st Century by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, where he talks about when he’s on the pitch, that he’s constantly pulled in and out of things. That he can hear what’s being said—not sung—what’s being said by fans on the side of the pitch. It’s as if his sensory apparatus is completely ecstatic, completely outside of itself. He’s immersed in that experience of play and things will take a sudden course. If he does the right thing, if he moves the right way, then the ball will come to him and there will be a goal. At that point, the frontier between animate things like human beings and inanimate things like the ball or goalposts also breaks down. Everything’s alive in football. Everything’s alive.

And you know it’s dead. It’s just a ball. It’s a piece of plastic. But it’s alive when we give ourselves over to the phenomenon of play; everything’s alive. And then the task of the player is to become a masterful interpreter of the situation. And the task of the fan is to observe that and to participate in it, like a chorus in Greek tragedy, to be the sounding board for what’s going on. The fan is not a passive watcher of the game, but also a commentator and participant in it.

RM: One of the things you mention about is his ability to focus not on goals but on process. He doesn’t remove himself from the tempest of what’s really happening, but he can maintain a higher, longer-term perspective. People critique him for this, but you want to defend him.

SC: It’s true of all great coaches really: this capacity that the coach has to read the game and to know what configuration of players to choose, how to set them up, and to know what’s going to happen. There’s a kind of extraordinary theoretical/intellectual capacity that coaches have. In the case of Klopp it’s very strategic and physical. It’s about training routines and learning through repetition what you ought to do in a game. At another level it’s about riding on a passion and allowing that passion to come forth at a certain moment. And then there are coaches that don’t do that, who’ve got a different kind of cognitive brilliance. The most obvious is Jose Mourinho, who is an incredibly masterful tactician and reader of the game, always ahead of what’s happening in the game. [Marcelo] Bielsa said that football is a gesture in the service of beauty. Mourinho would say fuck that. Football is about organization; it’s about winning. There really are two main schools of football out there and they’re both funnily enough in the city of Manchester. You’ve got Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. You’ve got the supreme philosophical articulation of the beautiful game, of total football, invented by the Dutch and taken to a whole new level by Barcelona, which Guardiola imbibed and embodies. But it’s all about beauty. And Mourinho is not about beauty.

There was this extraordinary game, maybe in 2010, when he won the Champions League with Inter Milan, and the semifinal was against Barcelona. And Mourinho was making a point: they were up one-nil in Milan and then they went back to the Camp Nou and they prevented Barcelona from scoring for 90 minutes. That was the strategy: just to stop Barcelona playing, and to create a game that was as un-beautiful as possible.

Those are the two main philosophical worldviews out there. The idea of beauty (Guardiola) and the idea of anti-beauty (Mourinho). My book in many ways is romantic; it’s a romantic aestheticization of football. That’s what I’ve done. The other way of going is to be a kind of brutal modernist. Mourinho is a kind of footballing modernist. He’s a cold, formalistic procedure. And what’s great about football is those two things are out there, and there’s other things as well.

RM: There’s also the element of improvisation. There’s a planning, but it’s vital for a manager to respond to the circumstance in a particular way, either by making changes or managing the affect of the team. There’s also a balance between technique and passion. You make this point about the English teams, that they tend to overemphasize passion.

SC: Playing for the shirt, all that stuff.

RM: Right, and this is the critique Argentines will level at someone like Messi. They’ll argue he’s “cold-chested,” that he doesn’t have passion for the shirt. And to connect to what you said earlier about social democracy, there’s a growing sense that players no longer care, if they ever did, about their hometown, their neighborhood, sticking with the team that raised them.

SC: That’s true, but let me say something to qualify that. Certainly in the English game now, there’s a real club/country problem. The best 11 English footballers will routinely be injured or not available for national selection because country is not valued particularly highly, and the club is what’s valued. In those clubs they’ll be a handful of English players, a handful of Brazilian players, or whatever it might be. But what’s interesting to me about the South American teams, particularly the southern South American teams—Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil—is that those players who will be, like Neymar, mercenaries who go where the money is, will be obliged or willing or proud to play a friendly game for Brazil against whoever. And if they don’t, they won’t be on the team. And Argentina is similar. They typically play with their best team. The players have to be available. I think there’s a sense in which we’d need to ask some players. I’m sure many players like to make money where they make money, but for many South American players, representing the country is still hugely important because that’s really where you get to make your mark. That’s what matters.

RM: Lastly I want to ask you about method. You say two things that are important. You emphasize de-subjectifying and de-psychologizing football, which connects to the phenomenological approach. You also have this point about developing a poetics of football. So how do these come together for you and why is this combination of romanticism and phenomenology appealing?

It’s appealing to me because it allows me to write about what fundamentally interests me, which is football. For me philosophy is about different things, but it’s about articulating elemental passions. Maybe the most elemental passion I have is for football. So I wanted to try and make sense of that and then it becomes a wonderful excuse to conduct the most pleasurable research I’ve ever done, which is doing what I would have done anyway and calling it research.

The de-subjectifying part is when I was talking about the phenomenon of play and when players are playing and even when we’re watching we’re not in our heads, we’re out there amongst things. We’re not subjects in a world of objects; we’re animate things amongst animate things in the middle kingdom.

And the poetics comes from the distinction between form and matter so that the material concept of football is money, it’s capital in all of its glory and increasingly so. So football is dirty and compromised. It’s money dirty. And yet it’s beautiful, so how does one deal with that? So then I talk about the form of football. The beauty of football is its formal properties. And that’s where I try to use poetics to bring out the form of the game. But the key point I’m trying to make in the book really is that football about which you can never ultimately feel good. And you shouldn’t feel good. Every aspect of it is contaminated either by money, by the corruption of the governing organizations like FIFA, or by the circumstances that shaped the historicity of a particular place.

You can say it’s democratic. It can be. It can also be autocratic and authoritarian, and fascistic. So, for me, the delight and the disgust in the game are two halves of the same coin.

Lucas Ballestin is a PhD candidate in Philosophy. He specializes in political philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. His dissertation is on psychoanalytic theories of political ideology in the 20th and 21st Centuries.