Some words are impossible to forget. They lie tingling behind your eyes, refusing to leave, rendering you faint just with the sheer thought.
As it buffeted to a halt at Newcastle-upon-Tyne the train almost seemed inaudible and the 18-year-old me sat slumped back in the seat. I remember distinctly, staring vacuously through the train window and beyond the platform, no thought or sound other than Albert Camus’ musings, involuntarily repeating in my mind.
I can still see the few solitary raindrops that ran down the outside of the window as the train ride came to an end. They eventually caught my eye, snapping me back into the present.
Words I had begun to read at the beginning of the journey from Edinburgh finally made sense. At least I thought they did. Either way I never forgot them:
“In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.”
I had stumbled upon Camus by chance as a result of listening to the Manic Street Preachers during the early 1990s. If his literature was good enough for the stupendous Nicky Wire he was OK by me.
A reading frenzy ensued. The Plague, The Fall and The Outsider/The Stranger were devoured in quick succession. Camus was certainly a shock to the system. His writing chimed with my own feelings yet also jarred at the same time. The work stood up to multiple readings and gave several insights into life all at once – a new experience for me, then. Perhaps that is part of his eternal appeal.
At that time football had yet to consume me. Since then, however, I have been compelled to explore whether there were any parallels between the Algerian-born philosopher and the beautiful game – and, there were. It transpired that an urban myth had emerged years earlier surrounding the former Nobel Prize winner’s association and football.
There have been claims that he represented Algeria, and even France, at national level during the 1930s. These claims are false – but never let the facts get in the way of a good story: as with football, the allegory is also part of the charm.
However, Camus did play the game and perhaps those rumours were originally generated by Camus’ own strength of feeling for football; infamously he is reported to have said:
“After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”
The Albert Camus Society is sceptical regarding the sentiment:
“People have read more into these words than, perhaps, Camus would want them to. He was referring to a kind of simple morality he wrote about in his early essays, an ethic of sticking up for your friends, of valuing courage and fair-play.”
“Camus believed that the people of politics and religion try to confuse us with convoluted moral systems to make things appear more complicated than they really are, possibly to suit their own agendas. People may do better to look to the simple morality of the football field than to politicians and philosophers.”
Whatever your interpretation, do supporters not all engage with the game with every last fibre of their beings? In return does it not provide us with the opportunity to experience the full gamut of human emotion, with its own set of rules and ethical codes, written and unwritten, which we are all expected to follow?
Surely then in Camus’ quotation, there has never been such a better and succinct way of summarising football as life.
Born in 1913 to French parents, Camus lived a poverty-stricken life until university allowed him to develop his fortunes, becoming a Resistance journalist for French underground newspaper Combat during the Second World War. Living most of his adult life in Paris, he moved used his Nobel Prize winner’s cheque to purchase a home in a village named Lourmarin, located in the.Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region of which Marseille is the capital, and lived there for two years before his premature death in a car crash.
Before the complexities of adult live took hold Camus had in fact been somewhat of a genuine ‘hot’ prospect within the game in his youth until at 18 tuberculosis took hold and ravaged his body.
Camus wore the number 1 jersey – a goalkeeper. The late Lev Yashin could have been describing a character in a Camus novel when he spoke of goalkeepers: “What kind of a goalkeeper is the one who is not tormented by the goal he has allowed? He must be tormented! And if he is calm, that means the end. No matter what he had in the past, he has no future.”
Camus joined his school team and was exceptional by all accounts. He was so good in fact that his talents in football progressed along with his education. Whilst at university he joined Racing Universitaire d’Alger. Thankfully, for literature at least, despite some natural ability between the sticks, Camus was unable, due to his illness, to progress further in the sport than his university team. Football’s loss was philosophy’s gain.
For his fans it is considered very apt that he ‘kept goal’. Indeed, why would someone who is one of the 20th century’s greatest existential thinkers – an ‘outsider’ – take up any other position?
Existentialists will of course also make remarks about goalkeepers having their own unique mindset, about being detached from the rest of the team, being isolated figures on the pitch. Yet the truth behind Camus’ initial involvement in the game may be less glamorous. If we think back to our own days in the schoolyard, goalkeeper was the position normally foisted upon the least talented friend. Perhaps Camus’ talents in goal came about simply after being forced to play there in those early days? Either way, his eventual success between the sticks, just like on the page, cannot be in doubt.
A love for the beautiful game remained with him even later in life as he kept an active interest in Lourmarin's own club team, regularly attending their home games. When asked by a friend which recreational activity – theatre or football – he preferred, he replied, “football, without hesitation”.
The subject of football also made it into Camus’ The Plague. Interestingly one of the passages within the novel states: “They discussed the French championship, the merits of professional English teams, and the technique of passing.” A character also remarks, “You see, old boy, it's the centre-half that does the placing. And that's the whole art of the game, isn't it?" This little insight might suggest that the Algerian-born Frenchman saw himself differently from how others perceived him. In his mind it is conceivable that he would have much preferred to be a cultured defender, dictating the game from defence rather than being the forgotten man in goal.
Speaking about her father’s subsequent death, Camus’ daughter said: "…I don't know what he would think of the world now, with its race for money, and consumerism and disregard for the suffering of individuals.
"I cannot speak for him, but I know that what he wrote is still relevant and still speaks to people today."
The beautiful game has rather descended into somewhat of a race for money and consumerism. These are issues that Camus wrote furiously against. Therefore, in the world of football, Camus is far from being the forgotten man. His words and indeed his musings on the sport itself seem just as urgent and relevant as they were over 50 years ago. Albert Camus: football’s first ‘outsider’.