Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Soccer philosophy

What do soccer and philosophy have in common? Or, to put it another way — what interest do they share? It is probably safe to say that these interests are, first and foremost, moral and aesthetic. Was it Camus who said that everything he had learned about morality — or was it life — was learned on the soccer field? And small wonder: the current staging of the World Cup in South Africa has already provided many instances of players and referees acting and reacting in certain situations in ways that are subject to moral judgment, the recent event of Uruguay’s Suarez handling a ball, thus preventing a likely goal for Ghana, being a case in point.

Football is not the only sport that is fraught with situations where actions lend themselves to moral judgment, however. This is true of all sport, which is why one often hears the claim that sport builds character. My own experience, in the sports in which I have participated, confirms this.

At one point, while I was playing squash league, and eager to improve my game, I played regularly with several partners, one of whom — a particularly gifted, first-league player — went on to become a lawyer. Judging by his behaviour on court, I would not ever recommend his legal services to anyone — he used whatever means he could to win (subtly obstructing his opponent by moving out of the way just that half a second too slowly, and so on), and never showed any generosity of spirit. He practised gamesmanship instead of sportsmanship. The strange thing was that he did not need to — he was a good player who could easily have relied only on his squash prowess to win. But the competitive situation revealed his (dubious) moral character in no uncertain terms. I would bet that he practises law in a similar way.

Sport also, obviously, has aesthetic appeal; soccer is not called the “beautiful game” for nothing, and one can easily think of sports that are even more conspicuously aesthetically pleasing, such as figure skating on ice, or gymnastics. But that is not what I want to concentrate on here. I would like to reflect at some length on soccer (and by implication all sports) as an instance of play.

One can approach this from the perspective of Homo and Gyna ludens — playing man and woman, as the well-known scholar Johan Huizinga, or the poet-philosopher Friedrich Schiller (whose work was Huizinga’s point of departure) did. In his “Letters on the aesthetic education of [hu]mankind”, Schiller famously distinguished among three “drives” that underlie distinct human activities — the form(al) drive, the sense or material drive and the play-drive, where the latter is said to mediate between the former two, and to be the basis of art.

Schiller (and Huizinga following him) thus understood play primarily as a human activity. But one could avoid this “subjective” angle and highlight the structural features of play, and sport as a kind of play, instead. I prefer the latter approach, and my favourite thinker in this regard is the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer whose phenomenological hermeneutics of play forms part of his magnum opus, “Truth and method”. Gadamer uses play as a model for the understanding of the mode of being of art, which, in turn, he employs to come to grips with the “play” or movement of language in relation to tradition.

The purest form of play, Gadamer asserts, is encountered on the part of young children who have not as yet learned the formal rules that govern games like checkers, chess or soccer. What is characteristic of this playing is what he terms a “to and fro” movement, in so far as the actions on the part of the players appear to be governed by a non-prescriptive structure which exceeds their deliberate intentions, and in relation to which the “success” of the playing or informal “game” is judged.

Anyone who has ever played games like “cops and robbers” will know what Gadamer means. Even in the absence of formal rules, the players all know implicitly when they have transgressed the tacitly assumed rules of the game. To be sure, sometimes the participants may argue vehemently when someone is accused of transgressing the rules, and they may even decide to modify certain previously un-discussed principles, but it is always apparent that even games of “free play” — as opposed to sport, which is formalised play — are tacitly governed by a rule structure of some kind.

This is why Gadamer says, in opposition to the subjectivist notion of play on the part of someone like Schiller (who discerns the foundation of play in the human subject), that it is more a case of the players being played by the game than the other way around. The structure of the game — whatever it is — makes certain demands on the players, and if they overstep these demands or ignore them, the game stagnates. On the other hand, within the limits of the game in question players have an indefinite (if not infinite) number of potential “moves” available to them. It is truly a case of “freedom within limits” — which makes of play, or sport as formalised play, virtually an extended metaphor for life.

Phenomenologically speaking, therefore, any instance of playing — whether it is the non-formal “free play” of children (or, to extend the meaning of play, of light on the surface of a lake) or the formalised playing of a game like chess, or of a sport like soccer — witnesses to the inexhaustibility of play “itself”. The “source” of any actual playing always exceeds concrete instances of play, so that it is characterised by irrepressible self-renewal, as Gadamer points out. We are therefore faced with the paradox that play is at once represented and yet not (“fully”) represented in any individual actualisation of its “essence” — something that resonates with what is known as the “sublime” in philosophy. Play, not the player, is inexhaustible.

There is another tension at the heart of play, however — and this explains, I believe, why it affords one the space in which moral character is built — it is “merely” play, and as such distinct from the seriousness of the world of work, and yet (as Gadamer intimates), in a sense one has to play seriously, too. Anyone who does not approach the game in this way, does not qualify as a worthy opponent.

No matter how hard, or how well, one plays, therefore, one’s serious commitment to the spirit of play, and therefore to the rules governing its performance — whether these are implicit or explicit — requires that players are also worthy players. Few sights are as disappointing as when a player (especially a “good” one) shows bad sportsmanship (“sportswomanship”?) by refusing to accept a referee’s decision, or an opponent’s victory. To be sure, it makes a difference whether a team or player deserves a victory or not, but if the game demands acceptance of a referee’s decision, one has to abide by it, even if one disagrees.

If I may single out a factor that impinges negatively on this spirit of play, it would be the professionalisation of sport. In all the years that I have played squash, I have not witnessed more acrimonious exchanges between players, and between players and referees/markers, than those that occurred during professional matches which involved prize money (which, ironically, in squash is comparatively low). It is as if the introduction of money has robbed sport of the “play” element by introducing the world of “work” into its domain. I believe that the phenomenon of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports, from cycling and swimming to athletics, may also be linked to this potential for financial gain.

I am glad to be able to say that, although I have not watched many matches in the course of this World Cup, it appears that the players are less likely to be motivated by potential financial gain than when they are participating in the usual professional sporting fixtures of the annual soccer club calendar here and abroad, and that what concerns them here is largely national pride. Not that money has been absent from the performance of the different teams — the sheer magnitude of the salaries that have been paid to national coaches (including Parreira) is mind-boggling, let alone the financial carrots dangled before the noses of players to spur them on to winning.

The moral and aesthetic significance of a sport like soccer is inescapably situated within this context of its play-structure, and of the corruption of this play-structure by “internal” phenomena like cheating and gamesmanship, as well as by motives exceeding the internal purpose of the game, like winning at all costs for financial reasons. It should therefore surprise no one that sport constitutes an ethical microcosm. It presents players with ongoing opportunities to prove themselves worthy or unworthy as players as well as human beings, depending on whether they honour the ethical spirit of play.

In addition, sport provides the virtual matrix for flashes of kinetic beauty — an extended, thrilling exchange between tennis players that leaves spectators gasping, a breathtaking gymnastic routine, impeccably performed, a mesmerising combination of running passes between soccer players, culminating in a deftly executed goal. In so doing, it condenses some of the most aesthetically valuable moments in life into a relatively short time — moments which one revisits again and again in subsequent years, whether this is in memory, or aided by video technology.

Anyone interested in the subject of Gadamer and play in relation to art, can read my paper, “Gadamer, Heidegger, play, art and the appropriation of tradition”. Commemorative edition of SA Journal of Philosophy on H-G Gadamer, Vol 21 (4), 2002, pp.242-257.

  • HD

    Lol, I know a few of those squash players myself…

    However, did the guy from Uruguay cheat? Cheating implies conceiling it and trying to get away with it. This was not the case. He was fully aware of the rules and consequences. He simply calculated that his team might have a better chance with a penalty vs coming back with no time left. He played within the rules…He did what he needed to do for his team.

  • Judith

    Thank goodness I participated in horse riding events where the scores where unassailable

  • Rene

    Bert, you forgot to mention how all the Fifa-branding and sponsorship have invaded the space of sport, sometimes indirectly, through accusations of ambush marketing (like the unpleasant and unnecessary incident involving the Dutch women).

  • Atlas Reader

    If you’ve ever been hit on the back of your thighs by a squash ball propelled by a massive, full-blooded angry hit, you’ll never try that cynical get-in-the-way ploy again. Elvis Costello said, “my aim is true”. An excellent good squash philosophy!

  • Paul Whelan

    The world is a rough-and-ready, workaday place and manages to knock along more out of common sense than by conformity with elegant principles.

    That does not mean there is no right and wrong. But it must be said there would have been very much less controversy about the handball if the Ghana penalty taker (forgotten his name for the moment – probably Freudian forgetfulness) had not missed what was handed his side on a plate.

    Second, your lawyer friend, who always wanted to win at all costs, may be very much worth his hire if you are his client and in trouble.

  • Bert

    HD – That is debatable. One could also argue that Suarez did not play WITHIN the rules, but deliberately (as you point out) transgressed or overstepped them, in this way failing to be a good sportsman, for the sake of winning. In terms of Gadamer’s analysis of play, he imposed his will on the game, instead of letting the game ‘play him’ (which is what should happen). To play according to the spirit of the game, is not to play solely for the sake of winning – the (American?) adage, ‘Winning is not everything; it is the ONLY thing’, is anathema to sport as play, and is born of an unquenchable thirst for power. That is not what sport, in the sense of formalised play, is about.

  • HD


    How did he transgress the rules? The rule just stipulates if you handball in the box it is a penalty. Everything played out according to the rules. Rules don’t provide moral/ethical solutions?

    Diving (when not touched), doping, using illegal gear and the like is cheating. Rules are broken.

    I agree that it could be considered unsporting.

    But, then again I think there is a difference between recreational sport and professional sport with its emphasis on winning (as you point out).

    In that sense wasn’t he just still playing Gadamer’s game in the non formal structurally subjective sense? (Like the cops & robbers example the unwritten rule of professional sports/national sports is winning/being the best).

    What if Bafana was faced with a situation where we could have prevented a last minute goal by handling the ball?

    You can argue that it is a crap rule, but that is different from accusing Suarez of cheating.

  • mallencolly

    @ HD

    You are confusing the rule with the consequences of breaking the rule. He didnt play within the rules, he took his chances with the consequences. A bit like a corporate deciding that the returns from selling a dangerous product outweigh the costs of the likely lawsuits so sell the product anyway.

  • Trevor

    Gee, Bert, I always marvel at the breadth of your perspectives and subject matter.As for soccer, its ethical or moral likeness to philosophy could be touched up no end by awarding a penalty goal in cases of conspicuous goals being prevented by conspicuous professional fouls.Why do you need to earn the goal by scoring the penalty when it had been sunk in the first place? As it stands now, crime sure pays.

  • Bert

    Mallencolly – You have put it well – he did break the rule, and he seems to have considered the consequences.
    Paul – True, one should perhaps go to such lawyers if one merely wants results, but if you want some assurance that your lawyer is likely to act in an ethical manner (no matter how much he or she is able to practise the art of persuasion), I, for one, would not.
    Trevor – I fully agree with you. If the referee(s) agree(s) that what would almost certainly have been a goal, was prevented by a player doing what is expressly forbidden – whether one calls that transgressing the rules, or abusing the rules – awarding a penalty goal against the offending player/side would be fairer practice.

  • Paul Whelan


    Look, the truth is that ‘as things stand’ crime may or not pay.

    In the instance under discussion, it paid.

    Had it not ‘paid’, we would not be having this discussion and the issue of the good sense of having a rational law (as opposed to judgemental or arbitrary decisions by the ref according to circumstances) would not have arisen.

  • Trevor

    Fair comment, Paul.With respect to the soccer I was just making one of those ‘off the cuff,’ ‘gift of the gab’responses. On further reflection, Ghana’s shocking penalty-kicking rendered a fairly representative and sad verdict on their team in that department.Perhaps Lady Justice can get a good night’s sleep after all.

  • Master Bates

    Bert, I wonder whether certain aspects of sport could be more accurately conceived of as anaesthetic rather than aesthetic? Sport could be viewed as mediating between the social forces of eros & thanatos. In doing so sport functions to sublimate & domesticate our passions by directing and captivating our attentions… Notwithstanding all the other senses in which sport could be described as aesthetic – choreography, spectacle, intrigue etc. It also seems to function as a culturally mediated representation of the ultimate ‘games’ of love and war.

    Historically this was indeed its function, whilst also deliberately being ‘staged’ as an offering to the gods. Not only does it provide us with the most direct allegorical manifestation of our fascinations with victory, espirit de corps & the agony of defeat, but also of romance, the sensual pleasures of the perfected human form and our passionate yearning to participate in the drama of the heroic.

    Setting aside the business of sport; its cultural evolution has involved an absorption of both the ancient functions of the theatre & the colosseum. Popular sport now provides billions with the vicarious community of the shared identity of a team, a pleasurable release from the drudgery of work, and the very content of significant portions of popular discourse. In this sense it assuages rather than awakens.
    Plato said of sport that, as in life we can distinguish between the participants in the game (players), the audience (observers) & the peanut sellers (profiteers). Sport is probably at its most aesthetic when we play…

  • Bert

    Master Bates – Spot-on, as usual! You remind me of an article I published in the 1990s in a Philosophy journal. It was called, ‘Freud and Lyotard on Civilization’, and I put forward roughly the same argument that you advance here, but with regard to the culture industry as a whole. I don’t think it is far-fetched to say that sport, today, has become part of the ‘culture industry’, for reasons that you mention, not least of which is that it has taken the place of far bloodier outlets for thanatic human cravings – like the gladiatorial ‘games’ of the Roman Empire, so vividly brought to life in the current ‘Spartacus’ television series. Today, a sport like soccer functions as a sublimation of the demands of thanatos (ludically organized aggressiveness), and as such it is indeed, as you point out, anaesthetic, rather than aesthetic. The truth is that sport, inserted into the complex web of human affairs, is bot aesthetically relevant, ethically significant, AND anaesthetically effective (especially from a psychoanalytic perspective). My argument in the paper referred to was that Freud, who (I think it was in ‘The Future of an Illusion’) worries about ways in which masses of people might be pacified by the state when called for, could not have foreseen how the state and its allies would ‘pacify’ the masses in the late 20th-century, namely by means of entertainment of various kinds, including sport.

  • Maria

    @ Master Bates & Bert: You remind me of a paper by Zizek – which you surely know – called ‘The deadlock of repressive desublimation’, where he argues that what we are witnessing today, is the usurpation of a totally unexpected function by the superego (which customarily had the function of prohibiting certain instinctive excesses), namely to encourage, instead of prohibiting, instinctive enjoyments. What this shares with the superego of Freud’s Victorian society, of course, is that today it is just as normative to indulge oneself in those enjoyments that serve the economic status quo, as it was normative, in Freud’s day, to censor certain perceived sexual “excesses”. Soccer-spectatorship and all that goes with it would fall under the rubric of the “new” superego-function of encouraging instinctive enjoyments, as long as it promotes the economic (and in this case also the political) status quo. In other words, one should not forget the role played by the World Cup being staged in South Africa for purposes of opening up Africa for neoliberal economic integration into the rest of the world (China and India being integrated already). It is a very tasty, sugar-coated pill…

  • Master Bates

    Maria, yes, the mutation of the superego’s injunction is reminiscent of Aleister Crowley’s occult motto, “Do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law”, enforcing freedom & demanding enjoyment. The consequences are, to my mind, well described by Watzlawick, in terms of the ‘double bind’.
    If I say to you, ‘be more spontaneous Maria’, every effort you make at being more spontaneous paradoxically makes you less spontaneous.
    Similarly, when we are instructed to ‘be free & enjoy it’, we find ourselves in an equivalent double bind. The normative injunction sucks the life out of embodied freedom & the particularity of our enjoyment.

    So what do we do? We act the marionette; every effort at being free and enjoying ourselves is our awkward karaoke rendition of what we think it is to be free and happy. And what do we think this equates to? The simple formula; wealth, status & beauty.

    So how best to go about simulating this formula?

    Transpose your liberty into the paradoxical
    ‘compulsive therapies’ (e.g. shopping regimens, routines for optimal orgasm, workaholicism, militaristic fitness programmes & dietary disciplines). For guidance there are a plethora of magazines through which you can ‘estimate your joy’.

    Interestingly we all know this, but we ‘do it anyway’ – like a junkie worshipping & detesting her needle. That all this is systematic, normative and manifested in the material universe of capitalist society & culture is bewildering. Zizek urges us to stop compulsively ‘doing it anyway’. Not sure how this is possible, what do you recommend?

  • Maria

    @ Master Bates: Sure, we cannot divest ourselves from the capitalist society in which we live – and I would love to be able to – but what we can do, and what I do do, is to refuse to let myself be manipulated by all the strategies of capitalism (of the kind that Douglas Rushkoff enumerates in his book, “Coercion”). I don’t even have to try very hard; I am simply impervious to it. When I walk into a shopping mall (the spatial logic of which Bert has unmasked so well in his book on “Philosophy and the Arts”), I am aware of these coercive strategies, but in an ironic (ironising?) way, because they leave me cold. If you feel as nauseated by lucre as I do, it is not difficult. When Bert and I met recently overseas, I was astonished at the degree of agreement between us on this.