The Beautiful game

Artwork by Dan Leydon, Steve Welsh and Haarala HamiltonAs football fans, we are constantly treated to a veritable feast of visual delights. A Cruyff turn here, a Panenka penalty there; a feint; a stepover; a sea of scarves on a colourful terrace, or just a stadium bathed in floodlights on a chilly evening. Some things stay with us forever; images, shapes and patterns that remind us of certain players, matches, moments in our own lives or whole generations. We might not even know it at the time.

In the formations and styles adapted by the teams we truly love, there is architecture and a design to football which we can see for ourselves on a daily basis, but rarely truly appreciate. Consider Barcelona’s honeycomb triangular passing, the modern midfield diamond and the infamous pyramid. All have shapes and structure, whose purpose is practical rather than visual, but there are few abiding images like a formation diagram with a simple 4-4-2. It’s like a blueprint, and so often a choice of formation can be congruent with success or indeed failure.

Catenaccio, Tiki Taka and Totaalvoetbal by Dan LeydonThe first non-biographical football book I had the pleasure of reading was Jonathan Wilson’s imperious Inverting the Pyramid, a book which traces – in superb detail – the evolution of formations throughout time. Up until then, I hadn’t truly appreciated the importance of positioning, shape and space. Like the artists involved in Fantasista, the great tacticians of the game understand the importance of design.

Most generations of football these days have a stylistic reference point. Tiki taka conjures imagery of fluidity. Its forefather, Total Football, does likewise, with an element of Tetris-like
cohesion thrown in for good measure. Throughout everything, I’ve always been amazed by how crucial symmetry is. It’s only common sense, of course, that one side of a squad should be as strong and as densely populated as the other, but it is such a mimesis of life itself – where symmetry is so highly valued that it can denote physical attractiveness in others. Balance, as with most things, is so crucial.

King Eric by Steve Welsh: There’s beauty in symmetry

Like any art form, there are widely accepted notions of good and bad styles of football. These days, the poles have been firmly set, with contemporary Spain setting the bar for the good and Stoke City having earned – to their dismay – the status of spokesperson for so-called ‘antifootball’. I can think of no teams so respectively lauded and derided for the beauty or lack thereof of their approach as the aforementioned two have been in my lifetime. (It’s perhaps a testament to my inherent tendency to root for the underdog that this accepted view only turns me off Barcelona and Spain, and fills me with sympathy for Stoke.)

Generally, I haven’t got much time for considerations on what constitutes ‘attractive’ football and what constitutes ‘bad’ football as a matter of fact as opposed to simply opinion. It’s a game, isn’t it? Surely good versus bad is purely an issue of winning versus losing. The notion that there are right ways and wrong ways to win (without the obvious moral/fair play element) has always confounded me. Football is only improved by the vast number of ways in which to play – who are we to declare what the right and wrong ways are?

A Simple Game and Manchester City - Pre Season by Steve Welsh

But putting aside cultural, sociological and – heck – even political influences on the commitment of certain clubs and nations to particular philosophies – just aesthetically speaking, what makes a throttled long ball towards a single striker any less appealing than a short pass sideways to the nearest outfield player?

Beauty is, as ever, in the eye of the beholder. I’m the kind of person who’ll look an artistic masterpiece and wonder what the fuss is all about. I don’t even see the allure of Barcelona, or Spain’s world-beating ideology. So I put the question to some of our artists: what is the best form of football, strictly visually speaking?

Zoran Lucić isn’t a fan of tiki-taka. “Tiki-taka is the ugliest football I’ve ever seen. That is the
death of football for me. Somebody said that it’s catenaccio in disguise and that’s my opinion too.” For him, the most beautiful form of football is closer to Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho, and Germany under Joachim Low – “…a lot of dynamics, running, goal chances. Tiki-taka is for putting audience to sleep.”

Nor is Barcelona’s possession-choking style the ideal for Richard Swarbrick: “I personally find the most attractive style of football to be the way the 1999 treble winning Man United team played. I like to think Spurs played that way for brief periods under Harry Redknapp, particularly in the run in the Champions league. If tiki-taka is the football equivalent of baseline tennis then my preferred style is more like serve-volley.”

I was surprised at the willingness to reject tiki-taka. As students and patrons and providers of art, I consider these artists to have far better eyes for this sort of thing than I do. It’s all objective, though, really.

Steve Welsh’s response was gorgeous in itself. Style ranks low on his priorities when it comes to the beauty in the beautiful game. “For me it has to be an evening match during winter. Especially if there has been a bit of rain earlier in the day. What I find most appealing isn’t the match itself but the expectancy beforehand. Particularly as both teams are called in just before kick-off.

“That moment when all you see before you is a brilliant green pitch, soaked in water and bathed in floodlights, everything framed perfectly. That kind of view has always bristled with expectancy for me and still does (less so from seated stadiums but still there nonetheless).”

So there you have it.

You can find beauty in anything.

Photograph by Haarala Hamilton