Belgium’s second goal in their World Cup quarter-final against Brazil was an explosive counter-attack – a display of ruthless pace and power. It was also a thing of beauty: Romelu Lukaku picking up the ball deep in his own half surrounded by opposition players, turning and charging up the field eluding everyone, falling over finally, just after playing the decisive pass to Kevin de Bruyne on the right. And then de Bruyne shooting the ball into the goal like an arrow. A breathtaking goal.
Watching it on television with a group of seminarians, I was reminded of something the great German theologian Romano Guardini once wrote of play: “Play is life rushing and streaming out of itself, free of utility, taking possession of its own fullness – meaningful in its very act of existing.” By saying that play is free of utility he meant that play does not derive its meaning from something else which it achieves – the way sweeping derives its meaning from clean floors. Rather, it is has meaning in itself. It is entirely useless, but it is full of meaning.
Belgium’s goal was a display of human activity “taking possession of its own fullness” – meaningful in its enactment of its own perfection. Of course, players can have ulterior motives – professional players especially – but the activity of playing itself is not defined by those ulterior motives. Lukaku’s run and pass that led to de Bruyne’s goal were inexorably purpose-driven: the goal was the purpose. But goals derive their meaning from the game of football, and not the other way around.
Guardini himself, however, would probably contradict my application of his definition of play to de Bruyne’s goal. Guardini distinguished between “play”, which he thought was good, and “sports”, which he thought were bad. In sport, as Guardini understood it, the overriding concern with victory, with setting records and being “the best”, robs play of its graciousness. The “drilling” and “training” turns the player into a “machine”. Instead of raising human activity to its highest pitch, it stifles humanity.
But here I think Guardini is wrong. A brilliant piece of play in football, such as Lukaku’s, shows how drilling and training can indeed enable graciousness and freedom. And Guardini’s own thoughts on art, an activity that he saw as being related to play, can help to show us why.
Guardini argues that art has for grown-ups something of the character of play in children. In art the contradiction between what human beings wish to be and what their limitations make them, is reconciled. Art, Guardini writes, harmonises “the spirit within and nature without, the body and the soul”.
But this is precisely what high-level sports do. The inherent clumsiness of our bodies, their resistance to expressing the intentions of our souls, are to some extent overcome. And it is precisely through drilling and training that they are overcome. As the American novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, the beauty of top-level sports has to do with “reconciliation with the fact of having a body”.
And this is particularly true of football. As the journalist Brian Phillips has argued, football, by forbidding the use of the hands, the most dexterous part of the body, first emphasises the clumsiness of the body, then increases the glory of the transcendence of that clumsiness through skill. This is why former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger could call himself “a facilitator of what is beautiful in man”.
But the mention of Wenger brings up a question as to whether football really is “the beautiful game”. Wenger’s Arsenal were often defeated by sides playing “negative”, defensive football, which was more about disrupting the opponent than about transcendent beauty. This World Cup has seen Spain’s delicate tiki-taka passing game overcome by the “negative” defending of Russia.
Is Guardini’s criticism of sport perhaps accurate after all, if applied to such negative football? Even here I think that Guardini’s criticism is too harsh. Supposedly “negative” football can have its own kind of beauty. Perfectly coordinated moving lines of defenders show us the reconciliation of body and soul. It may not be as exciting as an explosive counter-attack, but there is something satisfying about watching good defenders retreating and moving closer together in sync to frustrate such an attack.
Indeed, I would claim that overcoming the opponent is itself an essential part of the beauty of football. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, St Paul famously compares the Christian life to a race: “Do you not know that when they run in the stadium they all run, but only one wins the prize? Run to win.” Human life unfolds in adversity, and it is in part through striving against adversaries that we attain excellence.
St Paul is of course speaking of a spiritual contest against bad habits, temptations and demons. But his words show why the desire to win, and delight in winning, need not necessarily be something bad. As a team sport, football is in a way an even better image of our life as Christians than foot races are. For it is together, as citizens of the City of God, that we strive to win our victory as Christians. We can therefore see in football an image of our journey towards our final goal. It is no wonder then, that the hearts of whole nations are moved by their teams in the World Cup.
Fr Edmund Waldstein O.Cist is a monk at Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria. He blogs at Sancrucensis and is editor of thejosias.com