Football and Philosophy

Gooooal!!! Heavenly bliss, or hellish pain, depending on which team has scored: ours, or theirs. How can the trajectory of a ball cause so much pain or bliss? For weeks I have sat at my television watching the World Cup. My wife threatens me with divorce and other disciplinary measures. What is the source of this attraction, this magic?

The world of play is our permanent Garden of Eden. At any moment we may step from our real world into the freedom, innocence, and bliss of play. Football and the Garden of Eden? What do they have to do with each other?

Each delineates a sacred sphere of freedom and order, innocence, spirituality and justice from our everyday world of chaos, bondage, injustice and guilt. The chessboard, the tennis court, the soccer field: within their boundaries we feel free because here it is we who make the rules and are not subjected to the iron laws of the outside world. We feel innocent too, because the world of play is also a world of innocence: a Garden of Eden before the Fall. Here we can be childishly selfish, we can gratify our thirst for success, power and domination - all without guilt.

In the world of play freedom is generated, paradoxically, by restrictions. In soccer, the basic rule is simple: the ball is to be moved, from the central point, into one of the goals. If the ball would roll from the center point straight into one of the goals, its track would be, or would seem to be, strictly determined and the whole thing would be boring. To generate freedom, rules put obstacles in the way of the ball and complicate its movement.

First, two teams of eleven players are put on the field with the task of getting the ball into the goal. Second, they are told to get the ball into opposite goals. With twenty-two players with their own wills and skills, with various movements of confrontation and cooperation, the number of possible combinations is increased almost ad infinitum. After this only one additional factor is needed to create a real world of happy surprises, freedom and bliss: the ball.

Balls are among the most important "freedom generators" in our lives. A ball is freedom embodied. It may bounce in any direction. It seems to have its "own will." It is an object and, nevertheless, it seems to be free. By introducing the factor of chance and unpredictability into the game, the ball transforms a bitter and down-to-earth human fight into an epiphany of spirituality and freedom.

In its brisk movements chance and human will interact, dance, and somersault with each other. The ball flashes to and fro in happy irresponsibility - between human will and chance, freedom and limitation, success and failure, hope and the loss of hope - to bounce back into the world of hope in the next moment. It has its own universe. It moves in the sphere of the sacred.

But that sacred does not exist without the profane. The football field is marked off and opposed to the surrounding world. The experience and the sacred ceremony remain incomplete if tension between the field and the grandstand is missing. The clean emerald field and freedom of the game must be opposed by the howling mob in the darkness of the stands, burning red torches and jerking between ecstatic joy and hellish misery.

In our everyday lives, reason and passions are mixed. Soccer (like some other games) separates, and opposes to each other, these two realms. All passions, emotions and instincts are pushed over to the side of the spectators. They rage and love, prance and explode, and finally reach a catharsis (if their team wins) or to descend into hell (if their team loses ). At the same time, they watch, perceive, and experience the freedom of Apollonian or Platonic spirituality of the game going on in the field.

Yes, players move in a world of spirituality. They act according to clear, sacred rules. While in play, they are supposed to act as pure rational beings who leave behind their everyday passions and emotions, personal wishes or fears. They move in the world of pure morality and justice. The player's world is one of justice and total impartiality; of a perfect equality of opportunity, which is never achieved in our everyday lives. Even advantages deriving from the direction of the wind are balanced. The two teams change sides at the half. When and where do we, the privileged and the underprivileged, change sides in the real world?

Players, too, are not supposed to break the rules. If they do, they are punished and, if they relapse, excluded from play. They are expelled from the sphere of spirituality and we see them disappearing into the chilly Hades of the locker room.

The real expulsion from Paradise comes only if the sanctity of play is profaned, if the spell is broken: by players falling out of their angelic roles and starting a fight in the field; by a cheating referee; by people realizing that a match is rigged; by spectators invading the field. Such events do lasting damage to people and to the community. It is a bitter shock to realize the fragility of our world of freedom, spirituality, and dignity and awaken again (as we will when the Cup winner is decided) in our less hospitable everyday world.