You're Discussing Football All Wrong

We spoke to philosopher Simon Critchley about his new book, 'What We Think About When We Think About Football'.
Illustration: Henry Cooke

There's a way of talking about football that in the last few years has come to feel very outdated. It's the language you'll find in the tabloid press, on AM radio phone-in shows and in conversations your dad has with his acquaintances down the pub: a world of "aces" setting clubs on "red alert", "mixers" that must be got into at any cost, the England Band and bonking scandals.

It is The Mirror's resident Arsenal toady John Cross, Harry Redknapp and Paul Merson. It is terrified of foreigners, sceptical of stats and has a drivetime show on TalkSport. It is archaic, bloated, complacent, useless and repetitive to the point of apparent senility, the same dull fuckers having the same conversations over and over again, season after season, turning the world's most adored game into one of those late-night seshes that resembles less a party than it does a hostage situation. It's held sway far too long. It lets football down. But it doesn't have to be this way.


In his new book What We Think About When We Think About Football, the best-selling philosopher and lifelong Liverpool fan Simon Critchley attempts to establish a new "poetics of football", a means of talking about the game that isn't highfalutin or elitist, but elevates it out of the maze of cliche and rhetoric that it so often finds itself mired in. It's a popular game – basically all-pervasive – so why shouldn't we find a better, more thoughtful and moving way to reflect the "moments of transport and enjoyment" it can bring us?

I called Critchley at his home in New York to talk about the footballing importance of ghosts and identity; the sentience of the ball itself; the effect the internet is having on a new generation's experience of the game; the Jabulani ball from the 2010 World Cup and the differences between "vulgar clock time" and the different type of time that exists within the limits of a football match.

VICE: How long have you wanted to devote serious energy to writing a football book?
Simon Critchley: I've written a couple of pieces about football in the last few years. I did an art show around the 2010 World Cup called Men with Balls, in New York, which was basically just an excuse to watch games – but I began to think about it more. I wrote a piece after Brexit and England's defeat by Iceland in the European Championships for the New York Review of Books, reflecting on those two events happening so closely together. And then I got this invitation to give a talk in Basel in Switzerland. The people seemed very nice so I used it as an occasion to kind of pull everything together. That became the first version of it and then it developed into a book over the last year, very quickly, thanks to the editor at Profile, Mark Ellingham, who's very good. He forced me to be more explicit and forthright.


You talk a lot in the book about your childhood experiences with the game. Can you relay a bit of that for me, what it was like?
It was like many people's. I was taught to play before I could walk, and all my family are from Liverpool; my father used to train at Anfield. They were in the Second Division back then so it wasn't such a big deal. A lot of it was based around that, and then I played obsessively and it just so happened that the team we supported went from being also-rans to dominating the world. It was a fantastic period to be a Liverpool fan.

The only thing I ever talked about reasonably with my father was football, and the book is partly about that, and also the generational issue of passing things down from one to the next. My son's in London, and a much more disappointed Liverpool fan than I was. Football stirs up these elemental things that are connected with childhood. There's a bit in the book where Zinedine Zidane talks about wanting to get really close to the TV to watch Telefoot as a child. What he liked was the sound of the French commentator, Pierre Cangioni: his voice. When Zidane used to play himself, he'd commentate on what he was doing simultaneously – it's that strange thing about football, as a kid, where you weren't just playing; you were playing and fantasising at the same time, distancing yourself from yourself somehow.

Time is something you talk about a lot in the book. Taken to its most extreme expression, do you think football can allow for a kind of time travel?
Yeah, totally, in a really banal and humdrum but unexpected way. The philosophical point that football makes, which is of great interest to me, is that we have an understanding of time as a linear sequence of points defined by the present. In that linear understanding, the future is not yet present and the past is no longer present, and time is a line broken up into regular units – seconds, minutes, hours – and that's what time is meant to be, fundamentally. Yet what happens in our experience of football is that time accelerates and decelerates – when you're watching football you experience these kind of shifts in the intensity of time. And that's very interesting, because that's a very good illustration of the way time is actually experienced. We don't experience it as a continuum; it's a series of intensities that morph in shape and develop, and there can be periods of intense boredom and then periods of instant acceleration. The odd thing about football is that it reveals something really important about the malleable quality of time, I think.


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As well as time, I think what's at the heart of why I love football is that compared to other sports, there's a real chaos of space. Anything can happen at any point of the game in any area of the pitch, which you don't get with many other games.
You can say the same thing about space as you can with time; it has this sort of malleable quality. It's something that shifts, and a great player – I think here of Thomas Muller, the German, who they call the "raumdeuter", or "space interpreter" – is one who can occupy space and draw space around him as well. When you're playing you realise that's how it is – it's a very subtle art, that, that space can open up, close down, and you can make it, interpret it. So space, again, has this malleable, elastic quality that is not inside the head of the player.

One point I keep making in the book, which is important, is that football is a play that takes place in time and space, but it's not in the head; it's out there, in the shared sensory experience of the whole thing. And when we talk about football, and we ask footballers questions, we expect interesting answers, which we almost never get, because they're spatial interpreters and time travellers and they can't necessarily articulate that – it's up to us to try to make sense of it.

I like the idea of seeing a footballer doing a post-match interview after scoring a hat trick, and the football being a kind of artefact he's brought back from his adventures in time and space.
Yeah, I mean, it's not that footballers are dumb – they're not often really highly educated – it's more us and the way that we imagine their spatial and temporal intelligence must be translatable to words. But that doesn't happen. I don't know if you've got to the chapter where I wonder what it's like to be a ball, but when you're playing football, the ball – which is objectively just this lump of plastic – has a life, is animated, and it seems to have its own volition and will. Which is how it feels when you're playing – like everything is alive and everything is participating in this total experience.


On that note, to what extent would you agree that the Jabulani was the real star of the 2010 World Cup?
Oh right, yeah, every World Cup has a new ball and they're always a disaster. Every international competition there's a new ball, a new technology. Adidas develop it, with the consequence usually that every free-kick goes flying over the bar, people can't control it; it's bewildering! I remember when they played the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, and that was apparently the reason why no one could score free-kicks: because the altitude affected the flight of the ball. I don't buy that for a second.

Scotland fans in 2016. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Archive/PA Images

What do you make of the modern, multi-screen approach to watching football – people streaming two or three different games on different tabs on the laptop, Sky Sports News or whatever on the TV in the background, a phone with Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp all running? What do you think that will do to the way future generations interpret the game?
Good question. You can see the generational difference between me and my son. I do Facebook messaging with him. I'll be looking at a couple of websites on the laptop just to track what's going on, but basically I'll sit down and focus on one game on my TV. And he doesn't; he's looking at three or four things simultaneously. Does it fundamentally change the experience of football? I don't know.

A huge amount of internet use is said to be people just kind of cycling round the same tiny maze of websites, gargling content and data in order to pick up small blasts of dopamine. To what extent do you think the football industry – things like Sky Sports News during the transfer window, "Football Twitter" – exploits these compulsive behaviours? Could football have become as inescapably popular as it is today without the internet and people's reliance on it?
I think the internet has been broadly good for football. It used to be the case that football would exist in the UK predominantly on the back page of the tabloids, and it was rubbish. In the last 20 years we've seen the rise of serious football journalism, and I think the technological developments have raised the levels of sophistication with which people view the game. So for that reason I'm very optimistic; football writing is a really interesting developing area – what you find on The Guardian, and in publications like The Blizzard.


At the same time there's a kind of fatigue, I think, with football, which I talk about at the end of the book in the chapter on disgust. We're fully aware as fans of the corrosive presence of money in the game, which is not new, but the levels of investment have obviously increased, and then there's the fact that the whole structure is corrupt, particularly FIFA. So there's a sense in which football is, for me, a kind of symptom of the world at its best and worst simultaneously. I think fans are completely aware of that. One of the points I try to make is about the intelligence fans possess now. Discussions of football are an activity of rationale that I think is really, really interesting, philosophically. They have to be taken seriously, and football fans are not duped, they're not idiots, they know exactly what's going on. And it's a constant activity of compromise – when you're compromising your love of your team or your interest in the game with the fact that this thing is being supported by money that's flying from the most questionable sources, and the governing bodies are useless.

"Football isn't really a sport at all – it's that place where people's relationships to the past, to identity, to who one is, who one wants to be, are all played out in the most powerful way."

You return often in the book to your belief that football is essentially socialist – as such, do you think there can be such a thing as an auteur in a football team? Someone who plays by his own rules, outside of the system the rest of the team are bound by?
Like Cristiano Ronaldo? Yeah, yeah. The point I'm making about socialism, though, is deliberately exaggerated; based partly on what I want to believe, and also football's strong historical links to working-class associations with sporting clubs and pubs and all the rest. Unlike the sports here in the US – baseball, American football or whatever – football is much less individualistic; it's about a team that has to function together as a matrix of people. So there's something egalitarian or socialist about the structure of the team, and also about the relationship between the team and the fans. But at the same time there are players who are rabid individualists, who expect the team to play for them, which is arguably what's happened with Ronaldo the last couple of seasons, brilliant as he is.


Did you have any aim in mind when you were writing the book?
It's not meant to be a highfalutin take on football, though that's how it'll be interpreted no doubt. It's an attempt to use words to construct a kind of poetics that gets close to the experience of football. And that dignifies that experience. I think there's an extraordinary intelligence among players and fans, and it's finding a way for that to be respected in a way that isn't delusional. That's what I'm trying to do.

For me, it's a question of knowing everything that is wrong with the game – and an awful lot is wrong with the game – but still being able to access these moments of transport, and enjoyment, and delight that one can have, which are unique to football and don't really translate into other sports. Something I could really argue, even though it doesn't make sense, is that football isn't really a sport at all – it's a kind of life activity that sort of looks like a sport; it's that place where people's relationships to the past, to identity, to who one is, who one wants to be, are all played out in the most powerful way. And in football it often feels that you're not in control of your destiny – there's a kind of fate at work.

English and Dutch fans getting to know each other. Photo: Jos van Zetten, via

We talked about linear time being disrupted and warped by the experience of watching a football match. I wanted to ask as well if it's had any effect on your interpretation of time away from football? I've noticed that my friends who are into football really hate the idea and reality of turning 30, which is obviously the age at which a footballer is meant to be over the hill.
Yeah, I feel this through my son, Edward, who lives in Brixton and is now 25 and older than most of the players, especially at Liverpool. I stopped played 20 years ago, when I was 37, so it's a distant, lovely memory for me.

What role do you think the English football team plays in the national psyche? It seems like our relationship to the national side is fundamentally different to what you see in other countries, though there might be some proximity bias at work there.
It is a melancholic, depressive and sick relationship, where everyone expects the worst to happen and it usually does. It's utterly different from any other nationality I know, especially the Germans and Italians, who expect to win and usually do.

As someone living in New York, are there any differences in the ways that Americans and the English perceive football? And how about football and rugby – can you pinpoint any differences between those?
Yes, completely, but it would take me hours to explain. One thing that's particularly awful, though, is when Americans say "great shot". I am usually pretty quiet during games, apart from swearing occasionally. As for rugby, I have no idea – I hated it when I had to play it, for five years, at school, where I was a tight head prop and kept getting punched.

Alright, last question: if you could update the book with thoughts or impressions from the Premier League season so far, what would the extra chapter be about?
Manchester domination, I guess. The triumph of Pep and Jose. It makes my skin crawl.

What We Think About When We Think About Football is out on the 2nd of November through Profile.