“Everything has symmetry when you just leave it where it is,” mathematician Marcus du Sautoy said in his talk at TEDGlobal in Oxford. Attending a TED conference is as asymmetrical an experience as you can imagine: Nothing is left where it is. The combination of riveting ideas and remarkable people you encounter is purportedly designed to disrupt your balance, routines of thinking, self-esteem, beliefs, values — even your sleep. After TED, you’re no longer congruent with your former self: You have seen things you have not seen before, you feel different, and you have been moved. Things have changed, and you know that only true passions cause real change.
After five days of delving into other people’s passions in Oxford, I felt that it was time to celebrate my own: football, a spectacle that combines archaic competition with sublime pleasure. In his scholarly essay “On the Alleged Dehumanization of the Sports Spectator,” Allan Guttmann describes football matches as cathartic events, “saturnalia-like occasions for the uninhibited.” So, on the first evening after TEDGlobal, I took the Jubilee line to London’s Wembley Stadium to see a rather meaningless preseason game between Tottenham Hotspur and a B-team of Europe’s current champions, FC Barcelona.
I’ve always thought — to paraphrase Pascal — that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not stay in a football stadium. A football arena is my refuge, my cave, my playing field, my “manspace.” After all the elevation, elusion, and enthrallment at TEDGlobal, I was craving a simple point of reference and a naive familiarity that only a football field can offer. Like a good pop song, it provides something archetypal that is immediately and permanently relevant, a way to look at life, a worldview. Football, like all sports, offers clear rules, and thus, comfort in a world of growing ambiguity. It satisfies the unfulfilled stories of our lives waiting to be resolved, catalyzed, and made sense of — by one single elegant sequence of interactions and passes that lead to the eruptive, collective, and yet so private celebration of a goal.
Football is like theater. It condenses all human emotions, all possible developments of a story onto one big stage that lies at the center of our attention for 90 minutes or more. Football gives its players the power to be the “authors of their own ambition,” as Alain de Botton suggested in Oxford, when he spoke about 21st-century career patterns. De Botton heralded tragedy as a more humane way to embrace failure and posited, “Hamlet lost, but he was not a loser.” Football possesses this appreciation for tragedy, too. Hearts will ache. Promises will be broken. Somebody will lose. But losers they will not be.
The football stadium is a space where the boundaries between player and spectator are still defined, but the distance from idea to implementation, the gap between unseen and seen, is negligible. A football game is a train of thought, a breathless stream of consciousness, but it is also the very act of acting itself. What you see is what you get. Football is “the head and hand united,” in the words of Richard Sennett, or better, the head and foot united. It is an accelerated microcosm of innovation, where the idea is the prototype is the product.
Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho once described it as follows: “What I do, always before a game — always, every night and every day — is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of, and to do so always bearing in mind the particular strengths of each teammate to whom I am passing the ball. When I construct those plays in my mind, I take into account whether one teammate likes to receive the ball at his feet or ahead of him, if he’s good with his head and how he prefers to head the ball, if he’s stronger on his right or his left foot. That’s my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.”
Players like Ronaldinho or the uniquely gifted Argentine Lionel Messi are artists, and like artists “they set up expectations of symmetry and break them,” as Marcus du Sautoy put it, “[because] in everything, uniformity is undesirable.” Innovation, which is needed to advance on the pitch, is asymmetrical by its very nature. The whole game of football is one big attempt to break symmetry through imagination and beauty.
At Wembley, my gaze traced the distinct white of the chalk marking the sidelines and penalty areas on the field, the calm before the storm, disturbingly quiet. I studied the goals, as they stood there, monolithic and self-absorbed, fully aware of their power to attract and fulfill that one simple desire. I admired their majestic symmetry that is only destroyed when man, goalie, enters the scene.
Below the main stands, I spotted Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s coach, who had won all possible trophies with his club last season. And I recalled what TEDGlobal speaker Itay Talgam had said in Oxford about great conductors: They create the “conditions for the process to take place.” This is true for great football coaches, too. They simply enjoy watching and letting go — gaining influence as they embrace the loss of control over time and space, as some of the great players have in rare moments.
Spanish author Javier Marías’ story, “In Uncertain Time,” portrays Hungarian football player Szentkuthy, who, in the final minutes of a critical game rallies forward on his own, shakes off two defenders, and overcomes the goalkeeper. All that is then left to do is to slot the ball into the empty net, but even as the whole stadium rises to respond to the goal, he refuses to shoot. Instead, he advances, and stops the ball right on the goal line. Then, as the goalkeeper and the two defenders come running towards him, “Szentkuthy rolled the ball an inch or so forward and then stopped it again once it was over the goal line.” “He had thwarted imminence,” writes Marías, “and it was not so much that he had stopped time as that he had set a mark on it and made it uncertain, as if he were saying, ‘I am the instigator and it will happen when I say it will happen, not when you want it. If it does happen, it is because I have decided that it should.’” Szentkuthy’s action “pointed out the gulf between what is unavoidable and what has not been avoided, between what is still future and what is already past, between ‘might be’ and ‘was,’ a palpable transition which we only rarely witness.”
I was looking at the lush green of the football pitch that still allowed all possible mathematical configurations, all possible combinations of play. Seeing the unseen, I thought, means the ability to create multiple stories. Like dancers, football players interpret space, each in his own way. Everything is possible because anything is possible. Just as life, unfolding, is inevitable, so it goes with the referee’s first whistle: “It ain’t why, why, why, it just is” (Van Morrison). It simply happens — and afterwards, legions of commentators and analysts will attempt to reconstruct it, explain it, and demystify it, in vain.
As the teams entered the arena, 60,000 fans began chanting. The players occupied their positions — both teams lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, in perfect symmetry, anxious for the action to come. How I wished I could have held this moment of uncertainty a little longer, as Szentkuthy did when he stopped the ball on the goal line. I was thinking of my soon-to-be-born daughter and how her life and mine will be immediately and forever asymmetrical from the very minute she enters the world. I was thinking of the endless array of possibilities ahead of her.
Then the game began. I’d seen the substance of things not seen. Nothing would ever be the same again.