A good game of football shares many aesthetic qualities with art: it involves individual prowess, extraordinary skill and moments of great drama. Seeing Messi execute a virtuoso dribble, or Ozil craft the perfectly weighted through ball, can be beautiful. Lucas Moura’s last-gasp goal for Tottenham against Ajax in the Champions League semi-final was compelling drama. A spectator, watching a ball travel inexorably towards the goal, floating just out of reach of the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms before rippling into the net, experiences a moment of the sublime.
But a perfect pass, the curving run of an attacker springing an offside trap, or the psychological battle between a great striker and a stalwart defender, aren’t enough to make football beautiful. Because football is about winning, and if footballers didn’t play to win none of these experiences would be valuable in themselves.
And that’s the curious thing about football—unlike art, where beauty is an end in itself, you can’t make football beautiful by searching after beauty. That’s because football, unlike art, relies on chance—it’s a team sport between two sides. In trying to outwit your opponents and cooperate with your team mates, a player may stumble on beauty. But the difference between an artful Panenka and a miserable saved penalty is chance.
Video credits: *BEST*HD*SPORT*
Stephen Mumford is a lifelong football fan and Sheffield United season ticket holder. He writes regularly for the sporting press and is a professor of philosophy at Durham University.