Why is the ball round? Why do footballers open their shirts to celebrate? What is a goal? Come discover the secrets of football symbolism with David Winner.
Outside a madhouse, in an empty lot in Buenos Aires, several blond boys were kicking a ball around.
“Who are they, papa?” asked a child.
“They are crazy people,” answered the man.
– Eduardo Galeano
I wish I had been a bit better at football. If I were half as clever with the ball as I am thinking about it, I’d have been the Paul Robinson of football writing. You remember Paul Robinson, of course, the former England goalkeeper, with a tendency for well-directed long punts (goal kicks)?
I reckon my punts would be longer. Unfortunately, I was bollocks at the application side of it. More like a Simon Mignolet whose kicks end up sideways as if there had suddenly been a strong gust coming in due to an acute drop in pressure in the North Irish sea.
So, I chose to vent with words. And those words, the more often they were written, started making more sense than the last amateur-hour iteration of it. Until seven years later, it took a ghostly figure that undead stories hitching a ride in your head take: when the lights used to go out during overtime at my advertising job, it appeared right in front of me. And at day time, hang out in the corner of my peripheral vision – like the Safari Web browser with the open football book .pdf file behind Adobe Illustrator. The Adobe Illustrator had a washing machine advert saying how the company paying for the advert reinvented the washing machine. And on it was my puff piece at the side for reference. I think back now and wonder if it was a premonition, or maybe Casper the fecking ghost warning me of the path I’ve taken.
I have finally managed to accept myself who I am: a beggar, a borrower and the occasional mender of stories. I live with my eyes outstretched for warm food, bouncy bedding and a good football book. And it’s like being in love for the first time. Awkward, fumbling, and wondering if the story enjoyed itself being written – constantly, like a doting lover. I confess to not being a writer, but the embarrassing poet you become when you’re smitten.
There are dangers to being in love with the idea of love. There’s the danger of being run over, for instance: On 25th February 1980, shortly after attending a luncheon (there were luncheons back then) hosted by Francois Mitterrand, Roland Barthes – the Isaac Newton of semiotics – was struck by a flower van which was delivering flowers to a funeral, while he was crossing the Rue des Ecoles. His eyes, filled as they were with the visions of signs and symbols of everything at once, didn’t have enough room for a traffic light going red in the corner. What’s mysterious is that the injuries he sustained were not life threatening. He might have just passed away from the shock and absurdity of it all.
Barthes was a Super Mario that used the helmet of neologism to power through brick walls of truism and societal norm. You can do it too. All you need to do is devote to the science of signs. You start off by asking not why the Stonehenge look like goalposts, but why a goalpost looks like the Stonehenge. Or, say, why the ball is round?
Barthes’ teachings are a rediscovery of an ancient Greek rhetoric of deconstructionism, where the norm ‘what-goes-without-saying’ is the enemy of reason. “The starting point to these reflections,” Barthes said, “was usually a feeling of impatience at the sight of newspapers, art and common sense dressing up unusual established patterns and standards as normal. History and tradition have determined them.” How lucky for us, then, that when it comes to the subject of historical artefacts that possess culture and symbolism, football is old as time.
The ball is round because the sun is. Round, sacred, and wholesome – the green velvet spread the game was played on denoted the farmlands. 5000 years ago, before the ancient Chinese discovered gunpowder, trade and diplomacy, they learned how to juggle the ball between their feet. The sun wouldn’t be held by the hand nor touched by the ground, because divine ordinance, if mishandled, may scorch.
The Aztecs played a sport which resembled football. They would behead the winning team’s captain as an honour sacrifice, so that the fields may remain fertile and the heavens, timely. This can be seen as an equivalent of ritualistic dance before sacrifices in many cultures. The wall paintings of Teotihuacan and Chichen-Itza dated 1500 BC from Mesoamerica also show Danny Trejo’s ancestors kicking a ball around with hips, shins and the sole of the foot, in ceremonial clothing; an hounour reserved for dead heroes and war generals, with colours of their tribes. Red, or yellow, or white or blue.
More recently, while Jesus was being betrayed by Judas Iscariot, Roman Legionnaires were immaculately conceiving an ancient game of military Calcio in the backdrop – the monster truck-meet-gladiator version of the more noble and peaceful sport of Japanese Kemari.
The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author. Every writer’s motto reads: mad I cannot be, sane I do not deign to be, neurotic I am.
– Roland Barthes
Barthes’ fire can be seen in the kindred writings of the best investigative reporters, writers and journalists. His legacy includes Umberto Eco’s Misreadings and Gilbert Adair’s Myths and Memories. When David Winner penned Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic History of Dutch Football, he must have had Barthes’ smiling ghost at his shoulder as he deconstructed the symbolism prevalent in Netherlands and in football.
Winner offers, – “It’s one of the mistakes of modern culture where everything needs to be differentiated. It’s rewarding in the academic world to be more and more specialist – looking at the world on our knees through a keyhole. It has its benefits, but you miss the overall view, the grand vista and how all themes are connected. That, I suppose, is the insight of Taoism, that all things are connected.
“I did a piece for the FIFA magazine, investigating the design of the pitch – how that ends up being perfect somehow. It’s all about drawing lines on the land; it was not done in Holland at all initially, it was all done in England – and people didn’t even know what they were doing at the time. They didn’t do it to create these spiritually fulfilling, symbolic connotations, but then you notice how the penalty area – the rectangle with the dome on top is rather similar to the architecture of very many holy buildings! Mosques and cathedrals, most have that design. All subconsciously done, but it’s all there. Only when you pull out, will you start noticing the patterns.”
Football now is as much an open-air spectacle of excess as it was back in those days – and the sun is still its witness and vertical shafts of floodlights make night as bright as the holy day of summer solstice. In Greek drama and in bull fights, shadows impart a quality of chiaroscuro (the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting). The public’s eyes spontaneously adjust to the contrasting elements in play.
A light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.
– Roland Barthes
Props were instruments of ancient theatre; in football, they are hidden in plain sight: The colour of the football boots, tattoos, haircuts, offer visible explanations of their inherent beliefs, and a clue into their character. After hundreds of years the Mohawk Indians, who guarded the Iroquois Confederation against invasion, find their warrior legacy appropriated by Marek Hamsik and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hairdos.
Footballers use their skin like player flags for a vast array of tattoos with Devanagari, Mandarin, Gaelic, Latin, Norse scripts scrawled from the ancient scrolls for protection from the threats that be, or a mistimed tackle. It perhaps worked back then, as the barriers were thinner between people and their Gods, and the air not clogged with prayers about the away fixture at Stoke.
On contrary to popular belief, not all men are created equal – some are better at kicking a ball. Plato argues in Republic that the ideal society is where kings philosophise, where a man born with the stomach of a poet does not bear the axe and go into battle as a soldier. The world ought to be a stage where the actors play the role they are supposed to. In theatre, each physical type denotes the part it has been assigned to the contestant; in football, it is often denoted by jersey numbers or outward appearances. His actions will correspond to the projection of his personality. Football is, therefore, Plato’s philosophical debate in play.
Some footballers are jesters, and succeed abundantly in cheering up the crowd. The immediate reading Garrincha – the man called the joy of the people – provides is a character from Moliere’s play. Ever radiant, ever optimistic. In contrast, a Paul Gascoigne scandalises and inspires equally by his arrogance and bouts of audacity; and like the Greek hero, Ajax, ultimately falling on the sword forged by his own depraved hubris. Johan Cruyff practised the portrayal of a savant, using mathematical rigour and the vehement precision of a pass to pass his scholarly discourse – his image is forever frozen in time, pointing, like ancient Greek statesmen and map-makers etched in stone in Athens. Then there are the antagonists.
Cruyff is an immensely attractive figure. His physique, like his play is made of of sharp edges than curves. His face is small, thin and fresher than his 27 years on earth should have left it, with only the lightest stubble fighting through on an unaggressive chin. Even scuffing in loose slippers through the public rooms of the Wald Hotel at Hiltrup, exchanging pleasantries with Dutch reporters, he moves on those extraordinarily long legs with a contained, unaffected grace.
On the field he is as straight and incisive as a knife. He materialises in front of goal with interventions that are as final as death. He’s equally happy to arm his team-mates or to do the killing himself.
– Hugh McIlvanney,McIlvanney on Football
Maradona strutted like a proud cockerel in heat, always ready to mount his rivals. Like Richard III, he was both protagonist and villain. Similar to the King in Shakespeare’s play – and make no mistake, Maradona is a king in Argentina – he addressed the audience directly: ‘I am determined to prove a villain and hate the idle pleasures of these days.’ In spite of his transgressions, the audience is drawn in by the precariousness of his brilliance. They solicit the audience’s sympathy for their flaws as human beings. It’s easy to find kinships to the cursed if one wants to. As they pursue their vices, however, the audience begins to get uncomfortable.
Thauvin, a diabolical-looking French villain, voluntarily provokes repulsion and a passionate condemnation of the crowd. He’s a classical representation of a salaud – the bastard. These characters steeped in their roles after a point are conditioned into believing in their own diabolic narrative, resigned to be trapped by the viscosity of their persona. As the play runs its course, Thauvin will infallibly measure up to his image of the bastard through his acts of treachery, cruelties and cowardice. We can trust Diego Costa to carry out the script to the last detail using his trailing leg and elbows as instruments of sabotage or attrition. It is, therefore, in the body of the footballer that we find the first clue to the contest. They display in advance their costumes, attitudes and competency and the part they will play.
Many Italian footballers have been worthy of carrying the mantle of Shylock – manipulative masters of the dark arts. Wearing masks of crucified martyrs, wasting time and gaining an advantage, writhing in agony, hands clasped around their face, knee or ankle until the fat priest/physio plods across to perform the miracle of resurrection. Historically, the Italians have been champion sportsmen, using the smile as a cloak and elbows as daggers digging into ribs to get away with murder. Just ask Claudio Gentile and Brutus.
‘Catenaccio is like a Titian painting – soft, seductive and languid. The Italians welcome and lull you and seduce you into their soft embrace, and score a goal like the thrust of a dagger.’
– David Winner, Brilliant Orange
Today’s tyrants say wealth frees us. Footballers have heard that so often that they have begun to believe it. The ceremonial tossing of shirts (uniform) into the air and touching of the family name on the back is an appeal to acknowledge the individuality of the goal-scorer amidst the limits enforced by a team game, in the same manner as the Gladiator would open his helmet after a successful fight. Recognition means a bigger bout, a bigger pot of goal, a chance of buying his own freedom, and, for footballers, a move to a bigger club and a life lived out in prosperity.
“Even if he has to sweat buckets, with no right to failure or fatigue, he gets into the papers and on TV. His name is on the radio, women swoon over him and children yearn to be like him. But he started out playing for pleasure in the dirt streets of the slums, and now plays out of duty in stadiums where he has no choice but to win or to win. Businessmen buy him, sell him, lend him, and he lets it all happen in return for the promise of more fame and more money. The more successful he is and the more money he makes, the more of a prisoner he becomes.”
– Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow
Befallen by a tackle, the footballer exhibits his face for all to see, contorted by the injustice of it all. An excessive portrayal of the suffering of the footballer indulges in harks back to the primitive form of Pieta. This exhibition of suffering interspersed between large lulls in the game, followed by very few occasions of optimism that amount to nothing; the joy of goals are few and fortuitous. Football, therefore, is the metaphor for life.
Football is both love and war and bias is utterly fair. Handshakes are awkward, seem innately unnatural, and pennants exchanged are tokens of battle. The suffering on the player is inflicted by the outward expression of duty, honour and conviction of the other, therefore perversely gladiatorial. Why else is it that the sight and sound of a hefty tackle on an opponent makes the blood rush? The figurehead of a rival team, erect, proud, carved out of stone, in a moment’s time slouching with pain. Is that why we call it the ‘reducer?’ Instantly, you’ll hear the crowd abuzz with murmurs of, ‘he’s faking it’ or if the team is particularly disliked, even boos. What, then, if it happens to the figurehead of your team? Football, like religion, inspires in those who fear nothing, the fear of God. And fear and reverence alike require a token of submission and a severance of logic. The fans, remember, speak of themselves in plural, as ‘we’. “Where you are tender, you speak your plural,” Ronald Barthes observed in one of his essays.
‘We are pious, all the referees are crooked and all our rivals cheat!’
– Eduardo Galeano
In football, one is not ashamed of his tears- in fact, it is encouraged. What the public needs is an image of passion (‘paying one’s debt,’ ‘playing for the shirt,’ thumping of the chest and the kissing of the badge for the fans, and crafted cruelty, animosity, contempt for the rival etc) if not passion itself. There is no more truth in football than in theatre – both require an overt display of morality, which, in any other place in life, would be usually private. This is not to say they don’t believe it when they do it – like method actors who dive deep into the scope of the role.
Wine is a part of society because it provides a basis not only for a morality but also for an environment; it is a necessary ornament in the slightest ceremonials of French daily life, from the snack to the feast, from the conversation at the local cafe to the speech at a formal dinner.
– Roland Barthes
Football is a way of life and an ‘immediate pantomime’. Barthes, the other hero of this article, elaborates, – ‘… this emptying out of interiority to the benefit of exterior signs, this exhaustion of content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.’ (And yet we ask ourselves why newspapers, tabloids and football Twitter is as voyeuristic?) Anecdotes are not required for the act to appear true. Football fans like theatre-goers derive an intellectual pleasure and a sense of relevance and reverence witnessing the moral mechanism performed to their benefit.
David Winner explains, – “That’s what intellectuals like to do. You see it in Germany with St. Pauli (the predominant Anti-Nazi German football club during the World War) – the Hamburg club that has been romanticised and taken up by intellectuals because it stands for leftist politics and kult-ish atmosphere and people are very fond of it. Pier Paolo Pasolini, the controversial film-maker (assassinated for his outspoken views) was an intellectual like no other, and he loved football and supported Bologna.
“Rainer Werner Fassbinder of Germany, another effervescent film-maker was obsessed with football – he would write the first drafts of his screenplays with the names of his favourite footballers, and then in the final draft he’d replace the names that fit better with the stories. But his first drafts would be like – Gunter Netzer comes out of jail… Franz Beckenbauer apprehends the criminal. He loved those type of players. Nick Hornby writes about his love for Liam Brady for Arsenal, as he was the cleverest, the most creative. So, clever, creative people like Nick Hornby, like clever creative footballers. We see them as kindred spirits, I suppose. Intellectuals in England like Pat Nevin, the BBC commentator and journalist. When he was playing for Chelsea, he was quite receptive and an intuitive winger – and it was known that his politics was left-wing as well as playing on the left wing. He went out with ballet dancers instead of, you know, a model. He is considered an intellectual and everybody loves Pat Nevin.”
Football is a sum of spectacles, of which each passage of play is a function, each pass imposes a value – good or bad, sewing plotlines extending to an opportunity or a missed one. It’s not our fault if our attention is drawn by football’s demands of the immediate reading of juxtaposed situations, and we miss the obvious symbolism. They are like unseen threads behind a tapestry – you pull one, you pull all. It’s algebra in motion, unravelling like equations showing relationships between cause and effect.
The referee is the arbitrator, the judge, jury and executioner who obliges the player to repent or forces him to exile by merely raising differently coloured cards; just as effortlessly as the official who would turn his thumb up or down at the gladiator, sealing his fate. The manager goes between offering diplomatic platitudes and truisms in one minute to speaking tongues of the ancient, citing shapes, numbers, strategies and prophecies in the next – as if he were a virgin Pythia from the Oracle of Delphi, sometimes even referring to himself in the third person. He’s seen as a keeper of some sacred knowledge that we mortals are not privy to. He’s often asked to foretell the future by television journalists as Geoff Shreeves. Fans expect him to be a miracle worker that turns a young failing winger into a world class striker as easily as Jesus turned water to wine.
The football club plays the part of a tribal totem, one which is to be protected, and the values, which are the accompanying mottos, aspired to. One of the fundamental functions of these symbols is to impart a sense of regional identity with roots in the community and its livelihood, with colours and the basic shape often borrowed from a coat of arms of the town or the corresponding locality. These fans tend to associate values to the club they love.
David Winner adds, – “It happens across genres – they happen to be playing football, but, in the same spirit of panache and creativity were they making films, building buildings, writing books, or in politics – you’d be reacting to that, David Winner clarifies. “That’s my connection with Ajax – I felt that spirit emanating from them. It wasn’t about scoring a certain number of goals or winning trophies – it was the way they were playing. The Ajax players were eloquent and spoke clearly of their values as well – often fun, but unfailingly inviting and warm. When I saw them, (which was mostly on television) as a teenager, and then when I met them to interview for Brilliant Orange, it was that same feeling that emanated from them. Brilliant Orange is all about affection, really. You feel a kinship with the book? Yeah? You’re coming into it in the same way.”
If I acknowledge my dependency (on writing), I do so because for me it is a means of signifying my demand: in the realm of love, futility is not a “weakness” or an “absurdity”: it is a strong sign: the more futile, the more it signifies and the more it asserts itself as strength.
– Roland Barthes
Fewer prayers are said in Sunday masses than at football games. At closer inspection, the modern football stadium is a petri dish of tribalism: from heraldic symbols or mystic animals on club crests, archaic Latin mottos used by relatively modern institutions invoking a faux sense of ancient strength, nobility, grace and wisdom, to the practice of ritualistic reciting of chants like incantations, fans draped in ceremonial colours of their team, appealing to sympathetic powers at play with clasped hands, turning atheists into believers for 90 minute-trances every weekend. Stadia are endowed with the sanctity of temples, and a bridge between the new and old gods are established.
Most footballers are superstitious but Ajax were extreme. There was a complicated ritual about the order in which players went to the massage table before a match. ‘Every player had his number,’ explains Salo Muller. ‘And when I’d finished each massage I had to say something special to each player. To Cruyff I had to say: “Yogi twee.” I called him Yogi, I don’t know why. Not Jopie, Yogi. That means: score two goals. To Henk Groot I had to say: “Henk: a very, VERY good match.” Two verys. If I say: “Henk: a very good match,” he won’t move. “Oh, sorry. A very VERY good match.” To the goalkeeper: “Klempie, klempie,” because he has to hold the ball. “Klempie, klempie.”’ Piet Keizer required a pat on the bottom and the words: ‘Piet, do your best.’
Before every European match Muller, the physiotherapist, was required to wear his lucky ski hat – and to supply a special sausage, an osseworst from Hergo, the kosher butcher on the Beethovenstraat. Before Ajax’s disastrous game against Dukla Prague, Muller’s wife forgot to pack the lucky hat. And Hergo was closed, so there was no sausage either. Ajax lost 2– 1, and to this day, some of the players blame Muller.
– David Winner, Brilliant Orange
Like the principle of chiaroscuro, football offers a spectacle of light and shadow, two meanings at the same time. These diacritical values were present nowhere more than in the greatness of the 1970’s Ajax team. David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange has been witness to the dichotomy of light of calculation, method and logic mingling with shadow of superstition and myth-building. We find out in his book how Ajax players thought they lost a match down to a ski hat and a sausage not being accounted for.
“It’s not quite logic”, David Winner corrects me. “It’s a feeling which you can’t quite put into words that’ll do it justice. It’s a very emotional process, playing football – when people write about tactics for example, that’s only one miniscule element of what’s going on! A lot of footballers and a lot of fans, especially, are superstitious – and it’s chaotic, and it’s like a little personal religion that everybody has! Like your own personal little cult, if you like. And each individual has its own football superstitions – for instance, Cruyff always had to be the last man to come out from the tunnel.
“However, I’ve noticed something quite a few years later in films of Cruyff playing in the early 70s, in many games he seems to have his shorts on the wrong way around! You could see the label! This is not in the book, but it does appear that he felt luckier having worn his shorts inside-out! And there’s a film of a whole game in London vs Arsenal in 1972, which I couldn’t go to, it’s there where I noticed – hey, hang on a minute, his shorts are wrong way around! [Laughs] Then I started noticing that quirk in other games as well. He must have done it deliberately.”
“My sister for example, if she watches a game (our team in London is Arsenal) and she’s wearing a certain sweater or something and we lose, she won’t wear that sweater again to watch them. That’s why they lost! Because I was wearing the wrong coloured sweater! Which is of course not why they lost. But everybody is doing it all the time, in varying ways. There is a strong element of religiosity in watching football and thinking about football, and people are making up their own little rituals all the time! The players, like fans are doing it as well.”
“Paul Gascoigne, when he drives down the motorway, he had this idea that he had to press very hard on the steering wheel between lamp posts or bridges along the motorway – you pass one, and then a few seconds later you pass another one. And he said in an interview, by the end of a journey of about two hours, his hands are completely numb. It’s beyond silly, but we all do versions of it in our daily lives and routines. In the context of religion, you usually transfer your beliefs, rituals and observances more often than not to football, every weekend. In certain countries, there are even shrines dedicated to footballers – Maradona is the best example in Naples and Buenos Aires. There’s literally a church of Maradona in Naples.”
In ancient times, thanks to the Gods were carved in stone for victories in war and games alike. David Winner has noticed an eerie similarity:
“There’s also this growing fad of statues – you needn’t look further than in England where there are more and more statues of footballers now in the last twenty years. And I’ve watched fans interacting with those statues, where they touch the statues before a game for luck or touch the statue with the scarf. I’ve lived in Rome for a while, and there’s this famous statue of St. Peter in the Vatican, where pilgrims over hundreds of years touched the foot causing it to wear away. On one side, there’s only half a foot left! And then I’ve seen that happen to footballer’s statues – where fans touch the foot of the footballer exactly in the same way. It’s quite touching. So, it’s not just the Ajax who are superstitious, it’s everywhere.”
Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion.
– Roland Barthes
Signs and symbols are a function of tradition, which in turn is a derivative of religion. Religion was formed out of rituals and practices, warped into a belief of what seemed practical at the time. In football, we see these processes like the inner workings of a clock: Anthropologist Desmond Morris posed his findings in Football Tribes, saying, ‘’viewed in this way, a game of football becomes a reciprocal hunt. Each team of players, or hunting pack, tries to score a goal by aiming a ball, or weapon at a defended goal-mouth, or prey. The essence of the ancient hunting pattern was that it involved a great deal of physical exercise combined with risk and excitement. It involved a long sequence with a build-up, with strategy and planning, with skill and daring and ultimately with a grand climax and a moment of triumph.’’
In Brilliant Orange, David Winner seemingly possessed by the spirit of Barthes alludes to a similar theory: “What does scoring a goal mean, exactly?” he asks us. “What, precisely, at the symbolic level of myth and ritual, does a goal signify? On one hand, it is a thing of beauty, the supreme act of creation in the game. Yet, Dennis Bergkamp, who likes to score beautiful goals, is derided for being weak: critics complain: ‘He lacks the killer instinct’; ‘He’s not a killer’. At a deeper level scoring a goal is – symbolically – killing. Of all the theories to explain the deep ritual power and universal appeal of the game, the one advanced by Desmond Morris in The Football Tribe – that football is a symbolic re-enactment of ancient tribal rituals of hunting and warfare – seems to me the most persuasive. Good forwards are always referred to in language that evokes the ability to deal in death. An accomplished striker is ‘lethal’ and ‘deadly’ in front of goal. He is a ‘sharpshooter’, ‘poacher’, ‘predator’. Emilio Butragueno was ‘The Vulture’; Toto Schillacci, ‘The Hitman’; Gerd Muller, ‘The Bomber’. Dealer in mass goals. Assassin.”
Seen this way, football can answer the age-old question, – “Who came first, the Gods or the people (who believe in them)?”, by posing another: “What came first, the hunger or the hunt?”
And while we can’t conclusively say whether the Stonehenge was used as a goalpost, I can confidently state that if it wasn’t, weekends at Salisbury plain would have been a bloody bore.
David Winner is best-known for Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2000. He writes for The Guardian among many other esteemed publications. His taste for the eclectic doesn’t stop at football – his travel book Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome was described by Pen Vogler in The Observer, as being “like a fusion of Coleridge’s Table Talk and Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook, peopled with eccentric film-makers, anorexic saints and wafer-making nuns”. Follow @dwinnera on Twitter.