“The Beautiful Game”: the aesthetics of World Cup soccer (part 1)

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^ (one of US goalie Tim Howard’s 16 record-setting saves in the USA vs. Belgium game)

Admittedly, I don’t watch a lot of sports. Or more accurately, I tend to only watch sports with an aesthetic element: i.e., events like figure skating, gymnastics, and diving, where an athlete’s form or style of movement is crucial to her success as a competitor; philosopher Jim Parry, in an 1989 paper titled “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic”, understandably labels these aesthetic sports. I suppose my preference for aesthetic sports is a hang-up of my own background in dance, where achievement depends on meeting aesthetic requirements (e.g., forming pleasing body shapes, moving with a satisfying quality) – sometimes more so than successfully completing technical feats (completing 32 fouettés, perhaps with triple turns like Gillian Murphy; landing a perfect double tour en l’air, etc.). The bulk of my athletic training has placed the aesthetic quality of my movements as a priority, and since aesthetics have so long been the primary basis for evaluating my own performance, I tend to have the most appreciation for athletes who also value aesthetics as the reward of their somatic efforts.

Nevertheless, I find myself swept up in the World Cup this summer, streaming hours of soccer on Univisión and watching as many games as possible with friends (who alas, have jobs with normal hours). Indisputably, part of what draws me (and many other viewers, I surmise) to the World Cup is its social dimension: its invitation to participate in a global fervor, debate the relative merits of teams and players, to identify with a team and fellow fans, and most generally, to celebrate the skill of athletes from six continents. The World Cup is among those unique events (like the Olympics and royal weddings) that draw an international crowd of spectators and commentators. But additionally, in light of my interests in the aesthetics of the human body and our practices of bodily maintenance, training, performance, and ornamentation (topics under investigation within Richard Shusterman’s emerging discipline of ‘somaesthetics‘), I’m convinced that there is a salient aesthetic element to the World Cup (and soccer in general) which certainly accounts in large part for my own attachment to the World Cup as a spectacle, and which, I presume, also gets other viewers hooked. Soccer, after all, is nicknamed “The Beautiful Game“, and our relationship to the events of the World Cup, though sometimes mediated by language and data (e.g., the NY Times’ coverage, replete with real-time blog updates and dozens of graphs), is primarily through sensorial (particularly visual & auditory) consumption: watching game footage and hearing the roar of the crowds and the endless stream of commentary. ‘Aesthetics’ derives from the Greek word aisthesis, meaning sense-perception, though today it’s generally taken to mean ‘of or relating to beauty’; under either of these definitions, though, soccer can be analyzed in terms of aesthetic qualities: its appeal to our senses, and its stimulation of our impression of beauty.

One could argue that ‘beautiful’, in the phrase “The Beautiful Game”, doesn’t truly track aesthetic qualities, but is being used in a disambiguated, unaesthetic sense. Art critic Clive Bell makes an claim of this sort in his 1914 classic, Art: that “Everyone sometimes uses ‘beauty’ in an unaesthetic sense; most people habitually do so. To everyone, except perhaps here and there an occasional aesthete, the commonest sense of the word is unaesthetic,” employed in such phrases as “beautiful huntin'” and “beautiful shooting'” (italics added). Furthermore, Bell claims that ‘beautiful’ is most frequently misused to denote a woman’s sexual desirability, which does not correspond to beauty, under his definition (“combinations of lines and colours that provoke aesthetic emotion”), but rather a difficult-to-describe yet attractive something or je ne sais quoi. Bell’s distinction between the beauty and sexual attractiveness of human beings is something to keep in mind for my later discussion (likely in part 2 or 3) of the role that the appearance of individual players plays in our judgment of soccer as The Beautiful Game.

Against a Bell-like argument that “The Beautiful Game” doesn’t really describe something aesthetic about the sport (but rather refers to some other enjoyable or admirable feature of soccer), I believe the epithet does in fact track aesthetic elements of the game, on both macro and micro levels. That is, I believe we can recognize veritable beauty in the overall structure of soccer games and the rules/technique of play, as well as in particular movements and shapes made by the players, and even in the affectively-laden narratives of games and tournaments. My current investigation into the aesthetic properties of World Cup soccer will be conducted in two parts:

  • Part 1: a visual analysis of World Cup imagery in photographic and video media, in which I apply a dance critic’s or choreographer’s eye for body shapes and movement qualities to highlight the features of players’ movement which may be aesthetically satisfying to spectators
  • Part 2: a discussion of the relationship between the aesthetic properties of static bodies and those of bodies in motion, with a foray into the significance of objectifying players’ bodies under a spectatorial gaze

Enough outlining: onto the imagery!

The idea for this post was sparked by a gallery of World Cup photos on Business Insider: I noticed that a good deal of these photos display players in body shapes or patterns that a choreographer might plausibly construct for aesthetic effect. In other words, it would be easy to confuse some of these images with artworks, even though most of these photos have been captured primarily for documentary purposes, rather than to be displayed for their aesthetic appeal. As I intend to point out, much of this imagery benefits aesthetically from the composition of the shot or video (i.e., formal properties of the work), but also, in large part, gains aesthetic value from its content: human bodies in motion. Athletes in aesthetic sports regularly take into account the visual appeal of their motions (e.g., shapes through which one transitions in a 10-meter dive, or in a figure skating spin sequence like this one invented by skater Caroline Zhang) and are evaluated accordingly; on the other hand, players in “purposive sports” like soccer – in which, according to Parry, “the winner will be one who achieves some end specified by rules, regardless of the manner of achievement” (p. 17) – presumably do not actively intend to assume shapes that are visually pleasing, since success in their event doesn’t depend on evaluation of aesthetic qualities of their movement. Nevertheless, bodies in motion – especially those performing the extreme types of motion required to win games, like (in soccer, specifically) outrunning your opponents, making contact with the ball before an opponent gets to it (to gain possession of it or move it strategically), and tackling the ball away from opponents – often inadvertently assume aesthetically admirable shapes and motion qualities. Furthermore, movement capacities that athletes in purposive sports train to achieve because of their functional value, leading to success on the field (e.g. jump elevation, for a goalie to reach a ball launched towards the high corners of the goal, or leg flexibility to reach the ball from a considerable distance) have remarkable overlap with the type of movement capacities dancers, gymnasts, and other aesthetic performers develop in virtue of the aesthetic value of the shapes/motions which those abilities allow performers’ bodies to assume – like the leap performed by Maria Kochetkova, displaying phenomenal elevation and flexibility alike, in the photo below: joyce-theatre2The photos displayed below, all from Business Insider and the FIFA website (all screenshot to include photography credits), each caught my eye for highlighting features of soccer motion which in other contexts are deliberately enacted for aesthetic purposes. Though the shapes may lack the refinement of those performed in aesthetic sports (particularly in details like facial expressions and the shape of one’s feet), they often resemble categories of dance movements, ranging from jumps to slides on the floor. On the other hand, many of these images diverge significantly from the imagery of dance and aesthetic sports, as a consequence of the overwhelming salience of affect (particularly, extremely determined, bordering-on-grotesque facial expressions).

Ironically, while the arts and aesthetic sports are often regarded as rich domains for emotional expression, soccer players are permitted to display a much more varied range of affects – from glee to agony – than aesthetic performers typically are. For example, a dancer whose chronic injury causes her pain during a performance cannot disclose that affective reality to her audience, but must conceal it behind a smile or a serene visage (depending on the type of piece she is performing), while a midfielder accidentally kicked in the shin by another player can grimace and yell as much as he pleases without impacting evaluation of his performance (unless, of course, he develops a reputation for diving or dramatically feigning a more severe injury than he has incurred). Furthermore, dancers are often constrained by an aesthetic imperative to make their motions appear effortless (see Barbara Montero’s paper “Effortless Bodily Movement” on this topic), while soccer players are free to make evident just how effortful their movements are. Contrary to the view on movement aesthetics evinced by practitioners of ballet, acrobatics, and the like (namely, that obvious displays of effort in performing physical feats detracts from an observer’s aesthetic appreciation of those feats), perhaps the affective transparency in players’ ongoing reactions to the proceedings of a game has its own aesthetic effect, related to the knowledge it provides about the player’s emotional experience. In other words, affect might function in sports more like it generally does in drama (often amplifying aesthetic experience) than it does in dance (in many cases distracting from the aesthetic properties of the work and its performers).

Let’s first take a look at an array of slide tackles:   Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 2.16.20 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-25 at 12.22.30 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.33.49 AM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.13.43 AM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.10.44 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-24 at 1.00.27 AM

I presume that none of the tackling players in the photos above were not thinking about creating an elongated shape with their bodies to please spectators – they were extending their legs and leaning backwards to cover distance at high velocity and reach the ball efficiently. Nevertheless, the shapes they assume as means to that end can be aesthetically satisfying under three distinct explanations for the aesthetic enjoyability of sports motion, respectively focusing on body form, body functionality, and human virtue:

  • According to the formal explanation (in the tradition of philosophers like Clive Bell and Nick Zangwill) of the beauty of the figures in the above photos, what pleases us in the images above is simply the shape that the body takes: the arrangement of lines and colors in that extended body position just happens to appeal to us.
  • functional explanation of the beauty of these motions claims that we respond with pleasure to the spectacle of a movement apparently well-suited to achieve a particular end: e.g., David Best (in “The Aesthetic in Sport”) argues that “[a] specific movement is aesthetically satisfying only if in the context of the action as a whole it is seen as forming a unified structure which is regarded as the most economical and efficient method of achieving the required end.” On this explanation, these slide tackles are beautiful because we can tell they are skillful and effective in wresting control of the ball from an opposing player.
  • A virtue-based explanation (explained by David Cooper in “Beautiful People, Beautiful Things”) claims that the beauty of the movement rests upon its exemplification of admirable qualities in the player, e.g. ambition, determination, and industriousness.

With those three options (formal, functional, and virtue-based) in mind, take a look at the following photos, which all highlight player’s elevation off the ground:

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.55.12 PM

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 8.45.25 AM Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.56.35 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.58.59 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.57.50 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.58.28 PM Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.24.04 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.01.22 AM^ (the gif of van Persie’s header is even more satisfying: this photo shows him in descent, rather at the top of his magnificent, dolphin-like arc into the air.)

Next, consider some photos that could easily be confused with dance partnering or contact improvisation, in virtue of the complementarity of player’s shapes relative to each other. Several of the photo captions describe the players as “doing a dance”, recognizing that their shapes recall those deliberately structured by choreographers: 

Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.47.40 AM^ (Note how the space between the players, bounded on top by the proximity of foot to hand and on the bottom by the two feet angled away from each other, is the shape of a “8” or an infinity sign. Also, two players’ inclined torsos form a continuous diagonal line, and there is opposition (balance across the composite shape) in the players’ extended arms, reaching up and down, respectively.)

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Screen Shot 2014-06-24 at 12.01.54 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.55.33 PM

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What I hope to have demonstrated in this array of photos is that soccer features bodily shapes and movements often quite similar to those seen on stage in embodied art forms, or in the context of aesthetic sports. At the very least, it seems that there is a common ground in the movement repertoires of those sports that intend to produce aesthetic effects, and those that may do so incidentally, as a consequence of the types of movements athletes are inclined to execute as means to non-aesthetic ends. The demands of soccer – especially in a setting as high-stakes as the World Cup – drive players to move in ways that turn out to be aesthetically appealing. Aesthetic philosophers have proposed several ways to explain that appeal (in terms of the body forms that players adopt, the apparent functionality of those movements, or the personal ‘virtues’ which those movements make manifest), each of which (independently or in combination with the others) plausibly accounts for our delight in the World Cup not merely as a historical event, but as a sensorial experience.

One quick note: someone might object that these photos aren’t adequate samples of the objects of one’s aesthetic experience while watching soccer, since photos are static, failing to fully capture the sequencing, tempo, and dynamics of the players’ movements, which we all can appreciate while viewing video footage (moving images) of games. Certainly, the experience of watching a live game is nothing like the leisurely contemplation of a still image. And undeniably, there are aesthetically-relevant features of body movement which I haven’t been able to highlight by just displaying photos, like the players’ speed, agility, and the efficiency of their handling of the ball. I haven’t attempted an exhaustive analysis of the aesthetic properties of soccer, but only am highlighting one dimension of soccer’s aesthetics which caught my eye, as someone who regularly contemplates the aesthetic logic behind the movements of embodied art forms.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I address the thorny issue of personal beauty in sports (that is, the beauty of the players qua human beings, as opposed to qua athletes) and the objectification of athletic bodies under the spectatorial gaze.

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5 thoughts on ““The Beautiful Game”: the aesthetics of World Cup soccer (part 1)

  1. “I’m convinced that there is a salient aesthetic element to the World Cup (and soccer in general) which certainly accounts in large part for my own attachment to the World Cup as a spectacle, and which, I presume, also gets other viewers hooked.”

    You’ve written a nice essay, but I see no evidence at to back up the above claim as anything other than some personal preference you have for soccer over other sports. Soccer may be nicknamed “the beautiful game” but I assure you that there are millions of baseball, hockey, football, and basketball fans who feel the same way about their sports, can cull together similar photographs and offer similarly aesthetic/artistic commentary.

    Baseball has a been given a magical/spiritual quality which often has to do with the aesthetics, beautiful swings, beautiful ballparks, the majestic nature of a towering homerun, etc. Brilliant writers have been attracted to the game over the years.

    Tennis should be on the list too. The late David Foster Wallace wrote a beautiful essay about the beauty of Roger Federer’s tennis.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

    Similarly, people have been writing about the aesthetic qualities of boxing for years. “The Sweet Science” is also called “The Manly Art of Self-Defense.” Joyce Carol Oates’ excellent book “On Boxing” illustrates some of this.

    In fact, boxing is the sport probably most associated with dance. Top boxers have been accomplished dancers and vice versa, Michael Flatley being a prominent recent example.

    This recent photo exhibit on “Boxers and Ballerinas” highlight the similarity of the two arts.

    http://www.rickwesterfineart.com/exhibitions-archive/boxers-ballerinas.html

    You can read a review of it in the NY Review of Books here:

    http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/gallery/2014/apr/03/boxers-and-ballerinas/

    Point being: all sports have the ability to be beautiful, to be aesthetic. Soccer has no advantage over any of these others.

    • Hi David,

      The “above claim” with which you find fault does not anywhere assert the aesthetic superiority of soccer over other sports (and if I were to have made that claim, you’d think I’d have bothered to mention other sports, and perhaps do a comparative analysis). Rather, I very much agree with you that many (if not all) other sports have aesthetic merit, and that the respective fan bases for those events could elaborate in rich detail what makes them beautiful. My omission of mention of other sports is certainly not a claim that other sports lack aesthetic appeal; it is only an attempt to give a rich treatment of the aesthetics of soccer at a time when that particular sport receives maximal attention.

      Thanks for reading! But it’s unfair to argue that I’ve left other sports off a “list” of aesthetic body practices, when I wasn’t making such a list in the first place.

  2. I never suggested you were making a list. I recognize that your focus was on soccer, but to completely omit any mention at all of any other major sport, in my view, implicitly asserts the particularity of soccer in its aesthetic appeal. And it’s fine to have that preference and that focus but I think needs to be qualified in such an essay with a recognition that soccer is not at all unique in that regard. And if you are interested in the aesthetics of sport beyond this essay I highly recommend checking out the links I posted and reading up on other sports, especially baseball and boxing, which have probably produced the most and highest quality literature on the subject.

    • For the record, this is not a formal essay, but rather a blog post. And I find your logic (“to completely omit any mention at all of any other major sport, in my view, implicitly asserts the particularity of soccer in its aesthetic appeal”) to be flawed. By analogy, according to your view, if someone writes about the aesthetic merit of a particular genre of music, they implicitly assert that only that genre of music has aesthetic value. But the highlighting of one genre’s aesthetic attributes in no way entails any contrastive devaluation of other genres. Neither does highlighting the merits of one genre necessarily position that genre as a superlative relative to other genres.

      On a similar note, “The Beautiful Game” is a commonly-used phrase which happens to refer to soccer. It doesn’t have to be read as meaning “The Only Beautiful Game”, though. Some people may genuinely use it that way, but I think many or most people who use that phrase employ “the”, not as a definite article picking out a single game for which the descriptor “beautiful” is appropriate, but rather as a component of an idiomatic expression which refers to soccer.

      • It’s not a question of logic. It’s a question of precision and thoroughness in writing, and thus is subjective. I offered my opinion which I think would improve the overall quality of your essay/blog post (I think blog posts can be in essay form without being formal). In any case, I look forward to part two.

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