Early Doors

Robben is wrong: There are no moral absolutes in football

Early Doors

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The point at which football and philosophy intersected irreversibly cannot be precisely identified. Was it when Albert Camus, noted goalkeeper and French absurdist, claimed: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football”?

Perhaps it was when Monty Python’s famous ‘Philosophers’ Football Match’ sketch pitched Archimedes and Socrates (the Greek one) against Hegel and Marx in a contest which descended into a vigorous debate around a late winner for the Greeks: “Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside."

Or maybe it was when Joey Barton discovered @NietzscheQuotes.

If the precise moment of its full absorption into football is unknown, this week has at least made abundantly clear that philosophy is now as much a part of the sport as shin pads, goals and commercial snack partners.

Philosophy has been the watchword of the week. It started when Chelsea's perceived triumph for cynical, repressive anti-football at Anfield - which had Liverpool in such a flap despite the fact, apparently oblivious to those in Red, that a draw would have basically gifted them the title – provoked many a thought-piece on Jose Mourinho’s guiding principles and manipulation of football's dark arts.

On Tuesday night, holding court before what is expected to be another stultifying affair when Chelsea and Atletico Madrid – who drew 0-0 in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final – take the field at Stamford Bridge, Mourinho took aim at his critics, telling the assembled press: "In this moment football is full of philosophers, full of people that understand much more than me.”

This was just hours before Bayern Munich were humbled 4-0 at home by Real Madrid, their faces turning as red as the Allianz Arena which enveloped them. But this was not just an isolated result over two legs – a badly-timed blip in a season which has witnessed only six defeats in all competitions – it had to mean something more.


It was the death of a philosophy, a crude and brutal repudiation of Pep Guardiola’s life work. Tiki-taka, schmiki-schmaka. The Catalan – once dubbed ‘The Philosopher’ by a sharp-tongued and malcontent Zlatan Ibrahimovic, lest we forget – had been exposed as a fraud. A result over two legs would surely force him to rethink his whole approach to football. Never mind that in only his fifth season as a coach he will pick up his 18th trophy if Bayern beat Dortmund to lift the German Cup in May.

An affronted Guardiola retorted: "The argument about my ideas is not valid. I can't change what I feel and what I feel is that we must play with the ball and attack as much as possible."

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Also fighting in the tiki-taka corner was Arjen Robben, who responded to Bayern’s elimination with a case of sour grapes severe enough to destroy a French vineyard’s annual crop. Asked who he will be supporting in tonight’s Chelsea-Atleti game, the former Blues winger told Sky Sports News: "I don't really care [who wins]. I watched the 90 minutes last week and I couldn't watch it – the match had nothing to do with football.”


Robben’s stance took our debate out of the realms of philosophy and into something approaching moral judgement; from an intellectual exercise to a battle for the heart and soul of football. This tension between ‘football’ and ‘anti-football’ has always existed – witness the conceptual battle between Menotti and Bilardo, for pseuds, or Wenger and Allardyce, for the Premier League generation.

And this battle, at least in the form in which it has been presented by Robben, is a false one. Mourinho’s style of football is still football, however much you attempt to reduce it to a core of cynicism and opportunism.

As opposite number Diego Simeone observed: "I'm a football man, I respect different ways of setting out your team. You can play 10 at the back or you can play 10 at the front. It doesn't matter. What matters is the result. It depends what you believe is the convenient way of playing and who you're playing against.

"To defend well is not easy, so you have to congratulate a team that defends well. To attack well is not easy either, so you have to congratulate also a team that goes on the attack. It's important that, regardless of how you play, that the team wins, that the club wins, that the institution as a whole wins.

"There is not one way of playing football. If we all played the same way it would be very boring."

Defensive play is not a betrayal of the very fundamentals of football. If evolving tactics and strategies were not permitted lest they pollute the good game, then everyone would still be playing in 1-1-8 formations. As Simeone suggests, debates over 'football' and 'anti-football' are deeply flawed. Different approaches give different textures to contests that would otherwise be mind-numbingly homogeneous.

Meanwhile, the moral questions that really matter are either being ignored or being obscured. Luis Suarez – unrepentant in his racist abuse of Patrice Evra – is the Player of the Year; John Terry – who once said the words “f****** black c***” to Anton Ferdinand – is wanted back in the England team by certain fans and members of the press; anti-gay states Russia and Qatar will host the next two World Cups.

In truth, football’s attitude to morality in general can be neatly encapsulated by a quote from former Manchester City comedy executive Garry Cook, responding to concerns over the human rights record of former owner Thaksin Shinawatra. It is worth revisiting in its entirety.

“Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things. Whether he [Thaksin] is guilty of something over in Thailand, I can't worry. I have to be conscious of it. But my role is to run a football club. I worked for Nike who were accused of child-labour issues and I managed to have a career there for 15 years. I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt comfortable in that environment. It's the same here."

Modern football: weak on human rights, tough on defensive tactics.

Tom Adams - @tomEurosport

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