Football, like painting, according to Leonardo da Vinci, is a cosa mentale; it is in the imagination that it is measured and appreciated. The nature of the wonder that football provokes derives from the fantasies of triumph and omnipotence that it generates in our minds. With my eyes closed, whatever my age and my physical condition, I am the star striker who scores the winning goal or the goalkeeper who throws himself in slow motion into the ether to make a crucial save. As a child, I scored stunning goals (in my mind’s eye, admittedly). The arms that I then raised to the sky in my parents’ deserted sitting room were as much a part of the ritual and the celebration as the goal that I had just scored. It was the celebrations, the congratulations, the kneeling on the pitch, the teammates throwing themselves on me and surrounding me, hugging me, showering me with praise, that I savored most, not the move itself, it was my narcissistic triumph that brought me delight, not at all the possibility that it might one day happen in reality, that I might one day be able to control the ball marvelously well with my foot so that, with composure, with mastery, with skill, in a real stadium, facing real opponents, on a real pitch, I might propel it with a very pure twenty-five-meter strike into the top corner of the opposing team’s goal, in spite of the hopelessly floundering goalkeeper’s desperate attempt to parry. The image is seductive, certainly, but I have other ambitions in life than being skillful with my feet. In my case it’s more my hand, not only in art. Reality is almost always disappointing, that won’t have escaped you. At the age of thirteen it was over, my footballing career was at an end. My last dreams of glory date from the spring of 1970, it was in Brussels, in the flat on Rue Jules Lejeune. My parents had just informed me that we were going to move to Paris, and I looked sadly at the doorframe that separated the dining room from the sitting room and which acted as my imaginary goal, the setting for my last scenarios of footballing glory. An era was coming to an end. Reality for me now was this unknown future in Paris, the start of school in 1970 when I would join the fourth year as a boarder at a secondary school in Maisons-Latte. It would be a deracination, it would be the end of childhood, of happy days and of Brussels. My nest years would be over. Childhood is always followed by adolescence, and life, in reality, is uncompromising, the ball, while round, is recalcitrant and capricious, it resists us, thwarts us, humiliates us.
In Brussels, in the playground of primary school no. 9, we used to play football at break time and the criterion used to separate the two teams was not little versus big or fair versus dark or year four versus year five, it was Moral versus Religion. At the start of the year, in this secular school on Rue Américaine in Ixelles, you effectively had to choose between Moral and Religion, according to whether or not our parents or we ourselves wanted to take catechism classes. While Religion were initiated into the edifying episodes of the life of Christ and the reading of the Bible, the rest had a kind of rudimentary civic education which had been given, and I only grasped the whole flavor of it years later, the word moral. Still, at break, we pupils, grabbing hold of this divisive criterion which seemed to us to have biblical simplicity and which had the further advantage of being perfectly transgenerational (as many believers as nonbelievers among the little ones as the big ones, among potential defenders and putative attackers), in the playground in rue Américaine, we played Moral versus Religion football matches—and Religion, of which I was one (I was always very Religion, at least until year six), were devils with the ball.
The interest you take in a football match essentially has a very particular relationship with time, a relationship of precise appropriateness, of perfect simultaneity between the unfolding match and the passing of time. Football cannot bear the slightest gap, the tiniest disjunction, and it is precisely because football merges so perfectly with the course of time, because it so fully embraces its passing, because it inhabits it so closely, that while we are watching football it brings us a kind of metaphysical well-being that diverts us from our miseries and takes us away from the thought of death. While we watch a football match, during the very particular time that passes while we are at the stadium or in front of our television, we move in an abstract and reassuring world, we are, for the duration of the game, in a cocoon of time, preserved from the wounds of the outside world, away from the contingencies of reality, of its pains and its dissatisfactions, in which real time, the irremediable time that drags us constantly towards death, seems numbed and as if anesthetized. It is also the reason why football, in the moment when we are watching it, develops such a suspenseful quality. When we watch a football match, the future, in the short term, is unresolved, it is fundamentally open. The future unveils itself before our eyes, we discover it, piecemeal, in real time. At the precise moment when we are watching a football match, the result is unknown and the outcome uncertain, so it is impossible to let our attention wander for a moment, to leave our seat (or at our own risk, because it is at that precise moment—at any moment—that a goal may be scored). That’s why a football match immediately ceases to be interesting as soon as we know the final result. As soon as the invisible thread connecting football to the passage of time is broken, as soon as it is stripped of its dimension of irreversibility, its grace and brilliance immediately vanish: nothing remains but the materiality of the players, the emergence of the prosaic and the violence of the real, the sweat, the shouts, the blows, the absurd unreality of twenty guys running after a ball on a pitch.
Adapted from Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, translated from the French by Shaun Whiteside, now available from Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of nine novels, all published by Les Éditions de Minuit in France, and the winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Médicis for Running Away and the Prix Décembre for The Truth about Marie.
Shaun Whiteside is a translator from French, German, Italian, and Dutch. His translations from French include novels by Amélie Nothomb, Patrick Rambaud, Michèle Desbordes, Georges-Marc Benamou, and Georges Simenon, as well as works of nonfiction by Pierre Bourdieu and Anne Sinclair. He lives in London.