“Sport is the love of form, a spectacle which does not transcend the sensory, the instant emotion, which unlike a book…scarcely leave a trace in the memory and does not enrich or impoverish knowledge. And that is its appeal: that it is exciting and empty.” - Mario Vargas llosa
This thought suggests all that is brilliant about attending or watching a football match is experiencing it in the moment, but the ability to reflect on the game and experience it as a significant experience in the canon of football and world culture allows for a greater level of understanding that Ilosa shirks. Sure, football at its core is just a game that people enjoy playing, but, instead of making the sport empty, this is just what allows it such cultural meaning and significance. The emptiness and purity of game at its base form create a canvas that can be painted on. Distinctiveness in style, tactics, and meaning for each team and country leads the sport to transmit cultural and ethnic heritage in a way that art has most notably achieved. The differences between catenaccio and Total football serve to illuminate schisms just as well as cold-war abstract expressionism and soviet harsh realism did in the art world. We can learn so much about the world in the 20th century from football because the people who chose to play the “curious game” have irreversibly shaped it. While other activities are direct corollaries to some sort of action, American football and chess are metaphors for war, football, on the other hand, allows the participant to paint the competition how they want it and thus inform the world about their values. Three examples of how football has been used as a canvas for culture in very different ways are the regionalist movement in Barcelona and Bilbao during the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s Spain, “Futbol Arte”, the extension of body culture in Brazil, and the development of Total football in the Netherlands as a product of the limited space in the Dutch environment.
Miro – Still Life of an Old Shoe | Francisco Goya – The Third of May 1808
The Basque and Catalonian strongholds of Barcelona and Bilbao became crucial to developing the national identity during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Francoist rule of Spain. Football instantly rose to political significance as it was used to represent these regional heritages and illuminate their dissent. In 1951 Barcelona fans chose to march home in the rain instead of using the tram in solidarity with the tram strike against fare hikes. This solidarity with a public movement showed the importance of football matches to social change as Franco’s regime had banned most unions and lawyer groups and the games became a refuge for the undercurrents opposing the Falangists (libcom.org). The game had begun to inform everyday people of the world around them and the measure that they should take to fight for their civil liberties. Spaniards have a long tradition of using art and activities express the opinions of the populous; Goya’s Third of May (scene above) was used to expose and protest the French militant regime, while the footballing sides of Bilbao and Barcelona were used to protest Franco. His rule had limited legitimacy (popular belief in the validity of the state) within these areas and the sports teams became a mode of maintaining a regions collective heritage in the face of poverty, fear, and censorship. The games became one of the few landscapes where speech had any semblance of freedom. The position of the game in the hearts of regionalists became apparent when Ikurriña, the Basque national flag, flew at a Bilbao and Sociedad match in 1976 for the first time since Franco prohibited it in 1938. The flag had for years been a symbol of the Basque counter-culture and it was first reintroduced at a football match. This regionalism has also been seen in the popularity of “La Masia” and the “cantera”, two youth systems that rely primarily/solely on players of Catalonian and Basque decent to supply the teams and represent the area that they come from. Football was used as more than a game, but a key source of information about regionalist identities and the progress that was being made against the Francoist regime.
Piet Mondrian - Tableau No. 2 | Jacob van Ruisdael – View of Haarlem from the Dunes at Overeem | Johannes Vermeer – The Astronomer
Johan Neesken’s scored a penalty for Holland before the German’s touched the ball in the 1974 World Cup. The carousel “total football” system that the team employed, exchanging positions, areas, and the ball to open up holes on the pitch made the team dominant and also made it clear that the Dutch understand space. The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe (pg 469), and has been since the industrial revolution turned the country’s limited farmland into components of crowded metropolises. This tightness in society led to the Dutch environmental imperative, to use space as effectively and efficiently as possible, and created a society that was as concerned with social organization as it was business organization. This use of space is the key factor in Michel de Klerk’s Total Architecture and the advanced city planning that became the ideological antecedents of Total football; every component in a system needs to be useful for the system to be efficient. Total football reached its height with the Ajax teams of the early 70s. Players like Cruyff and Neeskens, that were children of the 60s Cultural Revolution, embraced the collective individuality that the system required and conquered Europe three-times over in ‘71, ‘72, and ’73, then the Dutch national side nearly triumphed over the world at the 1974 World Cup. Total football made the concepts of Total Architecture familiar to the world: utility in design, best use of space, and compartments producing a whole that is reliant, yet distinct, of its individual parts. What the Dutch seem to have understood and incorporated into their lives is that space, and the manipulation of it, is paramount to the success of any unit of society (Building, person, art).
Os Gemeos – Mural | Candido Portinari - Flautista
If Football is a canvas than Brazil has painted one of the most alluring and induring images upon it. The Seleção is most successful team in World Cup history and they have remarkably achieved that title with a creative verve, rather than the realism or pragmatism has traditionally led to success. The rise of the Brazilian team is inexorably tied to the birth of “futbol arte” and, consequently, their success can be attributed to the emergence and popularity of Bossa Nova, samba, and capoeira. These forms of expression informed a generation about musicality and flexibility, but also gave life a more joyous feel. Futbol Arte and its height at the 1970 World Cup were a manifestation of this exuberance and desire to succeed in style: Pele swerves and lays of the ball to Carlos Alberto in time with the music. The samba stars of 2002 also gave the game a musical rhythm where one could be creative as an individual as long as it was in time with the pace of the game. If you watch the highlights of any of the matches you can faintly hear the hand drum beating a pace between the passes and dribbles in the background. The world has learned more about Brazilian culture from football than any other activity, partly because it is so visible and partly because it is such a good microcosm of it. Brazil’s success can also be attributed to the inequality, Darwinian competitiveness, and lawlessness of Rio and Sao Paolo’s favelas that made football a mode of escape. Garrincha, the “joy of the people”, was born in the outskirts of Rio to an alcoholic father, had a malformed spine, and was bowlegged, but this did not stop him from being one of the greatest players ever and the player that most epitomized the life of Brazilians. The story of Wescley, an amputee footballer, in the film “Ginga” also depicts the pervasive nature of body culture and the search for pleasure from football in the country. Overcoming hardships and optimism is clearly paramount to the Brazilian psyche; the idea that something greater is around the corner motivates millions of the urban poor to take to the pitch every year in the search of catharsis. The game has become more than just an activity to the people of Brazil’s slums; it has become a way out of poverty and an altogether less glamorous life. The Brazilian body culture and ruthless competition required to hone one’s skills has come to define the rhythm, acrobatics, and elegance of “Futbol arte”.
Sport is the love of form, but it is also the love of the world around it. Going to a football game teaches us much about life. Those at the Al-Ahly and Al-Masry match would have learned about the feud between Mubarak supporters and the Al-Ahly Ultras as it manifested itself in the brutal stadium massacre. Those at the Bolton and Tottenham FA Cup match would have learned something about the tightrope between life and death and walked away with a sense of something much greater than a football match. The canon of football is ever evolving and incorporating meaningful new events into its history. The match between Manchester City and Manchester United today might add a new chapter or be a meaningless “spectacle which does not transcend the sensory”, whichever it is the variable nature of the game’s beauty and its significance is what makes it so alluring.