It’s a curious fact, but the best writer on football/soccer is an American: Brian Phillips. Perhaps it something to do with the fact that in Europe football is such a plebeian game. The new England manager they tell us is “a broadsheet man in a tabloid world,” and they are at least right that the world of football is tabloid. In America on the other hand the sort of people who like soccer tend to be europhile intellectuals. But then again there are intellectual football writers in Europe as well – Jonathan Wilson, various people at the Guardian etc. – but still the way they approach the game is formed by its place in their culture. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that Americans have an apologetic imperative – they live in a culture which considers soccer rather a bore compared to other sports. This forces them to demonstrate football’s superiority to other sports, which leads to a more philosophical account of its essence.
In a previous post I discussed Brian Phillip’s argument that football is the most beautiful sport from its suitability to produce the sort of moments described by David Foster Wallace in his Federer essay as reconciling us with having a body. In a brilliant essay for Grantland Phillip’s gives an even better argument. He begins with the “fact” of soccer’s boringness. It is so brilliant that it is worth quoting at length:
There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.
But — and here’s the obvious answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. The ball sproings up in the air … and comes down in just such a way that Dennis Bergkamp can pull off a reverse-pirouette flick that spins the ball around the defender and back into his own path … or Thierry Henry can three-touch a 40-yard pass in the air before lining it up and scoring a weak-foot roundhouse … or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can stutter-fake his way through an entire defense. In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there’s something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.
There is something profoundly Augustinian about Phillips’s argument here. The unique thrill of beautiful plays in football is like the thrill of underserved grace: it beauty is heightened by its contrast to the surrounding chaos. Recall Augustine’s point in Civitate Dei XI,18:
For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing, the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses.
In book XXI Augustine deepens his account, showing that the reason why God permits such antithesis is in fact to show the character of salvation as mercy:
The more enjoyment man found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil. Hence the whole mass of the human race is condemned; for he who at first gave entrance to sin has been punished with all his posterity who were in him as in a root, so that no one is exempt from this just and due punishment, unless delivered by mercy and undeserved grace; and the human race is so apportioned that in some is displayed the efficacy of merciful grace, in the rest the efficacy of just retribution. For both could not be displayed in all; for if all had remained under the punishment of just condemnation, there would have been seen in no one the mercy of redeeming grace. And, on the other hand, if all had been transferred from darkness to light, the severity of retribution would have been manifested in none. But many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it, in order that it may thus be shown what was due to all. And had it been inflicted on all, no one could justly have found fault with the justice of Him who takes vengeance; whereas, in the deliverance of so many from that just award, there is cause to render the most cordial thanks to the gratuitous bounty of Him who delivers.
Augustine’s teaching that more are lost than are saved, a teaching that many find so improbable, is based here on his aesthetics: only thus can the true nature of salvation as mercy appear; only thus can the full wonder of grace be manifested.