Aristotle the goalkeeper

Illustration : Nelly Damas for Foliosophy

Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.

Gary Lineker, English striker, after the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup that the Deutsche Fußballnationalmannschaft won on penalties.

If we are to insist that philosophy can tackle any subject, every now and then it has to be put to the test, a sort of control check if you will, to prove the soundness of its concepts, similar to testing the resistance of materials. Such occasions should be taken seriously, thus our duty to choose a topic that appears lightyears away, something that seems to share not a single point of intersection with philosophy.

Like football… soccer… or whatever you prefer to call it.

I somewhat artificially join the ranks of die-hard fans, like many other viewers, once every four years when the World Cup transmutes the sport into a planetary tragedy. The stakes of a ball shot into the net or off the post are such that they ignite the streets, press and social media like no other sport could. So, I suppose it would be underhanded to purport that football consists of people chasing a ball (a rather inglorious occupation) while spectators watch them run (no comment).

Aristotle’s in the goal

At times when football championships outshine all other news headlines, what’s most remarkable is the sport’s dramatic component, so much more emblematic than in any other sport where players go face to face.

Drama is rooted in ancient Greek, meaning action with consequences. The term was largely given its theoretical form by ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 BC in his work Poetics. His works served to set the stage for nearly all known sciences, placing him among the top 5 founding thinkers of our Western World. Former winger for RC Lens Aristote Madiani, Santander’s defensive midfielder Aristote Nkaka and thousands of others owe the name they bear to Aristotle the illustrious mind who shed so much light on our human ways.

The notion of drama fits football to a T, a performance above all else with its rules (football tallies seventeen laws, as everyone knows or not), its actors and its staging. Obviously — unless a game is rigged — players aren’t actors with script in hand. A match is more like improv. They count on their imagination and ingenuity to react to the action and various tactics (usually four) chosen by the coach. The combination of constraints (laws, assigned roles — back, center-forward, etc.) and the unplanned, that underpins the direction the game will take, is enough to make football a tragic show. Show because we don’t play, but we watch and experience. And the tragedy’s not for pretend.

When players go full-out at a pace that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, tragedy is just about everywhere. When the game they deliver is marked by moments of skilled mastery and quick victories rewarding clever moves and brave exploits. The tragedy is in the thrilling victories that result from successful passes, while spelling disaster for the opposing team.

Fear, pity and catharsis

Talented English striker Gary Lineker, to whom we owe the opening quote of this article, recapped the agonizing final minutes of a 1990 World Cup match against the Deutschefussballnational Mannsschaft with humor-tainted phlegm. Germany posted the first goal in the 60th minute of play. Lineker evened up the score in the 80th. Ending on a 1–1 tied score in an elimination round, the match moved on to penalties, the brutal shootout process in which players — big names steeped in ancient valor and with high expectations –have a single chance, one on one against the opposing goal, to muster the quintessence of endless hours of practice into the tips of their Nike Mercurial or Adidas Predator to entrance the ball and fool the keeper. I’d imagine his aloneness in the nets leading up to a penalty shot is second to none, if not that of the kicker — all eyes on him and no one able to help. The shootout begins, both teams scoring in the first round, the second, the third… England’s fans triumphantly rejoicing at each British goal while unease mounts among German supporters, the latter loudly sighing relief every time their team levels the score. It was England’s Stuart Pearce who stepped up for the 4th round, his shot expertly (for German fans), catastrophically (for English fans) saved by Mannschaft goalkeeper Bodo Illgner for the win. Such a rapid sequence of intense contrasting emotions doesn’t exist in our daily lives. Yet they’re feelings we know from real-life, and our guts and our souls tell us the on-screen equivalents are a step below. Aristotle, great theorist of catharsis, the purgation of soul through intense emotions, meant just that in saying:

“Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude (…) through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (1449b/2767)

The fandom of crime series and thrillers are well acquainted with the sequence of trepidation (terror) and relief (triumph). Yet while TV series and ancient tragedies aim to imitate actions to arouse emotions, football in fact creates the conditions for true emotions, very real tragic emotions. Never in a match, big or small, do we have the tranquil certainty that the hero will prevail at the end. That uncertainty is the very essence of the game.

The components of a Tragedy and the ingredients of a Good Game

1. An arrangement of events, or a lifetime in two half-times

The interest people take in many matches has something to do with the stars in their lineup. I do believe one thing outweighs that appeal, and that is what the make-up of the team as a whole promises in terms of action: “For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life (…)” (1449b/2768). How the game builds, how players work as one, anticipate the next move, how they suddenly make use of an empty space (or create one) for a game-changing move, how luck rewards a team’s efforts and ingenuity, or sometimes cruelly shoots them back down are examples of what Aristotle called the arrangement of parts.

What’s most impressive about football, being a team sport, is clearly what happens at team level. Team intelligence can’t be described as collective, but rather connected intelligences that amount to so much more than the sum of each one. The game this generates makes the implausible possible, that uncanny goal that in the end has a perfect explanation. Why is it we so enjoy watching slow motion replays over and over again? Because we want another taste of those moments where the inconceivable comes true. Teamwork, the coherence of plays and the cohesion of players lay the fascinating foundation of a Good Game: without necessarily knowing the word, we are all familiar with the phenomenon of emergent properties of a system in which the properties of each individual element cannot explain how the joining of those elements could yield the performance it yields. For clarity’s sake and to give an illustrative example, hydrogen, a key compound of the sun, is a highly flammable element. Oxygen too has the known property of fueling blazes. Yet miraculously, the two combined in a certain manner extinguish fire. Water (H2O) thus has an emergent property that neither hydrogen nor oxygen possess on their own. What’s so fascinating in football, a collective sport, so perceptible in a game with players intensely determined, driven by the win, is the fact that a given goal could never have been scored by a sole player, not even one of the stars, had the combination of artful and patient passes not have collectively built into the final marking event, a shift in nature: the ruthless and triumphant swell of the net, like a roaring animal.

2. Duration: Tragedies are regulated by the water-clock

Arranging the parts in itself would not suffice if the length of a match was not known in advance. “The performance would have been regulated by the water-clock” (1450b/2770), as Aristotle so nicely put it, which today would translate into “the game is a race against the clock”. The limited time heightens the gage, raises the stakes and makes a victory all the sweeter. “We may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad” (1450b/2770). “How long til the end of the half-time? They’ll never make it” or “sure, a miracle’s still possible, a stroke of luck, a goal in the final 15 seconds, it’s happened before…’

3. A turn of events, or how emotion is so much stronger when unexpected

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect.” (1551b/2772)

Who could deny that a game in which the score jumps back an forth : 1–2, 3–2, ending at 3–4 arouses a maximum of alternating contrasted emotions in a 90-minute span, a profusion of ups and downs shifting between joy on the horizon and looming doom?

Spectacular comebacks and falls go down in internet history like great feats of ancient sagas. The French win over England in the EURO 2004 championships in Lisbon is a prime example. With England leading 1–0, a mind-blowing 89th minute goal by Zidane leveled the scores before bringing in the win with a penalty goal. Commentary by the UEFA on a video of the feat posted on YouTube:

Watch the action from a dramatic group stage encounter in Lisbon as two goals in added time by Zinédine Zidane earned France an unlikely win.

There is no doubt in my mind that football has its own Poetics, directing drama and tragedy during the match, then recounting the outstanding actions of our heroes afterward in abidance with the rule of the saga. I don’t know whether philosophy students watch football games during their university years or for the purpose of their studies. Personally and for a great many years, I was oblivious to the fact that Aristotle was a football player, coach and strategist through and through — and more so ahead of his time — bestowing upon us a full and true-to-life illustration of his theses on every championship weekend.

Perhaps his complete works will become bedtime reading for an all-new audience. If I might make a suggestion, right from the kickoff, plan in a hefty amount of overtime to get through the 2923 pages that have made it all the way to us…

Source: Aristotle, Complete Works, sous la direction de Pierre Pellegrin, Flammarion 2014

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