Curious Moral Weight

by quavaro

The first time I watched Cesc Fabregas play, I was struck immediately not by the incisive pass or curling shot, but by the sheer beauty of his movements on the ball. It seemed as though I was watching a sculptor’s process compressed to a few seconds, and I was exhilarated by the suspense of creation that came just before the pass, assist or goal that was the quantifiable result and apparent purpose of his actions.

Indeed that thoughtfulness and the intricacy of the passing leads to the perception (belied by the fact that Arsenal take the most shots on target in the Premier League) among commentators that Fabregas and Arsenal play like a team of Hamlets, obsessively seeking the perfect chance, using misdirection or maybe simply hesitating, throwing their opponents and often themselves into confusion. As noted in the IT Crowd, even the uninitiated can fall back on the knowledge that “The thing about Arsenal is that they always try to walk it in.” Nonetheless, after first watching Fabregas play, it was clear to me that there was something different about soccer, a dimension that existed but was less appreciated in the popular American sports I grew up with. David Silva has said that Fabregas “treats the ball as his friend,” and the ball seems to return the favor, the perfect weight splitting an opposing defense and trailing off perfectly only for Cesc’s teammate. One feels a peace and rightness when he is on the ball, rather than the violence beneath the surface in much of sport. It is the mystique of virtuosity, the reason that people crowd stadiums to see Radiohead but are simply annoyed to hear you fumble through a cover of “Karma Police” (although my cover of “Karma Police” is spot on).  I was instantly seeded in the camp of aesthetes in the debate between pragmatism and beauty in soccer. I would be an obsessive idealist–I would rather my team, as Cesc himself once said, “lose than win without style.”

The attitude is irrational, an idiocy perhaps, but isn’t soccer, and sport, basically idiocy? Not in a bad way, of course. The great artist Gerhard Richter suggested that painting was an idiocy, explaining that “One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting. But if one lacks this passionate commitment, there is nothing left to do. Then it is best to leave it alone. For basically painting is idiocy.” Replace “painting” with “soccer” and it might be Arsene Wenger speaking.

Of course there are people who disagree, who go so far as to say soccer is not an entertainment at all. Jonathan Wilson points out in his article which extolls the virtues of pragmatism in soccer, that “the rules are robust enough not to have required significant tinkering to try to force teams to play a particular way…certain terms [such as “reactive”] have taken on a curious moral weight.”

No team should be forced to play in any particular style, but there is rightly a moral weight to certain terms. As Wilson points out, beauty is not required–it is superfluous to the pursuit of victory. However, beauty has value, and the presentation of a pleasing spectacle in pursuit of victory takes extra effort and extraordinary skills. “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Beauty is all to Keats—surely it is something to everybody. The article seems to suggest that competing without flair is morally level with competing while providing a beautiful display, but I can’t pretend that it is.

If soccer is not idiocy, surely following it is–so then why follow it? Why obsess and suffer and feel the vicarious joy? I am not exactly sure if it is not for the entertainment or the beauty of it. It is not perfectly rational, and I’m ok with that. Irrationality and delusion are dangerous in government or in the workplace, but where can we be irrational and deluded if not in or around a game?

– Nart Varoqua (