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What We think About When we think about Football PDF

What We think About When we think about Football

What do we think about when we think about football?

Football is about so many things, so many complex, contradictory and conflicting things: memory, history, place, social class, gender in all its troubled variations (especially masculinity, but increasingly femininity too), family identity, tribal identity, national identity, the nature of groups, both groups of players and groups of fans, and the often violent but sometimes pacific and quietly admiring relation between our own group and other groups.
Football is a tactical game, obviously. It requires discipline and relentless training to maintain the fitness of the players, but – more importantly – to attain and retain the shape of the team. A team is a grid, a dynamic figuration, a matrix of moving nodes, endlessly shifting, but all the while trying to keep its shape, to retain its form. A team is a mobile shifting form pitted against another form, that of the opposing team. The purpose of the shape of the team – regardless of possession, regardless of whether you play offensively or defensively – is to occupy and control space. The way a football team tries to control space has obvious analogies with the policing of space or the militarization of space, whether in terms of attack or retreat, occupation or siege. A football team should be organized like a small army: a compact, unified, mobile and skilled force, with a clear chain of command.
As many have said before, football is the continuation of war by other means, but the means of football are clearly bellicose:
it is about victory (and sometimes heroic defeat).1 As Bill Shankly – my boyhood hero and legendary Liverpool Football Club manager from 1959 to 1974 – said, football is about basic things: control the ball and pass, control and pass, all the time. When controlling and passing is combined with movement and speed, where, after each pass, there are two or three options open to the player with the ball, then eventually the team with the ball will score. And whoever scores the most goals wins. It’s as simple as that. But as the late, great Johan Cruyff, said, ‘Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.’ Unlike sports like golf and tennis, or even baseball, cricket and basketball, football is not individualistic. Although there is no doubt that it has a celebritydriven star-system where players demand and exert ever-increasing amounts of financial autonomy, football is not just about the individual players, no matter how gifted they might be. It is about the team. Football is essentially collaborative. It is about the movement between players who play together and play with and for each other and who make up the mobile spatial web of a team. Now, a team can be made up of truly gifted individual players, like Barcelona, or of less gifted individuals who function together as a fused group, an effective unit of self-organization where each player knows exactly the role they play in the overall formation of the team.
I think of teams like Leicester City in the English Premier League in the 2015–16 season (who really gave football back to the fans), or a team like Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup or Iceland in the 2016 European Championship. With teams like this, the whole is clearly greater than the sum of the parts.


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