The Francophile existentialist philosopher Albert Camus famously said: ‘all that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football’.
Existentialism is based on the premise that there is no higher power imposing moral order on the world. This mainly French philosophy was a response to the destruction that two wars had ravaged across Europe in the first half of the twentieth-century. People couldn’t believe that a benevolent supreme being could allow such terror so, the existentialists reasoned, there must not be a benevolent supreme being.
So far so sensible.
The problem was that up till now philosophy had really been about why we should be good, and had generally relied on a God who sort of ensured that we were. Take that God away and you have nihilism (which is basically nothing, a carte-blanche laissez-faire philosophy). This isn’t what the existentialists wanted. They wanted to say that even though there wasn’t a God, we still have to be good. There’s a gap here, a hanging ‘why?’ This is known as existentialism’s missing link. In his late writings Camus tried to fill this gap and establish meaningful moral obligations. The above quote suggests that he found this missing link on the football pitch.
Camus was a reasonably good goalkeeper and played for his university in Algiers. The sticks of a North African football pitch seem like an unusual place between which to experience philosophical epiphany, especially since football seems to be a pretty un-existential place.
Officiated by a separate external being according to historically established and universally consistent rules, the game of football is reliant on a pre-existentialist philosophy.
However, it seems to be going through an existentialist crisis of its own, as Nani’s utterly bizarre goal against Tottenham Hotspur this weekend shows. The accepted wisdom on this one is that Nani, by playing to the whistle, is in the right and that Heurelho Gomes is in the wrong. Play to the whistle is football’s categorical imperative, drummed into youngsters on playing fields around the world and recently enshrined as part of the FA’s RESPECT campaign.
But it’s not nice is it? It’s unsaid extension is that cheating, as long as you get away with it, is not just ok but actually the right thing to do. That can’t be what Camus meant about moral obligation. He presumably was talking about the camaraderie of teamwork and the duty of care to fellow players, both of which the religion of playing to the whistle somewhat denudes. Acts of sportsmanship like Paolo Di Canio’s against Everton in 2000 are so rare that Di Canio was awarded a special FIFA Fair Play Award.
Football, undoubtedly, needs referees and rules and things but the repeated insistence on the supremacy of the whistle, while useful in asserting the referee’s authority conversely also allows players to abdicate their own responsibilities to the game and to one another.
‘We’re all taught to play to the whistle. The ref never blew his whistle … so play on’, was Rio Ferdinand’s summary of the Nani debacle. Fair enough I guess, but Nani did handball it, you’re not allowed to do that and I think that’s cheating even if the referee’s whistle never sounded.