“I’m painting an idea not an ideal. Basically I’m trying to paint a structured painting full of controlled, and therefore potent, emotion.” (Euan Uglow)

The beauty of football is that it is essentially a subjective pastime, it can be as simple or as complex as the individual wishes it to be. There is no one way to watch football, no template for interpretation, no defined set of behaviours to adhere to. Football can be mathematical, it can be scientific, it can be poetic and it can be abstract. The same simple action can be delineated in a multitude of ways, each as improbable as the last.

Disciples of Knowledge

Football is only a game and, like any captivating pursuit, it has strategy at its core. Chess and football share much in common, they are both based around the outwitting of an opponent through the fluid movement of objects around a defined space, one set of movements eventuating in a more desirable outcome than the other.

In recent times there has been an upsurge in the amount of popular public interest in tactical method and stratagem. Through his book, Inverting the Pyramid, and his wonderfully accessible work for The Guardian, Jonathan Wilson has created a new generation of amateur strategy enthusiasts and cultivated a greater appreciation of tactical theory in the mainstream media. Wilson’s legacy is to be applauded, the “average fan” is now arguably better informed than ever before thanks – directly or indirectly – to his influence, something which has come to be reflected in the widespread criticisms of the analysis offered by popular broadcasting outlets (I use the word ‘popular’ in its broadest possible sense).

However, despite a good deal of the tactical evaluation that has been precipitated by the rise of Wilson being of an excellent standard, I fear that the simple act of watching football is becoming analysed to the point of being a soulless and mathematic process. While Wilson and Zonal Marking usually strike a healthy balance between hard analysis and cordial contemplation, many that have followed in their footsteps have not done the same. Everywhere you look football is being scientifically dissected to within and inch of its life; aesthetics and romance seemingly usurped by an almost disturbing, surgical quest for distilled knowledge.

The value in theorem and analysis is evident and it can be enjoyed to an extent, but those who see football as a more profound and existential distraction are in danger of being marginalised by the current eminence of tactical obsession. Football as Art

“I dream a lot. I do more painting when I’m not painting. It’s in the subconscious.” (Andrew Wyeth)

Where some see football as a purely factual exercise, a testable hypothesis, others choose to interpret it – perhaps to too great a depth – as an intellectual, artistic pursuit. David Winner, author of the superb Brilliant Orange, believes that the game is a cultural metaphor, a mirror reflecting societal attitudes towards the arts.

Early in the book Winner explores the idea that Dutch football has been influenced by the history of art in the country, the unique use of space in both architecture and painting coming to impact on the use of space on a football field. “There is a sense of beauty that goes with football in Holland” Winner writes, “The beauty is in the space and in the pitch. It is in the grass, but also in the air above it, where balls can curl and curve and drop and move like the planets in heaven.” Despite common stereotypes, Dutch football is not all about systematic organisation, it has at its heart a great fondness for sense of gracefulness the game generates, a notion that simply cannot be quantified through “analysis” alone.

Although football is clearly a team game, to see it only as a channel for collective systems and theory is to denude the game of its true majesty which comes, more often than not, in the shape of individual brilliance. As Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, recognises, the balletic elegance of some of the world’s finest players in isolation is more than worthy of subjection to artistic principles.

Indeed, the linkages between football and aesthetics have long been grappled with amongst the artistic community. The Swiss artist Stefan Banz explored this very question in his video installation entitled “Hitzfeld” which attempts to examine the consequences of artistic concepts appearing within football. What Banz was essentially recognising through his work is that, at its best, football is an object of pure, spontaneous and subconscious imagination rather than a quantifiable science.

Conclusions

As I said at the beginning of the piece, one of football’s great attractions is the sheer number of ways it can be interpreted – some clearly far more intricate than others. It is, after all, just a game, and there are no binding rules dictating the methods through which it is analysed.

However, football is not known as “the beautiful game” for nothing, it is arguably the most aesthetically satisfying sport on the planet and to overlook its elegance seems, at least to me, to go against one of the game’s most basic conditions. Tactical analysis has its place and is certainly highly significant, of that there is no doubt, but it is not the be all and end all and should not be viewed as such. If it was to become so then football, separated from its rich narratives and reflective philosophies, would be a far less enriching experience for all concerned.