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Reviews — From the December 2017 issue

Dead Ball Situation

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

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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.”

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’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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