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The World's Most Anarchic, Hectic Sport: Welcome to 'Three-Sided Football'

The game was devised by a Danish philosopher as a way to explain his refinement of the Marxist dialectic. It's as confusing IRL as it is on paper.
August 26, 2015, 12:20pm

A game of three-sided football. Photo by Mark Dyson

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It's a cool September evening in 2013, and somewhere among Istanbul's minarets a clock announces that today has passed into yesterday. The streets are quiet now, a stark contrast to the energy that had been coursing through them in the months prior, when the Turks were occupying Taksim Square. The protest camps were cleared out by August, but the police presence remains, water cannons at the ready should the protesters decide their work was left unfinished.

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A number of silhouettes emerge from side alleys and descend on the dead civic space, chatting in a confusing mix of English and German. They begin to remove their jumpers and arrange them to form a hexagonal football pitch in the center of the square. There is the soft smack of polyester colliding with brick as they begin passing a football around, throwing an occasional glance at the police officers who are eyeing the foreigners with suspicion.

Within half an hour, the footballers have attracted the curiosity of a number of locals and there are nearly 100 people running around the square, a cacophony of languages splintering the silent evening. The boundaries of the pitch have long since ceased to matter, the teams are amorphous and no one can quite seem to remember what the score is any more—which is pretty much exactly how this game is meant to work. Because while those tasked with policing the square might not have realized it at the time, what they were watching was revolution in action, coded in the language of football.

"It was stunning—one of the best games of three-sided football I've ever played," recalls Mark Dyson. "Just absolutely gorgeous."

This means a lot coming from Dyson, who plays for the Deptford Three-Sided Football Club and has been intimately involved in the world of three-sided football (3sf) since the beginning—or at least since it made its way from paper to the pitch.

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3sf was originally conceived by Asger Jorn, a Danish artist and philosopher, in 1966 as a method of explaining his refinement of the Marxist dialectic (resulting in something Jorn referred to as "triolectics"). Jorn was a member of the Situationist International, a loose organization of anarchists, Marxists and avant-garde artists who had become disillusioned not only with the promises of the increasing technological rationalization of everyday life under capitalism, but also the dogmatic responses of the anti-capitalist intelligentsia at the time. They sought creative alternatives to all facets of life, seeking to deconstruct the limits of work, play and everything in between. Although Jorn's theoretical reworking of a central Marxist tenet never really took off, his attempt left a legacy that is increasingly felt around the world.

Keep up with VICE Sports' coverage of the more conventional two-sided football here.

"Jorn was hopeless at trying to describe [triolectics]," said Dyson. "He was coming completely out of left field, and no one had a clue what he was talking about. So he came up with the metaphor of three-sided football to explain it."

In keeping with the antiauthoritarian spirit that gave birth to the sport, the rules of 3sf are few, and considered more as guiding principles than steadfast laws. In general, the game should involve a ball, three teams and a hexagonal pitch—anything beyond this is subject to spontaneous revision.

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Unlike conventional football, a team doesn't win by scoring the most goals, but rather victory is predicated on how few goals a team concedes to its opponents. This arrangement is supposedly meant to expose the ideological underpinnings of conventional football, which is confrontational, aggressive and deterministic: There is generally a clear winner and loser, and players must operate in accordance with rigid rules and well-defined strategies.

With 3sf, much of this disappears.

FIFA's video "How Three-sided Football Works"

"When we started, we thought you would consciously go up to other teams and say, 'Should we have an alliance?' and strategize like that," said Dyson. "But it never works like that. When you are playing, you genuinely have no idea whether you are going to be playing with that team or that team. You can look at it with rationality and say, 'This should happen if you want to win,' But then the dynamic of the game takes it in a completely different direction. It is, as Jorn predicted, an absolutely sublime form of spontaneity."

By all accounts, Jorn never lived to witness an actual iteration of his theoretical game. Following his death in 1973, it seemed as though 3sf was destined for obscurity, like much of the rest of Jorn's philosophy. Yet, in 1994, the game was given new life by a group of Situationist-inspired architecture students who had convened in Glasgow for their annual winter school session.

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Known by many as the Anarchist Winter School, the group was dedicated to pretty much everything except architecture and was comprised of radical leftists and members of the avant-garde art community, such as Reclaim the Streets and the London Psychogeographical Association. It was here that Dyson first met Fabian Tompsett, a member of the Psychogeographical Association who happened to be translating Jorn's works from Danish.

Dyson didn't know it at the time, but this chance meeting was the beginning of a close friendship that would eventually give rise to the first 3sf league in the world.

Photo by Mark Dyson

According to many three-sided footballers, if Jorn was the father of the sport, then Tompsett was its son. At the 94 Winter School, it was Tompsett who first suggested that the group test Jorn's theoretical sport to see if it was really as valuable as the Dane assumed it to be. So at Tompsett's behest the group donned their jumpers to brave the frigid Glasgow temperatures, playing what was the first manifestation of three-sided football in history. Although it only lasted about half an hour, by all accounts the game was both a monumental success and a dismal failure.

"Most of us had had a bit too much to drink and certainly a bit too much to smoke when we went out to the pitch," recalled Dyson. "I vaguely remember the first five to ten minutes as about 50 people just running after the same ball. None of us were footballers, so it must have looked appalling. This went on for about half an hour, but it was bloody freezing so we quickly abandoned it and fled to the pub."

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Despite the lackluster spectacle of the first 3sf match, the game was all but dead. It continued to spontaneously spring up in the most unlikely of places (including a slurry dump dubbed the "Dundas Hill Moonscape", tenement roofs and even in the middle of a forest), largely living on in the European anarchist book fair circuit thanks to Tompsett's ardent promotion of the sport.

Following the initial match at the Winter School, 3sf quickly became little more than a happy memory for Dyson. Then, while attending a performance by his close friend and artistic collaborator Stewart Home in 2011, Dyson met Neil Transpontine, an artist and member of the Disconauts, a group of experimental artists intent on going to space with a profound interest in 3sf.

According to Dyson, the duo got on "like a house on fire" and decided to host a memorial 3sf match in the Southeast London neighborhood of Deptford.

Deptford was perfectly suited to the match for a number of reasons: Not only does the area allegedly have the largest concentration of artists per square kilometer in Europe, but, more importantly, unlike most of London's parks, Fordham Park is a free communal space that is not policed.

"Normally we'd have to pay the local authority a fee to use the grass because someone is mowing it and police are making sure that no drunks come into the park and start kicking off," said Dyson "There are lots of drunks in Fordham—it's lovely. They normally come and watch, and occasionally they even run onto the field to help us out."

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Unlike most sporting events, the unsolicited participation of drunk spectators is not a nuisance, but rather an integral part of the spectacle. As Dyson puts it: "This is a free and open game. Even though we have teams, anybody who turns up and wants to play is always welcome to come on the pitch."

As Dyson's allusion to the game's principles of radical inclusion suggests, 3sf will always remain philosophical at heart, as much a game as an effective form of social critique. This is especially true for the Philosophy Football Club's manager, Geoff Andrews, who views the sport as not just a theoretical vision come to life, but a salient counterpoint to the corruption of conventional football by way of runaway corporate investment and the rigid control by massive clubs.

Members of the Association of Autonomous Astronauts play a game of 3sf at the 1997 Intergalactic Conference. Image courtesy of Ewen Chardonnet

"[3sf] seems like an idea whose time has come, given the state of world football," said Andrews. "We play on free pitches, don't need the patronage of the state or commercial bodies and it sits easily with the amateur spirit and internationalist values."

With a significant presence already established in Europe thanks to the efforts of Tompsett and others, the game has also found support down under, where league matches are regularly held in Melbourne. There have also been teams established in places such as Turkey, Malaysia and Japan, suggesting that the appeal of the sport easily transcends cultural and national boundaries, much like its conventional analog.

In light of the global proliferation of 3sf, a decision was made to host the first three-sided world cup in Silkeborg, Denmark in May of 2014. While the rest of the globe had their eyes trained on Brazil for the FIFA matches, teams from Turkey, Lithuania, the UK, France, Poland, Denmark and Germany duked it out for the title of the best 3sf team in the world.

Following the relative success of the 3sf World Cup, the London three-sided footballers managed to garner enough attention to form the six-team Luther Blissett league, which meets on the Deptford Green on the first Sunday of each month to play two simultaneous matches, September through June. Like almost everything else associated with the sport, the name of the league is derived from a nom de plume adopted by hundreds of artists and activists around the world in reference to an England footballer whose heyday was in the 1980s.

"The Luther Blissett league is still very much predominated by either surrealist/Situationist types or anarchist/Marxist types, or a combination of the two," Dyson said. "We are influenced by… the life of the street, graffiti, posters, using the city as an ongoing art gallery, going on drifts to see what we find. [We're] just trying to work as little as possible and play as much as possible."

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