Ghost Goals, and Other Ontological Problems

Looking back on the tournament, my favourite moment of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was when Luis Suarez chose to manually block Dominic Adiyiah’s header, thus denying Ghana a certain goal and – in a slightly convoluted way involving a missed penalty and a shoot-out – sending his Uruguay side to the semi-finals. With an arguably typical lack of contrition, Suarez claimed to have made ‘the save of the tournament’ when asked about his actions after the game: he was aware, it would seem, of the severity of his rule-breaking but simultaneously ironised it. Why did he do this? I suspect that the tongue-in-cheek nature of his response arose out of an intuition that apologising would be inauthentic, and could in no way represent a genuine desire to have acted otherwise in the first place. His original calculation had been one that judged that his intended violation could incur no punishment severe enough to damage his team to a degree likely to gift the match to Ghana, a nimble application of game theory which reveals that the ‘laws’ of football have a hidden expansion pack which make the dimensions of the sport much more complex than they are generally claimed to be.

Along with many others, I wanted Ghana to win that game. It was a tough choice – Uruguay had also been one of the tournament’s more likeable sides – but the possibility of seeing an African team through to the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever swayed me. Indeed, I was initially furious with Suarez for his indiscretion, and racked my brain for ways in which Uruguay might be adequately punished – perhaps the shoot-out result could be scrubbed, and a goal awarded to Adiyiah, I thought. After a little consideration, however, this began to make sense only within a rather particular sense of what ‘fairness’ constitutes. For the game’s greater good – or the greater goods that the game might bring about – it started to appear better that these unpredictable violations and errors of official judgement be maintained within football’s broader ontological structure.

Of course, that World Cup had already provided a significant example of how football’s essence can very often be glimpsed in those instances when the ontological blueprint is smudged. With Germany leading England 2-1 in the first knockout round, Frank Lampard’s shot came off the crossbar and landed behind the line. The referee and linesmen did not spot the ‘goal’; the rest – Germany subjecting their rivals to a humiliating lesson in pace and invention – is history. Of course, the English media cried out for digital technology to be used for making close line-calls, and laced their editorial with spurious objectivity by pointing out that the issue of Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal in the 1966 World Cup Final could also be settled conclusively.

At the time, I didn’t agree with this (the denial of a goal to Lampard was actually pretty amusing), and the Ukrainian ‘ghost goal’ last night has failed to convince me differently. Football is, of course, on one hand a set of comprehensively-codified rules which dictate what can and can’t be done with the ball by the twenty-two men on the pitch. But this is a limited phenomenology. For the full effect of football to be appreciated, one needs to think about those moments in which an infraction is felt most deeply and why such an impression is made. Ghost goals are, as their name suggests, an uncanny experience: they’re neither of nor not-of the game, and problematise our somewhat neurotic attempts to describe sporting boundaries. The affect they bring about is strangely similar to that which comes about when a piece of fiction exceeds or rearranges the terms of its diegesis or narrative world, namely the ‘shudder’ that Theodor Adorno describes in Kafka and which is also one of the most notable responses people have to Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet. It’s also a staple of some forms of fantasy literature, and is linked fundamentally to the more self-reflective ontological jolts of postmodern literature and cinema.

Essentially, what I’m arguing is that much of football’s force as a public experience rests on the moments when it transgresses itself. There are obvious instances of this – every one of the game’s sociopolitical ramifications, to begin with – and there are those which are inscribed in its very fabric precisely because they are not the rules. Goal-line technology is, to cite a common and perfectly valid objection, yet another form of technocracy-in-action, and will deny the strange nobility of human error its part. More worrying, I think, is the threat that it will remove part of the ontological chafing that gives football, which is secretly always more than ‘just’ football and the rule-book, its real allure.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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8 thoughts on “Ghost Goals, and Other Ontological Problems

  1. thoughtsport says:

    You used slightly bigger words than us… but I think we’re coming from the same place:

  2. really interesting article, Joe. It’s one I disagree with again, but I think it speaks of our essential difference when it comes to football – I think you see it as a more artistic endeavor springing from particular rules, where for me the artistic side is only rele vant because of the rules, IE, if the rules are broken the game is, or should be, null and void – it’s a view you’ll also find more prevalent among, for example, board game fans. The rules are what defines the game, give it meaning, enable us to decide who is ‘best’, so if the rules are inconsistently applied you have a very flawed game. That’s why I like the idea of video technology – not necessarily in ‘real time’, but I can’t understand why we don’t have proper video review, retrospective punishments and the like – I think rugby union provides a good model here in terms of miked up referees, zero tolerance of disrespect towards the refereee etc. I think the video review would work better post match, with the governing bodies financing review boards to punish teams/referees, but I really think it would help. That way you wouldn’t actually lose the kind of drama you’re talking about either – it will always be part of the game but while I can live with bad/wrong decisions what I can’t stand is the tolerance of how inconsistently the rules are applied, often by the same ref in the same game, Howard Webb’s performance in the World Cup final being a case in point.

    I did love Suarez’ hand-ball though – caught, punished according to the rules, but as you say, a real example of game theory – of the kind the board game geeks often attempt. I was also the only one in the pub supporting Uruguay, not totally sure why because the Ghana-love was genuinely amazing in Brixton but there’s something wonderfully nostalgic about Uruguay doing well – it’s a bit like watching a new Austrian ‘wunderteam’ or seeing Blackpool win the FA cup or something like that. Hard to resist.

    All that said you are right that there is more to football than the rule-book, for sure, it’s just for my part the rules are of fundamental importance in creating that ‘something more’, and the inconsistent application of them is something that actually turns me away from it.

    • Hey Seb – thanks for such a comprehensive response which, were you not festival-bound, would make a fantastic post in its own right. After writing that I spent a fair bit of time thinking about why you couldn’t apply a similar argument to, say, chess, but couldn’t come up with anything more philosophically-sound than that the embodied situation board gamers are in somehow means that the rules are more than enough, and that truly great play on the board relies on a complex understanding of legal moves. Because it’s an ‘action’ game, football – like rugby or tennis – has an odd paralegal space, where things are physically possible but ‘textually’ forbidden. I think these moves are a crucial part of the poetics of the game, in that they denote an extension of the spontaneity we link with improvisation (cf Danny Welbeck’s goal on Friday). There’s a caveat, obviously, when it comes to illegal moves which are physically dangerous – I couldn’t applaud Keane’s foul on Haaland in the same way i could Suarez’s handball.

      In short, it’s a really complex one. I did write this with you in mind, to be honest – hoping that we can start another theme/ narrative as we go into the knockouts…

  3. Good distinction Joe, I’m more or less literally on my way out but you’re right – this is worth elaborating on when I get back.

  4. […] of football’s great paradoxes, as we’ve argued in the past, is that its Real – what can’t be dealt with fully by the rules and reminds us that the match, […]

  5. […] bildungsroman, an illustration of the essential insufficiency that haunts every rulebook, a textbook example of footballing jouissance – but at the time its meaning was quite clear and univocal. Had Australia not shipped four […]

  6. […] of this World Cup; goal-line technology. (For what it’s worth, I’m opposed – largely because shots that hit the underside of the crossbar and bounce down should automatically stand on aesthetic…). Early coverage has been dominated by a rush of pundits and commentators desperate to give […]

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