Sunday, 10 April 2011

Philosophy of Football: Defining Football- Part 2.

In the first part of our definition of football, I left you on something of a cliff-hanger. Firstly, I would like to apologise for any distress this may have caused you, it was a bit cruel of me; but I had to! Honestly, I needed to do more research; it’s a serious business this is. To recap, we decided that sport has very few unique features and so we must use other areas of philosophy to shed as much light on the nature of football as possible. If you remember I ended by saying that we were going on a journey (hope you’ve packed like I asked you to!). This is because I have had a bit of a novel idea as to how to go about finding out what is part of football.  
Normally philosophers will attempt to create a definition from the top down. By that I mean they will look at the entirety of the topic and then decide what their definition of it is. There is nothing wrong with this approach of course, but I thought it would be a better idea to attempt a bottom up approach to football. The reasons behind my thinking this, I will allow René Descartes to explain:
“Some years ago I noticed how many false thing I had accepted as true in my childhood, and how doubtful were the things that I subsequently built on them and therefore that, once in a lifetime, everything should be completely overturned and I should begin again from the most basic foundations if I ever wished to establish anything firm and durable in the sciences ... Therefore today I appropriately cleared my mind of all cares and ... I am alone and, at long last, I will devote myself seriously and freely to this general overturning of beliefs.”[1]
This is what we will now do with regards to football. We will clear our mind of it and begin again.
The Journey
Firstly we now know nothing about football. No offside trap, where a yellow card came from (here- by the way), not even what shape the ball is. For this exercise we’ll have an avatar (not a big, tall and blue one, that was an awful movie); we will be male (only because I’m male, no other reason), physically fit, intelligent and have an inquiring mind. While we are at it we’ll be handsome and charming too. May as well give ourselves these attributes while we can!
What we will not have is any notion whatsoever of sport. It will be completely new to us. Perhaps where we come from prefers music to sport, so we have grown up without it. Other than this, rather large, omission from our lives, we are a completely normal, functioning human being, who one day walk into a park and comes across something we have never seen before.
We see several men kicking a spherical object between them. We are taken aback; “what on earth are they doing?” we ask ourselves. Unsure as to the answer we watch for a while. The first thing we notice is that there are two sets of men; one set wearing a random assortment of colours, whilst the other does not wear any shirt. From this we ascertain that they are on different sides; just like the violins in an orchestra are split into different sections, but play the same instrument (although admittedly different parts). We notice that there are two sets of jumpers which the men try and put the ball into; they celebrate when they do so. Most of the men do not use their hands whilst they are doing so, except for the two men, one on each side, who can use any part of their body to keep the ball away from the space in between the two jumpers.
We’re puzzled. There seems to be some kind of structure to the game, but it is complex. We decide that we must not fully understand what the men are doing yet. We reason that if someone had never seen or heard an orchestra before they would find the sounds it makes interesting, as we find this new pastime, but very complex when we try to find out what is going on.
We begin to look more closely at individual players and listen to what they are saying. One player stays further forward than the others and often finds himself in a large amount of space; he then shouts at the players he plays with to: “Get the ball to me quicker! I’m in loads of space here!” (or something similar but more expletive laden.) From this we decide that the men must have individual functions within the proceedings, and that it involves teamwork.
Having realised that there is a structure to the thing we observe and that it involves individuals functioning within a team (rather like that orchestra again) we begin to look a little more at the game as a whole. There is something undeniably interesting about it, something fascinating which has held our attention this long. But what is it?
A man has the ball at his feet and goes past another man whilst still in possession of the ball; we smile, that was impressive, attractive even. The men shout about how good that move was and how the man that was beaten was “owned” (or something similar but more expletive laden). We realise that this is fun to watch. We’re enjoying ourselves as we stand and watch this rather odd pastime. So, having little else to do this afternoon, we approach one of the men standing in between the jumpers and ask to join in. He agrees, the other team has one less player and so we being to join in with what everyone else is doing.
In all our life we have been able to run without problem. We have encountered physical challenges before and overcome them, but now the ball rolls towards us. What the bloody hell do we do?! We end up hitting it with our toe straight to the opposition who calmly controls the ball and scores. This is harder than it looks.
But this fact gives us further admiration to the men. After another half an hour or so the event is called to a halt, but not before we have managed to score our first goal and realised that it felt really rather good to score (in fact it is brilliant to score the first ever time you play something, I scored the winning goal the first time I ever played hockey, we were in year 7 and beat the girl’s year 9 team. Sporting achievement or what? I gave up hockey a year or two afterwards having realised that I had come as far as I was ever going to in the sport).

Our Goal

We decide to question the men after it is finished. What were we doing? –playing football. What is that? – ermm a game. And so on. The men, or players as we can now call them, are similarly interested in us; “how have we never come across football before?” We realise that this is a completely normal thing for those people to do, not the unusual pastime we thought it was originally. They mention a professional match tomorrow which we decide to attend to gain further knowledge about what this thing called football is.
We pause. What have we learnt? From observing we have realised that the game has a structure, it combines individual functions within a team and that this is enjoyable and attractive to watch. From playing we realise that it is a difficult sport, but ultimately rewarding if we succeed in scoring a goal (or pulling off a great save or whatever). From our conversation we have learnt the technical vocabulary to do with football and we have found out that the sport is popular.
All of these first observations are part of what I will call GameFootball. These are the parts of football that are unique to it and it alone. That is not to say that difficulty, for example, is unique to football, but that the difficulty that arises in football is unique to it. So the difficulty our avatar has in controlling the ball is a unique part of the structure of football, in that it does not occur in the same way in other areas of life.
What this first half of the definition of football means is that, the areas that are unique to football, or GameFootball, are: its rules, the synergy of players playing the game, its aesthetics, the difficulty of the game, the rewards it brings, the technical vocabulary it employs and its popularity. All of these unique aspects are possible to explore philosophically to a greater or lesser degree. This does not mean however, that the philosophical topics that football brings up are completely unique within the field of philosophy. An example is the technical vocabulary which is employed for football; this can be said to be part of the philosophy of language. This may lead you to think that it is therefore, not unique (which is the opposite of what I have been arguing). However, whilst it is part of the philosophy of language, it is a specific area of the philosophy of language, rather than a topic which the philosophy of language can be applied. It is a subtle difference but an important one in our definition.
Back to our avatar; we attend the game we were invited to the previous day. For our purposes it will be a Premier League clash with great significance for the two teams involved (we’ll gloss over how we managed to get a ticket at such short notice). What things do we notice that were different to yesterday? In short: the superstructure of organised football. We notice the stadium that has been built for the match, that we paid for our ticket and that we are given a specific seat in the stand. All of these technical points about the “match day experience” are proof, to us, that the game has gone beyond mere enjoyment; it has morphed into something greater than GameFootball.
We bought a programme on our way in and now we read some of it. There are previews, reviews, historical articles and so on which make up its pages. We realise that there is more to organised football than merely the enjoyment of a single game. One match is but a mere cog in the grand narrative of the sport.
During the match we also notice that there are two sets of supporters, just as there are two sets of teams on the field. From this we ascertain that merely watching the sport is not the only enjoyment that spectators have; they are also proud to be part of a larger group of fans who support one particular team. There is partisanship towards a team, area, or city. 

Ahh, this is how we got a ticket...
So, where do these observations leave us? We have seen that organised football adds further depth to our philosophical investigations. However, they do seem different from that of GameFootball which we looked at earlier. The stadia, money involved and the organisation of league football (as opposed to the game in the park) are clearly part of a further superstructure in the sport. I will call this superstructure SportFootball. It differs from GameFootball in that whilst being intrinsically linked with GameFootball and dependant on it, what is part of SportFootball is not unique to football. It is the area of the sport that is “reducible to other areas”[2] as SK Wertz claimed (this claim is discussed in Part 1 of this blog post - ) and which I argued, whilst not unique to football is still important philosophically speaking as it can shed light on the complex world of football.
Before I conclude which my final definition, you may have noticed that I haven’t really mentioned two things that we noticed at the match. One the narrative of football which we noticed from the programme we purchased and the other the partisan fans of football who were supporting their team at the match. I have similarly not put them into either the GameFootball or SportFootball definitions. This is because I am completely unsure as to where they should be put. But ladies and gentlemen, I will come up with an answer and post on that soon(ish), so keep an eye out for that.

In short, the definition of football must be split into two main parts. The first part is GameFootball, which concerns the unique aspects of football which make up the game itself. These include the rules of the sport, the skills needed to play it, the aesthetic aspects of the game, technical vocabulary which is employed to understand it and so on. The second part is SportFootball which is the non-unique aspect of football which are generally part of organised football. These are things such as the stadia built for football, the leagues themselves and even the governing bodies of the sport which are part of the wider superstructure of the sport. These two parts of football merge together to create a sport which is easy to pick up and play in the park, but complex enough so that on a more organised scale a fascinating narrative is told. This allows the sport to be loved the world over, and the reason why it is so fascinating philosophically.
Thanks very much for reading. Look out for my next post on the Philosophy of Football: The Meaning of Football.

[1] Descartes, René (2000). Meditations. London: Penguin Books. p10
[2] Wertz, SK (2002). ‘Is Sport Unique? A Question of Definability’. In: Holowchak, M Andrew Philosophy of Sport: Critical Readings, Crucial Issues. New Jersey: Pearson Education. pp86-95. p86


  1. I liked the post and have often asked myself whether or not football is an intrinsically enjoyable activity? I think I would have to admit that it isn't - I think it's indissolubly bound to the cultural and social factors in the context of which we are introduced to it. However, that doesn't stop me arguing for its simplicity as the thing that makes it preferable to - say - rugby.

    In my twenties, I was forever met with the dilemma of whether to play or watch football on a Saturday - my Dad said to me that I would have plenty of time to watch after I could no longer play so I should concentrate on what you call GameFootball, as you call it, at the expense of SportFootball. Now, I half regret that as being kicked up in the air and bawled at in suburban leagues didn't equate to an idyll.

  2. I'd have to agree that it isn't an intrinsically enjoyable activity, but I think it is possible to understand why people like it even if you've only just come across it. The avatar in the peice above is puzzled at first but eventually begins to understand why people enjoy it.

    I'm not too sure about the simplicity argument. Perhaps you are right, but it might have a bit more to do with the earlier professionalisation of the game than rugby. It became a business long before rugby really did, hence why it would be more widespread. Simplicity may well be the reason for the greater uptake in football rather than rugby though.

    As for your second point, I don't think that playing in a suburban league would be GameFootball. It is part of a superstructure so could be said to be part of SportFootball. Might explain why you didn't like it as much? Not the casual kick-about in the park you were really looking for?

  3. I see your point - agree that under this criterion, that constitutes SportFootball.

    Perhaps rugby started of as actually more simple when William Webb Ellis picked up that ball at the eponymous school - but its rulemakers have complicated it rather.

  4. One enjoyable factor in GameFootball is that the skills needed are no particular physical ones, the main emphasis being able to understand the structure and flow of the game.

    In other football variations (we refer here mostly to handegg, the American football version) physique is very important, so much that its elite players are easily distinguisable from normal people by their enormous size, whilst football players generally are not (as long as you don't recognize their face).

    Similar does go for basketball, volleyball and handball where the height curve is out of proportion to the heigh curve of society in general, being greatly skewed to tall people.

    This ability of GameFootball to cater to every talent and every size is in our mind the greatest beauty. Here we can introduce the stereotypes of the slow but towering centre-back/striker, the nippy full-backs, the physically limited but mentally able central midfields and so on. They give us a glimpse of how incredibly varied skill sets you can bring to GameFootball and prosper, despite every other limitation you might have.

  5. Thanks for commenting World Football Foundation. You raise a very good point there. Perhaps it helps explain its popularity to some extent. Although, another question is raised; a sport like snooker or darts could be said to be available to anyone, yet why isn't it as popular? Personally I would be tempted to put it down to the greater promotion of football across the world, but you could probably argue against that.

    A varied skill set is, as you've pointed out, another key aspect of football. Maybe this is the reason why it's more popular? That synergy between people that creates something greater than the sum of its parts; the team.

    I think both of the points above are reasonable. Another question is raised however, which is slightly implied by your points, although not explictly stated; is a position part of GameFootball or SportFootball? A position has all the hallmarks of a superstructure which has been imposed on the game, but is actually a vital part of the game itself. I think this is a question which will need further explaination in another blog sometime.

  6. (Second try, previous lengthy reply foiled by grabby hands of a 1 year old hitting a back button...).

    We disagree strongly on the availability of snooker and darts to be comparable to availability of football. You require specialized equipment to play them, whilst for football any size of a spherical light object suffices (clothes-bundle, tape bundle, mini-football, proper size football etc).

    Snooker halls and dart pubs are probably ubiquitous in your vicinity but that is an aberration in the world. Another point is the number of participants, a game of 12 people playing snooker requires 6 on each cue, or 6 different pool tables, thereby splitting the group. Similar goes for darts, having taken part in darts at work it is very boring to wait for your turn in a group of 6, nevermind more.

    Team sports have an advantage here at being able to actively employ many people together and forming the synergy. Even if there is just one ball you are all taking part in the game.

    For football you don't need cues, uniform sized balls, correctly weighed darts, an upright structure with a target. A ball, no matter how primitive or big is the only requirement. Then participants agree upon the structure of the playing field, if the hedge is one endline or sideline and how to denote the goal posts, be it clothes laid down, pebbles or other. The field does not need to be flat, although it is preferable.

    Only rugby variations are comparable, with hockey perhaps following. Basketball requires targets and hard even surface. Volleyball a net or other obstruction between the teams. Handball could work as long as the dribble rules are loosened. Baseball requires sticks but more importantly also a far larger field than any football match can squeeze into. Space is also another hinderment for cricket we would guess (alien sport to us despite reading all the works of PG Wodehouse).

    As for positions then they are clearly a superstructure within SportFootball, since all ball sports look for a passer (Xavi, John Stockton), defender (Dikembe Mutombo, Neil Ruddock), scorer (Ronaldo, Jordan) and so on. The exact role of each position and their interchange is then a fine grained version of the superstructure in each sport.

    Enjoyable discussion!

  7. Minus the "can squeeze into", rewording gone wrong!

  8. Little ones in bed so a few more points. The romantized tales of people playing kickabout between the trenches at christmas in World War I, the tales of pick up games with street kids in Nairobi, playing with rolled up roots in the Kalahari etc are endless. They become cliches but in there we find the truth of what the vital component is, people that want to play and the agreement they get to as to what is the ball (as before, old fashion pigs bladder, rolled up duck-tape, etc) and what is the boundary of the playing field, if the walls of the nearby houses are out-of-bounds or if they use a futsal variation where the walls are part of the game.

    This sheer simplicity is the reason behind the popularity, that a simple agreement between the participants is sufficient and the numbers that can take part (20 kids on each side in a favella) to create that synergy.

    Darts and snooker, with all due respect, don't exist on the same plane, the required equipment, the locations where the equipment is and of course a vital factor, the age limits at said locations.

  9. Some good points there, I'll get straight to answering them.

    The point about the availability of football over darts or snooker or whatever is an interesting one. I don't think that it is because football is intrinsically more enjoyable than any other sport, but because it is better promoted. Yes it is simple and easy to pick up, but other sports are too.

    Cricket is a fine example. You don't actually need a wicket, 22 players and so on, to play. I remember playing at school with a bin for a wicket, a tennis ball instead of a cricket ball, a fence on one side and a load of bushes on the other. It was in effect a fustal version of cricket, much like how football isn't always played on a pitch with proper goals etc.

    You're examples of Nairobi and so on apply to cricket also. Recently I read something about youth development in Sri Lanka. It suggested that these fustal versions of the game, where people play in cities or beaches or whatever lend themselves to the development of the player. This is in a very similar way to the favella in Brazil, which has been said to breed talent and dribbling skills. Malinga is a fine example of this. His sling style bowling action comes from the beaches as it is the only way to keep the pace in the ball on the sandy surface. A normal action wouldn't work.

    Simplicity, therefore, cannot be said to be the only reason behind its popularity. Of course, it will be one of the reasons, but it is not unique to football.

    As for position being a superstructure, it could be said that whenever your team doesn't have the ball you're defending. No matter if you're up front or whatever. Position might not mean right-back, but the general state in which the team finds itself. I'm unsure about this point. It has quite a few problems!