Contemporary football closer resembles an art form than a battle cry.
What is the explanation for humanity's obsession with sport? From Chinese gymnastics in 2000BC to Egyptian Pharaohs swimming and fishing to the Olympics of Ancient Greece, sport has captivated almost every civilization for the past four thousand years.
A common critique of sport claims it is the aggrandisement of fierce competition, rivalry, and brute force that attracts us to performing in, and spectating, sporting events. Many have argued that sport is a precursor for war, something that simulates the brutality of battle to satisfy our blood-thirst during peace time. Admittedly, there is a strong historical connection between sport and war; the barbarism associated with sports up until the twentieth century is testimony to this. After all, the oldest sport in the world is boxing, dating back to the Sumer's in 2500BC. Whichever way you spin it, boxing is two people hitting each other very hard in the face.
But to say sport and war are interlinked in modern competition seems grossly naïve. Sport has changed significantly in the last century: take football, for example. Throughout the nineteenth century football consisted primarily of groups of individuals forcing their way to goal by hacking shins and hunting down the goal in packs. The modern game has swung in the opposite direction, with artistry and a passing style dominating the greatest exponents of the famously named 'Beautiful Game', where physical contact is increasingly minimized in favour of tactical astuteness. In reality, the modern day spectacle closer resembles an art form than a battle cry; the majority of the worlds' most popular sports posit grace and technique over strength and power.
As I have previously argued in depth in my article declaring football as a form of art, competitive sport displays a unique hybrid of power and grace, championing the magnificent capabilities of the human body and celebrating our unique propensity for teamwork and unity. So what is it that makes sport, and all other forms of art, so popular today?
The true reason for our fixation on sport, in particular football, is creativity.
Human beings have a unique drive to innovate; it is the blessing, and the curse, that has allowed us to utilise and enslave nature. It has led to the construction of complex civilizations and magnificent works of art, separating us from all other known life forms. Why do we enjoy creating so much? It may be that our DNA has evolved to require us to be constantly creating; the feeling of achievement, the feeling of happiness that accompanies creative outlets, may be a direct result of an historical expectation to be building and cultivating.
Whatever the initial cause, the potential of creativity as a redeemer of alienation and personal anxiety has interested philosophers for centuries. Friedrich Nietzsche celebrated the creative potential of the human race when he called for the dawn of Super-Man. His super-man would embrace his creative ability; rather than merely cower against ideologies that did not conform to his needs, he would celebrate the human mind's ability to create these false ideologies. This celebration would drive the new race of beings to confront reality head -on, utilising creativity not as a source of escape from truth, but as the path to embracing the present moment, constantly innovating and creating their own reality.
Nietzsche was actually beaten to the punch by some 50 years by the Romantics, whose poetic vision was to reunite the individual with their natural landscape, aiming to alleviate the anxieties associated with a meaningless universe. In his seminal text The Prelude, William Wordsworth recognised that the healing function of the mind is only performed when you realise the power of what Harold Bloom described as 'the apocalypse of imagination'. Imaginative capacity alleviates the damaged ego; an idea that echoed into the 20th century and the Modernism cause.
Virginia Woolf posited creativity as the sole redeemer from the chaotic flux of our meaningless world. Creativity produces something tangible, something that can capture a moment and fix reality into a solid present. Her novels showed how creative endeavour, by the momentary completion of a work of art, illuminated the truth of life, that 'the great revelation never comes. Instead there were only little daily miracles, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark'.
Back in the 21st century, our industrialised world is absent of day-to-day outlets for our creative instincts. In a civilization advanced beyond the individual need to build or create, art has become the main source of creative endeavour and, as shown by the philosophers above, reconnecting with our creative instincts offers salvation in a world estranged from our original biological needs.
The arts – film, literature, theatre etc. - are a great creative outlet, and the popularity of art in modern society is indicative of the need for the individual to transcend the alienation of the metropolis and reconnect with an attribute no longer a necessity in the common workplace. As we have all experienced before, creating provokes feelings of satisfaction, of concrete achievement and of self-completion.
This is where our sport comes in. It is a creative outlet that is inexplicably denied the status of an 'art form', considering creativity is synonymous with football. Even the most basic aspects of the game require innovation and ingenuity, in an attempt to utilise a small spherical shape on a large field with 21 other autonomous variables. From the layers of coaches designing tactics and strategies to the individual player spending years adapting highly specialised skills to new environments, tactical innovation is a crucial element which we, the fans, attend matches to see performed. Technical creativity is also essential; ingenuity, decision making and geometric intelligence are all requirements of the top-class player, who must constantly adapt and create in order to successfully outmanoeuvre the opposition.
Football is the art form of the common man and woman, the creative outlet of the people. Impoverished children in Africa can express themselves truly, without the resources of a westerner. The ball is their paintbrush, the pitch is their canvas.
Our experience with art is, of course, not limited to creating ourselves, but admiring the creativity of an other. Sports are popular today not because they coincide with aggressive tendencies for rivalry, but because they offer a display of human creativity, showcasing the triumphant innovation of outstanding athletes who express, in their technical assurance and graceful athleticism, something close to the peak of human beauty.
The creativity championed in football is not merely that of the individual being watched, but of the potential of civilisation as a whole. It is championing humanity's capacity to create worldwide sporting events, to create an atmosphere in stadia that sends shivers down the spine, to create a united oneness amongst a crowd of people that touches the divine. Football is the art form of the masses. It is about creativity and it is about championing human beauty, not simply by performing, but also by watching; the fan is as much a part of the creative process as any other element in the footballing world. As Virginia Woolf said, 'the whole world is a work of art; we are parts of the work of art. We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself'.
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