No one knows for sure why so many people love football. Football is a mixture of nothing and everything. Most the latter, I will argue.
Trying to make sense of football, I am aware, there is a risk of overintellectualising the game, of ‘reading’ it metaphorically, symbolically or addressing all kinds of psychological, political and philosophical aspects of life. Nevertheless, all these aspects are part of what makes football special. There are, after all, numerous way of how and why football plays a major role in many people’s lives.
As long as I can remember, football has been a part of my life, from playing, to watching it as a neutral spectator or a fan, to selling beer and sausages at a stadium in Denmark’s best league, to being a father of children who play football in Spain.
“Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men [or women] chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win,” the English captain Gary Lineker once said. He was wrong, of course, and he knew it. In 1986, Lineker and England lost in the World Cup quarter-final to Argentina due to Maradona’s two famous goals: one with the help of God, the other godlike. In 1992, Denmark beat German in the European Cup Final.
Perhaps, football is not that simple.
Unlike many other games, it’s played at a particular time and place and for a certain time and the players change clothes before playing.
Time. Place. Clothing.
Football, however, is more than a question of time, place, and clothing. It’s a modern utopia. For instance, the stadium becomes something sacred, a ‘good place’ that is typically more dreamy than real. Quite appropriately, Manchester United calls their stadium ‘The Theatre of Dreams’. Football is a theatre where fans and players share the same utopic dream of experiencing victory and beauty and witnessing history being written. This might be the reason, why the writer Nick Hornby – with a touch of irony – in Fever Pitch (1992) says that “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment, no matter the score.”
Although utopic, football also cultivates a creative will. For example, as a young boy, I had my first encounter with the power of fiction and storytelling through football. Running around, I was not just Finn; I was playing Maradona. Such playful memories are not as trivial as they sound. They exemplify the delicacy of the concept of truth. Is the truth something given, unchangeable, and universal, or is it produced, changeable, and anchored in a particular epoch?
When I played like Maradona, I was him in a very believable yet utopic way—and, for obvious reasons, I was not him. At 13, I was already taller than him. Likeness is not sameness. This playful roleplaying touches on ancient Western philosophy and questions of self-knowledge and self-deception. When do I merely seduce myself, and when do I actually deceive myself? Do I actually learn anything about myself from these roleplaying activities, or are they delusional?
Quite early, I learned from football that the self is not an essence; rather, it’s a process of becoming someone else, incorporating the gestures or movements of others. Call it empathy.
Who would have guessed that empathy is one of the many reasons why I love football?
Empathy is the ability to vicariously experience the feelings of other people: to understand them, sympathise with them. Empathy can help us recognise that we are all connected, in that all living creatures will experience adversity and loss. But empathy also has a darker side. It can be abused or used tactically, as when Doctor Hannibal Lecter in the film The Silence of the Lambs uses his empathetic ability to satisfy his hunger. I remember how Jose Mourinho in 2010, before Inter Milan’s semi-final in the Champions League against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, claimed that Guardiola and his team was obsessed with wining because the final would be played at Santiago Bernabeu – Real Madrid’s stadium. Mourinho used empathy to touch on a weak spot on his opponent: their obsession with their Spanish rivals. Also, Mourinho showed that Guardiola took himself too seriously when he forgot the dreamy element of football.
I believe that people who can’t laugh a little about themselves are seldom very open toward new input and ideas. If you look at the French player Kylian Mbappé he is not only one of the best right now, he is also a player that smiles a lot. For him playing football is joyous, and isn’t joy the best answer to the question of why we do what we do? Joy, not obsession.
Still, some might say that football is just a game, but isn’t life just a variety of games, whether they are educational, familial, political, or erotic? Some games we win, and some we lose, although the majority can’t be labelled within this rigid dualism. Your partner might leave you, you might lose your job, but still, this is not necessarily losing per se. Experiences like these can be the needed kick that changes your life. Other times, the loss teaches you something more valuable than the victory. For instance, the fragility of life, and how our wounds or vulnerability is related to the fact that we are only here, breathing, for a short moment of time. 90 minutes and then some…
In football, any setback – injuries, bad luck – is an invitation to try something else, a new strategy, another tactic. Activate one’s will to create. Sometimes players return from injuries mentally stronger, resembling what Nietzsche famously said: “What doesn’t kill, makes you stronger.”
Football, like life, is an inherently unjust game. As all decent football players and fans know, it’s possible to play significantly better than your opponent and still lose. But you can become a beautiful loser. The concept alone is worth our appreciation.
In comparison, I can’t see how you can run faster and lose in a 100-meter race, unless you’re unlucky and fall. The question of justice gives football an affinity with life like few other sports. Life is beautiful, but not fair!
And yet, this is what makes football ethical: an ongoing quest to will what is happening to us, accept it! Lose with dignity, or simply fight with what is available.
Good football player plays with these adversaries, they know their weakness or flaws. That’s why they play as if they didn’t have any. The Argentinian football player Leo Messi typically tries to pass the helpless defenders in order to end up with a shooting position for his left foot. The defenders know it, the trainer and fans know it; Messi knows that everyone knows it, so what does he do? He just makes it almost impossible to get the ball from him. He overcomes his predictable weakness by doing something unpredictable.
So, even though football is played a particular place, and a certain time, wearing a uniform, it’s unpredictable. The beautiful loser is one example. Messi is another.
Another loveable thing about football is the relationship between the individual and the team. How can we maintain our individuality and still work towards some shared objectives? It might be easy in the case of Messi or Mbappé to allow them the freedom to move where they wish, doing what they want. Still, the question is how do we both facilitate the extraordinary and cultivate possible talents?
For example, football stresses the right to equal treatment, but not the right to treatment as equal. There is no equal distribution of playing time. It shows that the question of who you are (gender, race, sexuality) is of less importance than what you’re capable of doing. It also activates our ethical thinking much more because we have to consider what we want or don’t want. At worst, treatment as equal eliminates all difference in order to make people march like identical robots. Such teams are more difficult to love, unless you’re born into the club.
Sometimes it is for the benefit of everyone, when some gifted or talented people move away from team tasks to nurture private perfection. Football players are not the only ones to do so, artist and researchers do so as well. I don’t see this as egoism; rather as a form of impersonal perfection or mastering of certain skill that has relevance in the overall game. Letting extraordinary (or potentially extraordinary) players walk around as they wish – within the limits of what constitutes the game – can or might lead to remarkable things, but not always.
What makes football desirable is a hodgepodge of many things: with whom you watch the game, where you watch it, what bodily skills and creative tactics and strategies you witness, the sound and smell of the pitch, the result, and the never-ending debates and discussions about everything and nothing. Even if you watch a game alone, you never really feel lonely. It has history. It’s great fun, as my children say.
Maybe that is what football really teaches us: There is never one reason for love, but several that fertilise each other. I think that the positive and enriching surprises – in football as in life – come from cultivating a space where the unpredictable can emerge.
In football it’s okay to stand out as long as you don’t violate the rules of the game.