Football and Thought—or On The Relief of Faux Certainty


I’m watching the World Cup match between Germany and Portugal with a newcomer—one of the many introduced to football in the United States during this year’s tournament. He asks a lot with honesty and eagerness, which flatters me a little. Some questions demand a simple answer—Why the goalies wear different colors, for instance. But more often than not my answers seem insufficient—say, What exactly is an offside. One must keep in mind the exceptions to the rule, and then the circumstances of each specific play. What if the referee misses a determinant event on the pitch. Despite my attempts to simplify, the possibilities of the game are such that one ends up wondering as well what would the right call be on Pepe’s slightly slapping Müller’s face, or on Müllers’ annoying but all too common theatrics, or on subsequent macho gestures and teasing, A head-butt, Was that even a head-butt, It kind of was—one may call a foul and move on, one may show yellow cards to both men, one may do nothing at all, we speculate out loud overwhelmed by Milorad Mažić’s resolution, the indisputable redness of his call. This is it for Portugal, I hear myself babbling. And then the question, from the rookie to the long-standing enthusiast: Is that fair, is that the right call. His question requires something that cannot be delivered. A head-butt without the ball at play, of course it is, I say. But, would you have made that call. Hell, no. This is one of the toughest aspects of the game to explain: football offers so much room for interpretation, that few plays demand a unique right call. Mostly, there is no right call at all; there’s the call made by the referee, and then there’s the endless debate—by which I literally mean endless.

Germany Portugal - Pepe Red Card - WC 2014

Pepe receives a red card - Source


In The Life of Mind, Hannah Arendt theoretically divides human intellect between Thinking and Willing. If following this dichotomy, one may draw a line in which the poles lack essential components of the human experience—at the risk of simplifying too much, let me label for instance logic and epistemology as disciplines of the realm of thinking, while ethics and aesthetics seem more prone to the realm of willing. This poles are abstract categories and therefore inexistent purely in reality. But our ways of understanding our life experience slide over this line, approaching either edge every now and then. Religious belief rests on an excess of willing, while hard data processing rests on an excess of thinking—while the former demands definitive answers that cease thought, the latter is unable to grasp purpose in its perpetual inquiring. It is not difficult to understand that leaning towards either side of this hypothetical line shapes our character.

(I can understand that some people might want to know which side “is better” or at least which side “is better in my opinion”—in order to either agree or disagree, to pick a side. But those are futile questions.)


Two days ago (June 25th), Teju Cole posted a short essay on the narrative value of football, stressing a contrast between assumed national qualities both in storytelling and sports. An American story—it is implied—is nursing and explanatory in terms of virtue and certainty, the same way sports in the United States seem to be; the doubt must be erased from these stories, from these games: there are indisputable winners, who reach that status based on their effort and value. This understanding of sports and stories exposed by Cole promotes the constantly debunked myth of meritocracy in the United States. Until very recently, American stories were mostly framed, distributed and ranked by the same demographic, which is why the rather recent though legitimate backlash against—nonetheless great—American authors like Philip Roth or John Updike has taken them and their followers aback. The same thing has happened with sports: the debates on the safety of American football players or controversial brand names were unimaginable when a homogeneous group of people controlled the answers about what sportsmanship was supposed to be. No draws, no mismatches, no doubts, no interpretation of the rules was conceivable in a country that had already all the answers—and therefore had no need to look for them, no need to wonder, no need to think. At least that’s what the excess of willing was hoping for, because—as pointed out above—absolute certainty is an ideal and cannot exist in reality. (Congratulations to the clever one who mockingly asks here if I am sure of that.) But life is not so and no one’s experience of life is so, though all of us lean towards believing unchallenged answers when it suits us. Football does not prevent us from doing that: one still may—however slightly—head-butt another player and then bemoan the unfairness of the punishment; this is too a self-serving attitude, as it is to believe the preconceived notion of certainty and fairness in those other games measured to the last inch. The ambiguity of football cannot erase our hypocrisy. But football does have a rare quality in the abundance of plays that demand interpretation, which translates into thinking, not knowing, getting it wrong sometimes, or getting it right—but in only one of many possible ways of getting it right. This is hard to explain. Mainly because, regardless of how used one may be to the game, it keeps surprising us all each time.