What we see when we look at football: how it plays, and close-ups reflect society

In 1972, four half-hour episodes on the BBC tried to change the way in which we approach the visual culture and how we saw the world around us. John Berger, Ways of Seeing was a milestone in the history of the arts of broadcasting and education. Berger, an art critic, playwright and Booker Prize-winning novelist, who fought against injustice, and wrote articles and essays about society and politics, died in January of this year. This piece is not an obituary or the analysis of his works; it is football, or as Berger would be, maybe, what we see when we look at the football.

The 13 of June 2014, the Netherlands handed over the defence of the reigning world champions Spain a humiliating 5-1 defeat. In the days that followed, the dominant image of the press, social media and TV channels was that of Robin van Persie suspended in the middle of the flight, to the right after heading the ball that was going to beat Iker Casillas and open the Dutch scoring spree. It was a magnificent feat of athleticism, resulting in one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history. But what do we do with the image?

Ways of Seeing opened our eyes to visual culture

Read more

For a person who has not seen the match (or replays or highlights clips), the whole game was going to be condensed in an image. You never know of the opening of the goal – Xabi Alonso penalty, nor do they know nothing of the other four Dutch goals. Given the importance that is given to an image, you may assume that Van Persie goal was the winner, when in reality it was an equalizer. On the goal itself, they would also not know that Daley Blind had been provided with the assistance of a fantastic.

One might think that the true context of the image could only be understood by a person who had seen the match. However, to what extent is this possible? The image that we see on our TELEVISION screens or monitors of our computers, laptops and tablets is taken by a mounted camera that moves. This movement makes a huge difference in our way of viewing the game, for the focus of the image and, therefore, our eyes are always on the ball. When the player has the ball, all our attention is focused on it – we do not notice the moment when Van Persie begins his run, nor do we realize how Arjen Robben away Gerard Pique Van Persie’s path.

If one stretches the idea of context further, it is easy to reach the conclusion that only a person who knew that Spain had beaten Holland in the final of the previous World Cup, or he knew that Van Persie, Blind and Holland manager Louis van Gaal were scheduled to be reunited at Manchester United right after the World Cup, in short, a fan of the sport – understand the importance of the goal and the celebration that followed: Van Persie high-fiving van Gaal – another photo that went viral on social networks.

Robin van Persie and Louis van Gaal. Photo: Manu Fernandez/AP

A photograph is the result of a photographer of the decision of that a moment is worth recording. In his essay Understanding a Photograph, Berger explains that the essence of a photograph is the simple message: “I have decided that seeing this is worth recording.” According to Berger: “A photograph, whilst recording what has been seen, always and by its nature refers to what is not seen. It isolates, preserves and presents a moment taken from a continuum.”

So, what is missing in the “flying Dutchman” of the photo of Van Persie is everything that was done up to that point. While the photo invokes all that the lack of it, this invocation is only felt and understood by the viewer, who has a prior knowledge of the context and the larger background.

At the heart of any football game, is the concept of space and time. As each player reacts to these two factors determines how good they are as footballers. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner describes a photo taken at the De Meer stadium in 1995, the year of Van Gaal’s Ajax team was the best in Europe: “are torn forward, the Ajax in the ‘shadow striker’ Jari Litmanen has the ball at his feet near the center of the circle. Ten meters ahead of him, centre-forward Patrick Kluivert is a ball of coiled energy, surrounded by defenders, but to point to make his move. Left-winger Marc Overmars and right-wing Finidi George are already running in the space. Behind Litmanen, the other three members of the midfield diamond that day, Edgar Davids on the left, Arnold Scholten in the right and Winston Bogarde behind, are going ahead with the fresh threat.”

The photo was taken by Hans van der Meer, to describe what he calls the “time of tension”. “There are one or two moments in which he presents a situation and understand that something is going to happen,” explains Van der Meer. “This is the moment of tension, of the possibility. Everyone in the crowd shares this tension. The pleasure of going to a football match is that you all feel together. It’s like chess. When the newspapers report that a game of chess, do not show him the final move. They show you the position 10 moves from the end because that is the most dramatic of the situation. The center of the field is often more dramatic than the penalty area. The time of the goal is not particularly interesting. What happens just before the goal: that is much more interesting.”

Van der Meer does not tend to take photos of the matches from the bench or from behind the goal. He works high in the stands, usually near the half way line. This allows you to show the space that the close-ups taken with a long telephoto lens at ground level fail to capture. In Van der Meer’s photographs of Ajax, we can see Total Football at its peak.

In the same way, to understand just how organized, structured and disciplined Antonio Conte’s Italy team were to the Euro 2016, it is best to look at this short clip, which was filmed from the top of the opposition posts of a more or less static camera that does not zoom in on any particular player.

The instant replays after goals, generally, show only the help and the final shot. Here there is also a hierarchy of screen time. The help is shown once, maybe twice, but the final shot shows four or five times from different angles. The pass that set up the help is often not shown at all. For a target resulting from the patient build-up play of say 20+ passes, the immediate response would be, perhaps, to show only the last two or three passes and the final shot.

The same, however, does not hold for a target that is a move of the individual. In these cases each repetition shows – from different angles, at different speeds – how the individual managed to dribble past every one of the defenders before slotting the ball in the back of the net.

How to take a perfect photo of sports: to plan, keep calm and fight for his place

Read more

Football coverage today focuses primarily on the individuality of each player. We live in the era of the show and the constant, unwavering focus on the individual has ensured that the players at all times, going through a sort of screentest for tv. Through the repetitions and the photos, we are invited to share in the ecstasy of the joy, the pain, the agony, the frustration and the disappointment felt by each one of their players. The performance of a computer is still described by the statistics on persons (goals, bookings, tackles made, distance covered, dribbles completed, and so on.

Somewhere we lose the sense of the team of the collective. For teams like the barca of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Jupp Heynckes’ Munich, Conte the Italy and the Germany of Joachim Löw – who is often described as the result of a philosophy – it is difficult to ignore the almost mechanical work of the team as a single unit, for what was announced as “revolutionary” or “dramatic” though the basics of their styles have existed for decades.

Focusing on the individual feats of athleticism, heroism or bravado dissolves the concept of a team; minimizes the rigorous training on the part of the players, the hours spent at the drawing board by the managers before each game and the work of the coaches and support staff. Hand-in-hand with this way of living, coverage and photography is the fact that most top-flight clubs today do not have open training sessions. They are closed to the public, when on the occasion that opens, on occasions, the public has to pay an entrance fee.

The stadiums do not allow spectators to bring a camera to the football games. On the other hand, clubs play non-league or football in the lower leagues to freely allow the use of cameras. The photos of these matches are usually very different. Taken mostly from the stands, many of these photos are shots of the pitch. There are less planes and there will always be photos of the winning team celebrate with their fans after the match.

In the modern top-flight football, there is a tangible distance between the fans and the players. These players have been elevated to the gods. The stadium has become a sacred space – in fact, Chelsea want their new stadium to be a “cathedral” of football – where the follower can be a witness of the gods of the battle, but not the form of a political declaration. The sacred place is not polluted with the earthly, mortal things such as society and politics.

The art book publisher Taschen published a book on the football photography in the 1970s, called the Age of Innocence. It was a good title as the 1970’s were football’s last gasp before large sums of money that entities are swallowed. The decade marked the end of the era of football players were still, on some level, “our boys.” As Ed Vulliamy wrote in his book review: “there was an innocence, at least not in the presumption by thousands of teenagers from Merseyside that one could ride to London and see a Cup final for a bunk.”

The iconic image of the 1966 World Cup. Photo: AP

The first World Cup to be broadcast on television was in 1954. In the early days of the video camera, football games were usually covered by two cameras. The intention was to document the event, instead of defending the show. With the World Cup of 1966 in England, everything changed. This was in part because the host country had one of the best in the world on TELEVISION networks at the time. On the other hand, the nature of the broadcasting contracts, ensured a more direct involvement of TELEVISION companies in the tournament.

All tournaments may now be condensed into a single image, by invoking the “first show” – Bobby Moore on the shoulders of his England team-mates holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft (1966), Jairzinho uprising of Pelé as the latter looks directly at the camera with a fist in the air (1970), Franz Beckenbauer grinning as he lifts the World Cup trophy (1974), Daniel Passarella being carried by a crowd (1978), and so on.

The close-up of the photo has also given to the sponsors the opportunity to display their logos. As football became a full-fledged business opportunity in the era of the Premier League and the Champions League, it was only a matter of time before the players received a mandatory yellow card for removing the shirt. A shirt off, of course, means that the giant corporation that is sponsoring the team is lost in the time display when the camera closes in the player.

Close-up shots are not inherently bad, but the way in which the action is covered is helping to create a mystical cult of genius around the players, which in turn influences the economy and the politics of the sport. If we want to retrieve the football from the corporations that alienate the fans of the teams they support, may be worth looking at the game in a different way.

• This article first appeared on In Bed With Maradona• Continue to In Bed With Maradona and Shirsho Dasgupta on Twitter