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Why Soccer, 'Working-Class Ballet,' Continues to Thrive

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Why Soccer, 'Working-Class Ballet,' Continues to Thrive

Cristiano Ronaldo sprints downfield against Barcelona and collects a long return pass outside the penalty box. He cuts right past a defender, shoots and scores over the diving goalkeeper. Ronaldo tears off his jersey, and he stands bare-chested, hands on his hips, screaming in front of the world – a vicious mock of Lionel Messi’s post-goal tradition that earns the Real Madrid star a yellow card. Afterward, he struts and laughs while Barcelona sulks.

Two minutes later, Ronaldo is tossed from the Spanish Super Cup game. His dive in the penalty box led to a second yellow, and he reacted by shoving the referee, a stunt that earned him a five-match ban.

Soccer is a game of seconds, a game that Simon Critchley calls “working-class ballet.” Critchley’s new book, What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, is an ode to the smooth, dirty, dynamic game of passion and power. Soccer is a game where heroes become villains in a heartbeat, and Critchley makes the sport’s myths tangible without removing our sense of awe.

A British-born philosopher whose previous books range from considerations of Martin Heidegger to David Bowie, Critchley’s style is clever and playful. His book is an invitation to appreciate the sport; fans will love his smarts, but those new to the game will also feel welcome (as a Brit, he uses the word “football” in the book, but reassures us that soccer is a “perfectly dignified name for the game”).

What make soccer unique, and worthy of such literary meditation? How the “game flows, its hypnotic effect,” Critchley tells Rolling Stone. Soccer is “distinctive in not being owned by a particular culture. I mean that the game was codified in Britain in the 19th Century, but it is played much better elsewhere, in Italy or Spain, say. So, there is both something intensely local and peculiarly international about soccer.”

Critchley’s book opens with a scene at a bar in Moscow this past summer. He’s watching the Champions League final between Juventus and Real Madrid while locals sing The Cure and Queen. He thinks of next year’s World Cup, the first ever to be held in Russia. Although Critchley is a devoted fan of the game, he’s refreshingly honest about its problems: “if there is an emblem for all that is politically questionable and morally dubious then it’s the fact that the entirely corrupt governing football association, FIFA, has colluded with the entirely corrupt Russian government.” “Football,” he says, “does not enable you to feel good about the world. It is a symptom of pretty much all that is wrong and it is sometimes very hard to love. Yet, still there will be something wonderful at the next World Cup, something beautiful and unexpected. And Germany will probably win (again).”

Throughout What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, Critchley returns to the “delight and disgust” he and many fans feel for the game. Soccer is innately dirty. The game’s best players are shrewd performers. Critchley explains “there is a real pleasure in watching the rules being bent, the laws being pulled to snapping point.” When asked which current player best captures this delight and disgust, Critchley’s answer was swift: “Luis Suarez. No doubt about.”

Suarez is “probably the best player that Liverpool have had in the last 15 years. He’s not having his best season at Barcelona, but he’s brilliant. From a rough, tough Uruguayan background, not the most skillful or technically gifted player and a cheater (handball in the World Cup against Ghana in 2010, numerous dives) and a biter to boot (notably in the last World Cup). But a player possessed of an absolute determination to win, and with a will that can simply decide to change the course of a game. So, delight and disgust in equal measure. Maybe more delight.”

That’s the language of a scholar who happens to be a true fan. A philosophical book about sports can turn flat quickly, but Critchley isn’t in love with his ideas – he’s in love with the idea of soccer. Soccer is a methodical game that is never quite boring, but rather suspenseful – the climax can happen at any moment. Soccer fans have a “pensive distance from the game”; they are both hypnotized and present in the moment.

The booming stadium, the bravura from performers like Ronaldo and Suarez, the dramatic play against finite time – Critchley returns to the idea of soccer as theater. His lyric portraits of Zinedine Zidane, frequent references to Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, and methodical considerations of gameplay make a reader wonder: are players themselves aware of the poetic sentiments of the game?

“Not at all, no,” Critchley says. “Maybe some of the coaches see the philosophical side of the game, which is the cliché about Pep Guardiola,” the Manchester City coach. Critchley tells says what he wanted to “do in the book is to construct a poetics of the game which allows us to better understand a new aspect of the beauty of the game. But one does not need to be aware of this in order to enjoy soccer. I try to show that there is a sensate ecstasy to the experience of soccer that hovers at the edge of awareness. My task is to try and make it explicit.”

Critchley’s gift in his book is the ability to capture the poetic moments that pass from sometimes drunk lips of fans screaming at the pitch from their seats or philosophizing at a screen in a bar. Soccer might be played by legends, but it is a game for all of us.

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