Philosophical Tactics in International Soccer

Most of the philosophers who take the field in Monty Python’s sketch “International Football” appear in fine form throughout Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game. But the sketch itself is mentioned only a few times. Why? Probably because it makes fun of philosophers. As they did in Eric Idle’s “Philosopher’s song” (“Wittgenstein was a beery swine who was just as schloshed as Schlegel…”) the Pythons always found philosophers to be an odd lot. For career-making comedic material, they march right behind false messiahs (Brian) and medieval Kings (Arthur). They’re the ones with the coconuts.

Book: Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts on the Beautiful Game

Author: Ted Richards

Publisher:Open Court

Publication Date: 2010-06

Format: Paperback

Length: 288 pages

Price: $21.95

Image: joke in “International Football” is an old one: Look, a bunch of philosophers doing nothing! After the referee, Confucius, blows his whistle, the Greeks led by Heraclitus (who said, ‘you can never score the same goal twice’) and the Germans led by Georg Hegel (thesis-antithesis-goal!), simply wander around the field, lost in conversation with other players or in tortured interior monologues (Wittgenstein, again). Nothing happens until Archimedes has his eureka-moment and, with only minutes left in the match, suddenly kicks the ball toward the German net. With an assist from Heracleitus, Socrates scores (using his head, of course) and it’s all over for the Germans.

But the joke is a little forced. Until Archimedes’s breakthrough, this match is dull and plodding not because the players get carried away by deep thoughts or because they failed to understand the game. I think they know exactly what they are doing, as you can gather from Stephen Minister’s chapter “What’s Wrong with Negative Soccer?” Negative soccer is a style of play that seeks to prevent the opposition from scoring. It’s not uncommon because there are times, depending on a club’s rankings and funding, when a nil-nil draw is better for a team than a loss.

So the players may consciously decide, as Minister puts it, to turn “the beautiful game into an ugly, boring standoff.” Fans may not like it, but any good philosopher will admit that there’s always something to agree with in what your opponents say. So the Greeks and Germans may have been playing smart after all. In philosophy, as in soccer, a draw is not as bad as embarrassing 1-0 refutation.

So what is wrong with negative soccer? Lots, Minister explains. But to get to the heart of the matter, we have to look beyond FIFA regulations and interview the Germans themselves, specifically Nietzsche about the sorry state of modern ethics and Marx about the power of economic forces. Now that they’ve had some time to digest their loss and to reflect on the game-winning power of Archimides’s strategy, there’s a chance we’ll be seeing less negative soccer in future matches. Once they read Minister’s chapter, I’m sure of it.

Adapted from “What’s Wrong with Negative Soccer?” by Stephen Minister in Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thoughts about the Beautiful Game, Open Court, 2010.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful Game

Writing toward the end of the 19th century, Nietzsche worried that modern ethics had become a matter of obeying rules that held people back rather than helping them flourish. He thought that in order to flourish, we need to pursue excellence by cultivating virtues like creativity, strength, courage, freedom, and honor. But by its very nature, obedience to rules handed down by authorities, whether it be the state, religious authorities, or simply tradition, discourages freedom and creativity. In place of strong, courageous, and honorable character, Nietzsche worried that modern ethics based on rule-following encouraged a petty legalism.

Nietzsche traced the roots of modern morality to what he calls a “slave-revolt” in ethics. He thought that an ethics that discourages flourishing wouldn’t have come from those who were flourishing, but must have been motivated by resentment toward those who did. It must have come from people who weren’t flourishing—people who were weak, timid, and constrained. Nietzsche thinks it is slaves who, unable to rebel against their masters physically, would rebel against them morally by creating an ethics that rejects or constrains the power of their masters. As such, ethics becomes a matter of controlling people and keeping them in check rather than helping them to flourish.

Instead of liberating the slaves, this ethics enslaves all those who accept it. Far from spurring us on toward excellence and the cultivation of virtues, modern ethics allows us to focus on our narrow self-interest as long as we follow a few basic rules, such as not violating the rights of others. It encourages a comfort-seeking, “safety first” mentality rather than the kind of risk-taking that excellence requires. Instead, Nietzsche thinks we should encourage excellence and try to live lives of creativity, honor, strength, courage, and freedom.

Nietzsche’s ethical framework is well suited to sports since the end goal of sports isn’t simple rule-following or even winning, but excellence. Sports need to have rules to define the game (scoring goals is good, no handling the ball, no late tackles), but the point of sport isn’t simply following rules, but playing the game with creativity, strength, courage, and honor. Though winning is a byproduct of excellence, it’s not the end goal in itself. If Manchester United wanted only to win all their games, they could easily accomplish this by withdrawing from the Premier League and joining a local pub league. Winning the Premier League is much more difficult, but precisely because of that much more meaningful since it demonstrates excellence. The goal isn’t simply to whip up on easy teams or cheat your way to the top, but to achieve greatness by overcoming worthy opponents.

Negative soccer is just such a threat to excellence. It represents whole teams giving up on its pursuit. Negative soccer mimics modern ethics as Nietzsche describes them quite closely. It begins when teams recognize the superior talent, creativity, and ability of their opponents and so, in slave-like resentment, redefine the end goal of the game. Excellence and flourishing are replaced by a narrowly self-interested, don’t-lose-at-all-costs mentality. Negative tactics are adopted as a “safety first” approach that eschews risk-taking and seeks only to neutralize the excellence of others. In the place of creativity, courage, and strength, negative tactics amount to an admission of weakness and the reversion to a predictable, timid defensiveness. Sometimes teams will even employ time-wasting tactics from the very beginning of the game. Though legally within the laws of the game, negative tactics betray the sporting nature of soccer, turning the beautiful game into an ugly, boring standoff.


We know that the resentful tactics of negative soccer are bad for the game. But are they inevitable? Nietzsche seems to think that they are. According to him, some people are just naturally superior and others naturally inferior. There will always be some players who are exquisitely talented and others who get by only because they get away with shirt-holding and pushing. Though this is true on the level of individual players, it doesn’t seem to apply to teams. Is Manchester United naturally superior to Sunderland? Is Liverpool naturally superior to Stoke City? The rise and fall of club fortunes through the years suggest that nature isn’t the answer.

Another 19th century German thinker, Karl Marx, believed the answer lay in economic forces. Though Marx is best known as the theorist of modern communism, the bulk of his work is devoted to tracing the ways in which economic forces affect people’s lives. In his enthusiasm for economic explanations, Marx comes to believe that economic forces can explain every aspect of our lives, from politics to morality, family life to religion. Economics can even, Marx thinks, predict the future—beware the coming communist revolution! Though Marx gets a bit carried away with the power of economics—especially the prospect of using it to reshape human nature—he’s right to be attentive to economic pressures that shape our lives and decisions, for better and for worse. Can the inequality between teams and the negative tactics that arise from it be explained in terms of economic forces?

A quick look at the financial realities of the European Premier League (EPL) returns a resounding, “Yes!” The gap between the wealthy clubs and the lesser clubs is so big that Peter Schmeichel, Gianluigi Buffon, and Oliver Kahn couldn’t guard it working together. At the most basic level, smaller clubs can’t compete with the gameday revenues of the larger clubs. While a club like Manchester United piles more than seventy-five thousand fans into their massive Old Trafford stadium for each game, clubs like Portsmouth and Wigan can’t even muster twenty thousand in their much smaller stadiums. To make matters worse, the bigger teams tend to have more gamedays because they survive longer in tournaments like the FA and Carling Cups.

Relegation and Alienation

Financial inequality by itself might not have been enough to encourage negative soccer were it not for the very serious financial threat posed by relegation. Each season the bottom three teams in the EPL are demoted, or relegated, to a lower league, in turn allowing three teams in the lower league to be promoted to the EPL. Relegation from the EPL is disappointing for clubs and frustrating for fans. Relegated teams frequently lose their best players who seek transfers to teams still in the Premiership, thus spurring a rebuilding phase at the club. As if these difficulties weren’t enough, relegation can also put clubs in serious financial straits.

Smaller clubs trying to avoid relegation frequently must acquire new high-priced players in the hopes of being competitive and in so doing become dependent on the additional revenue, especially from television rights, that they receive for being in the Premiership. If they’re relegated, they lose an estimated $55 million a year in revenue, while still having to pay debts from player transfers and Premier League size wages. Though the EPL has established a “parachute payment” to help relegated clubs cope with these realities, the existence of this payment only demonstrates the severity of the financial risk of relegation. The financial pressures of soccer have put some forty English clubs into administration, including major clubs like Leeds, Southampton, and Leicester City.

The connection between relegation and negative soccer was neatly summed up in former Sunderland manager Ricky Sbragia’s response to criticism of his tactics after a dull nil-nil draw with Arsenal in 2009. “It would be fantastic if everybody played fast free-flowing football, but unfortunately we are miles behind Arsenal. At present we are fighting for our lives. If one of the bigger clubs were third-bottom, would they be playing flowing football?” In the dogfight to avoid relegation every point matters; securing a draw against one of the bigger teams through the use of negative tactics can be the difference between Premier League safety and financial ruin.

However, Sbragia’s comment also indicates that using negative tactics isn’t Sunderland’s primary desire, but simply the necessary response to their situation. This point illustrates Marx’s fundamental concern with economic inequality: it limits the possibilities for the full flourishing of all persons (and players). Marx, writing at a time when slavery was still legal in the American South and English factory workers (including children) labored for long hours in dangerous conditions, believed the economic inequality tended to lead to what he called “alienation.” Rather than their work being a freely chosen expression of themselves, laborers’ position on the lower end of the economic scale forced them to play roles that kept them from flourishing. Just like players on teams that employ negative tactics.

Does Life Imitate Soccer?

If so, negative soccer has something to teach us about the pursuit of personal flourishing and excellence amidst the economic pressures in our own lives. For those of us who are not independently wealthy, how do our financial circumstances inhibit the creativity and freedom to express ourselves? Does our struggle to make ends meet lead us to forsake honor for pettiness and narrow self-interest in our dealings with others? Do we have the courage to work against the powers that be to make a difference in the world or do we timidly give up the hope of overcoming adversity? What would it take to make personal flourishing and the pursuit of excellence attainable by all in a world where Premier League players make $150,000 a week while almost a billion people suffer chronic malnutrition? I don’t have the answer to this last question, but I’ve no doubt that finding that answer would require courage, strength, creativity, and honor.

Stephen Minister is an assistant professor of philosophy at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He gets a run-out each week in the Sioux Falls Adult Soccer League.