Football is many things to many people. Pure escapism. Some time away from the wife and kids. A ninety minute holiday from the sanitised nature of everyday life. Come to think of it, for a sport characterised in so much promotion as being raw, no-nonsense clash-of-titans stuff, it does seem to be predicated on quite a lot of evasion.
But is it art? Despite all the labelling of diminutive playmaking goblins as artists, for all that they seem to have a dexterity and sensitivity in their feet more commonly found in the average tongue, they do not, when all is said and done, produce anything we might recognise as art. Surely, these are merely the logical cul-de-sacs cliched commentary leads you down. See also: Jamie Redknapp’s ‘That cross to Rooney was literally on a plate’.
Outside the commentary box, it’s harder to equate your Iniestas with your Goyas without feeling ridiculous and revisionist. And, to be honest, it certainly feels like an upwards struggle from here trying to persuade anyone otherwise, give that the term ‘sport’ has been performing an understated, solid role (in the Makelele position, if you will).
But suppose we don’t categorise something as ‘art’ for having attained some preordained level of prettiness, but instead examine its capability to strip away palatable coatings, and bring us into terrifying proximity to the true world.
So what element of life does football hold up a mirror to? It’s predicated on perfected physicality, so perhaps we gain insight into our own bodies, and experience the game as we might Michelangelo’s David or a Bruce Lee Movie. Well, yes, perhaps. Conversely it might argued that the strength, speed and decision-making required at professional level are so alien to the average punter that they might as well be watching a different species. Moreover, to kick something is very much a niche act, to the extent that, faulty machinery aside, most people who don’t play regular recreational sport haven’t actually kicked something since… well, since they last played recreational sport. A litany of world cup injuries has granted the average England fan a deeper knowledge of lower leg muscles than they might otherwise have had, but really a ninety-minute football match does not tell you much about your place in the world.
Very well, but what if we take into account more than what’s happening on the pitch? What if we factor in all the surrounding rigmarole and circus? Could it be art?
You could certainly argue that a director of football filling that problematic left back spot with a u-19s Hungarian winger shows at least as much mental creativity as that which goes into an average watercolour. There is a simpler reason, though, that the wider footballing world qualifies as art, and it is linked to the medium’s propensity for looking through the familiar.
Over the course of a process dating back to early Sumerian attempts at crop management, our lives have been increasingly lived according to the mandate of the number. The number is the universal language, and it subsumes everything. For many, the bureaucratisation of civilisation, the dry equation of integer to event, has created a distance between us and the mechanics of the society we belong to.
To say that filing tax returns, editing CVs or budgeting are boring is a fact of life so universal that it’s repetition is banal. Of course no one enjoys wading through the mathematics of their own lives. It’s obvious they would rather be doing something more arbitrary and recreational, like enjoying a film, gossiping or watching football. And yet this was never so predetermined as one might think. We thoroughly enjoy those biological necessities of sleeping, eating and sex. We do not hate performing our role in an economic society because grappling with important issues is inherently boring, but because the systems we use are (whilst fantastically efficient, and responsible for massive increases in wealth and life expectancy) alienating, impenetrable to many, and resoundingly boring.
The wider world of football (WWF? Probably best not to add to a crowded market), which incorporates the transfer market, rumour mill and all manner of footballing infrastructure, has become of increasing interest to the average punter. To the frustration of better halves the world over, fans are often better able to list their team’s transfer budget than they are to calculate their own tax rates. Meanwhile, jaded recruiters escape down the pub to discuss their team’s potential acquisitions. Strangest of all, Arsenal’s recent capture of Borussia Dortmund’s head of recruitment thrilled fans who couldn’t have cared less had their own company hired ten new teutonic headhunters.
So what does it all mean? Undoubtedly there are plenty who would look at this burgeoning interest in behind-the-scenes dynamics and see nothing but time wasted. But is it a waste of time to read Shakespeare, and feel one’s empathy expand in the spaces between page and verse? By that same standard, is it not a good thing that there is a medium through which the disenchanted can be entranced by the staid-looking workings of society?