Football and philosophy might not immediately suggest themselves as bedfellows. Yet some years ago, the London Review of Books made a tidy supplementary income from its line of “Philosophy Football” T-shirts. The apparel came adorned with a selection of choice quotes by philosophers and football philosophers (memorable and pithy insights into the game by some of its greatest managers).
Perhaps the most insightful, incisive and witty T-shirt slogan came from Jean-Paul Sartre, who noted that, “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposing team.” Indeed. If only those other 11 players were not there to block, contest, oppose, propose another direction for the ball, a different script for the play, a contrary narrative for the game.
Sometimes, though, the presence of the opposing team can count as nothing. It is in such singular and sublime moments, graced by the genius, skill and lightning perceptions and vision of a great player, that football becomes aesthetically transcendent and truly the embodiment of the well-worn description of it as “the beautiful game”. In such instances, a game too often dominated by money and the desire only to win becomes art.
In these rare, indelible cameos, the opposing team is rendered impotent, frozen by the exercise of an almost divine will and power. Among the most striking of such examples are three pieces of play by two Argentinian immortals, Diego Maradona and Lionel “Leo” Messi.
Maradona’s evergreen strike, dubbed “The Goal of the Century” at the time – and in top spot for that still, despite the stellar efforts of Maradona’s compatriot Messi – came in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England. The political context of the game is significant: Argentina and England had fought a war over what Argentines call the Malvinas Islands and English the Falklands just four years before, in 1982.
In a particularly repulsive example of red top tabloid journalism, English newspaper The Sun headlined a story about the sinking of Argentine light cruiser the ARA General Belgrano, and loss of 323 lives, with: GOTCHA! The Royal Navy submarine Conqueror torpedoed the Belgrano on 2 May 1982, 37 years ago this week. The lives lost on the Belgrano came to just more than half of all Argentine military deaths in the war.
More at stake than a win
Fast-forward to Mexico and the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal between these same nations. More than the result of a game and a place in the semifinals was at stake because of the Malvinas war. Imagine, then, when Argentina went ahead by a dubious – downright illegal, the English said, and continue to say – goal, seemingly from the hand of Diego Maradona. There is an image of that in the photograph above. So, Argentina 1, England 0.
But even as the English players and coaching staff and supporters and commentators seethed, a piece of unforgettable magic was looming. Maradona got the ball on the right-hand side of the pitch (as seen from the Argentine side) and scythed his way through most of the English team. Competent defenders were left flat-footed, turned, immobile. The video footage of the run-up to the goal and the goal itself are here, with matchless commentary in Spanish, an exuberant and delirious celebration.
A peerless moment? Everyone thought so at the time, the image of Maradona running through the English defence seeming like the personification of the adage about a hot knife through butter. And, besides, lightning can’t strike twice in a team game with countless permutations. Yet, confounding metaphorical wisdom, Messi created a similar, look-alike, feel-alike goal about 20 years later, playing for Barcelona against Spanish club Gatafe. Messi, who turns 32 in July this year, was 19 at the time. The goal and his swift, slaloming run through the opposition is here.
The similarities between Maradona’s conquering run and Messi’s are clear to see. These are companion goals, equal in their astonishing evisceration of the other team, their calm, their ruthlessly confident execution.
As the sports editor of New Frame says, with conviction – and a wealth of examples to back that up: “Sport brings joy.” Yes, even to fans and supporters of the very teams that have been on the wrong side of mercurial genius such as that displayed by Maradona and Messi. It can indeed be a surpassingly beautiful game.
This week, there was another vignette that those who saw fashioned will never forget. It occurred in the Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Liverpool and has been replayed and viewed countless times on YouTube and other sources since. Again, it was Messi, with what some pundits describe as “the most magnificent shot ever … Totally sublime. The Mona Lisa of free kicks.” Here it is, showing that sometimes, though very rarely, Sartre can be wrong.