Love it or loathe it you cannot escape football, a game that is embedded in nearly every culture across the globe. Its fans range from passionate to fanatic and its recent absence from Lockdown life has been felt keenly from the boardroom to the living room. Football is an empire with a rich history, culture and business. No one can say it’s just a game, it’s simply too far-reaching. But is football an art?
There are almost as many definitions of what constitutes art, as there are sunflower seeds in an Ai Wei Wei exhibit. One could wax lyrical about Plato’s bitchier definition of art as representation, “it’s rather derivative darling” or Immanuel Kant’s stuffier ideas that art is only art when it has the correct form. However, a more general and simpler consensus is that art is a skilled and creative form of communication to express beauty, concepts and/or emotions.
While some consider it passé, football is still referred to as The Beautiful Game; a term attributed to the Brazilian legend Pele but was actually borrowed from his teammate Waldyr Pereira (“Didi”). After Brazil won two consecutive world cups in 1958 and 1962, Didi named the team’s expressive style of play “Jogo Bonito” which translates as play beautifully. This philosophy emphasized the fun, employing individual skills and creativity to score “beautiful” goals.
However, if we are going to get pernickety the phrase existed long before Pele or Didi and was used in relation to many other sports including Cricket and Lacrosse.
Ask any die-hard fans before they’ve drowned their little grey cells in post-match beer and they will provide many convincing reasons why the moniker The Beautiful Game belongs to football. Beauty is conceptual as well as aesthetic and fans believe football is mesmerising to watch, emotionally evocative and shares a communal experience regardless of where you’re from. Add its role in the socio-economic world from its affiliation to class and community to the controversies surrounding capitalist premierships and this mere game both represents society Plato style and as a communication of ideals. All of which satisfy most definitions of art, indeed it’s the hat trick of art definitions.
The aesthetic beauty of football is evident. Many of the best matches are as tightly choreographed as a Sadler Wells ballet with detailed formations played out by the teams’ coordinated colour movement that flow across a vibrant green stage. Not to mention the talented and visually stunning footwork shown by the Nureyevs of the sporting world such as Lionel Messi. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps the eye of each beholder too decides art.
There are few artists who do not instinctively follow the rule of thirds when composing a piece. This rule divides a composition into three, either vertically or horizontally. The eye instinctively is drawn to the meeting points of these lines and that is where an artist or photographer places their focal points. If you look at famous matches it is fascinating to see they often follow the same rule of thirds, whether by coincidence or deliberately. The most creative and inventive players are positioned in those intersections as mid-fielders and therefore automatically attract the eye of the spectators. These are the players charged with breaking the defence, which requires ingenuity and lateral thinking. Interestingly, the human eye shies away from balance; it is dysfunction and disorder that gets the most attention. It was those who changed the rules, sparking new movements who are considered truly great such as Cezanne and cubism.
Football managers are responsible for the composition of a game and the most successful are the most creative. It is innovative and groundbreaking strategies that earn managers a place in the exclusive hall of fame. Josep “Pep” Guardiola Sala, a former player, is the manager of English Premier League’s Manchester City. Guardiola is considered to be a brilliant tactician and innovator, devising intricate game plans that have brought home spectacular wins for every team he has managed. Yet he is always striving for more, believing that the way his team plays is more important than the number of goals scored. He believes football must constantly evolve and is known for making bold new moves with each season despite having already created winning strategies. Art too strives to evolve, to change and innovate. The difference, some would argue lies in the purpose of these evolutions: Football aims to win while art seeks to communicate concepts and emotion. However, football has become a corporate giant that must continue to entertain making performance just as, and perhaps more, important than winning.
If football can be characterised as performance art then it needs music. Luckily the sport has been inundated with musical tributes from both fans and established musicians. All this inspired creativity suggests that football actually embodies the role of muse rather than being a work of art. In fact football may be the most inspiring and sought after muse of all time inspiring composers, artists, authors, poets and more. These include Andy Warhol’s 1975 portrait of Pele, Placido Domingo’s recording of Real Madrid’s official anthem Himno del Centenario and Robert Frost who said: “Poetry is play. I’d even rather have you think of it as a sport. For instance, like football.”
One need only witness the passion and emotional outpouring at British matches; a population famously associated with stiff upper lips and unamused monarchs, to see how emotion and football are completely inseparable. It’s generally agreed that football cannot exist without its crowds, evidenced by the need to pipe in artificial audience noise during the isolated matches held in lockdown. Supporters often are passionate lifelong devotees, cheering their team from inside the womb and learning a truly international language that connects them to every other football fan in every corner of the world. Parents and children may never cross generational divides but the weekend match is a weekly suspension of hostilities – the WW1 Christmas truce match held between German and English soldiers in 1914 being the pinnacle of such ideals.
Of course, art does not just express the beautiful, it exposes underbellies, hidden truths, fears and the plain ugly. Anyone raised in Glasgow will know of the violence between Rangers and Celtic fans, an ongoing legacy of hatred between the Protestants and Catholics. A conflict mirrored between many football teams for every kind of religious, political and class divide. The relationship between football and nationalism is well established. Hitler, Mussolini and Franco all exploited the sport to further their fascist agendas. Indeed many see the brutal history of Franco’s management of Real Madrid and its bitter rivalry with Barcelona, who are associated with Catalan independence, as the history of Spain.
Years later, the ferocious far-right skinhead movement was born out of working-class displacement and the erosion of community football was a key part. Lowry’s depictions of football and its fans in the streets of Salford reflect the importance of local football in working-class communities. Most football grounds were built in urban working-class locations. However, as football became big business and games became more expensive, these traditional supporters were pushed out of clubs. Football had been an escape from the harsh realities of daily life and one of the few opportunities to feel a sense of victory often with local players scoring winning goals. The game’s blue-collar had been bleached white. Frustrated, demoralised and excluded by nearly all of society, skinheads violently erupted from the stadiums to the streets. Football is big business with all the negative connotations that brings. The ongoing capitalism of the sport has exposed and exacerbated many of society’s ills and is yet another way in which football seems to be a microcosm of our lives.
So does this sport fulfil Plato’s definition of representation? Well, it certainly represents global misogyny and patriarchy but with women largely absent, it rather makes a mockery of the word representation not to mention all the other marginalised and invisible groups in society. Nevertheless, we know art is so much more so there cannot be a definitive answer when asked if football is art. To misquote the popular adage about fools: football is art to some of the people all of the time and it’s art to all of the people some of the time. There are standout moments that become art such as one of Guardiola’s perfectly executed game plans, or breath-taking spontaneous footwork by players like Thierry Henry and Christiano Ronaldo.
The games ability to evoke passion and express the politics of its time and place clearly is a form of expression but not every game is a work of art or the inspiration for creativity. Sometimes the game is just a game and that should be celebrated too.
Copyright by Sonia D. Picker