Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
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The football is one of a fairly limited group of objects that is designed to interact with the human body in a very diverse range of ways. Of course, it is most often kicked. But it is also regularly struck with every part of the leg, the chest, or the head. It may be kicked to a person or at another object, or it may be repeatedly bounced in the air by any of these body parts. A football flying toward a person may be immediately kicked away again, or its impact may be absorbed by the legs or chest in order to retain possession of it. Of course, the football is also commonly dribbled, or pushed along the ground in front of a walking or running player. And in the course of a game of football, most of these movements are combined and used in countless variations. The ways that this object interacts with people who are running, walking or standing, through many different parts of their bodies and for very different purposes makes it quite unique.
Mastery of all of these different body movements with the football obviously takes considerable practice. As with other physical activities, controlled interaction with the football relies heavily on muscle memory. The iterative relationship that the player has with the ball, the constant repetition of the same motions, slowly trains their body to exert ever more control over the ball with less conscious effort. The speed of the game necessitates a good “first touch,” the ability of a player to control an incoming ball in such a way as to make his or her next move easiest and most effective. This always requires a combination of vision, split-second planning and the physical ability to put the ball right where it needs to be without concentrating on that motion itself. This “freeing up” of the brain to focus on what to do, rather than how, is only possible if muscle memory makes the physical motions essentially automatic.
This iterative relationship with the ball not only causes this new muscle memory to develop, but in fact also changes the player’s entire conception of controllable space, allowing the player to feel and perceive an extended radius of space through the ball. Normally, we are aware of the space we inhabit in a very limited sense; as we walk down the street, we are strictly cognizant of the space where our feet step and our arms swing, but nothing beyond that. The space that we would typically define as ‘ours’ extends simply to a few feet in front of and behind us; it is defined in a strictly tactile sense. However small this space might be, we still think of it as ‘belonging’ to us; whenever another person or object enters this space, we are instantly aware of it. In this way, we think of that space as being under our ‘control’.
However, when we are running with a ball at our feet, this concept of ‘controllable space’ radically changes. As we run and push the ball forward with our feet, the ball, rather than our feet, becomes the measure of where our controlled space ends, and after a short time is spent running with the ball, the player develops a visceral sense of when the ball is within reach or control. Thus, our radius is no longer defined by what we feel in a strictly haptic sense, but instead by our feel for the ball within a space. Much in the same way that after driving we develop a sense of the space our car inhabits, the ball plays the same role as a bumper; the player’s controllable space morphs from what we can physically feel into what we can sense because of the ball. Our sense of space is externalized, mediated by where we can reach the ball rather than what we tacitly feel.
Because the ball is difficult to control, the space where a player can reach it often overlaps with another person’s, and it is this interplay of personal spaces - where each player can sense when he or she can reach the ball – that drives the game. Much in the same way that the ball develops permanent muscle memory, prolonged interactions with the ball cause this sense of extended personal space to be active even when we are not interacting with the ball itself. It is this active sense of where one can reach the ball that drives defending. Anyone who has ever played soccer has been told that good defending revolves around the idea of ‘timing’ a challenge to the ball. This idea is largely taken for granted; no-one has ever bothered to ask ‘what exactly are we waiting for?’ The defender is waiting until these two extended personal spaces – the space of the defender, and the space of the attacker – overlap. If you watch the video below, you can see the exact second when the defender can sense the ball is within reach, and then he tackles. Thus, the entire game of football hinges on this concept of extended proprioceptive space: the good player is the one who understands how to utilize this new sense of space, and manipulate its relation to the space of others.
Like all areas of study, football has its saints: people today still talk about great players of the past – whether its Maradona, Cruyff, or Pele - as if these players possessed some divine talent of the feet. However, a closer examination of these players’ tactics reveals that their greatness derives not from some mysterious physical ability, but instead from a heightened understanding of this concept of extended personal space. The flashy tricks that so many players put on, although visually impressive, have a more practical meaning: they are designed to manipulate the defender’s conception of the space they control. What a trick literally does is to draw the defender into thinking the ball is within reach, committing a challenge, and thus giving the attacker the opportunity to move the ball past the defender. If the attacker did not dupe the defender by playing with his or her sense of controllable space, the attacker could never force the defender to commit.
Along these lines, many players who have been deemed ‘great’ due to their possession of the ball actually owe their success to the manipulation of controllable space. Diego Maradona, one of the world’s most well known football players, plays with this exact concept by continuously placing the ball in small, specific areas that are barely outside any defenders’ controllable space. In the video above of what has been called “the goal of the century”1, we see Maradona run from one end of the field to the other, constantly knocking the ball bafflingly far in front of his feet, only to evade six defenders to score. The way he does this is to perfectly judge the opposition’s controllable space, placing the ball into the exact areas where no one can reach. We see perfectly place the ball barely outside of each defender's radius of controllable space again and again, eventually luring the goalkeeper off his line by showing the ball, only to push the ball around him. This manipulation of other players' controllable space has been the mark of the world’s greatest footballers; Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff (who we shall see more of later) was so adept at understanding controllable space that he was once famously dubbed ‘Pythagoras in boots’.
Thus, the game of soccer is driven by a complex combination of human-object interaction. It is not the ball or the player that drives the game; instead it is the players’ interactions between their heightened senses of space, which are mediated by their long term relationship with the ball, that create the football we play today.
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