Book review: What We Think About When We Think About Football, by Simon Critchley

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, living in the moment PIC: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, living in the moment PIC: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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Simon Critchley is a well-regarded philosopher, whose output includes such high-minded titles as The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. But he’s also a moron. That is to say he is, like so many of us, helplessly devoted to a game to the point where relationships with those we are closest to are bound to suffer.

The author accepts all this. Indeed, he claims such a willing submission to something that is essentially pretty stupid is “part of the appeal”. But he also believes there is an “inherent rationality” in his chosen game – football – that can help to interpret the world.

It can certainly help in day-to-day life, where the game, or knowledge of it, can be a handy ice-breaker. “Football lays out easy tramlines for talk,” suggests Critchley – and he’s right. I can’t count the number of times it’s come to the rescue, a surge of relief sweeping through me upon realising, for example, the person sitting opposite at a function knows there are two football teams in Dundee and so further discourse on the game is a possibility.

But then again, with chapter headings such as “What is it like to be a ball?”, Critchley’s book will not appeal to everyone, even those steeped in the game. As well-written as you’d expect from someone with the author’s impeccable credentials, it can be quite dense in places.

Critchley comes across as surprisingly rigid in his pro-football stance. He has little time for non-believers. Some people, “including many Americans” he notes, find football boring. “This is wrong,” the New York-based writer states. “And they are boring for believing it.”

But he makes several acute observations. One of his, and my, major bugbears are fans who leave before full-time to avoid traffic: “I mean, if traffic is your major concern, then why bother going to a game at all?”

He is speaking as a supporter but perhaps isn’t always writing like one. The text is peppered with references to such weighty works as Waiting for Godot, Erasmus’ Encomium and Thomas More’s Utopia. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. As Nick Hornby stressed a long time ago now, it is possible to be conversant in both football and literature. But still, this might be a little too didactic for some people’s tastes – and the book might also be a little too Liverpool-centric (Critchley is a Liverpool fan). A discussion on Jürgen Klopp sees the Liverpool manager linked to German thinker Martin Heidegger’s “most important” philosophical work, Being and Time. This is because of a phrase Klopp apparently uses a lot in interviews – “the moment”. Football, according to Critchley, is about the creation of the moment, or a “moment of moments”.

Critchley dwells on the smiley, infectious Klopp for quite some time in what is a short book, noting how the “key thing for Klopp is belief”. Klopp is a Christian and seems to draw strength from his faith. Critchley, by contrast, is not a Christian. Liverpool FC is the closest he says he comes to a religious experience.

Critchley concedes that he is “guilty of Anfield exceptionalism”. But he is a likable guide to follow through some pretty complex issues as he sets out to argue that “football gives us privileged access to abiding insights into what it means to be a human being in the world”.

The idea that football is much more than just a game is not a new one, of course. Still, this is a thoughtful little book that rewards perseverance, even if it can be heavy going in places. ■

What We Think About When We Think About Football by Simon Critchley, Profile, 208pp, £8.99