City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The World Cup is everywhere, so what better time to thread a series of theoretical passes together into a sinuously flowing move? On why football is so compelling for so many people, and what can that tell us about the practice of design and architecture. (I'm thinking of playing John Cage in the hole behind the front two, flanked by Johann Cruyff and Aldo van Eyck. And if this piece doesn't guarantee my season ticket for Pseud's Corner, I don't know what will.)

To set the scene. I'm writing on a sunny day in London, that same sun bestowing itself upon European cousin Germany to the east, ensuring a radiant glow under the eyes of most on the planet. Yes indeed, World Cup 2006 is ablaze with individual talent, peerless team performances, intrigue and torment, instant-classic games, and goals goals goals.

And what glorious goals: a barrage of ball-technology-assisted long-range screamers and thumping headers; swishing flurries of one-two'd parries followed by a deadly rapier thrust; and, well, one of the best goals the game has ever seen.

Argentina's second goal, in their ruthless destruction of Serbia and Montenegro (an almost callous act, as that country ceases to exist after this World Cup), was instantly being lauded in such terms. The awe-inspiring sight of the entire Argentina team moving fluidly as if to some pre-ordained ballet – "a symphony of collaboration" according to The Guardian – was simply Liquid Football (™Alan Partridge). 24 passes throughout 8 of the 10 outfield Argentines, utterly bewitching the Serbia & Montenegro team. But this apparent perfection, whilst honed by endless individual and collective drills of technique and teamplay in training, was also largely improvised in real-time, entirely determined by the context of the opposing team – which cannot be accurately predicted at all.

Guardian diagram of Cambiasso goal - click for large version

This emphasis on unpredictable, interpreted creativity being performed within formal systems actually suggests interesting parallels to me, reminiscent of those discussed in my recent 'Architecture and interaction design' summary. I talked of 'the social process of design'; of the interaction between a system of space, articulated by designers or architects, which is then interpreted and adapted by users with individual creativity and agency.

Progressing this, at my Aula 2006 talk last week, I described a further parallel -  that of examining composers of contemporary music, such as John Cage et al, as they might provide useful metaphors for thinking about participative media – given the interplay between composed and vernacular, chance, improvisation and interpretation. Little is deterministic – only a trajectory towards a goal or scenario, articulated via a score, which can be interpreted during performance.

Actually, to pause on mapping systems of possibilities, I also discussed the idea of co-opting such graphical notation or scores from music, with respect to my 'Lost' article. Now look at the potential similarity between The Guardian's daily infographics describing the narrative of games and goals (annoyingly not online). A graphical score developed for football may be an appropriate way of describing coordinated movement through time and space. I don't know of any developed to this end (anybody know what the pre-eminent information system in football, ProZone, uses for this?). I imagine it could also be similar to the notation of dance collected and discussed by Tufte.

Dance notation, collected by Edward Tufte

Artist Jeroen Henneman's sketch of a Dennis Bergkamp passLeaving aside the possible use of scores as design tools, look at the relationship between these ways of thinking about music and design – systems which cannot be perfectly engineered, but instead provide suggestions, interpreted and performed. This turns out to also have some parallels, however tenuous, with a certain kind of thinking about football. In David Winner's superb book 'Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football', we find many of these concepts carefully harmonised around the football intellectual's favourite ever thing: the 'Total Football' concept of the early '70s Dutch national team and Amsterdam-based Ajax (in which highly-drilled players freely switched positions during a game and improvised attacks from every angle. Interestingly, the Argentina goal described above was finished off by a defensive midfielder.) Winner describes how a previously unwritten yet tangible unified theory of 'a Dutch sense of space' influenced this approach to football, drawn from the Netherlands' modern history of architecture, design, art, planning and politics. (The image above left is artist Jeroen Henneman's sketch of a Dennis Bergkamp pass, taken from Winner's book and captioned "One moment the pitch is crowded and narrow. Suddenly it is huge and wide".)

Daringly tracing a line between the work of Rinus Michels and Johann Cruyff at Ajax, the Amsterdam school – a 'Total City' approach, based around the ideas of architects Michel de Klerk and H. P. Berlage – the mid-60s Provo movement, Wim Crouwel's Total Design studio, numerous artists and photographers, and the topography and environment of the Netherlands itself, Winner describes how Dutch football's pervasive and serious discussion of space and systems is an entirely predictable product of its culture.

"All systems should be familarised, one with the other, in such a way that their combined impact and interaction can be appreciated as a single complex system,' said key structuralist Aldo van Eyck, talking about modern cities but sounding uncannily as though he might be laying down a template for the Ajax football system. Herman Hertzberger, the last of the great structuralists still living, says of the need for flexible buildings, 'Each form must be interpretable in the sense that it must be capable of taking on different roles. And it can only take on those different roles if the different meanings are contained in the essence of the form' … It was not until 1974 that the word totaalvoetbal entered the Dutch language, used as it was to describe the Ajax-style football played by Holland's national team in that year's World Cup. Also in that year J.P. Bakema, colleague of Herzberger and Van Eyck in the influential Team 10 and Forum magazine, passionately advocated a 'Total' approach: 'Total Urbanisation' and 'Total Environment' and 'Total Energy'. A man has three life questions: What am I? Who am I? Where am I? In this period of Total use of earch and space, balance between use and care can only be given by Total Architecture.'" ['Brilliant Orange', David Winner, pp30-31]

Read the book for more. But my tentatively-made point is that in designing for adaptation – in designing for participative media in particular – there may be something in these parallels. In effect, changing ends with Winner and looking instead from football to design and architecture.

I'll write up the Aula talk, which will further develop these ideas with respect to Cage and contemporary composition, but in both cases, I'm interested in the balance between creating systems which describe possibilities but enable individual improvisation and interpretation.


(And if the composer or orchestrator figure, such as Cage, provides a metaphor for a form of design for participation or adaptation, it may be that the equivalent figure in a football team – the quixotic 'number 10' – also provides a useful analogue. Someone who pulls the strings; imagines the space and time that a move might be conducted in; who provides direction for the team flowing around him; who doesn't necessarily finish or resolve the move – the number 10 is not necessarily prolific scorer, but provider instead – one who describes the arc of the move through his own movement, or through shaping the ball's movement through the intersection of players and space. One of the greatest English writers on sport (and music), Richard Williams, has a new book out exploring this particular position and profiling some of the greats who have defined it. No English players feature, perhaps tellingly.)

So I think one reason people find football aesthetically and formally appealing – leaving aside other obvious reasons – is to do with this see-saw balancing act; when the fragile beauty of design can be denied so effortlessly by the combination of chance, improvisation, circumstance and irrational passion. It's the call-and-response tension between these forces that makes the game at the highest level so thrilling. And it's this tension which is reminiscent of adaptive design ideas discussed here previously; that design isn't the end of the process, but the beginning; that interpretation and improvisation will define the end-product, not the original design – in architecture, in music, in football.

This is slightly tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, merely yet another way to trigger interesting angles within old discourse; to find the Bergkampian killer through-ball, reversed through a thicket of defenders' legs whilst looking the other way … Yet there may be something in these analogies with music and football. Play and gaming is often discussed in new media circles of course, but usually confined to the relatively bloodless worlds of massively multi-player online games (with some honorable exceptions). Until video games become either genuinely physical and genuinely economically-productive, why not look at the greatest massively multi-player game the world has? Something truly globally popular as well as physical, participative, tangible, impassioned. It's right under our noses … And if you think this is all a bit too frivolous, last words go to John Cage, ironically:

"Purposeless play (is) an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord."


10 responses to “Journal: Design. Architecture. Football.”

  1. Matt Avatar

    Excellent essay sir. Wish I’d seen yr talk at Aula. BUT! Welcome to the play ethic… you’ll never turn back. Nice Cage quote – will get added to the pile.
    Foe found this for me: “these are all the influences that made parkour born here in lisses, in half urban, half-natural space where David and Seb could do what they wanted. the parkour, is then a children games that become an art, an art of living, of moving. what is shameful is to believe that, once grown up, we shall stop playing. like Bruce lee said: “play, but play seriously”. we could talk about art of jumping, art of overcoming obstacles, art of moving.”


  2. Norman Blogster Avatar

    Argentina’s celebrated goal made me think about writing something on the notion of beauty in football, mathematics and architecture – in each field (among others) there are certain methods of achieving a given objective that are subjective and debatable, while simultaneaously generally recognised as beautiful by even non-football fans, non-mathematicians and non-architects. While the objectives usually aren’t subjective (or necessarily beautiful), the methods can be nevertheless.
    Anyway, congratulations & thanks for writing this excellent piece.


  3. Dan Avatar

    Thanks Norman. Interesting.
    There’s a great deal in Winner’s book on different – subjective – sense of beauty in Dutch football.

    “Rudi Fuchs, director of the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum in Amsterdam and also one of the country’s most influential art critics and historians, argues that every country and culture has its own way of seeing. ‘The psychologists deny these differences exist, but it’s there in the [Dutch] art and culture. Ask any Dutch person to draw the horizon and they will draw a straight line. If you ask someone from Yorkshire or Tuscany or anywhere else, it will have bumps and hills. A Scandinavian blue is cold and steely, completely unlike a blue in Italy. Italian painting is rich in warm reds, but when red appears in the work of a northern artist like Munch, it’s blood in the snow.’ Furthermore, these climatic and geographically shaped aesthetic differences are inevitably reflected in football. ‘Catenaccio is like a Titian painting – soft, seductive and languid. The Italians welcome and lull you and seduce you into their soft embrace, and score a goal like the thrust of a dagger. The Dutch make their geometric patterns. In a Vermeer, the pearl twinkles. You can say, in fact, that the twinkling of the pearl is the whole point of Vermeer. The whole painting is leading to this moment, the way the whole of football leads to the overhead goal of Van Basten. The English like to run and fight. When Gullit tried to transplant this Dutch art to Newcastle, he was trying to do something impossible. He was bound to fail.’”

    Which does explain Ruud Gullit neatly. Winner goes on to explore how Dutch landscape has influenced the art and football in the Netherlands. Fuchs goes on to suggest this is why:

    “The Dutch instinctively revere the ‘architect’ on the pitch, the one who has a grasp of the overall picture and every detail in it … There is a Dutch way of seeing space, the landscape. Cruyff sees in that Dutch way and he is admired for his innate understanding of the geometry and order on the pitch.”

    Linked to this is a particular sense of beauty. Winner quotes artist Jeroen Henneman here:

    “Perhaps it is to do with the sense of beauty that goes with the football in Holland. The beauty is in space and in the pitch. It is in the grass, but also in the air above it, where balls can curl and curve and drop and move like the planets in heaven. Not only on the field. The folding of the air above it also counts. The Dutch prefer to work out how to beat someone with intelligence and beauty rather than power.”

    Additionally, a particular kind of beauty, based around the pass and the collective space contained within the overall shape of the team on the pitch at that point, rather than individual brilliance. Henneman again:

    “Open the pitch by crossing the ball with a curve: a simple pass to the other side and suddenly the team have all the room in the world. The idea is quite Dutch I think. I was so disappointed when I went to Brazil. I thought: finally I will see the great Brazilian football! I expected to see a very ‘roomy’ football. But they play in the most boring way, on technique, only to show off. A personal beauty is of course also valid. But the passing was very short all the time and the game was slow. Not slow in a Dutch way. The progress was slow, like gridiron football. So slow! They go forward, they go back. Some do little tricks, nice little things. But it is not football.”

    A little harsh perhaps, and a generalisation. The great Argentine goal mentioned earlier is a wondrous passing move, finished by a defensive midfielder, Cambiasso, which shares something with this Dutch sense of beauty. European-based Brazilian players like Ronaldinho are amongst the great passers in the game, and have a highly-developed sense of space in particular. But there is clearly something in the differing styles here. The Argentine goal above is based on short passing and revolving movement around the number 10; not the curved space-creating passes Henneman covets. The dribble is a part of the South American sense of beauty in football; it isn’t in Dutch football (despite Arjen Robben etc.)
    The great Argentine striker Jorge Valdano writing in Thursday’s Guardian, about his colleague Maradona’s classic 1986 goal against England, his slalom through the entire English defence:

    “If he had passed me the ball as it seems Plan A called for, I would have grabbed it in my hand and applauded. Can you imagine? But let’s not deceive ourselves, I am convinced that Diego was never going to release that ball. Throughout those 10 seconds and 10 touches, he changed his mind hundreds of times because that’s how the mind of genius in action works. That celebration that put intelligence, the body and the ball in tune was an act of genius – but also in the most profound way, in footballing terms, of being Argentinian. What Maradona was doing was making Argentinians’ football dream a reality: we love the ball more than the game and, for that reason, the dribble more than the pass.”

    The Argentinians see beauty in the player with the ball, hence the dribble; the Dutch in the space the ball and players move through, hence the pass. The sense of beauty – whilst recognisable in both – is different across these places, thus the football is valued differently too.


  4. vanderwal Avatar

    An excellent post and comment. On my flight over to Amsterdam a few weeks ago the KLM in-flight magazine had an article on Dutch football by Jane Szita, "Great balls of fire" that made similar references to the Dutch use of space in football, art, and land use. There is creativity in the teamwork and the use of space. This article had me thinking of Total Football and the use of space in art and society that whole trip and beyond.
    At university I took a tutorial on the early Northern renaissance painting (Flemish, Dutch, and Northern Germanic), which began working through perspective, symbolism of objects and space, detail (both foreground and background), light, and texture. The final paper was a comparison of the Northern renaissance and Italian renaissance, which showed vastly different light, colors, detail, and use of space.
    Football, as in art is about space and options. What can be done with the space and the options. Closing space opens other options. The more objects in the space the more variables, but also the more limitations to when one object occupies a space. With art and a painting of St. Jerome we need a medium (paint, ink, woodcutting, etc.), a lion, Saint Jerome, books, and writing implements as important elements of depicting that the subject is in fact Saint Jerome. Other objects, such as windows, doors, tables, etc. are not essential, but are common objects to an artists depiction of Saint Jerome. Saint Jerome is often painted or etched in a library, but he is also illustrated out of doors, which make the books and writing implements less probable, but not as improbable as a lion in a library.
    In football the use of space makes a defender, much like a lion indoors not as probable. But it is the improbability that makes for beauty and art. Shifting of roles and expected uses makes a components quite valuable. It is still about limitations to space, central objects, and the other options for the remaining objects in that space. In football it is players and the ball that create options. The player with the ball is the focus, but the beauty comes in creating the options with the remaining space as to where the ball can go next. As artist move the lion into a library, a defender can move to the offensive space in the wide open to create options that were unseen before.
    The tensions between expected and other options, use of space, adding and subtracting variables, creating balance out of imbalance, and shifting of roles that create the ability for people to express themselves and to innovate. Seeing alternate uses of the familiar surroundings, as Matt states, is the heart of play. Play is as much a part of art as it is sport. The rules are defined. The space is defined. But the use of the objects and all the variables is what separates the player/artist from the spectator.


  5. Harry Avatar

    It seems appropriate to mention Labanotation: The Archie Gemmill Goal.


  6. visitor Avatar

    Seems like you might want to consider jazz musicians rather than Cage. They train like athletes do and have an arsenal of tricks knowledge and experience that comes to bear in the context of a performance. Especially the musicians whose improvisations are not based on a pre-existing song. They are simply enjoying a musical conversation with their peers. Isn’t that what the truly great soccer players are doing?


  7. Jonathan S. Bean Avatar

    Great essay.
    (Apologies for opening old threads, but I came across your site whilst doing research for a dissertation on the Tricorn)
    Do you think it would benefit English football if the Academy system was to deal with more non-football subjects? For example, drop one of that weeks tackling drills and ask the football scholars to write an essay on ‘notions of space in civic design’, ‘charlie parker and miles davis’, or other such subjects?
    Maybe this is something that should be encouraged within all schools? I am a firm believer in moving away from the current system of quanitifiable, standardised assessment as I feel it takes us ever closer to a society populated by what Durkheim would have called ‘technicians’ – specialists in a given area with no perception of the wider world, or any appreciation of actions not ruled by pre-ordained logic. If schools changed, then perhaps England could win the world cup again.


  8. Paul Rodriguez Avatar
    Paul Rodriguez

    That is one of the greatest ways of football logic I have ever heard and yes there seems to be a way of thinking that has to do with how we play !and Countries vary


  9. Jeffrey Eyestone Avatar

    I just finished Winner’s “Brilliant Orange” and in following up / researching some things from notes I took while reading it, I came across your site and this essay. I loved it and wanted to say so. I also want to add to the discussion eventually based on what I am doing with Peace Football Club ( – part of which is built around exploring how football is a reflection of its people, a mirror on society, an expression of its art, etc. I am looking for people who would like to fill out or survey that explores this – as well as exploring our rivalries – trying ultimately to build bridges across these rivalries through a better understanding of ourselves, our society, and those of our rivals. I’d love to hear from you or some of your other commenters from various nations so that I can find more people willing to fill out one of our Peace FC Surveys. Regardless, I mainly wanted to say that I loved reading this essay and I’m glad that the excellent “Brilliant Orange” led me to your blog and a number of the comments here that actually add a lot to your essay (unlike many comment sections of blogs). I’ll be posting on the Peace FC to link to this essay shortly.


  10. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Jeffrey, much appreciated. I’ll take a look at Peace FC; sounds really interesting. Best, Dan.


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