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Three philosophical conceptions of football: The Platonic conception

27 Sep 2021   ·   

This article culminates the three-part series on philosophy and football. In the same way, the two previous articles could seem temporally correlated; this one presents a coexisting perspective with the two subsequent ones. Despite always being influenced by the prevailing view, the so-called Platonic conception of football has had great exponents over a long time, keeping its most romantic essence.

We will talk about the role of ideas in football, how important the game’s beauty is, and we will even ask ourselves if there is a footballer’s soul.

As the different philosophical currents, the concept presented below is transmitted from teachers to disciples. As you all know, Pep Guardiola’s teacher was Johan Cruyff, who ironically defined himself as follows: “I’m a bit strange. An idealistic professional, that’s how they must see me.” This idealism is specified in another of his quotes: “In football you always have to play in an attractive way, you have to play offensively, it has to be a spectacle”.

Therefore, we can consider that the differential feature of this vision is that, unlike the nihilist idea, it accepts that the truth exists, which is found in the beauty of the game. That the truth exists does not imply a monopoly of knowledge, unlike the religious conception. From this paradigm, the game should be understood more as a search for beauty than the victory’s conquest at any cost.

Marcelo Bielsa believes that coaches have a responsibility regarding the beauty of the game they promote. All without exception are presented with the obligation to prepare the team to gain victory. The way to achieve this victory is no longer critical, and according to Bielsa, there should be a penalisation for those who ignore the aesthetic part of the game. He argues this by saying that people who love football love it as they find the beauty they lack in other aspects of their lives. Hence, it is difficult for him to accept that he can only offer people as a coach results. Not conceiving football as an aesthetic element worsens the human condition since the appreciation of aesthetics and the appreciation of beauty is universal to everyone, according to Bielsa.

There is no longer any interest in the truth in today’s world as it is often uncomfortable—especially the truth about ourselves. Pablo Aimar commented that this would be the last generation to watch football matches from start to end. In a world of “highlights” where the adults’ approach to sport is gambling, and the children’s bizarre celebrations of the players are on social media, the appreciation of the sport’s beauty has become a forgotten idea.   

Using the term antisystem to refer to human behavior, transports us directly to an imaginary picture of violence, rebellion, and confrontation. The truth is that the day-to-day gives us a multitude of revolutionary acts promoted from the love of ideas, even from the purest ignorance of committing them. I refer to strolling through the city with no other purpose than to walk, cultivate a garden in the backyard, or make love with your partner. All of them involve some effort, but at the same time, they are free acts, isolated from the dynamics of the market; they are sustainable, healthy, and fundamental for personal empowerment and the creation of a strong personality. Authentic revolutions in an easy-going world, surrenders to marketing, speed, and blind obedience to results. The same revolutionary act occurred at Camp Nou when there was still an audience, and you could leave the stadium angry at your team’s lousy performance, despite having won the game.

Today’s football is one of the engines and mirrors of globalisation. A few years ago, the fan performed that function for the team as they felt their town or region represented. However, with the expansion of sports broadcasting, football clubs became the link between transnational communities that had in common only the desire to see a winning team or great players, without the need to be related to the city or the country where the team was based. As an example which defies this situation is the ownership model of FC Barcelona.  The club has shown that the will of its socios, a group rooted to the entity’s geography determines what the Club’s vision is, affecting more than 300 million fans.

If Plato had been a football coach, he would be added to the list of idealistic coaches precisely because he is the greatest exponent of this line of thought. Everyone knows the expression platonic love, normally used to refer to an unattainable love to be reciprocated, just as it is unattainable to persevere in an aesthetic expression of the game, it is no longer in time but in the course of a same match.

But the Platonic term does not make strict reference to the impossible but rather represents the pure and intense feeling of love towards someone, something or an idea that idealizes and considers possessing all the qualities.

For Plato, the reality is made up of ideas and not material things. In the same way, when considering the tactic in this paradigm, the player’s intentions come into play. The world of ideas is perfect, and these are individual and immutable. However, the views can only partially be expressed in the sensible world, and we can appreciate them through the senses. This makes us understand that players’ intentions cannot always be fully expressed in their actions, although they are still the engine that requested their efforts.

The basic concepts underlying this vision are the soul and its immortality, even above the existence of God. The soul, or spirit, can be considered the origin of material life, sensitivity, and man’s psyche. Therefore it could also be considered the source from which a player’s will to express himself. The possession of a soul is the “sine qua non” condition to participate in a higher reality. Therefore, in this game conception, the leading role does not fall on the coach or the player but on their participation in the higher ideal. This metaphysical truth is made up of the love for football, the beauty of the game, and the courage to achieve it. The protagonist of the game is the game itself.

It is precisely this metaphysical truth that allows man to rise beyond his material reality, specifically the one that now enslaves the world and modern football. Therefore, it is expected that in clubs that institutionalise this vision, there are players considered as part of the entity’s heritage as, during their training in youth teams, they have been able to internalize the shared ideal in the future of their football player’s soul. Against the benefit of the transfer market’s dictatorship and the power of agents, we find players who offer an outstanding performance in their home club and who cannot do so in others. This is so much so that many players are no longer considered for other teams despite their great talent. This makes us think that we will not be able to speak of good or bad players under this paradigm but simply of suitable players.

According to the Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen, everything presented as culture, but without any expression of eternal spiritual qualities, is not culture but fashion. This is why everything that does not start with a strong legacy, runs the risk of disappearing if it does not offer short-term results. However, we find precisely also in the Netherlands, another club with a platonic vision of football. Ajax from Amsterdam is one of the most recognised and admired football schools in the world. And we call it school because it is not only a club that competes, like everyone else, to win and win titles. It has made its method and style of play a whole new philosophy and non-negotiable identity.

From Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and Louis Van Gaal as reference guides, and with an long list of brilliant players, Ajax has defended an attractive game, technically rich, daring, versatile, always taking the initiative and with a great capacity of the players to intervene with their personality and quality. What everyone knows as “total football.”

We could end by stating that this type of club, perhaps unknowingly, is based on the German word Bildung, which refers to the tradition of cultivating oneself, considering that philosophy and education are linked as part of the same personal and cultural maturity process. This maturity is described as the individual’s mind and heart harmonization and the unification of individuality and identity within society. These clubs that believe in education, fleeing from immediate results, should be considered shelters in a community committed to a materialistic mentality that believes that everything must be modern, easy, and entertaining; clubs that have renounced quality for the sake of quantity.

It is necessary to claim that players are people and people are much more than just numbers.


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