Football from the Realm of Pure Feeling

/ by Richard Marshall

In Hellmuth Costard’s Fußball, Wie Noch Nie (Football As Never Before) we watch George Best playing a single match for Manchester United in 1970. There are no cutaway shots and the screen is filled almost exclusively with Best. Only one camera tracks him throughout the 90 minutes. The film multiplies the entities we associate with Best. He walks, spins, runs, even occasionally receives the ball, communicates to unseen team-mates, looks away to unseen things. But mostly Best is a lone figure and the film is concerned with more than what happens and what is true. It’s concerned with what is possible, what kind of fact Best is here, and its worth. We’re being shown something outside of the aspect of being real, actuality or truth. It looks at Best in the light of all the different sorts of significance he could have. It is a thought experiment. It is Aristotelian: It is an engagement with ideas and meaning, an investigation of reality at its most profound. This is a secret cosmos that refuses the general and the narrative. More than narration, entertainment, titillation, ideas or meaning the film presents reality. Best here is not what he is when portrayed using the usual media paraphernalia. There is no commentary, no larger and more general context he is part of. He appears as a grounding figure, something more fundamental than the game, the team, the social context, the items that aren’t there in the film. He is a ghost entelechy, the soul in the least part of the matter. Watching Best becomes a source of learning. Heidegger says that it is a hallmark of our existence that we are a problem to ourselves. Costard’s film reminds us of this: He is bringing to attention something that the mediated, constructing, socializing paraphernalia hides. Best is brought into the open to make perspicuous the way this figure is a coordinate in a whole way of life. The film lets us catch ourselves in the act of unthinking engagement with the world. It displays the visual field itself. It displays the very idea of a footballing celebrity, of originality, and reveals what is concealed when just looking.


Years later in artists Douglas Gordon and Phillippe Parreno’s Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait we watch another iconoclastic figure from the sport. This time it’s Zinedine Zidane playing a match for Real Madrid in 2004. To a Mogwai soundtrack that asks: Make sense of this, bring this into focus, see me if you can, he prowls back and forth, occasionally touches the ball, makes a run, takes a free kick, mutters to the ref and overall gives the impression of a metaphysical truth rising out of the aforementioned Aristotelian metaphysics of grounding. At the end, he is dismissed for a brawl that erupts for seconds. In this film, 17synchronised cameras focus on this single lone figure and again invite us to look again at what we see when we watch the game of football. Again, the individual is suddenly seen as more fundamental than the bigger, more general features that lie outside the film. The parsimony of both films scandalously pares down the plenitude of tv football’s conventional representation. The contrast is between how the TV show’s conventions make sure everything is understood, and the art film, whose business is to wonder whether anything is. In so doing, we are cast out from our understanding of what football is and given a platform to think about our unthinking engagement with the world. We are removed from the flow and first-order modalities of all social organization. We plunge into the agony of being human, recognize that we are knee deep in schemes of organization which we never authored and which are opaque.


It turns out that these films present themselves as ways of modelling football for ourselves. And it shows us that there could not be football without the need to model and adjudicate it, to try and understand it better. We take that for granted in the first place. These art house films recreate what normally we let recede from view and stay comfortably, flowingly, in the background. They set up our worlds just as, for example, writing works to make language possible.


In the two films Best and Zidane are simple substances that enter into composites of other substances. They are the parts of the whole that are without parts, without extension, without shape and, divisibility. and are the true atoms of the game, the grounding elements of football’s things. They arise and pass out of existence only through creation and annihilation, they exert no genuine causal influence on one another, they contain within themselves only perception and appetition, are mind-like and primitive. The mystery at the heart of both films is how these primitive simples become the composites that are the familiar fodder of the conventionally mediated football game. In presenting the mystery the films embed at their heart a metaphysical seriousness. Both are meditations on what a portrait is, or could be. Alva Noe writes this about the film: ‘It achieves this end by removing the rhetorical setting and context that alone make conventional portraiture possible’. The film portrait is transformed from a series of moving pictures into ‘not really pictures (or portraits) at all, but rather, works of art’.


Everything exists, but very few things are fundamental. How sparse can this fundamental landscape be? Some philosophers pare everything back to one substance. And from whatever landscape we end up with we then ask: how do fundamentals ground non-fundamentals. If Zidane grounds the whole football match, how does he do this? What is the grounding relation between himself and the rest? How do fundamentals compose? Leibniz writes in a letter of 1714 to Remond: ‘I believe that the entire universe of creatures consists only in simple substances or monads, and in their aggregates. These simple substances are what we call mind in us and in spirits, and soul in animals… Aggregates are what we call bodies’.


The films show what this ‘Zidane’, this ‘Best’ is, or is becoming, as we watch. The unfathomable mysteries in the film are about the synchronic relations between the causal and the constitutive elements. As we continue to watch each player in his element we are confronted with the question: What general metaphysical relationship is this all being subsumed under? Three things to remember: First; grounding entails the non-fundamentality of the grounded. Second; grounding generates the grounded from the grounds. Third; grounding entails the dependence of the grounded on the grounds. Grounding is not a trivial or superficial relation. It is non-reflexive, asymmetric and non-intentional. It is primitive.


These haunting figures aren’t playing the game of football. Rather they are models, and models are a sort of proxy. They are put to work for us to think about something else. ‘The scientists model provides a structure whose investigating will reveal, say, the behaviour of molecules under certain conditions. The fashion model shows you how the clothes will look when they are worn at their best… the animal model in biomedical science is an actual animal, whose reaction to a medicine… is supposed to carry information about how a closely related species (human beings) would react to the medicine’. There it is.


Zidane and Best are models for investigating the portrait of the footballer within a space of critique. We find value in these sublime creatures moving through the world. What is being produced is a realm of pure feeling – where each response is as independent from anyone else’s, yet each claims that it is a thing of value, and not just to me. Our subjective judgments are taken to be in the Kantian ‘universal voice’. They require impartiality, the ‘free play of the imagination’ and what’s at stake is what kind of person you are. These films ask how you’re going to assimilate, make sense of and evaluate the facts. Alva Noe writes: ‘…that is what is at stake in aesthetic criticism: our ability to understand and… love one another’.




Alva Noe, Strange Tools Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

John Cummings, Dominic Aitchison, Zidane, A Portrait of the 21st Century 2005

Hellmuth Costard, Fußball, Wie Noch Nie (Football As Never Before), 1970

Richard Marshall

has been a contributing editor at 3:AM magazine since 2001. He is currently running a long series of interviews with philosophers and has two collections of these published by OUP.