Chris Ledger on how one of the twentieth centuries' greatest philosophers was inspired by the beautiful game.
The seminal French philosopher and writer Jacques Derrida loved football. He played the game throughout his teenage years, after all. He admitted, during an interview in 1991, that his abiding dream was “becoming a professional footballer” and, more crucially, that his philosophy and thought was inspired by football. The idea that Derrida’s philosophical theory of deconstruction was influenced by football has been supported and analysed by academics.
It has been claimed by Allan Hutchinson in his 2005 essay ‘If Derrida Had Played Football’, for example, that Derrida’s philosophy was influenced by rejecting the ideas of classic philosophers, such as Plato. It was claimed by Plato that there was only one game, the game of games, and there was only way to play it. This was because it was God’s eye-view of the game and the game would be over, if it was not played in one particular way.
It is clear that football, like the world, does not match Plato’s theories. There is not one ideal way to play it, considering the formulation of the different types of players, formations and tactics over the years. Football is not the game of games either, as there are several different games in the world. Life also is not the game of games, as football could be considered as one of many games in life.
This means that football and life is not seeking an ultimate goal but it is opening up in a fluid way, so that new games and players can find new ways of playing. Giuseppe Signori, for example, would not have experimented and innovated by playing in football boots that were too small for him, without the mindset to think originally and creatively instead of rationally. This means that Plato’s theory, as stated by Emanuele Isidori in the 2010 paper ‘Deconstructing Sport: When Philosophy and Education Meet in Derrida's Thought’, would kill football and its creative essence by having just one possibility in which the game could be played.
The problem that Derrida had with Plato’s philosophies, according to Hutchinson, was the failure to resist the temptation to divide the world into categories, and that the game of games had to be so precise and stable. This is not the case as players ranging from Lionel Messi to Maicon are not homogenous, nor do they have a one-dimensional and predictable playing style. Derrida instead built upon ideas by German philosophers - such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger - who believed that whilst games like football had unestablished rules, they allowed for choice and play which challenged the static and rational styles of understanding.
Hutchinson stated that Derrida developed these theories by suggesting this did not turn all truths into falsehoods, as there was no guarantor of knowledge and different ideas of truth developed as the game went on. There is, therefore, no right or wrong way to play the game - whether it is Tony Pulis’ long-ball tactics or Xavi’s creative flair - it is just different.
These ideas can also be tried and tested - as players, including footballers, are involved in the game - but these ideas could never be seen as the foundation of knowledge, which explains why different types of players are instructed to do different things. This led to Derrida’s idea of deconstruction that the supported contradictions and internal oppositions of a text could be exposed, to the extent of structuralism’s concept self-dismantling.
When you bring football into Derrida’s philosophies, they are in parallel to each other. Football is a self-developing process, where players and coaches have found new ways of playing since the game’s conception. This can be from Pele becoming a pioneer of the game and Jack Reynolds being one of first adopters of total football to the recent discussion of central wingers existing. This means that new ideas will be introduced and can co-exist with past ideas, in a sport that can always be improved and considered as imperfect.
Derrida went on to state that there are finite and infinite elements of games, including football. This means, according to Hutchinson, that there are finite episodes of football matches within the infinite possibilities of football, where each episode is part of a strategy to continually reformulate every moment of football. Few people would have imagined George Weah’s goal against Verona in 1996, showing that there are infinite possibilities in a football match.
This means anything can happen and fortunes can rapidly change in a second half of football, whether it is good or bad. Tranmere Rovers’ famous 4-3 victory over Southampton in the FA Cup is an example of this, after the Prenton Park outfit found themselves trailing by three goals at half-time.
Hutchinson also explained, in contrast to Plato’s static concept of life, Derrida’s emphasis of all games being played out “as an embodiment of cultural lessons and broader messages”. This shows that football is affected and influenced by issues such as finance, ethics and politics - as shown by the introduction of the forthcoming UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, and the continuing discussion about issues such as racism - and vice-versa.
Hutchinson went further by describing football as “a rare blend of military battle, religious ritual, class warfare, sexual encounter, cathartic release, and much else besides”.
Due to the inter-relating nature of football and culture, Hutchinson compared Derrida’s influential writings to Diego Maradona and Eric Cantona. This is because Derrida, in the same manner as the two players, utilised a “crazy combination of incomparable technical skills, unpredictable temperament and exquisite eye for the main chance who dazzles and deconstructs with his audacious fakes and feints, mazy dribbling and his deadly finish” alongside the more conservative elements of play.
It could be said, from this, that Derrida could be seen as a footballer through his philosophy. Instead of conforming to the norms of football and philosophy, Derrida thought of pioneering concepts that showed off his flamboyancy, rebellion and stubbornness. Hutchinson also suggested great artists, including philosophers and footballers, have the ability “to improvise, experiment with and transform conventional standards for playing law’s infinite game”.
Due to Maradona and Cantona’s footballing philosophy mirroring Derrida’s, it could be argued that the two iconic footballers could also be seen as philosophers. All three of them, for instance, have been “unpredictably talented and talentedly unpredictable” as well as being misunderstood outsiders. They all took risks that transformed conventional standards – whether it was Cantona’s early retirement from professional football, Maradona scoring the ‘Hand of God’ or Derrida’s long and bitter feud with Michel Foucault – which were seen as a successes, failures or a combination of both. The three famous figures also appreciated the outside influences of their games, with Derrida’s later works having ethical, political and cultural undertones, as well as Cantona and Maradona’s involvement in cinema and television after retiring from professional football.
This argument, of course, has flaws as Derrida admitted the limits of his talent as a footballer, and it is unlikely that Cantona and Maradona had the required writing flair to become professional philosophers. There will have been other complex influences, apart from football, on Derrida’s thinking. But the idea that his philosophy was inspired by football is an undeniably unique and compelling concept, which has some logical foundations.
Chris runs the superb Obscure Music and Football blog. You can follow him on Twitter @obscurefootball.