How to get to the theory


How to get to the theory

On the anatomy of the happy football fan
Mario Bernet
Mario Bernet

Mario Bernet is a textbook author, columnist for a pedagogical magazine and lecturer at the Zurich University of Teacher Education and has been an inveterate FC Zurich fan since childhood.

"Don't ask what the team can do for you. 
Ask what you can do for the team."
- Jakob "Köbi" Kuhn, Swiss football legend

"What are you doing?" Did my colleague's question sound astonished, mocking or even reproachful? In any case, the tin of drawing pins fell out of my hand and the EURO 2024 fixture list was left dangling crookedly on the wall of our meeting room. In quiet anticipation, I had been tinkering with my little oasis for the coming weeks. No, I didn't feel like I'd been caught out, but I was undecided: should I answer my colleague's question? She persisted: "Do you know what Alex Capus would say? Fan culture is the opium of the people. It keeps our minds pointlessly occupied and prevents us from really engaging with the world we live in." (1) With this sharp pass, she sent my mind spinning and I promised her a thorough answer. If I understood correctly, she wanted to know whether enthusiasm for football necessarily has to go hand in hand with stupidity. Dear colleague, here are the answers to your question:

(1) Alex Capus: Warum ich kein Fussballfan bin. In: ZWÖLF. football stories from Switzerland no. 90 (2022), p. 27

No applause, no galloping horses

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus had crystallised his thoughts long before football was even invented: "Frequent attendance at matches is unnecessary. When you do go, look only at yourself. Accept what happens and allow everyone their victory. That way your attitude remains undisturbed. Above all, avoid applause, laughter or emotional sympathy" (2) Theoretically, the goose was already cooked almost 2000 years ago, but Epictetus hadn't reckoned with the complexity of the common fan's soul. And so games and competitions continued to smoulder through the centuries, perhaps taking on more civilised forms, but always revolving around victory and defeat - and the fan was carried along, happily exposing his soul to the vagaries of chance.

(2) Epiktet: Handbüchlein der Moral. Zurich 1987: Diogenes, p. 51

It is curious that an anecdote about an aristocratic wise man from the Middle East should be used to illustrate the inanity of Western obsession with gambling. Over a hundred years ago, whilst visiting the imperial court in Berlin, the Shah of Persia is said to have declined an invitation to a horse race, saying: "I know that one horse runs faster than the other. I'm not interested in knowing which one."

(3) Quoted from: Dirk Schümer: God is round. The culture of football. Berlin 1996: Berlin Verlag

Football as conversation

Supposedly, this noble sentiment was said with dry humour. But without wishing to diminish the entertainment value of a horse race, one may ask: would the nobleman have spurned an invitation to a football match quite so impassively? Epictetus and the Persian nobleman were spared the need to pit their dispassionate judgment against the charms of a football match.

(4) Philippe Dubath: Zidane and me. Letter from a footballer to his wife. Zurich 2004: Bilgerverlag, p. 29

There is the action on the pitch itself, which is far more complex than the sheer speed of horse and rider: "The opposition is right there, without them there would be no game. Likewise without you. Passing the ball well shows respect to eachother." (4) As Philippe Dubath put succinctly in his declaration of love for football: at its core, football is a form of conversation, a search for communication between one foot and another.
For the spectator, it is not simply a dull contest, but actually nothing less than an analogy for the tides of life: "This is precisely what binds us to it. The game that always starts again. Everything starts over and over again. Everything is futile in its transience, but everything can always be rebuilt." (Dubath 2004, p. 58)

Hooligans of thought

As inviting and substantial as Dubath's objections to serenity may seem, they do not dispel this stubborn thesis: the euphoria that competitive sport induces is the realm of the common, uneducated public, who deliberately jeopardize their own peace of mind week after week and spread unrest. "Football is war": Rinus Michels of all people, FIFA-certified "Football Coach of the 20th Century", is said to be responsible for this devastating equation. (5) He is also said to have not shied away from demanding "total football" from his players, something that only stopped working for him in the final of the 1974 World Cup.

(5) Klaus Theweleit: Tor zur Welt. Football as a model of reality. Cologne 2004: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, p. 94

The writer and social scientist Klaus Theweleit has subjected Michels' dictum to a comprehensive examination. This initially brings him close to Dubath. His assertion therefore seems almost biased: "Both teams also fight - whether they are aware of it or not - for the integrity of the ball. At the heart of the game for everyone is their love of the ball." (Theweleit 2004, p. 95) Nothing new, one might say. But Theweleit is familiar with the temptations that lurk within the game, deals with them knowledgeably and concludes: "If we say that football militarises, equally we can say that it civilises warlike tendencies." (ibid.) Or to put it plainly: "95% of spectators in the stadiums successfully fight their own hooliganism weekend after weekend." (Theweleit 2004, p.96)

 Thus we can dispute Epictetus and the Shah: football is not about balanced emotions, rather the manifestations of competition -  victory and defeat, euphoria and disappointment are interwoven into a game of life. The game offers far more than just a tasteless 'high' - so dispelling the accusation that football is the modern "opium of the people". (6)

(6) Cf: Eduardo Galeano: The ball is round and goals lurk everywhere. Wuppertal 1997: Peter Hammer, pp. 47-48

Albert Camus, Robin Hood and the Good Lord

"Madrid or Milan, the main thing is Italy."  Such unintentional gems, attributed to German footballer Andreas Möller, are doing the rounds among cultured football fans. This is not primarily a reflection of the stars' educational horizons, but rather a manifestation of the arrogance of the enlightened football spectator who does not admit to his enthusiasm. He marvels at the players' skill with the ball and is envious of the lifestyle such skill brings, but wants to send a signal: I used to be serious about this primitive pleasure, but now I wish to think of higher things.

(7) Albert Camus: Was ich dem Sport verdanke. In: Le Monde diplomatique 11.06.2004

There are documents that take a nuanced look into the inner life of football and possible conclusions about real life. One such is a newspaper article written in passing by Albert Camus, once a passable goalkeeper, but better known as the undisputed Zinédine Zidane of French literature and moral philosophy.

" Even though the world has offered me much over the years, everything I finally know with certitude about morality and human obligations, I owe to sport." (7) The rest of the text, in which Camus reflects on his younger days at Racing Universitaire d'Alger, confirms that it is permissible to equate sport with football. This facet of the master is repeatedly cited when it comes to giving football enthusiasm a higher status.

(8) Raphaël Nuzzolo: I don't like change that much. Interview in: ZWÖLF. football stories from Switzerland no. 80 (2020), p. 47

There are more modest, though still informative documents. Two are presented here, both of which feature footballers who have made a name for themselves in top-level Swiss football. Firstly, Raphaël Nuzzolo, the prolific yet modest striker for Neuchâtel Xamax, impressive for his exemplary loyalty to the club during his twenty-year career as a professional footballer. In an interview with the football magazine "Zwölf", the striker regrets that the "Video Assistant Referee" restricts the striker's scope in the penalty area. He used to be able to play with the referee's fallibility: "If you were in the sixteen and the opponent tackled, you had to look for the penalty. If I have to score a goal with my hand to help the team, then that's what I do." (8) 
Is Nuzzolo's confession reckless and even an expression of an immoral attitude? At first glance, there's little to redeem him: the striker is looking to cheat. But is the situation just as clear-cut when Neuchâtel Xamax play host to the superior FC Basel? Doesn't the offending striker suddenly feel a hint of justice reminiscent of Robin Hood? Whatever the case, we have definitely arrived at the question of justice. Although philosophy is not responsible for this in the sense of reflecting on overall happiness, as with Epictetus, one of its sub-disciplines is: ethics.

(9) Geoffroy Sere Die: Weil Gott mich liebt. Interview in: ZWÖLF. football stories from Switzerland no. 36 (2013), pp. 22-23

In the same magazine, Geoffroy Serey Dié was interviewed, a boisterous professional footballer with a more spectacular career that took him from the Ivory Coast to the stadiums of Tunisia, Germany and Switzerland. Many Swiss fans still associate his name with a slap he gave a ball boy in Lausanne in 2012. The interviewer starts by asking the footballer what his life is like. "It's always difficult," replies Serey Dié and adds: "Because God loves me." The interviewer asks him to explain this surprising statement. "God has given me a wonderful life. It wouldn't be fair if God didn't test me regularly. I wouldn't be sure that he exists." (9) Admittedly, this double pass may leave the informed reader incredulous, but few will feel like picking Serey Dié up off his feet.

After football

"When our firsts team was put together in fifth grade, I wasn't picked. I was one of three who couldn't play. That's how you get to theory." (Schümer 1996, p. 265) According to Epictetus, football is an obstacle in the search for happiness and serenity. But many a footballer who is out of action deals with questions that prove, after all, that football is not dissimilar to philosophy.