I read Stephen Mumford’s “Football – The Philosophy Behind the Game” in just two sittings. A great, if short, read for anyone with genuine love for the game, like Mumford a “long-suffering” Blades fan since 1980.
Although I “followed” football as a schoolboy, Middlesbrough the local team and Leeds the big Yorkshire team at the time, it wasn’t until the 1978/79 season that I could call myself a fan. Staying down south after university in London, just as Wimbledon FC – the crazy gang – arrived to entertain all all manner of northern teams in the 4th Division. We barely missed a game home or away for 8 seasons, 7 of which ended in either promotion or relegation. One of those, the 83/84 season, we beat Blades away the penultimate game of the season to secure our promotion into the 2nd Division and in doing so knocked them out of their promotion place. Fortunately they regained it a week later, and we both went up together. However, we gave up after success took us to the financial (ie boring) heights of the 1st Division and the FA Cup win … and we started a family, in Reading.
Once the kids were a little older, we got back into football, coaching and refereeing, and started to follow Reading as the local team. And again after a decade of being both home and away season-ticket holders and founder members of the supporters trust, we consider ourselves fans to this day despite moving back north and getting to far fewer games. (This season, one of the few games we were at, Blades beat Royals 5:0 at Bramall Lane, but who’s counting. They’re pushing for promotion, we’re fighting relegation.)
As Mumford says, being a fan works on many levels. Partisan support for one team is only part of it. We have soft spots for several. The techniques, skills and abilities of individuals and teams, the tactical plays of teams and managers, the in-game possibilities, near-misses, decisions and results themselves. And, in our case, the characters of individuals players, managers and fans, even rival fans on our travels, as they moved teams through their careers too. It’s the game you love. (For a flavour of how football reflects the character of people and place in football I recommend Harry Pearson’s highly entertaining “The Far Corner“.)
As Mumford shows, all these aspects can be considered philosophically without intellectualising the human pursuit and its aesthetic attractions. And as he says the subjective, emotional and passionate aspects that drive specific individual attraction may vary with your own experience across these multiple levels. It’s a short book and it’s no criticism to suggest he may have missed a few in my opinion.
Without referring to Game Theory per se, Mumford recognises that it is in the nature of a game, not simply a sporting pursuit, that formations and tactics evolve, must evolve, as the psychology of opponents responds to each others moves and tactics, successes and failures. If you’re gonna do that, we’re gonna have to do this. That is evolution. Mumford makes several references to John Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid” – another read I can highly recommend, in terms of the evolution of the game. But the rules (the laws and their application by officials) evolve too, not just formations and tactics, as teams and players push against their limits and I’ve used examples of rule evolution as morality plays in my own writings. There’s a paradoxical spirit in how the possibilities are applied – the spirit rather than the letter – in the same way that pursuing pretty skillful ball-juggling tricks (a la Ronaldinho) out of a proper competitive game context is not what makes the game beautiful.
Mumford correctly identifies what really makes it the beautiful game. Partly it is the simplicity / paucity of rules vs the near infinite possibilities of play and partly it is the possible levels of engagement, even in a single game (*). But largely it is because it is a game as well as a sport and it’s game with some very special properties best summed up in the title of his penultimate chapter – “Chance”.
It is a game of low scores and fine margins between success and failure, tackle or foul; completed pass or lost posession, goal or miss, block or save; win, draw or lose. It means that football is almost unique in its fine-tuned sweet spot between the predictability of skilled resources and the luck of chance events. The best team may win, but never at all events. There’s always everything to play for, with any number of minutes before the final whistle. It’s the hope that kills you.
Mumford’s “Football – The Philosophy Behind the Game” is a recommended read. Fans of the game will be entertained and recognise what they like about it and need barely notice it’s an introduction to the ethical philosophy of what makes something good.
(*) Reminds me, we had the pleasure of watching a game at Camp Nou, and I think we watched Messi move at walking pace from space to space, for 80 of the 90 minutes, despite the cohort of other Barca superstars on the ball. Fascinating.