Barcelona vs. Chelsea and the changing ontology of football

28 Apr

Jose Mourinho summed it up well when asked about the criticism levelled for Chelsea’s remarkable semi-final victory over two legs against Barcelona in this season’s UEFA Champions League. He also spoke to what we may begin to speak of as a new ontology of modern football:

They know nothing

Some people think they are the masters of the game and they will criticise Chelsea in the same way that they criticised Inter two years ago, but they know nothing. Nothing.They know nothing about character and personality. They know nothing about the effort or what it is to resist physically, emotionally and technically, with 10 men. They know nothing about organisation. They know nothing. That’s why my heroes at Chelsea are in my mind and why Chelsea deserve to be in the final. One of the great things about football is that it is unpredictable“.

The Bayern Munich coach, Jupp Heynckes, whose side will meet Chelsea in the final following a dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the second semi-final, admitted he was surprised Chelsea had reached the final but praised them for a “tactical masterpiece” against Barcelona.

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech simply stated that… “this is why everyone loves football: things happen which you just cannot explain“.

The Guardian’s Richard Williams wrote

On one side there was delighted admiration for a revelation of character under supreme duress, on the other a scathing contempt for a team who were considered to have abdicated all responsibility for playing the game in a way that might entertain the multitudes and inspire impressionable children. You really would not believe we had witnessed the same match“.

Explaination, or our thoughts and emotions, are constructed in the language we use to express our understandings of, in this instance, football. We might hear that a game is a masterpiece, a travesty of justice, or, in the case of Petr Cech, unexplainable. Those that try, says Mourinho, know nothing. For philosophers, interest lies in the world of experience and explanation outside often beyond our language capabilities. In other words, football can only be explained through the way we understand our conceptions of the world. This dogmatic language we repeatedly hear through the media channels and on the streets around the world is merely a reflection on the way we conceive the world, and the game of football.

What alternatives do we have?. Why do we know nothing? Have we witnessed a different game?

Firstly, let us consider the possibility that a football match is more than merely a game. That players are more than purely men running about looking to control a ball. Our language has become accustomed to thinking through, and representing what we see via the categories of understanding that we learn through our conceptual ideas about the world and the game. We may agree or disagree with the way Chelsea overcame Barcelona, but what lies beyond this disagreement?. If we move beyond the category of representation then we enter the realm of what might be?.

For Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher of the metaphysics, the way the game might be represented is the result of two essential functions: Distribution, which it ensures by the partition of concepts (common sense) and hierarchization, which it ensures by the measuring of subjects (good sense). So, a game may be exciting or boring or unjust or confusing. We use our ideas of representation to clarify our thoughts, just as Plato, Aristotle and Kant have done in the past. When the game is viewed differently, it is because different people draw upon categories of explanation (common sense) that are stable, rather than offering porous possibilities. What if we consider dropping the (common sense) categorical identities we use to think about the game, and help us explain it, and instead look beyond recognizable conditions that dictate our judgements of the game?.

Bear with me, as I quickly identify the elements we use in representing our thoughts (thanks to Aristotle, who, should you ever find yourself in a philosophical quandary, usually has the answer). We judge things and conceive our world in terms of: identity, analogy, opposition and resemblance. We adopt common sense, and try to use this through the rationale of good sense. Language and our conceptualizations about the world dictate our expressions and actions in other words. So why can we look to football as a way beyond the conformity of thought?.

Ontology, in traditional analytic philosophy, refers to the study of what there is. This could be very general (what constitutes the universe) or specific (what constitutes a football encounter). Or, what makes up the psychology of the mind, the body in social interaction. Another take on ontology, looks at the study of being. What is being or what is it for something to be?. For Foucault and Derrida (yes, French philosophy can be useful in this instance) ontology of the human being is fraught with bias based upon the historical conditions of our existence and the language used to explain it. The ontology Deleuze refers to, takes a new approach to many before him, by looking at the question of how things might be, rather than continuing attempts to explain the fundamental nature of the universe (and football) which in itself is bound by the limits and categories of our explanations.

Football then, rather than being a project of explanation (of our thoughts, emotions or technical analysis) can be seen as an ontological project of creation. We need to create and employ different concepts which will enable the game to be seen in a different light. We need to see the potentials in the game that open up a multiplicity of perspectives, free from the categories of representation we see employed (often frustratingly) today. We need to look at the differences apparent in the very elements mentioned above we use for making sense of our world. By sticking to rigid conformity and mechanical repetition (as fans and as reporters/thinkers of the game) we continue to immerse ourselves in the very structures of judgement that confine us to scratching our heads on a regular basis when things don´t make sense. Football, like ontology, need not provide answers, but can be seen as an arena for thinking about future possibilities that extend into all aspects of our lives. We can look at the differences taking place on the football field, easily highlighted in the semi-final matches between Chelsea and Barcelona, rather than using stable conceptual identities to form and fabricate our analysis of the game.

Philosophy, ontology and football do not provide answers, if we continually try to place ourselves in coherent frameworks of understanding. By describing a game as good or bad, or a team as extravagant or adopting anti-football, we are adopting concepts that are interlinked with a multitude of difference, yet we represent them as static categories. Difference then, ought not to be something we can easily represent, or we step back into the same old realm of dogmatic thought. Difference as represented through football, is what lies in the unexplained (Petr Cech mentions this) beyond the conformity of the various representations and reactions to the game. Football is not about finding answers to easily stated problematics. A victory is a victory (and to some, but not all, the most important thing) but there are many ways of achieving this. The solution, or the result, can often take precedence in defining the way the game is played. A new ontology of football then, seeks to stretch what everybody knows or perceives, and enters into a world of the unknown that is full of potentials. It is like feeling ill, and having a confused doctor poke about on your stomach. There is an issue, but it is hard to define despite our best efforts (whether it be poking or representation through language).

Mourinho was right in saying that “they know nothing“, as was Cech in saying the game “cannot be explained“. Perhaps they are aware of newer ontological ways of thinking about football?. Representation cannot capture everything about football. How then, does language help us with this new ontology that seeks to broaden the questions surrounding what the game (life) might be like?. Language will always be an asymmetrical representation of the way we conceive of our world. Just as thought will always involve both conscious and unconscious elements. If we accept what we hear and read, and find ourselves making judgements on a game of football in an uncritical way, then maybe the task of thinking through a football game will not take up more than the odd 90 minutes of your time. If, however, you see others as knowing nothing, yet cannot explain things yourself, then you are a mere mortal (like Jose) and a new ontologist. Football is often spoken about in terms of models and prescriptions, but needs to be viewed beyond the comfort zone of our engrained bias. There is more to the game than we know, and we are yet to see what it may be like.


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