An interview with Martin Gessmann
“Sometimes you’re the cog, sometimes the football god”

The philosopher Martin Gessmann
The philosopher Martin Gessmann | Photo (detail): Martin Gessmann

In 2011 the philosopher Martin Gessmann published his book “Philosophie des Fußballs” (i.e., The Philosophy of Football). In an interview he tells why football is an untimely phenomenon and why society can learn something from FC Barcelona.

Professor Gessmann, philosophy has long seen football as a compensatory phenomenon. Compensation for what?

For a fulfilling life. Philosophy in the 1960s and 70s thought the game was a vent through which people let off the steam of excess energy that should have been invested in real life.

These gloomy diagnoses have long gone silent. Why is football today allowed to be football?

Football has become more middle class; it has moved from the margin to the centre of society. But above all the game itself has become more upmarket and aesthetically attractive. Today we go to watch a football match as if we were going to the theatre or the cinema.

Football as a cultural phenomenon

Your book reflects this upwards revaluation of the game when you explain the development of philosophy and society along the lines of the history of football. The previous conventional wisdom was that football is a mere reflection of society.

That’s right. Before, people always tried to determine society’s self-understanding through culture. But the more upmarket football has become as a cultural phenomenon, the more interpretation it can bear. And the more interpretation it can bear, the more of society there is in football. So I think it’s legitimate to ask how we see ourselves reflected in football. My thesis is that football today appears to be abreast of the times, but that earlier it couldn’t be.

How exactly should we understand this untimeliness of football, which you certify already existed in 1863 when it split off from rugby?

Aristocratic gentleman footballers, whose ancestors had set the tone in society, already learned at school that they could at most still enjoy a leading role on the playing field. The basic idea was to give the ‘dribbling game’, in an astonishing solo effort and for one last time, a heroic stature. The same applied, paradoxically, for the workers. Their idea was to achieve success on the playing field by skill and hard work, though this field was surrounded by a society that had long since posted stop signs in matters of social ascent. The heroes of the early era of football therefore had one thing in common: they were both losers in modernity. And the conception of football seemed to take on a deeply melancholy hue.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, License: Public domain

Your philosophical godfather for the early days of football is the economist John Stuart Mill, who laid emphasis on human freedom.

It’s not just about freedom – it’s about man being able to shine once again. It’s therefore still false to see magnificent solo efforts in football as egotism. It’s only in such moments that mythical greatness again flares up in a time which has become completely sober.

Beckenbauer and existenzialism

You describe the next step in the development of football as the invention of the sweeper or ‘libero’ in the form of Franz Beckenbauer. Why do you link the libero with the existentialism of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in your book?

Existentialism is a response to the challenge of how we can free ourselves from the constraints of technology in which we’re hopelessly trapped – like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. Heidegger’s idea was that, by shifting a lever, everything could be set right again. Applied to football, this means that, where the game is dominated by a routine but meaningless pushing of the ball back and forth, it must be given a brilliant twist by a decisive pass. For Heidegger, Beckenbauer was such a passer, a libero who was above the technical constraints of the game.

Heidegger, though he was something of a technophobe, even watched the caps of the German team on TV!

Some philosophers never looked into his books again after they became ware of this. History had said ‘No’ to Heidegger. Yet when he saw Beckenbauer on TV, perhaps he muttered to himself: ‘You see, I was right’.

Cog or football god

Football that is really with the times is played by FC Barcelona. Why is FC Barcelona a symbol, as you write, of the society in which we would like to live?

Looking at Barcelona, you can learn how even the biggest stars aren’t too important to play sometimes the dogsbody. Sometimes you’re the cog, sometimes the football god. If you counter-check this in philosophy, you naturally think of Aristotle. His first lesson was that the citizen must grasp he is sometimes the ruler and sometimes the ruled. If this insight is celebrated on the playing field, its effect on society and business can hardly be overestimated.

And how is when you go to a football match? Does the philosopher then become a fan and scream: ‘That wasn’t offside!’?

This is the freedom you have to allow yourself – that you can get out of yourself and be loud. But without then straightaway seeing football as the opium of the people.