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A philosopher’s flat-footed meditations on the beautiful game

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

There’s also the fact that we are pretty much the same age — I’m fifty-nine, he’s fifty-seven — and as boys growing up in England shared the formative experience of seeing George Best (on TV in my case, for real in his) and Brazil beating England en route to winning the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 (TV for both of us). The football Brazil served up that year remains an unsurpassed and unsurpassable ideal. I remember the tournament in low-def color — the yellow shirts and blue shorts of the Brazilian kit, the insubstantial green hum of the pitch — even though, back then, we had only a black-and-white television. I must have seen the color later, but it’s imprinted itself on the past so thoroughly as to have saturated the original experience. One of the most memorable moments unfolds as Pelé goes clear of the Uruguayan defense and, to the premature delight of the English commentator, “scores” after selling the keeper “the most magnificent dummy.” That’s how I remembered it for many years, a false recollection — he actually puts the ball wide — that was also an entirely accurate record of genius so audacious as to have dummied memory.

Watching international football these days is largely an exercise in faith, derived, if you’re English, from a mixture of remembered joy (Wembley ’66, “They think it’s all over . . . ”), pain (Italia ’90, Paul Gascoigne’s tears in the semifinal against Germany), and the kind of stoic solace that comes from knowing that at least it’s on TV and you’re on the sofa. The most recent World Cup, in Brazil in 2014, fell short of fulfilling its mythically redemptive promise, but thankfully it wasn’t as stultifying as the previous one in South Africa. While the task of the implacable defender is, as Critchley reminds us, as integral to the game as the more glamorous role of the striker, there is a price to be paid for the way that international teams incapable of attacking are still capable of stopping their opponents in their tracks for large chunks of a game. It’s possible to cancel out a superstar such as Cristiano Ronaldo for eighty-nine minutes. His talent has, as a consequence, to take the form of what Flaubert called a “long patience,” as he waits for the chance to insinuate himself into that lone minute with devastating effect. But we want to see more of him, the way we saw Pelé or Diego Maradona dominate entire tournaments. What we are condemned to watch is, for the most part, genius denied or cheated, not genius in full flow. (For a team in full flow, we turn, ironically, to a game during the most recent World Cup that was almost a mirror image of Brazil’s 1970 triumph, when they got thumped 7–1 by Germany in their own back yard.)

On the other hand, the World Cup used to be our quadrennial chance to glimpse the world’s top players on TV, but now we see them all the time. George Best did not get the opportunity to live up to the global — and Kunderan — potential of his name because his country, Northern Ireland, failed to qualify for any major tournaments during his career. These national shackles have since been removed. Irrespective of their countries of origin, the top players turn up on our screens every week, strutting their lucrative stuff for the massively wealthy clubs of La Liga, Serie A, and the Premier League (most of which end up pitched against one another every season in the European Champions League). The downside is that if you go to a club match in Brazil today, the players are either pups who have yet to be lured to Europe or waning stars who have returned home for a last hurrah before being put out to pasture (i.e., playing in the United States). The World Cup has been rendered obsolete by the globalization of which it was supposed to be the crowning expression.

None of this diminishes the passion of kids kicking a dog-chewed tennis ball in the favelas, hoping to follow in the steps of Neymar, who recently completed a transfer from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain for a whopping $260 million. Football remains such an all-consuming cultural and sporting phenomenon that extraterrestrials might reasonably conclude that our planet achieved its shape in deference to the ball around which weekly and seasonal life orbits. Actually, those words, “cultural” and “sporting,” probably understate the matter. Even George Steiner — for whom El Clásico refers to Cervantes and Unamuno rather than Barcelona and Real Madrid — was forced to the “incontrovertible” conclusion that “for close to the totality of homo sapiens sapiens the current world-faith is that of football.”

A big subject, then, for a “little book” focused “on the delight, on the poetics of football.” It’s a laudable ambition and a welcome rebuke to the claim made in 2015 by the Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint that no one would like his book Football because “intellectuals . . . aren’t interested in football” while football lovers would “find it too intellectual.” Toussaint was right in one regard: his book was roundly panned because he’d misjudged what has become a well-served appetite for intelligent books on every aspect of the game. The French rapper MC Solaar expressed the current state of play far better than Toussaint with a rhyme that yoked together exponents of philosophy and goalkeeping in his song “Temps Mort”: “J’étais naïf comme Rousseau, pas le douanier, le philosophe / Mais toujours alerte comme Dino Zoff.

Understandably, Critchley finds Toussaint’s approach “disappointing,” but his preferred approach — to “use the method of what philosophers call phenomenology” to ask why football is “beautiful and in what does its beauty consist?” — disappoints in its own way. Replay the quote about his method again in slo-mo and note the tonal gap that is assumed between the author (who knows what phenomenology is) and the reader (who does not have access to this area of esoteric knowledge). I also wonder whether, as was often said of Manchester United’s former manager Alex Ferguson, there might not be some mind games going on when Critchley keeps referring to his “little book” (three times in four pages). There’s nothing wrong with “little.” Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams is an epic in miniature and Nietzsche’s approach to philosophical problems — in and out quickly, as if from a cold bath — is exemplary as long as one is capable of conjuring lightning flashes of insight. But doesn’t referring to his book as “little” suggest that Critchley might have other, heftier volumes in what the disgraced former manager Ron Atkinson inexplicably used to call the onion basket? “Little” makes us think that he might have more magnum lurking in his opus when actually he only does little. In 2014, he published The Memory Theatre, a “novel” of seventy-two pages. And in spite of his variety of subject matter, he tends to do versions of the same little book.

It’s not just that he hasn’t developed as a writer. He’s still not fully a writer, has not made the transition from lecture hall or seminar room to the swarming solitude of the desk. His books read like slightly extended research papers. An obvious symptom of this is that he is constantly telling us what he will do in these books. In Things Merely Are (2005), the book on Stevens, he helpfully explains what to expect: “It will be my general claim.” Twelve years on we know what to expect — that he will still be explaining what to expect: “In this little book, I will use . . . ” The habitual conflation of writing (a book) with delivering (a paper) is manifest most obviously in the trope of the redundant plea. To deploy another Atkinsonism, he sets out his stall in the very first line of his little book On Bowie (2016): “Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession.” In the new book, a fondness for a way of proceeding that serves mainly as an impediment to progress shows signs of turning into full-blown addiction: “Let me confess something,” “Let me try and explain,” “So, let me try and make some gestures,” “Let me pause here and say something a little weird,” “Let me risk a further speculation here,” “Let me give a couple of examples,” “Let me summarize,” “Let me fill out this line of thought,” and (my favorite) “Let me risk another analogy with Heidegger.”

You feel like responding: it’s your book, dude, you can do what you want — just stop doing that. But there’s no stopping him, of course. Why quit when he can invite us to join the party? “Let’s turn more closely.” A variant of this rhetorical shift from singular to plural is particularly telling: “Let’s just say that it’s complicated,” “Let’s just say that it is far from clear,” “Let’s just say that the atmosphere was tense.” Let’s just say that what good writing demands is more than just saying. Almost inevitably the redundant request for permission is balanced by the equally redundant imperative: “I must say,” “I must admit,” “I can’t resist,” “I must confess.” Just saying, as they say. For lecturers, asking permission to do or say something is an acceptable way of enlisting attention or participation; it helps keep the audience focused or, at the very least, awake. In books it takes the reader away from the page and back to the lecture hall.

And it doesn’t stop there. More accurately, it doesn’t even start there. Having asked our permission — “Let me try and make some gestures in the direction of a poetics of football” — Critchley treats us to a little more warm-up: “I’d like to begin by thinking about.” After the warm-up comes some further limbering up: “In order to do this, I will lean heavily on.” Those examples are from within five lines of one another, but variants abound throughout the book: “There are two features to which I’d like to draw attention,” “I’d like to extend this poetics,” “I would like now to talk about,” “I’d like to think about the experience of time in relation to football.” Reiterated expectation inevitably generates reflexive retrospection: “As I said, there will always be defeats” is followed three pages later by “As I said at the beginning of this book.” A section is devoted to the experience of being in the moment, but Critchley’s stylistic idea of being in the moment is to explain what he is and is not trying to do at any given moment: “I’m not saying that this is right, nor am I particularly proud of the fact, but just explaining what many of us do when it comes to football.”

At intervals he does seem conscious that something is awry, but acknowledging the “slightly ugly wording” of a formulation is a lot easier than fixing it. “I know this is going to sound odd to those who don’t follow football but self-evident to those who do, but I want to claim that there is a genuine intelligence at work in being a football fan.” Well, yes, now that you mention it, that sentence could be read as an oddly garbled guide to the dos, don’ts, and buts of clear style.

For the most part, Critchley seems unaware of his symptoms even while accidentally revealing the cause of the problems: “I have spent my entire academic career listening to people give papers, thousands of them.” So what do you expect? What he should have been doing is reading his own stuff more attentively. Were he to do this he’d also pick up on the idle scatter of superlatives whereby the diverse likes of Johan Cruyff, Gianni Brera, Brian Clough, Roberto Carlos, Mário Zagallo, Eric Cantona, Matt Busby, and Bobby Robson are all identified as “great.” Similarly, the “legendary” Bill Shankly (former Liverpool manager) is joined not only by “Liverpool legend” Kenny Dalglish but also by “the Brazilian legend Sócrates.”

Credit where it’s due: Critchley refrains from citing the Monty Python sketch in which two teams of philosophers, German and Greek — the latter featuring Socrates, naturally — take to the pitch. He also avoids quoting the old Camus line about how everything he learned about life he learned from playing football. These, sadly, are virtues of omission; by the time we learn of “a sadly predictable defensive error,” “sadly” has cropped up with some predictability. Marx “sadly” wasn’t thinking about football when he wrote of the free association of human beings, the fights between hooligans are “sadly legion,” theater has been “sadly ossifying,” and — “sadly” — Liverpool lost two consecutive finals of the Carling Cup.

These are not just wrinkles that could have been ironed out by an overworked copy editor. Style is not a glaze applied late in the day to make prose look or sound better. It is, in Martin Amis’s concise formulation, “intrinsic to perception” (and perception, in my layman’s understanding of the term, is what phenomenology is about). Of football in the 1970s, Amis recalls that “the fans all had the complexion and body-scent of a cheese-and-onion crisp, and the eyes of pitbulls.” Now, whether or not one shares this view or inclines toward Critchley’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” faith in the articulate intelligence of the huddled masses in the stands, Amis’s sentence is fun to read in the same way that Liverpool legend John Barnes’s legendary dribble and goal for England in the legendary Maracanã stadium in Rio was fun to watch.

Thrilled by moments such as these, football fans of all stripes are excited by sudden turns of pace, and they are moved to the point of ecstasy by Cruyff turning the Swedish defender Jan Olsson — and himself! — inside out. The purpose of both speed and turn is more than decorative. In England, the Professional Footballers’ Association chose Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté as its 2017 player of the year, opting for someone who defended consistently, efficiently, invisibly, rather than an exponent of the kind of hi-vis wizardry displayed by the previous year’s winner, Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City. When Ronaldo first came to Manchester United, he was derided by some pundits as a “fancy Dan,” a magician whose repertoire of tricks — multiple step overs, on-the-ball pirouettes — was performed to spectacular but limited effect. With the player’s growing maturity, and under the stern tutelage of Alex Ferguson, those signature moves acquired a lethal functionality by the time of his transfer to Real Madrid in 2009.

Translated back into prose, this means that though Amisian turns of phrase are a pleasure in themselves, the Orwellian virtues of clarity of exposition and analysis should never be undervalued. Ideally, of course, we experience both at the same time. The corollary is that monotonous, uni-paced prose — what in Memory Theatre Critchley identifies as “flat literalization” or a “static, inert, dead rendering” — is not just dull to read; its functionality is seriously impaired. Sections of What We Think About seem like they’re going to be fun. There is, for example, the chapter in which we are invited to contemplate what it is like to be a ball. It’s a cool idea, but as Critchley labors his way through some of Kant’s “laborious” terms, chucking in some Michel Serres followed by a bit of Thomas Nagel, there is a sense of the ball ontologically self-deflating. Especially if one recalls the spin Michael Hofmann put on this idea in his poem “Wheels”: “The ball, remembering who hit it, keeps going.” Once again we’re drawn back to something Critchley said in his book on Stevens: “Philosophers appear rather flat-footed in comparison with the mercurial flights of the poets.” Perhaps a further concession could be made here. People employed by the philosophy departments of universities are sometimes termed philosophers when they’re really just philosophy teachers. It’s not as though teaching an undergrad course on Milton, Keats, and Yeats makes one a poet.

If a ball is capable of a limited kind of sentience, then it’s possible, by extension, that the last twenty pages of What We Think About might have feared that they would go unread. For a little book, in other words, it takes a long time to get not very far. Strictly speaking, Joyce Carol Oates’s little essay On Boxing might not be a philosophy text, but it is a work of immense depth and stunning lucidity. Boxing becomes a way of addressing directly what Annie Dillard correctly identifies as the things she reasonably expected from philosophy before it “trivialized itself right out of the ballpark”: that is to say, “ultimate concerns.”

Part of the challenge for Oates in writing about boxing is that while “something profound is happening,” it happens “in a place beyond words.” I don’t know the philosophical term for this — if there is one — but occasionally in football there occurs a splendid coming-together between what is unfolding in a match and the language used to describe it. I remember, for example, a TV commentator identifying Paul Power, of Everton, as he ran up to take a free kick. “Power!” he exclaimed moments before Power duly powered the ball home. Footballers themselves tend to flounder in a grammatical no-man’s-land separating action and word. Occasionally, however, hesitancy of expression generates accidental felicity: the equivalent of a deflection taking the ball into the net. Playing for Tottenham against Watford in 1983, Glenn Hoddle executed a beautiful turn in severely confined, fiercely defended space before calmly chipping the goalkeeper. Talking us through what had happened in a post-match interview, Hoddle struggled to find an adequate translation for the corporeal language in which he had earlier revealed himself to be ingeniously articulate — and, in the process, came up with something I’ve never been able to forget. “After I’d done the skill” is the phrase that sticks in my mind — referring specifically to the turn. But the skill, of course, did not stop, or start, there. Ultimately — or, as footballers have it, at the end of the day — the problem is this: Critchley hasn’t got the skill to do the skill.

’s new book, The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, will be published next spring by Texas University Press. His most recent review for Harper’s Magazine, “Tennis Lessons,” appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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