2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Working-Class Ballet

Philosopher Simon Critchley on the spectacle, poetry and importance of professional football.


Let me try and explain why football is so important to me, and why it becomes more rather than less important to me as I get older. My family is from Liverpool in the northwest of England and my father used to train at Liverpool Football Club’s training ground in the early 1950s until an ankle injury curtailed his career. Dodgy ankles meant he had to wear Chelsea boots for the rest of his life, although he looked kind of stylish in them.

My mum tells me that I could kick a ball before I could walk and the main plank in my somewhat tempestuous relationship with my dad was football. Until he died late in 1994—indeed during the final weeks of his illness—it was the only thing we talked about sensibly at any length. When we discussed politics, we would always end up shouting at each other. As a kid, I remember long car journeys to and from games where we would analyze every facet of the game in anticipation (on the way there) and reflection (on the way back) with scientific, almost forensic, detail. I remember crying inconsolably in the car on the way back from an F.A. Cup semifinal when Liverpool had lost badly to a manifestly inferior team on a terrible pitch. Football is all about the experience of failure and righteous injustice. It is about hoping to win and learning to accept defeat. But most importantly, it is about some experience of the fragility of belonging: the enigma of place, memory and history.


My nuclear unit of a family moved from Liverpool to the south of England, which is where I grew up. We were economic migrants in a part of the country that we didn’t recognize and which didn’t recognize us. Liverpool Football Club came to represent whatever ‘home’ meant to me and was a huge element in whatever sense of identity we had as a family. Our house was called ‘De Kop’, after the famous sloping terrace at Anfield where the hardcore supporters stood and sang. I made a sign with the words ‘De Kop’ in my woodwork class at school. It took weeks to make. I remember getting beaten up at elementary school for speaking funny, that is with a detectable Liverpool or ‘scouse’ accent. So, I learnt to speak another way, in the sort of anonymous, irritating BBC whine that I carry to this day.

I was a decent player, nothing special, but played at county level when I was 10 years old. My dad was very proud and used to come to all the games. Because of the vagaries of the English class system, when I passed the entrance exam to get into a grammar school at age 11, a kind of academic public school that has largely and happily died out, the only sports they played were rugby, hockey and cricket. These were gentlemen’s games because football was considered too working-class. I wasn’t allowed to play football, unless in my spare time, and lost any small talent I had. I played off and on until my early 30s – until time’s wingèd chariot obliged me to hang up my boots.

When my first son, Edward, was born in 1992, my first violent patriarchal act was to decorate his room with Liverpool pennants and other paraphernalia. Like me, he would have had no choice but to support Liverpool. Sadly, the Liverpool team that I grew up with – a team of invincible demigods welded together through the authoritarian will of Bill Shankly, who was coach from 1959 until 1974 – is no more. In the 1970s and 1980s, Liverpool were so good that, Shankly joked, they’d have to bring a team from Mars to beat them. He also said, and I love the arrogance of this quotation,

‘My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Napoleon had that idea. He wanted to conquer the bloody world. I wanted Liverpool to be untouchable. My idea was to build Liverpool up and up until eventually everyone would have to submit and give in.’

Bill Shankly turned Liverpool into a “bastion of invincibility”. Photo by: Bob Thomas / Getty Images

Despite the allusion to Napoleon, Shankly was a lifelong socialist and it should never be forgotten that the true name of soccer, which goes back to the formal organization of the game in England in the 1860s, is association football. Football is an experience of association, an idea that might not be too whimsically linked to Marx’s talk of ‘an association of free human beings’ in Capital, Volume 1. The way Shankly understood socialism was very simple,

“The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day.”

In 2006, Liverpool Football Club was bought by two American sports capitalists: Tom Hicks and George Gillett. A few short years later, in the 2009-10 season, with hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, Liverpool enjoyed its worst season in 11 years. The next season (2010-2011) was even worse, a disaster, and the club was taken into receivership and then eventually bought, like a hooker on a streetcorner, by New England Sports Ventures, owners of the Boston Red Sox. That said, Kenny Dalglish, my boyhood hero, to whom I wanted to dedicate my PhD Thesis (until I was strongly discouraged from doing so by senior faculty at my university), was appointed coach in late December 2010. Things were initially better but it very sadly became clear that Kenny really didn’t have the aptitude for the contemporary game. Four years later, there has been a slow, but completely tangible, shift in the attitude of the team, the selection and tactics of LFC under Brendan Rodgers. I don’t really like the guy—he looks like a flash geezer who drives to management seminars in his BMW—but he has done a fantastic job. LFC play with pace, power and momentum with a devastatingly effective attacking troika of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. As I write, in early March 2014, we sit second in the Premiership, which is not really justified. I think we’ll finish third. But that’s a huge improvement on the last couple of seasons.


Sometimes think I should have let my son support some other team, like Arsenal or Manchester United (God forbid!). But maybe there’s something of a parable in Liverpool’s demise: football is all about an experience of disappointment in the present that is linked to some doubtless illusory memory of greatness and heroic virtue. The odd thing is that it isn’t the disappointment that is so difficult to bear; it’s the endlessly renewed hope with which each new season begins. This has a classical allusion, of course, in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, in an exchange between the chorus and the god Prometheus, chained to a rock in the Caucasus. In addition to fire and technology, the chorus asks what else Prometheus gave humans,

Prometheus: ‘Yes, I stopped mortals from foreseeing doom.’
Chorus: ‘What cure did you discover for that sickness?’
Prometheus: ‘I sowed in them blind hopes’.

A Shankly statue outside Anfield. Photo by: Clive Mason / Getty Images

II: War by other means

The World Cup is a spectacle in the strictly Situationist sense. It is a shiny display of teams, tribes and nations in symbolic, indeed rather atavistic, national combat adorned with multiple layers of commodification, sponsorship and the seemingly infinite commercialization — among the official FIFA sponsors are Coca Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds. The World Cup is an image of our age at its worst and most gaudy. But it is also something more, something bound up with difficult and recalcitrant questions of conflict, memory, history, place, social class, masculinity, violence, national identity, tribe and group.

My first memory of the World Cup is when my dad took me to see England play Argentina at Wembley Stadium in 1966. I was 6 years old and this was a big deal. It was a famously tetchy, irritable 0-0 draw that went down in legend because the Argentine captain, Rattin, who had committed grievous bodily harm on a number of English players, refused to leave the pitch when he had been sent off. He clearly wasn’t a gentleman. The games provided the background for three subsequent World Cup encounters between England and Argentina in 1986 (Argentina won, with two goals from Diego Maradona, one with his hand, the famous ‘hand of God’ incident), in 1998 (Argentina won again, after a young, impetuous David Beckham had been sent off for retaliation) and 2002 (when England won and Beckham redeemed himself with a winning goal). Reflecting on the ‘hand of God’ incident and victory over England in 1986, Maradona said,

“It was as if we had beaten a country, not just a football team… Although we had said before the game that football had nothing to do with the Malvinas war, we knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys there, killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.”

Football is the continuation of war by other means.

My most powerful memory of the World Cup is from Mexico, in 1970. Brazil won for the third time, which meant that they got to keep the trophy. This was the team of Pelé, in his fourth World Cup, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Tostão and Gerson. The names alone had a sort of magical power for me. I would roll them silently around my mouth as I kicked a ball against the wall, as if incanting a spell. The 1970 Brazil team was the greatest attacking team of all time and the side against which any subsequent team (The Netherlands in 1974 or France 1998) is measured. My mother has a photograph of me, aged 10, wearing a full Brazil uniform.

The World Cup, then, is about ever-shifting floors of memory and the complexity of personal and national identity. But at its best it is about grace. A truly great player, like Pelé, like Johan Cruyff, like Maradona, like Zidane, has grace: an unforced bodily containment and elegance of movement, a kind of discipline where long periods of inactivity can suddenly accelerate and time takes on a different dimension in bursts of controlled power. When someone like Zidane does this alone, the effect is beautiful; when four or five players do this in concert, it is breathtaking (this collective grace has been taken to a new level by the F.C. Barcelona team in the last few years). But grace is also a gift. It is the cultivation of a certain disposition, some call it faith, in the hope that grace will be dispensed.

Kenny Dalglish breaks free. Photo by: David Cannon / Getty Images

III: An experience of enchantment

Football is working-class ballet. It’s an experience of enchantment. For an hour and a half, a different order of time unfolds and one submits oneself to it. A football game is a temporal rupture with the routine of the everyday: ecstatic, evanescent and, most importantly, shared. At its best, football is about shifts in the intensity of experience. At times, it’s like Spinoza on maximizing intensities of existence. At other times, it’s more like Beckett’s Godot, where nothing happens twice.

Let me try and make some sense of these thoughts by focusing on an exemplary artwork: Zidane by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno from 2006. The movie’s subtitle is A Portrait of the 21st Century and these words have a wide range of meaning. Zidane is a meditation on the nature of the image and the endlessly mediated quality of reality. We begin by watching the usual, flat TV images and commentary of the game before being sucked in to something else… but let’s leave that ‘something else’ for a moment.


At the most obvious level, Zidane is a portrait of the 21st century, where reality has an utterly mediated quality. It is a world of celebrity and commodity, a world of smooth and shiny surfaces, a hallucinatory reality, nothing more. The 21st century is a portrait. Everything is a portrait. Zidane himself is a portrait, a perfect and magical fetish, a pure commodity that inspires desire, a product with rights owned by Adidas, Siemens or his whole panoply of sponsors. Zidane is a spectacle.

Sure, you might respond. That’s right. Point taken. We are all children of the Situationists and the world is a world of images. Nothing more. No more reality, as Parreno would say.

But there is more to a portrait than some Situationist thesis about the society of the spectacle. Douglas Gordon talks about the importance of silence and immobility in portraiture. This is crucial, I think. At one level, when we look at a portrait we look for something about ourselves in the image. In the interview he gave to accompany the film, Zidane recognizes this and acknowledges that people watching the film will perhaps be able to feel themselves in his place, ‘un petit peu’, he adds. Such is the nature of the image at the level of identification. This is fine. But there is more.

It’s the petit peu that counts. The paradox of Zidane as a portrait is that he is constantly in movement and engulfed in the noise of the crowd and the game. And yet, in the firmness, closedness and severity of his face we see through the skin, through the image, to something else, what I want to call some truth, some darker truth, even some reality beyond the image. Somehow, in all the cacophonous noise and ceaseless movement of the film, there is a dark kernel of immobility and silence.

The model for this is Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and I take it that Zidane is a kind of homage to and reenactment of the famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X. As is well known, when the far from innocent looking Pope saw Velázquez’s portrait, he said ‘troppo vero’ — too true, or too much truth. This is echoed in Zidane’s remarks on his image in the movie. Firstly, he says that his face looked ‘un peu dure, un peu ferme’ (‘a little hard, a little firm’), but then he adds, ‘c’était moi quoi; voilà, c’était moi’ (‘what can I say? It was me. It was me.’)

Zidane, portrait of a footballer. Photo by: Bernat Armangue / STF

Zidane is a portrait in a double sense, then. On the one hand, it gives us a sense of the capture of reality by commodified images in the century through which we are slowly slouching our way. But on the other hand, this portrait is true to Zidane in a way that exceeds the sensible content of the image. There is the suggestion, the adumbration of an inaccessible interiority, a reality that resists commodification, an atmosphere, something like Orpheus looking over his shoulder as the Eurydice disappears into Hades.


The film begins with and returns to the phrase ‘an extraordinary day’. Of course, Saturday, April 23rd 2005, when the movie was shot and the match between Real Madrid and Villareal was played, was a perfectly ordinary day. At halftime we get a flash sequence of images from the outside world, in a chaotic muddle of the instantly forgotten. All that counts is what takes place in the stadium, in the face of Zidane. This has something to do with abandoning oneself to chance and the flow of time. As Zidane says, he might have been injured after five minutes or sent off at the beginning rather than the end of the match. The fact is that he wasn’t. It is the act of submission to the order of time that is crucial. The 90 minutes of the game provide a frame, an order of counting and accounting within which the extraordinary can happen. Zidane keeps looking up at the clock during the match, checking the time. Such is the time of the line, of the frame, of the game. Vulgar clocktime.

But another temporal order opens up within this submission, a different experience of duration, not the linear flow of 90 minutes, but something else. In abandoning oneself completely to chance, something like necessity begins to appear, even a sense of fate. In his commentary on the film, Zidane recalls the moment – it only happened once – when he received the ball and he knew exactly what was going to happen, he knew that everything had been decided. He knew he was going to score before the ball had even touched his foot.

This bifurcation in the order of time is also found in what Zidane says about his memory of a match. You don’t really remember a game, he says. It’s a series of fractured images that announce a different experience of duration: episodic, random, flickering. Memory flares up and catches hold of an image and sucks out its truth. This is time as ecstasy.

In the late 1950s, in the heyday of 3D cinema, there was an experiment in ‘Scratch-n-Sniff’ cards that were given to moviegoers in order to intensify their experience. At a given prompt, they would scratch away at the card and sniff fresh mown grass, gunpowder, rotting alien flesh or whatever.

IV: I can smell this movie, Zidane

There are two things that totally escape you when you watch football on TV: smell and sound. Football is all about smell: the crowd, the acrid piss stink of the toilets, beefy Bovril, cigarette smoke and meat pies. But there is also the smell of the earth, the earth that Zidane treats with such delicacy, carefully replacing divots of grass ripped out during play or the persistent light dragging noise of Zidane’s foot against the pitch. There is something nostalgic, elegiac about this smell and when I think back to watching games with my Dad when I was young or crying in the car home if Liverpool lost, then what I remember are smells, but most of all the smell of wet earth on the pitch that ascended into the terraces.

Zidane is all about sound. Zidane talks about the experience of sound when he is playing. Of being pulled in and out of the game through noises, of the vast presence of the crowd when you go onto the pitch. He has the most acute sense of hearing during a match. He can hear someone cough or whisper to his neighbour. ‘Il y a du son’, ‘there is sounds’, he says, and adds an extraordinary phrase, ‘le son du bruit’. The sound of noise. In many ways, this movie is about the il y a of the sound of noise, the sheer thereness of noise as engulfing. This is what it is to be in a crowd – sensate ecstasy.


We only know football through commentary, through largely and hugely inane commentary. There is no immediacy here. The whole experience is completely mediated and mediatized. Zidane recalls when he was a kid commenting on himself playing as he was playing. We all did this. It was as if only an act of ventriloquism and self-distancing could grant you access to what was of utmost importance to your being (recall Bill Shankly, ‘Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that.’). The Zidanefilm gets as close as possible to the immediacy of football mainly because it is made out of sheer love of the game. But we can only get so close. Zidane recalls running and sitting as near to the TV as he could in order to watch French Téléfoot and listen to the voice of the commentator, Pierre Cangioni. He says – and this is fascinating – that what attracted him was not the content of Mangioni’s words, but the tone, the accent, the atmosphere. It is this atmospherics that Zidane tries to evoke, to draw us into, the evocation of space, a heavenly sphere, the time of breath and vapour. At times, it reminds me of the cinema of Terrence Malick.

The headbutt seen around the world. Photo by: John Macdougall / AFP

V: Grace and destruction

At the end of his peculiar yet utterly powerful short essay, ‘On the Puppet Theatre’, the Romantic poet Heinrich von Kleist ponders the nature of grace. Given the restless nature of human consciousness, Kleist concludes that grace will only appear in bodily form in a being that, “Has either no consciousness at all or an infinite one, which is to say, either in the puppet or a god”. Is Zidane a puppet or a god? I couldn’t possibly say. What he has is grace. Which means that he could be both. It is the grace of Zidane’s movement that is astonishing.

It is unclear what meaning there is – if any – to heroism in the 21st Century. The hero is an icon. We know that. But he is also something more. The true hero is possessed of fragility and solitude. Most of all, and here is where Zidane comes closest to the figure of the hero, he is wedded to self-ruination.


Zidane smiles once, maybe twice, in the movie. The second time is towards the end of the match when he exchanges some casual banter with the great Brazilian wing-back, Roberto Carlos. Real Madrid is winning after being a goal down to a stupid penalty. Zidane created the first goal ex nihilo with an extraordinary show of intelligence, power, speed and skill. He seems happy. But it’s a menacing smile. Almost a grimace.

Darkness descends, the eyes darken and he seems engulfed in a claustrophobic intensity of doubt and self-loathing. A teammate is fouled badly, but not appallingly, and Zidane runs across the pitch and whacks the guy and looks like he is going to hit him again until David Beckham pulls him off. Then some kind of world of pain breaks over Zidane. He is sent off and submits to the law, reluctantly, but he submits nonetheless, like at the end of the 2006 World Cup Final (when most of the civilized world was wishing that he had head-butted Marco Materazzi even harder). Heroism always leads to self-destruction and ruination. As he leaves the pitch, he knows that it is finished. He looks helpless. As Kleist says in the final words of his essay on the puppet theatre, ‘This is the final chapter in the history of the world’.

[Header image: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue]

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