The Unexamined Game: Toward a philosophy of football


On the sixth day of the World Cup, Stanley Cavell died. The news filtered into the world slowly, without the fanfare that had greeted reports of, say, Philip Roth’s death a month earlier. The obituaries, when they arrived, described Cavell as a philosopher who wrote about film, literature, art — not, in other words, the sorts of subjects professional philosophers typically devote much attention to.

It was tempting to read into these descriptions — or perhaps it wasn’t the descriptions themselves that tempted me, but the fact the obituaries in which they appeared numbered so few — a hint of disdain, as if Cavell’s interest in popular culture had turned him into a sort of novelty act, which turning of course involved a dismissal (if not an outright rejection) of one of the central tenets of his philosophical project; namely, that popular culture is a topic worthy of deep thought, or at least just as worthy as anything else.

Why shouldn’t a philosopher care about the same things as a lawyer, a butcher, an athlete? Perhaps for fear of a lukewarm obituary in the New York Times.

Cavell’s reason for devoting attention to these subjects was simple enough. “It was not a question of why I was interested in film,” he said, “but a question of, since everybody is interested in film, throughout the world, why don’t philosophers write about it?”

Cavell wasn’t interested in football, as far as I know, but in those early, heady days of the World Cup, so thick with matches time is measured in their highlights, it was very difficult (for me at least, in my shock and sadness, feeling as if such a great mind shouldn’t exit the world without so much as one tenuous connection made in his honor) not to apply his question to the beautiful game. Since everybody is interested in football, throughout the world, why don’t philosophers write about it?

Some have. Sort of. Albert Camus said, “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” Antonio Gramsci said, “Football is a model of individualistic society. It demands initiative, competition and conflict. But it is regulated by the unwritten rule of fair play.” Jean Baudrillard said, “Power is only too happy to make football bear a facile responsibility, even to take upon itself the diabolical responsibility for stupefying the masses.”

But these, and similar, one-liners — whose value anyway seems to extend, probably like that of all such one-liners, only about as far as the listener’s reverence for the person who said them — are unsatisfying: brief, superficial, not interested in thinking through any of their own implications. And besides, even if there were more to them, they’d probably be better described as sociology than philosophy.

In this way, they anticipate the serious football writing that has become so popular in the Premier League era. Football, newly respectable, increasingly fashionable, is above all a social-historical phenomenon that needs explaining. I’m thinking here, in particular, of the work of writers like David Goldblatt and David Winner — fascinating, insightful, enjoyable to read, but not (so it could not be!) philosophy.

Last year marked the release of the first and only book I know of that presents something that might reasonably be described as a philosophy of football, Simon Critchley’s What We Think About When We Think About Football. Even Critchley, however, the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City, seems primarily interested in football’s place in the world, and our experience of it.

As he writes in the very first paragraph of the book (in a chapter titled, tellingly, “Socialism”), “Football is about so many things, so many complex, contradictory and conflicting things: memory, history, place, social class, gender in all its troubled variations … family identity, tribal identity, national identity, the nature of groups, both groups of players and groups of fans, and the often violent but sometimes pacific and quietly admiring relation between our own group and other groups.” So many things, and none of them, apparently, the sport itself.

“Football is a tactical game, obviously,” Critchley concedes in paragraph two. But it seems even tactics are really something else: “The way a football team tries to control space has obvious analogies with the policing of space or the militarization of space, whether in terms of attack or retreat, occupation or siege.”

Football, then, as so often seems to be the case when people try to think seriously about it, becomes merely a window or a mirror to, or a distillation of, something altogether different.

I don’t doubt Critchley’s book is a book of philosophy. Indeed, to take Cavell seriously is among other things to acknowledge that philosophy takes a great many forms, and that to reject certain lines of inquiry as somehow unphilosophical is almost always to miss the point.

What I doubt is that it offers a philosophy specifically of football — that is, what happens inside the lines of the pitch over 90 minutes — as opposed to some philosophizing in the general vicinity of football, or some philosophizing about people that happen to watch football. (Critchley does emphasize various ways in which football is unique among sports — it is, for example, a collective activity of a very particular sort — but these are only intermittently relevant to his overall argument).

What, then, would a philosophy of football look like? What questions would it ask? What sorts of answers would it provide?


It’s worth pointing out here — as Cavell, another one of whose interests was ordinary language philosophy, the mining of our everyday use of words for philosophical insight, surely would have done — pointing out that the word philosophy means something quite different in the English football vernacular than it does in the world of academic philosophy, something at once both less pretentious and more, let’s say, “middle manager,” something like “approach” or “style,” but with grander connotations than either of those words. Pep Guardiola isn’t a philosopher, but he has a philosophy, a belief in a way of playing not only on which he has built his career, but also through which he derives value from the game.

It’s a loaded word, too, philosophy, often spoken, particularly in England, with a sort of sneering contempt, as if the very suggestion football could exist for any reason other than to be won or lost is worthy of ridicule. Thinking is one of the game’s cardinal sins, and “philosopher” is as convenient a slur as any to direct at those who engage in it. And so football is full of talk about philosophy, philosophies, and yet no actual philosophy.

The closest thing we have is probably to be found in tactics writing, which provides us, when it’s done well, with something like a conceptual framework to understand the game. Unlike philosophy, however, tactical analysis is primarily descriptive — it tells us, for example, that in the second half of England’s World Cup semifinal against Croatia, Croatia’s full-backs pushed much higher up the pitch than they did in the first, dragging Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard out wide and stifling England’s counter-attack.

What it doesn’t do, what it isn’t designed to do, is talk about why these things happen. Or rather, it talks about why these things happen in terms of other, similar things. Every tactical detail is a response to, is explained by, some other tactical detail. Why did Croatia push their full-backs so high? To pin back England’s wing-backs, who had themselves been pinning back Croatia’s full-backs.

There seems to be a sort of explanatory regress taking place here. One player moves back because another moves forward because another moves back because another moves forward, and on and on and on. Often, of course, the only difference between a full-back being pinned back and not is his own willingness to take risks in attack, but tactical analysis tends (for good reason) not to talk about things like bravery and fear, much less intention and meaning. If we wish to step outside the regress, these subjects may be unavoidable.

Illustration by J.O. Applegate. Click on the image for a closer look.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate. Click on the image for a closer look. /

In The Claim of Reason, Cavell says that he wishes “to understand philosophy not as a set of problems, but as a set of texts.” When I learned of his death, and then again when I started writing this piece, really any time I think about Cavell at all, this is the passage I’m drawn to, and not only, I hope, because it appears in the second paragraph of a 500-page book.

Problems vs. texts. This is a difficult distinction to parse, as Cavell himself acknowledges, not least because “not all texts are philosophical ones, but only those that precisely contain problems of a certain sort!” What is at issue, though, very broadly speaking, is language, the challenge of communicating ideas, or anyway certain kinds of ideas.

In reference to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, for example, Cavell suggests “its teaching is essentially something written … some things essential to its teaching cannot be spoken. This may mean that some things he says have lost, or have yet to find, the human circle in which they can usefully be said.”

I’m drawn to this idea in that peculiar way I suspect a person can only be drawn to ideas they don’t understand, and yet at the same time feel they’re just about to grasp, a word trapped indefinitely on the tip of their tongue. Which is probably an appropriate reaction, by which I mean it’s one that might vaguely, suggestively be described as Wittgensteinian.

Anyway, what does this have to do with football? A valid question, the answer to which I fear is nothing. But we’ve made it this far, so why not let’s stretch this connection a little more tenuously, find out whether this wasn’t an entirely wasted trip.

What I want to say is something like that I wish to understand (or to understand what it would mean to understand) football not as a set of winners and losers, but as a set of matches. It’s not immediately obvious what that means, let alone whether it’s possible.

After all, everything that happens in a football match happens in the context of victory and defeat. I mean this in both the trivial way that when, say, one player tackles another, he does so because he’s trying to prevent him from scoring and the deeper way that very nearly everything we have to say about the sport — from “that team is good” to “nice pass” to “the game is getting stretched” — rests on, makes sense only if we’re operating under, the implicit assumption its participants are trying to win. (Consider, for example, how strange it feels to try to seriously analyze a preseason friendly, or a charity match; it’s as though our words have nothing to latch onto, have been in some way defanged, shorn of their natural urgency.)

But there are also moments that stand up on their own, that are enjoyable, meaningful, important outside the context of winning and losing, an excellent touch or pass or piece of skill. And there are other, more interesting, extended moments when a player appears to become unmoored from the game in which he’s playing, and decides (or perhaps is simply overcome with the urge) to have some fun. This may explain why so many people seem to be so much more fond of Ronaldinho than, say, Kaka; he won a lot, but winning always felt somewhere beside the point, which was simply the expression of his own joy.

Which is just to say, unlike any other sport I know of, football is consumed by the tension between how you play and whether or not you win. My first instinct, then, is to say that to understand football as a set of matches is in some significant part to outline the implications of this tension, not so much to analyze the sport as to criticize it.

Analysis vs. criticism. This distinction, too, requires further clarification.

There is a sense in much football writing these days, or maybe it’s just that there is so much football writing these days, that the sport exists primarily to prop up our analysis of it, that it was invented merely as the curricular necessary to give meaning to various, more interesting extra-curriculars: the transfer market, the business of the game more generally, the history and sociology of the game, even a lot of tactical and statistical analysis, which, when it’s done badly, makes the sport itself feel like little more than an excuse for the author to show off how much more than you they know about it (look, a regista!). The cottage, it often feels like, has outgrown the industry.

Some of this, no doubt, comes from a desire to understand this thing we devote so much time to watching. And is that not a perfectly philosophical undertaking?

In all of this, however, the game itself becomes secondary, a mere conduit for some grander human drama. This drama may very well be compelling — indeed, it is quite evidently compelling — but it isn’t football.

And so where analysis, as I have used that word here, refers very broadly to that set of texts that seek to place the game in the context of some larger conversation — about business or society or strategy or politics or anything else — criticism, as I will use that word here, aims to approach the sport own its own terms, deliberately to shed it of some of this context, to strip it bare, and see what’s left.


Imagine watching a movie in which every fifth scene, say, or every 10th line, or every third character were written by a person selected at random who had no knowledge of the original plot, and the director had been forced to respond accordingly. Or imagine reading a book written by two writers at once, racing to finish each other’s sentences, to establish some authority over the resulting mishmash. How would we begin to talk about such work? Intention, meaning would become even foggier concepts than they already are.

This, it seems to me, is something like what we’re doing when we talk about football matches, except instead of two or three authors there are 24 (plus substitutes). We can discuss tactical plans all we want, but no matter how thorough the manager, there’s a point at which he must cede control to his players, and then another point at which he must respond to the other manager’s plan, the successful implementation of which has already been placed at the feet of his players. The text, it seems, just is its interpretation.

And so it’s no surprise tactical analysis can yield different, often contradictory accounts of the same game. Given the main objective of this kind of analysis is to describe what happens on the pitch, how the position of certain players affects the position of certain other players, this amounts to saying that two people can watch the very same match and see very different ones. As this suggests, there is a kind of mediation that takes place when we attempt to talk about what happens on a football pitch, a translation from activity to words. Something, inevitably, is lost.

That in itself feels like a point worthy of some deeper critical inquiry. What is it about football that so seamlessly transforms matters of fact into matters of subjective analysis? I’m not going to offer a full answer to that question, but presumably it has something to do with the fact people are playing it (and talking about it).

Which recalls another thing Cavell has to say on the matter of problems and texts. About Beethoven, he writes, “I said that at some point in Beethoven’s work you can no longer relate what you hear to a process of improvisation. Here I should like to add the thought that at that point music, such music, must be written.” Similarly (conversely?), when reading or talking or writing about football, at some point you can no longer relate the words to the activity. At that point, the game must be played.

If this is right, it implies a certain kind of gap between the things we — not only fans and pundits, but also players and, perhaps most interestingly, managers — a gap between the things we have to say, are capable of saying, about football and the actual activity of football itself. Criticism exists somewhere in this gap; it might even aspire to bridge the gap.

It certainly leads us in the direction of some strange conclusions, like that the managers we tend to think of as the most artistic, like Arsene Wenger, fall much further short than the ones we think of as the least artistic, like Jose Mourinho, much further short of that most elusive artistic mecca: absolute control.

Like the writer or the painter or the philosopher, the challenge facing the football manager is how to close the gap between the picture in his head and its realization in the external world; how to explain what it means to understand philosophy as a set of texts rather than a set of problems, how to make Mesut Ozil track back.

Or maybe this has it wrong. Maybe by giving his players more freedom, and therefore admitting the limits of his own power, Wenger is in some way retaking or, better yet, redistributing control. He understands that football has far more in common with Charlie Parker than Beethoven. Mourinho, meanwhile, by adapting his approach as the occasion demands, admits he has no vision at all, and therefore no artistry to realize. There is only winning.

Regardless, what is at issue isn’t how or why a given team won or lost, but the nature of the activity as such — the relationship between team and individual, the differences in style between different players (which can only very occasionally be satisfyingly explained by the differences in their respective skill sets; the difference, to return to that earlier example, between Ronaldinho and Kaka isn’t merely a difference in talent, it’s a difference in imagination), the unique improvisational process in which a football match consists.

It’s possible we never think seriously about these questions because they’re bad questions (in fact, they’re not questions at all, but I hope it’s clear enough how they might be rephrased as questions). Although, conveniently for me (and an extraordinarily prescient piece of academic ass-covering on the part of the ancient Greeks), the question with which philosophy is most fundamentally concerned is why it exists at all. And so if these questions happen to be bad, we can simply trade them out until we settle on some good ones.

But I, at least, believe these questions are good questions, or certainly interesting ones, and I would suggest the main reason we spend so little time thinking about them is that, such is the unrelenting nature of the football calendar, we spend little time thinking about anything at all. The next game is always too soon to give us the space we need to fully process the last one. The shape and texture of one season is quickly altered by that of the next.

One effect of this is a sort of elimination of any discrete unit for criticism. To talk with any insight about a match demands talking about the one before it, the one after and probably a few more besides. If there is a trick to the sort of criticism I have tried to describe here, then, it is in separating the activity of a football match from its implications on a football team or a football season or a football culture or a football history. It doesn’t seek to explain what happened, or even why it happened, but to account for the remarkable variety of ways it is capable of happening, and, perhaps above all, the limits of our ability to speak meaningfully about any of it.


Cavell once described philosophy as the “willingness to think not about something other than what ordinary human beings think about, but rather to learn to think undistractedly about things that ordinary human beings cannot help thinking about.”

I have tried to outline here, roughly, what it might look like to think undistractedly about certain things football fans can’t help thinking about: winning and losing, entertainment, Wittgenstein, tactics. My fear now is that to think undistractedly about anything, however ordinary, is inevitably to transform it into something no normal person would ever care about.