Friday, July 08, 2011

Football and philosophy

Here is an interesting piece on aesthetics and football written by Stephen Mumford in the Times Higher.  (He has a book coming soon; perhaps I should wait until I've read the full account, though given its £75 price-tag I might not manage to.)  He is right to claim that there is something aesthetically pleasing and engaging about sport.  On the other hand, it seems to me that his advocacy of non-partisan viewing is problematic, at least for football.  True, I can and do enjoy watching games between two sides with which I have no particular connection.  The World Cup is great just because I can indulge myself in watching such matches.  On the other hand, it is extremely difficult not to adopt one of the two sides, often for no particular reason, and take on a supporter's role.  It is difficult to remain disengaged sufficiently to have no partisan feelings whatsoever.  Of course, it is possible simply to enjoy watching the skill on display but this is a contest after all and not a performance or improvised display.  The teams display the skills they have in order to win the game.

It is also surely the case that partisanship opens up a deeper and broader range of experiences in watching than disengaged aesthetic appreciation.  Watching sport is often a shared experience, shared often by groups who arrange themselves and display themselves as comrades.  Let's distinguish watching a football match on the sofa and home from sitting or standing among a group of supporters of a given team at the ground itself.  The reason it is worth going to the ground is the intensity of the shared experience.  It does matter, at least for those 90 minutes, whether the goalkeeper makes a save and whether a pass finds its intended recipient.  We choose to make it matter and because we surrender in that way we are able to experience the joy at a goal or the despair at losing.  

So when Mumford writes...
The purist and the partisan can see different games because one regards it aesthetically while the other sees the contest primarily as something to be won. The partisan would far prefer to see their team win a dull game 1-0 than to lose 3-4. And keenly contested tackles that are appreciated by the purist will for the partisan be either a show of superior strength when they win them or outrageous fouls committed by brutes when they lose them.
...I think I would contest the sense of the term 'purist' here.  It is a different perspective, for sure, to watch from a non-partisan viewpoint.  But it is not a purer appreciation of a game of football.  A game my team wins (perhaps because it is not a common occurrence) is not really a dull game.  A 1-0 win can be nervy (if the team scores early I then spend the time desperately willing the ball away from my team's penalty area; I applaud an almighty clearance over the stand if it relieves the pressure) or amazingly uplifting (a late goal, no matter how scrappy).  That seems a pure appreciation of football to me.

1 comment:

Zētētikos said...

I agree with you. This made me think of the recent Champions League final; Barca. played some of the most beautiful football I have ever seen. Now supposing that I were a Real Madrid supporter, I think that I would still be able to appreciate the mastery that Barca. displayed. But the fact that we can distinguish these so-called partisan concerns from the aesthetic aspect of the game is not enough to establish that one is "pure" and the other is not.

In fact, as you suggest toward the end of your post, given that football is a contest between two sides, one might sketch an argument against Mumford like this:

1) Any "pure" appreciation of X must involve every intrinsic aspect of X.
2) Partisanship is an intrinsic aspect of football.
3) Therefore, a "pure" appreciation of football involves partisanship.

The premises are admittedly vague, but as I said, the argument is just meant as a sketch.

The Champions League final also illustrates a way the distinction between partisan and non-partisan is inadequate, I think. I support neither Barca. nor a certain team from northern England that will remain nameless. However, given the team I do support, I take a rather inappropriate amount of pleasure in seeing those devils lose. So I was in fact rooting for Barca even though I had no interest in them in particular winning. I wanted the other team to lose; it didn't really matter who won as long as it wasn't them. In short, there are many reasons to prefer one team to another and often the preference is not really partisanship in the sense of "support".

WV: platoni