Are You Calling Me a Kant?...The Philosophy Football Story Kicks On...

posted by Geoff Andrews at Thursday, October 08, 2009

10 October 2009

It started in October 1994, following a premiership match between Tottenham and Queens Park Rangers. I was at Mark Perryman’s house and we were talking over the details of a tedious 1-1 draw between his Tottenham and my QPR. Both veterans of Britain’s newly defunct and tiny communist party, we were looking for new political causes and an alternative to the corporate domination of football appealed. In the wake of Italia 90 Football took on a new appeal to the intellectual classes and designer Marxism seemed an idea of its time. By Christmas the first ‘philosophy football’ T shirt dedicated to Albert Camus was on sale, expertly designed by Hugh Tisdale, another leftie, with the words of the Algerian-French existentialist emblazoned on a green goalkeeper’s shirt: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football’.

Perryman and Tisdale have since sold thousands of shirts from Camus to Wittgenstein. Getting a real team off the ground, however, was a different prospect. In February 1995, Philosophy Football FC took the field for the first time against the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) at Battersea Park, south London. Our ageing team was a motley crew of left wing activists and assorted girlfriend’s relatives, dressed in the only two shirts currently in circulation. I was in goal wearing Camus, while the ten outfield players lined up in the same shirt dedicated to Bill Shankly’s wisdom on the relationship between socialism and football. Unfortunately they all had the number 4 on the back, an interesting dilemma for the opposition as they marked up at corners, while confusing for the referee looking to assert control. In the event, the opposition needn’t have worried. Within minutes of kicking off, one of our intellectuals pulled a calf muscle and was never to return. In the circumstances a 4-0 defeat was a credible result.

My first problem, as manager, was clear. Being politically correct was fine for post-match discussions on postmodernism but less useful in dealing with tricky wingers and inswinging corners. We needed to find people who could play as well. Luckily, Gareth Smyth, my co-organiser in the early years in the Musical Association League, used to run the African National Congress exiles team and soon we were able to combine the silky skills of African players with the bulky labours of the British centre halves. This was not to last however, as throughout the early post-Apartheid years, South African dissidents returned to their homeland.

To compensate, Gareth turned his attention to some of the rising stars of New Labour, which for some of us presented a philosophical challenge of a different sort. The current foreign secretary, allegedly a competent defender in his youth, was promised to me on several occasions, but never made it over the touchline. Tim Allen, another New Labour mover and shaker and close confidant of Peter Mandelson, did make the team however. As arrogant on the field as he was in the Labour Party press conferences, his colleagues had more trouble getting the ball off him than our opponents.

We continued to have little joy on the pitch and my first trophy at the end of the 1995/96 season was inscribed: ‘ Gone to the Dogs. Bottom of the League. Philosophy Football FC’. In the days before email, mobile phones and low-cost flights, being a football manager of a Sunday League team was a lonely business and a bit of a chore. Even for our interesting experiment, persuading players to leave their girlfriends in bed on Sunday mornings was a difficult task. The team was in danger of slipping into oblivion.

Things changed dramatically in the autumn of 2000, with the arrival of Filippo Ricci as the Gazetta dello Sport’s London correspondent. After being presented with one of our shirts as a way of payment for an article in When Saturday Comes (which used to share an office with Philosophy Football), he didn’t take long to find us. We hit it off immediately. As he learned to adapt to the vagaries of British culture, I was doing the same in his home country, travelling and writing about Italy under Silvio Berlusconi.

Filippo’s first contribution was definitively cultural. After going down a bit too easily in the opposition penalty area, he was chased Buster Keaton-style to the halfway line by irate and flabby defenders. The changes were even more significant off the pitch. The dressing room has never been the same since Filippo arrived. In place of the glorified beer mat most Sunday footballers use to dry themselves, we now had shower robes, flip flops and hair dryers to plug in. It took a bit longer for the austere handshake to be replaced by hugs and kisses, but Filippo instigated a cultural transformation in the ways of British football, some while before Fabio Capello.

Our results began to improve. We now found that having philosophers in the football team need not be a burden. True, Rob Adams, a jobbing actor and teacher, (and inevitably ‘Rob the Cat’) would quote Ibsen at advancing centre-forwards, but he also made some miraculous saves. Raj Chada, the youngest ever leader of Camden council until he was toppled on the back of Blair’s unpopularity, proved to be more durable as a tough tackling midfielder than his New Labour predecessors and still turns out for us today. And Paul Kayley, as captain, introduced a philosophical scouse pragmatism to the pitch, as well as new levels of physical fitness.

Our philosophy occasionally bemused opponents and officials. One of our players swears to this day that during an away match on Clapham Common, the referee painstakingly wrote J.Baudrillard in his notebook, while Tom Callaghan, one of the founding members of the team, in an altercation with an opposing striker, was heard to utter the words: ‘are you calling me a Kant?’.

Our ‘philosophers’ included a good range of journalists and writers like Pete May and Nicholas Royle, Joe Boyle and Stefan Howald from the early years, but as we searched for the combination of artistic talent and regular commitment we began to recruit some notable musicians. After his debut as a tricky, skilful striker, our soft spoken, new recruit, Sola, politely turned down the post-match drink as he had to attend band practice. It was only at the next game, when several of his fans turned up, that we realised the new player leading the line was Sola Akingbola, Jamiroquai’s percussionist.

From being spectacularly unsuccessful, we started to bring home silverware on a regular basis, winning the veterans’ Grafton Millennium League two years running. On moving for a new midweek challenge to the London Football League, we also took the first division trophy in our first season and I was presented with the manager of the year award. The welcome, if unexpected, success on the pitch was only part of the story however.

We also started to play regularly in international football tournaments for various causes, ranging from a celebration of the life of the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, to commemoration of the International brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Over 16 years of international friendlies and tournaments, we have played in some notable stadia, including Stadio Dei Marmi in Rome and Real Madrid’s training ground in Madrid. WE have taken on France Football in Paris and one of the oldest Portugese clubs in Lisbon. Our players have turned out on volcanic ash in Sicily and the plush meadows of the European Union in Brussels. We have encountered Denis Skinner MP at the Opera in Rome, Eusebio in his local bar in Lisbon and the former Italian international Gianni Rivera has kicked off one of our matches.

The theme of the tours has been applying the local story behind the shirts (Camus, Pasolini, for example) to the contemporary global context of football. On tour, we have found that football is a unique way to bring people together as the basis of a new internationalism, or as a way of challenging injustice. They have also been about celebrating the simple pleasures of the beautiful game.

Over 130 players have passed through the club over the years and worn our unique shirts over this period. Some have been musicians, notably Ally Clow, who would go on to captain the team and assorted guitarists and part-time djs, who have enjoyed the semi-anarchic flavour of the team, the unusual sense of community and the critical engagement with the contemporary state of the beautiful game. We have been part of the London diaspora, drawing on a range of nationalities (with a particularly strong contingent of Italians fleeing Berlusconi). We have even had a player called Goober Fox, who now looks after our website. We now have a Legends team of former players and the current first X1 is now captained by Owen Mather, one of our longest serving players.

One of our early shirts recorded Eric Cantona’s words at his brief press conference following his kung-fu kick at a spectator at Crystal Palace; ‘When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea’. When the team appeared dressed in the Sardines T-shirt at the premiere of Looking For Eric in which Cantona stars, the director Ken Loach described him as a ‘philosopher-footballer’. This was the perfect cue for me to ask about his availability for the coming season. We did not get to the stage of discussing contracts, but if there are other promising philosopher-footballers out there we would love to hear from you. A degree in philosophy is not essential. But it might help.