Not A Safari

South Africa's World Cup, as seen from New York City

the geometers II

Football isn’t only dance. It doesn’t exist for its own sake or for the sake of its appearance. It has, as does any other sport, in-built agon. One main brief of all sport is to gain a result out of an oppositional situation. You are tested against an opponent (as in football) or against a field of opponents (as in golf).

This oppositional brief often contradicts the other important brief, the aesthetic one. To play beautifully is not always sufficient to guarantee victory over opponents, nor does victory always come about through beautiful means.

I am thinking of Xaviniesta and La Furia Roja again.

Their (I wish to say “his,” so linked are the two in my mind) footballistic intelligence, running in an inevitable but unpredictable circuit through David Villa, David Silva, Jesús Navas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, Cesc Fabregas, and others, depending on Obelix’s* requirements in a given game, is called ticky-tack: short, smart passes, played along the ground (or “on the floor” as is sometimes said).

Ball comes to feet and in that moment, there are geometric questions that can only be answered by instinct and experience. The ball comes to you and you must pass it on; the number of bad decisions available tends towards infinity and, because football is oppositional and because there is a fit and highly trained professional athlete bearing down on you at speed with the sole intention of dispossessing you, the number of good decisions tends towards one. The angles, even with a second’s lag, quickly become impossible. You must find the one right decision, the least bad decision, so that the ball arrives safe at the next teammate’s feet in a way that gives him the second or two necessary to gather himself, and he must decide correctly too, and the man after him too.

Watching Xaviniesta, one is awed at the timing and perpetual correctness of the decisions. In any position there is a move to make and it is generally made without the benefit of a television camera’s aerial view.

You don’t hear Xavi or Iniesta’s name much when a game is being called. The ball rarely dawdles on their feet, and yet it keeps coming back to them. Xavi, who plays the more central role, generally completes 90% of his passes in the course of a game. The ball’s will and his will are united. It, the ball, wishes. It wants.

The art historian Alois Riegl described “Kunstwollen” as the tendency of forms to seek out, in the course of historical progression, their ideal forms, and I feel there is something correspondingly teleological about the mind of the ball when it collaborates with the mind of Xaviniesta and their Spanish comrades.

Will is expressed, and this is perhaps why, in the fulfillment of the aesthetic brief when Spain (or its club cognate, Barcelona FC) play, there is a satisfaction that can surpass mere victory. Ticky-tack is asymptotic towards a goal, yes, and goals do come, yes, sometimes in great numbers, sometimes not.

At times, the ball does not desire to leave its state of euadaemonia within the polygons. It hungers for the continuity of these blessed geometries, and so the passes ramify forwards backwards crossfield into the penalty box then out again and out to the corner and back to the center and on and on as if (as it indeed is) it were an end to itself. To aid this literal down-to-earthness, most players for La Furia Roja are around five foot seven or five foot eight. They are suitably close to the business.

Alas, life teaches that it is the inelegant teams at times, teams poor in possession and rich in aggression, that win titles, teams like Italy (or its club cognate, Inter). Little matter. Satisfactions vary, and to enter into agreement with the ball is a tremendous one.

*Obelix: current coach of La Furia Roja, Vicente del Bosque.



Filed under: magic

One Response

  1. I am so enjoying these posts.

    Have you seen this essay, btw?

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