Three Sided Football and the True Olympic Spirit

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, July 28, 2012

    The London 2012 Olympics has been marred by controversies over the siting of the stadium, ticketing procedures, and most recently, security, with the private security firm G4S unable to provide enough security guards, leading to last minute hiring of 3,500 army personnel. Yet these controversies should be seen in light of wider contradictions of the Olympic ideal. One contradiction is the domination of corporate interests, which in the modern era were originally thought incompatible with the autonomy and decision-making of the International Olympic Committee. This year’s domination of the Olympics by three main corporate sponsors – McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Rio Tinto - has a range of implications for Olympic autonomy, health and pluralism.

The second contradiction has been the erosion of the founding ideal of both the ancient and modern Olympics. Namely, that it was to be a gathering of the best athletes. In several Olympic sports, notably men’s football, this is not the case. The Wimbledon tournament held at the end of June and beginning of July will shortly host another, lesser, tennis tournament during the Olympics, while football will feature a mixture of younger and veteran players selected according to a range of criteria (in the case of Team GB, the criteria is completely impenetrable).

In fact, if we take the case of football, there are further contradictions underpinning its presence in the Olympics. Football became dominated by big corporate interests and the issue of television rights long before the Olympics started to be taken over by them. The nature of modern football itself is far from exuding an Olympic spirit; racism, cheating (including match-fixing) and mercenary self-interest currently pervade the sport.

There is, however, an Olympian idea of football in waiting. This is Three Sided Football, invented by the Danish Situationist Asger Jorn, and brought to Italy initially by the Luther Blissett collective. Philosophy Football has now participated in Three Sided Football tournaments in London, Rome, Madrid and Bilbao, with the objective of bringing this game from the margins to the mainstream. The rules of Three Sided Football, which is a very philosophical game, embodies core elements of the Olympian ideal.

Firstly, the match is played on a hexagonal pitch with over three ‘halves’ and involving three teams, with the team which concedes fewer goals declared the winner. Necessarily it involves tactical choices, artistic expression and real human values – as opposed to superficial and mercenary ones – while promoting internationalism. The tactics change frequently during the match as the dynamics develop. Alliances are formed but are often temporary and conditional. Your friend for the first ten minutes, can be your opponent in the next. The ability of players to intervene to change the dynamics is more evident. The real human values, at the heart of the Olympic idea, are present and include trust, generosity and loyalty; but also betrayal, forgiveness and negotiation.

Three Sided Football was originally conceived as an alternative to the bi-polar adversarial nature of modern football where the referee becomes the representative of the state, adjudicating between two great powers. In Three Sided Football, the referee’s authority is diminished, becoming more of a silent facilitator than main protagonist. This is a small victory for anarchism in its purest form, but also a triumph for the three teams who assert their own authority and play the game in a spirit of freedom and empathy, which nevertheless remains competitive. Crucially, the players have to play in a philosophical way. They have to be aware of the need for alliances and to think more about tactical questions. They need to make fast judgements about an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing that they will have to both exploit and cultivate these depending on the situation of the game. In all the Three Sided matches in which Philosophy Football have participated, the result is always in the balance. Often, the team trailing at the end of the first half, becomes the eventual winner.

Three Sided Football attracts different kinds of teams precisely because of this philosophy and ethos. Our first game was organised in association with the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, during the 2010 General Election in the UK, which ended with the first coalition government in many years. However there were more effective alliances on the pitch. The Whitechapel Gallery saw the artistic merit of the game and designed their own hexagonal pitch. In May this year we played in a match in Bilbao at the Plaza de Toros Bullring, in a match organised by the Athletic de Bilbao Federation, which also organises a regular ‘Thinking Football’ tournament involving artists and writers. During the period of this summer’s London Olympics, we will be participating in a Three Sided tournament in Deptford, South London, involving international teams of philosophers, builders, architects and geographers. As the other event takes place across the river, this will be a truly Olympian football experience.