Football and Aesthetics of Beauty: A Reflection on the Offside Rule and the Emergence of Space

20130827_112124Mahmoud Rasmi

American University of Beirut

1) A reflection on the origin and the evolution of football

Excavating through sediments of time in search of a trace that would allow us to understand the beginning and the evolution of the ball game takes us all the way back to ancient, even pre-historical times. Records have shown that the Egyptian hieroglyphs depicted an activity that included the tossing of the ball as early as 2000 BCE. (Goldblatt, 2008, p. 20) Nevertheless, as David Goldblatt argues in his book The Ball is Round, whereas many people, among them the ex-Fifa president Josepp Blatter, try to attribute the emergence of soccer to ancient Chinese dynasties, or sometimes even to the Romans, this approach fails to stand on its feet because of two reasons: 1) the game was not a kicking-game-proper, 2) the game was a mere play, it had neither rules, nor strategies nor tactics. (Goldblatt, 2008, p. 21) It was not football in the modern sense.

In effect, according to Goldblatt, any attempt to attribute the ancestry of football to any era or geographical location other than the Anglo-Celtic people in the eighteenth century is a futile one. The inception of the modern game, however, was not created ex-nihilo, but was, according to Goldblatt, a consequence of the synthesis between an amalgam of cultures and their particular way of playing the game. This amalgam extends from the Far East and the Pacific, passing through ancient Europe onto the ancient cultures of Meso-America. (Goldblatt, 2008, p. 29)

The aforementioned synthesis was a result of a combination of a variety of aspects that would eventually comprise the backbone of the beautiful game as we now know it. According to Goldblatt, these aspects can be summarized as follows:

“It would embrace the kicking spirit of the Far East and the Pacific, it would assume a secular cultural importance that parallels the Mesoamerican ball game, and it would revive the memory of Rome’s urban furnace and the repertoire of bread and circuses. But it was only in the short-lived association of the game with aristocratic Corinthian amateurism that football would develop with conscious reference to or knowledge of Antiquity. The rest was confined to the shadows by the course of global history.” (Goldblatt, 2008, p. 29)

Based on the paragraph above, modern football is characterized by three different aspects, even though at its inception, it was not an intentional adaptation of the knowledge of antiquity. Those aspects can be generally divided into the following:

1) The kicking spirit, which is found at the core of the game – the tactics and rules in general.

2) It has grown to acquire a secular cultural importance.

3) It has become associated with the spectacle, which takes place in a designated space that would spark interest in the architecture and design of the football stadiums and their surroundings.

These features persevere in the contemporary game and have been quantitatively augmented through a proliferation of technology and different marketing strategies. However, the history of the game shows that it had started from scratch. In other words, as Jonathan Wilson states in his book Inverting the Pyramid: “In the beginning was chaos, and football was without form. Then came the Victorians, who codified it, and after them the theorists who analyzed it.” (Wilson, 2008, p. 9) The football that was being played in the English public schools had no resemblance to the game as it is played today. Whereas at first it was depicted as a very violent game, later on it would be seen as a way to allow the boys at the public schools to vent and burn energy which was thought of as an effective remedy against solipsism and masturbation. (Wilson, 2008, p. 10)

The game, in its primary stages could be viewed as mere play. This means that it was not a game with properly defined rules or tactics. It was mere play insofar as it was a pastime activity with no proper intrinsic goal, which meant that, without any predetermined boundaries, it was constituted of mere movement in free space with time having almost no important role in the overall process. With time, the game eventually started taking form and being codified as different schools became aware of the importance and the impact football would have over their students. Hence began the tedious journey of football to become an officially recognized sport beginning with the establishment of the Football Association in 1863 all the way to the foundation of FIFA in 1904.

The development of the game, based on the aforementioned, could be viewed as an emergence (the term used in the general sense) from chaos to logos. From being pure, non-teleological and amateur, the game became well-organized with a defined set of unified rules alongside tactical awareness and a very clear telos: to score goals. This telos might be controversial, though. Many football-related discussions have at their center the issue of whether or not the ultimate goal of football should be to score goals and eventually win or to play a beautiful game without boring the fans. A more recent portrayal would be the different approaches to and conceptions of the game that Josep Guardiola and José Mourinho have. The former is a strict partisan of a beautiful performance that would appeal to the public, whereas the latter more often than not is willing to play a very defensive game (by parking the bus) in order to reap a victory.

One response to this dispute could be found in the famous Danny Blanchflower’s quote which goes as follows: “The great fallacy is that the game is first and foremost about winning. It’s nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It’s about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

There is a reason why the simple game is also known as the beautiful game. Were we to examine the beautiful side of it, including games that would appeal to the spectator in the sense of Blanchflower and Guardiola (and many other clubs, footballing style, managers and even national teams), we have to first understand the components that underlie it, and with it the conditions of possibility that would make a specific football game a beautiful one.[1] In order to be able to do that, we have to ask ourselves what the constituents of the game are. What are all the participating parties in the game’s scheme? In the section below I will try to tackle this question in more detail.

2) A glimpse into the game’s logos

 We can analyze the game from various perspectives, and many different relations and associations could be sketched down. In what follows, I will be tackling football as an organism whereby the parts all depend on each other to form a collective whole. Accordingly, the clubs and their histories, their fans, the referees and other circumstances play an important role in affecting and shaping football in general and each particular game as well. By doing so, I will also examine each part briefly in order to argue first that the game, objectively, is beautiful insofar as there is an emergence of the novum; second that, the novum is the condition of possibility for the occasion of aesthetic experience.

From all the parties involved in a football match (clubs, referees, and players,) I will single out only the players and the spectators. The latter can also be subdivided in two categories: neutral spectators and engaged hard-core fans. The last category can also include fans rooting for a different team than the one they support because they are playing against their rivals.[2] In line with Blachflower’s quote, the players are not only there to win the game, but to win it with style, which presupposes the presence of an engaged spectator watching the game. Otherwise, it would, insofar as spectacle goes, make no sense to win with style if there were no spectators to begin with. This, I think, might cause us to ask the question regarding the objective of the activity in itself. Does the existence of football depend on the co-existence of a fan base? I think that the history of the game only shows that it does. As previously mentioned, football eventually became the game of all people, of all the different social classes. It was the game of the people and will remain so even though millions of dollars are at stake now.[3] It is crucial, therefore, to understand that the clubs are not playing to win trophies only. The players, at the end of the day, represent a certain club, and each club has a fan base, and these clubs have a different history and a wide variety of fan bases. Besides that, having become a global game, the fan base extends beyond national borders which means that many clubs are not only playing to amuse a regional fan base, but an international one.

The player-spectator relationship is going to be an important one for the present paper. I will henceforth examine each side of this coin in more detail. What brings these two distant sides together, and perhaps also make the game a global and a simple one, is the fact that it has simple, though genius, rules. Consequently, modern football has acquired a game-status instead of the mere play of a ball-kicking game. Several years had to pass by before the rules of the game were finally agreed upon, after the first attempt to unify them at Cambridge. One rule in particular stands out as an ingenious one: the offside. I will be focusing on the offside law to draw upon the main thesis of the present argument. First, it is worthwhile to imagine a game without offside. The two scenarios possible are either one where the game is purely defensive; the other where the game is an attacking one with a score almost as close as that of a basketball game.

If in the beginning there was chaos and the ball-kicking game was without a goal or form, with the introduction of the logos the game takes a different dimension. However, back in the days the dribbling game was more dominant, while the passing game was almost inexistent. Teams played with up to seven forwards; any player who got the ball sprinted towards the goal while being chased by the opponents – it was almost a disgrace to pass the ball.[4] Later on, different clubs and managers became aware of the superiority of passing, especially after a game between England and Scotland in 1872. The Scots with a 2-2-6 formation were able to keep a clean sheet in a tie against a favorite England squad. This match, argues Wilson, might as well be the first one because of which passing became more popular. (Wilson, 2008, p. 15)

Later on, Reverend Spencer Walker implanted passing in schools because he saw that dribbling meant that the forward players had crowded people round them. For that reason, he decided to establish a rule where the forwards had fixed positions on the field in order to stimulate a more passing game. (Wilson, 2008, p. 19) This change would later on revolutionize the game, but different factors had to come together before that. Football fields were assigned definite dimensions, the referee acquired a neutral status, the players were becoming more mature tactically, and the passing game was becoming more popular.

One reason why passing was not favored was because of the offside rule, implemented in England by the Football Association in 1863 which specified that a player was offside if he was in front of the ball. (Wilson, 2008, p.12) Hence the English national team were surprised when they played against the Scottish side in 1872 since the latter side had no such rule. (Wilson, 2010) Nevertheless, as soon as the new law of 1866 was stipulated, this automatically changed the football panorama for years to come. The offside law would eventually become more and more liberalized until it was finally amended in 2005. In 1866 the law stated that a player was onside when there were three players between him and the goal; the number of players was reduced to two in 1925 after Newcastle had mastered the art of the offside trap and the average of goals dropped during the season. (Wilson, 2010) But how does the offside rule possibly affect the game? And how is it a precursor to a possible emergence of the novum?

3) From specialization to complexity

Along with the implementation of the 1925 offside law surges an important problem to tackle: how to generate space in order to score more goals? Players were increasingly becoming more specialized, à la contemporary academia, evoking a sense of scholarly specialization. The WM formation was created by Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman and was proving to become the perfect solution to balance the offence and the defense. (Wilson, 2008, p. 51) Arsenal’s success in 1931 and 1933 and their ability to execute efficiently the transition from offense to defense were compared to that of a machine. (Wilson, 2008, p. 51) The mastery of the zonal marking posed yet another problem because of the disjointedness between the lines. The solution was crafted by the likes of Victor Maslov and Rinus Michels who developed a system of play that would later on be known as total football. (Wilson, 2008, pp. 218, 224) Maslov and Michel’s conception was all about how to control space while on the attack and on the defensive. Accordingly, the underlying system was to try to make the field as wide as possible while attacking, and narrowing it as much as possible when the opponents have the ball. Not only this, but they also favored a more complex approach whereby they encouraged the players to interchange positions – hence the denomination total football. Total football started at Ajax Amsterdam and would eventually become the Johan Cruyff’s blueprint as Barcelona manager, and later on will be assimilated as Barcelona’s La Masia credo.

Under total football, a different conceptual understanding of football surges. Now it is not as important to excel at one position only, but what is crucial is that the team members organically interact with each other such that each player fills in the gaps in order to maintain a certain stability while at the same time moving the ball around in order to generate enough space to break through the opponent’s defenders. It is for that reason that Cruyff and later on Guardiola alike are obsessed with the midfield. Insofar as the midfield is well-controlled, it becomes easier for players to open up the field on the wings while at the same time ensuring a matrix of filled spaces to change the rhythm and the direction of play from one side to the other. Consequently, when teams like Guardiola’s FC Barcelona kept the ball, they were constantly moving it through short-tiki-taka-passes looking for the perfect moment to break the last line of the opponent’s defense. The complexity entails a thorough knowledge and understanding of the field and the dynamics of play. However, in order to be able to manipulate the coordinates of the field, the players have to be able to manipulate time as well. We find ourselves here before a space-time continuum such that the attacking team has to be weaving space-time coordinates in order to create an empty spot and create a chance on goal.

Under similar circumstances, I argue, there is an emergence of the novum[5] insofar as the concept is understood as that which is radically new. It is as though there’s a leap between the building up of the play and the actual singularity which springs in a fraction of a second distorting, thus, the opponents and allowing the attacking player to create a dangerous chance or even score. The novum is, thus, nothing other than emergent space under very specific conditions. These conditions require a consolidated midfield and a team that has reached a certain level of complexity such that the players can fill in the gaps at any time. Besides that, the crucial element is to be able to control the tempo and the rhythm of the game and be able to create chances by changing the coordinates of the field in fractions of a second. We can find such examples in players like Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets – and other players like Carlos Valderrama, Zidane, Rivaldo, Xabi Alonso, Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Thomas Müller – the list almost never ends which is why I will focus on a few players.

The novum is, based on the aforementioned, the result of an unpredictable event, an unpredictable decision by any of the players to either dribble their way to the goal – like in Maradona’s goal against England in 1986 or Messi’s goal against Zaragoza in 2010 –, or a collective combination to create a chance on goal. What we have at hand, accordingly, is the occasional generation of new spaces through outstanding individual and collective plays that break the football routine. Although governed by strict rules and set boundaries, the genius law of the offside creates a tension on the field that results in an interesting dialectic. The occurrence of the unpredictable, thus, creates a new perception of the game as never selfsame. Perception, in turn, means that the novum is being perceived, which in the case of football, is done by the spectators who can either be neutral or engaged fans. I will argue in the next section, then, that perhaps one of the reasons why football is considered to be the beautiful game is because of the emergence of the novum. I will argue that the emergence of the novum is a condition of possibility for the ‘occasion’ of the aesthetic experience.

4) Redundancies, clichés and aesthetic experience

Before I venture into the aesthetic terrain, I would like to discuss the idea of context as the back-bone of communication in cybernetic theory, which Gregory Bateson denominates as ‘redundancies.’ (Berman, 1981, p. 248) As Berman explains “[c]ommunication is thus the creation of redundancy, and redundancy is the central epistemological concept in cybernetic theory, which is the science of messages.”(Berman, 1981, p. 248) This redundancy in communication is what allows us to know the world.[6] This redundancy allows us to form clichés which include ready-made phrases and ideas that are like a safe haven for us vis a vis our experience of the outer world. The making of the quotidian life clichés ensues from the very fact that original experiences at the center of being are stripped off their meaning and are converted into insipid concepts dis-imbued from any deep or creative meaning; this is what everyday language consists of. We are able to relate to each other and communicate in our quotidian life because of the notion of ‘redundancy’ on which cybernetic theory is based as discussed above. Clichés acquired at the Digital level would include the understanding we infer from gestures or tones of voices of those around us. We would directly know that even if someone says ‘What a great idea’ in an ironic tone of voice that what he actually meant was that the idea was not great at all. However, we are able to enjoy an authentic music performance or a literary work because the redundancy is broken in communication; for there will always be parts of our tacit knowledge that could not be made conscious or reduced to a mere cliché.

The previous detour was in order to extrapolate the same example of the authentic music performance to football. By analogy, we can argue that we are able to enjoy a beautiful play that would have otherwise been unpredictable. What these unpredictable plays are able to evoke in us is a sense of a broken redundancy or cliché. In a way, football fans perhaps go to the stadium or sit behind the television with a sense of hope[7] that during the match they will be smitten by an unanticipated combination that would leave them speechless. Consequently, these experiences of the broken redundancy are evocative of an experience aesthetic in nature. I would defend the thesis that this aesthetic experience is closer to the category of the beautiful insofar as one is contemplating a clever play that transcends and breaks redundancies.

Taking into consideration that spectators can be partisans of either team, what would their reaction be if the opposing team created an unpredictable/beautiful play? In other words, would a Barcelona fan enjoy equally a conceded goal from Ronaldo after an amazing combination as though Messi was scoring against Real Madrid? This situation would not pose a problem to the neutral spectators as they would seek the beautiful play irrespective of the team. Nevertheless, and drawing on Friedrich Schelling’s argument from the Philosophy of Art, under these circumstances, were two opposing sides are perceiving the same exact play, there is an identity of the beautiful and the sublime[8] such that the advocating spectators are stupefied by the mesmerizing play whereas the opposing spectators find themselves in a contradictory situation where they despise the play (perhaps at the same time relieved that it was a miss) while at the same time acknowledging the beauty of it.


Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Berman, M. (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bloch, E. (1995). The Principle of Hope. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Goldblatt, D. (2008). The Ball is Round: A global history of soccer. New York: Riverhead Books.

Kellner, D. and O’Hara, H. (1976) ‘Utopia and Marxism in Ernst Bloch’, New German Critique, 9: 11–34.

Schelling, F. W., & Stott, D. W. (1989). The Philosophy of Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wilson, J. (2008). Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics. London: Orion.


[1] The scope of the paper does not allow for a detailed argument in favor of the beautiful game versus a more practical results-oriented game. The reader can find a very good argument in Durà-Villà, Víctor: Why Playing Beautifully is Morally Better, Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful thoughts on the Beautiful Game, ed. Ted Richard, Open Court, 2010.

[2] For example a FC Barcelona fan rooting for Atlético Madrid against Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

[3] This aspect is beyond the scope of the present paper and will not be discussed in more detail.

[4] For more information about this topic, see Wilson, 2008, the first chapter.

[5] I use the concept of the novum in the sense of Bloch which he used as a product of a social and cultural outburst. Due to the limitations of the paper I will not tackle the concept in more detail and the reader can refer to: (Kellner and O’Hara, 1976) where the subject matter is explained in more detail.

[6] Gregory Bateson, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind establishes a difference between Analogue and Digital knowledge insofar as the former is iconic representing that which is communicated, while the latter verbal, rational and abstract.

[7] In the sense of Bloch. See The Principle of Hope.

[8] For a detailed analysis see (Schelling, 1989, § 56.)


I am currently a Lecturer of Philosophy at the American University of Beirut. In July 2015, I completed my Ph.D. in Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Salamanca, Spain. In my Ph.D. dissertation I focus on aesthetics and the philosophy of mythology of the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling arguing for a tautegorical interpretation of the cinematic image taking as an example the films of the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The title of my dissertation is: “Mythopoesis, Aesthetics and Artistic Creation: Towards a Tautegorical Interpretation of the Cinematic Image.” My Areas of Specialization include Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, Ethics, Friedrich Schelling, German Idealism, Philosophy of Mythology, Philosophy and Film. I also have a special interest in Philosophy of Sports, and more recently in the latest developments in Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence.
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