The relationship between art and football: Guardiolismo and Expressionism

The relationship between art and football: Guardiolismo and Expressionism

It was around 380BC that one of Western philosophy’s founding fathers, Plato, of Classical Greece, first speculated about the purpose of art. In his dense investigation into society titled The Republic, it is theorised that a work of art is ultimately an imitation of reality; yet Plato believed that, in fact, reality is an imperfect imitation of a perfect ideal.

The Athenian theorises how the physical world is a decaying copy of a changeless, divine original and that every beautiful sunset or flower is merely a flawed copy of Beauty Itself. He further considered how, because society is morally corrupt, Real Justice is unattainable. This notion of the ideal is even applied to The Circle: to Plato, a perfect Circle is a mathematical ideal and is therefore impossible to recreate if hand-drawn. No matter how perfect it may seem, even if it is drawn by the steadiest of hands, it will ultimately be imperfect somehow.

Other philosophers have since labelled these concepts – Beauty, Justice and The Circle – the Universals. Because the Universals are unattainable, it helps us to comprehend historic understandings of art: to simply imitate or recreate. Art as imitation or recreation has been a prominent discussion ever since the writings of Plato. However, with the progression of society and humanity, the Grecian’s writings have become somewhat dated.

In 1890, American artist James McNeill Whistler declared that the artist who strives merely to imitate, “Is a poor kind of creature. If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer.” Whistler believed that art’s purpose was no longer to merely imitate or recreate the world around us. He understood it to be far more complex.

Naturally, the definition of art has evolved since Plato first considered it. According to the OED it is incredibly broad, and is: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Our modern understanding is that it is not limited to just the canvas, for with the rise of secularisation, the late 19th century and early 20th gave way to a movement which changed art forever.

In 1893, Edvard Munch took a walk along a bridge in Oslo. He recalled how “the sky turned as red as blood” and that he “stopped and leaned against the fence … shivering with fear. “Then,” he concluded, “I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” Subsequently, Munch painted ‘The Scream’. The artist’s representation of his emotion at that time and place formed the basis of the Expressionists’ artistic interpretations and the theme of individual alienation would go on to become a hugely significant motif in twentieth century art. Generally, art was becoming more concerned with the self than the divine.

However, Munch was not the first to experiment with colour and emotion in the manner he did. Three years before The Scream was completed, the same year James McNeill Whistler was writing about art, a man seemingly suffering from bipolar disorder shot himself in the chest and later died of infection in the suburbs of Paris. That man was an under-appreciated and lonely artist by the name of Vincent van Gogh. Just before van Gogh’s death, his work was beginning to be exhibited and recognised by his contemporaries in the French capital. The Expressionist movement was slowly gathering pace and van Gogh’s masterpieces would later become hugely influential in the works of numerous artists for generations afterwards.

We are now well-accustomed to art as a form of personal expression. It can express anything from the rawest emotion to the strongest political belief. And it does so through numerous forms. Because of the rapid growth and accessibility of technology, we have more potential art forms than ever: paintings, drawings, prints, photography, sculpture, craft, design, performance art, mixed-media, installation, and new media, for example. Under those umbrella terms could be a film or a car or furniture. Many consider literature or music to be art. Therefore, if we have an ever-growing list of what is art or what can become art, then in a sense is art becoming limitless? Is there any form of human expression that cannot potentially hold artistic value?

In 2010, political sportswriter Dave Zirin published an article entitled ‘Football isn’t just about capitalism’. It is primarily a response to a piece written by literary theorist Terry Eagleton, which branded football a product of capitalism, however, within it, Zirin highlights similarities between sport and art: “we love it [football] because it’s exciting, interesting and at its best, rises to the level of art. Maybe Lionel Messi or Mia Hamm are actually brilliant artists who capture people’s best instincts because they are inspired … amid the politics and pain that engulf and sometimes threaten to smother professional sport, there is also an art that can take your breath away.”

Rather than declaring that sport is art, Zirin suggests that there is potential for art to exist in sport; just as artistic value can be found in design, it can exist at the highest level of football. Football can become a form of expression rather than simply a game, just as writing can be a form of expression rather than just words.

The question is, therefore, where and how can we find art in football?

Perhaps the best way to distinguish between football as football and football as art is to consider something Truman Capote said of fellow American novelist Jack Kerouac and the various other Beat-generation writers: “None of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac,” he commented, adding that their style “isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.”


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The Beats often wrote in a manic, continuous stream of consciousness style. Famously, Kerouac typed the whole of his 1957 novel On the Road on one extremely long roll of paper in one long stream without paragraphs. His erratic ‘spontaneous prose’ technique earned him a place in literary history yet Capote took numerous opportunities to criticise Kerouac and his Beat contemporaries. However Capote’s opinion does not correlate with that of the masses: and that is because, regardless of Kerouac’s style, it is not just “typing”. On the Road is a story of friendship, religion, self-discovery, music, youth, mistakes, love, sex, belonging and the burning desire to travel. It is not nonsensical. It is extremely rich in literary value.

There are potentially countless styles – many perhaps untried as of this moment in time –one is able to adopt in order to create literature. All you need is a pen and paper or some form of writing utensil. Yet this is where the pivotal distinction can be made – for not everything written down or typed is rich in literary value. A hastily written shopping list is just a shopping list. But what Jack Kerouac punched out on his typewriter is not just typing.

And it is the same for football. All you need are the basic necessities. With that basis there is the potential to create something of no artistic value, and at the same time it possible to create a sporting masterpiece.

Perhaps the most similar art form to sport, that of performance, is defined by the Tate as “art for which the artist uses their own body as the medium and performs an action or series of actions which become the artwork”. Perhaps more significantly is the subsequent description: “Performance art is sometimes carefully planned and scripted but can also be spontaneous and random.”

The same is true of football. Artistic value and aesthetically pleasing football can be found in spontaneously beautiful or effective moments of play at perhaps any level – although, a perfectly executed game plan that can rise to the level of art is arguably extremely more difficult to achieve and therefore naturally occurs at the absolute highest level of the sport.

However there is one pivotal difference between performance art and sport which is impossible to ignore, and that is what is broadly considered to be the primary objective. In the former, it is solely to create art, while in the latter, it is to win a football match. In a world in which three points or progressing to the next round or winning silverware is the absolute priority, it is not the common view that the performance has to be perfect or hold artistic value.

The son of a bricklayer from Catalonia, as his father says, opposes that commonality: “He has this attitude to football,” said the bricklayer of his son, “not just to win, but to win in a distinctive way that entertains the public.”

Valenti Guardiola speaks of his son in a similar manner many have written about him; for this relationship between performance, art and football is embodied in the modern football world by Josep Guardiola Sala, more commonly known as just ‘Pep’. John Carlin, journalist for El País in Spain, once wrote of the Catalan: “Intense and driven, his continuing zeal for his work derives from a perception that he has a duty not only to satisfy fans’ lust for victory but to raise football to an art form.”

Pep Guardiola has spoken about his personal views of the importance of performance in football previously. In January of this year when still coach of Bayern Munich, he irritated the Bavarian press when he said: “I would rather be remembered for the football my teams play than for the trophies I won,” adding that “in the end titles are numbers and number are boring.”

This came at a time when many were touting that the difference between success and failure for Guardiola, and indeed his legacy at Bayern Munich, would rest upon whether he could deliver the Champions League to the club before departing. To suggest that the most coveted title in European club football is ultimately “boring” naturally got under the skin of those desperate for European success, especially when Bayern had won all three Bundesliga campaigns under Guardiola seemingly at a canter. The Catalan had become a victim of his own success, being judged on what he had not delivered rather than what he had because the domestic triumphs appeared quite so straightforward.

Yet this is how Guardiola interprets football and it comes with a relentless, obsessive strive for an ideal – something which has famously restricted him from truly enjoying success. Following the 2011 Champions League final in which his Barcelona side outclassed Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United 3-1 at Wembley, Guardiola turned to a friend and said “I got it wrong”, according to his biographer, Guillem Balague.

He was concerned and upset about various incomplete intricacies even though he had just claimed his second Champions League title in just three seasons as a top-flight coach. Despite the ultimate objective for the club being silverware, for Guardiola it was something more – something greater – which eluded him even on one of the most special nights of his career.


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Guardiola acknowledges that he is always eluded by perfection and has even told of how, in football, he doesn’t believe in this notion. “Perfection doesn’t exist,” he said in November of last year. “There are always details you can improve.” But this continuous strive for improvement, as if endlessly searching and aiming for the impossible performance, is reminiscent of Plato’s Universals and the unattainable ideal. “What I want, my desire,” the coach said after his Bayern dismantled Arsenal 5-1 during last season’s Champions League campaign, “is to have 100 percent possession.” Guardiola, if you like, is trying to perfect the hand-drawn circle. He knows it is impossible but that will not stop him trying.

Once we begin to consider football in this manner, silverware becomes merely an inevitable consequence of coming as close as possible to the ideal performance. While 100 percent possession is theoretically impossible if a team desires to score goals and win the match (a balance which Guardiola obviously has to conform to), aiming to control as much of the ball as possible arguably does increase the chances of victory. Guardiola’s record of 21 titles in just seven years as a coach at the top-level suggests this theory – when put into practice with players able to comprehend and carry out such a task – is extremely effective.

After shaping domestic and international football in addition to achieving such stunning success in such a short amount of time, Guardiola sits at a point in his career in which he is ultimately at liberty to discuss football as something other than ‘a results business’. At the age of 45 he is already immortalised in football history. His huge influence at this point in the game’s timeline will be responsible for various styles and ideas in the future.

And this is what makes his decision to move to Manchester City all the more fascinating.


“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Vincent van Gogh


After the news broke earlier this year that Guardiola would be leaving Bayern Munich for Manchester City, his father said: “I think he will have to change the mind-set of English football.” The aged bricklayer did not hesitate to point out that the school of thought his son conforms to evidently clashes with English football culture. Although what is most significant is that Valenti Guardiola does not suggest that Pep will need to change English football’s style; rather its attitude to the sport it founded.

English football culture has become an odd blend of modern and traditional values. We live in an age in which the impatience created by the social media explosion is intensified by the hyperinflation incurred by the influx of the £5.14 billion TV rights deal.

Expectation and quality is greater than it has ever been before and even newly promoted English clubs carry huge weight in the transfer market. And this has been married with the familiar English football culture which sticks two fingers up to the continent: that of long balls, hard tackles, regional accents, the long throw, muddy pitches on Boxing Day and Sam Allardyce laughing at Swansea’s Chico Flores for diving.

Such values still remain, embodied by some in a desire to see Pep Guardiola and his dauntingly unfamiliar foreign ways succumb to the turbulent climate that is a windy weekday evening away at Stoke. The rise in money and quality has opened the door to the world’s best players and coaches, consequently warping the identity of the English game; yet at the same time there is a lingering lust to see such foreign ways fail at the hands of tradition.

There is almost an instinctive ‘othering’ of this alternate interpretation of the game, meaning that it is perceived as alien or intrinsically different from what is considered normal. Being the founders of association football and – in the sport’s current climate especially – possessing arguably the world’s most competitive and entertaining league, the attitude of English football is naturally rather narcissistic. This is encapsulated by the intensified expectations and subsequent deflation following an early or embarrassing exit from international competition for the national team.

It is fitting to here consider the concept of Eurocentrism, which is defined as “the practice, conscious or otherwise, of placing emphasis on European (and, generally, Western) concerns, culture and values at the expense of those of other cultures.” For instance, if you to look at a Westernised world map, the likelihood is that the UK will be portrayed as being roughly in the centre – when, of course, the earth is spherical and thus there cannot be a centre for the UK to occupy.

Guardiola’s father touches on a concept we could jokingly call Premier League-centrism, a narrative continuously driven by the prominent British sports media. ‘Premier League emerges as best in the world following Sportsmail’s in-depth study of global football’ stated the Daily Mail in 2014. ‘Barcelona and Real Madrid may be the best teams, but Premier League is still the best league in the world’ headlined TalkSPORT earlier this year. And, of course, it is worth remembering Sky Sports’ advertising campaign of last season, featuring Thierry Henry superimposed into famous Premier League moments.

Henry strolls around memorable instants ranging from Sir Alex Ferguson and Brian Kidd celebrating following Steve Bruce’s headed winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993, to Sergio Agüero’s last-gasp winner against QPR to win Manchester City in 2012. The advertisement concludes with the camera panning to Henry as he states: “That is why, my friends, this is the best league in the world.”

Perhaps English football’s view of itself is partially why Guardiola has opted for the Premier League, for the possible risk is outweighed by the potential gain. As he has said himself, “there is no greater risk than taking no risks at all”, and if indeed he does conquer what is often described as the most competitive of Europe’s top leagues, he will not only arguably certify himself as the world’s current best coach but also prove his school of thought, his understanding of football and his personal beliefs and values, can indeed be successfully translated to English football. To prioritise aesthetics above all else in the Premier League is certainly the largest risk of his managerial career.


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In a one-to-one interview with musician Noel Gallagher after taking over at Manchester City, Guardiola elaborated on a particular aim regarding the style his sides are known for: “In Spain and Germany we were able to do that [play in his desired style] … people say you will not be able to do that in England … so we are going to try.”

Evidently, the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong was too good to pass up, yet if the ideological strands holding his stylistic ideal in place are unpicked, that does not guarantee City will fall short or fail. After all, facing and overcoming risks and obstacles are the key to developing and learning and Guardiola also made it clear in his interview with Gallagher that he is willing to adapt.

Gallagher, despite evidently knowing the Catalan does not plan to stay at City for any longer than he did at Barcelona and Bayern, asks: “We’ve read that you only really stay anywhere for three or four years. Do you intend to build a legacy here?”

Interrupting his interviewer, Guardiola replies with unwavering certainty. “No,” he states. “I came to learn.”

Gallagher’s immediate reaction is one of surprise, and somewhat taken aback, he frowns. “You’ve come to learn?”

“Of course,” says the coach. “That’s why I move on. Otherwise I would still be in Barcelona.”

Not only does Guardiola refer to his journey through coaching as a quest for knowledge, he suggests that he is willing to acclimatise to the extent needed to succeed in the Premier League. If you are to look at an artist’s work chronologically, there will likely be some form of development and change with the passing of time for the artist continues to discover and learn; as American-born poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot wrote in his 1921 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”.

Indeed, to improve upon one’s best there must be a continuous willingness to change – and therefore it is entirely plausible that, because of the largely unpredictable nature of the Premier League, by the time Guardiola’s tenure at the Etihad draws to a close we will recognise the Catalan for a significantly different, or at least altered, style of play than he is at this moment in time. Any personal journey through art or sport is effectively a form of self-discovery. In fact, Olympic cycling gold medallist Chris Boardman said upon his completion of the 2009 London Marathon that “it’s a voyage of self-discovery, that sounds a bit arty, but that’s how it is.”

Although the artist is seemingly on a journey of “continual self-sacrifice” and thus the self is in a continuous state of flux, they ultimately recognise his or herself in relation to their predecessors. As T.S. Eliot also considers in his essay, “[the artist’s] significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

If Guardiola is to be considered an artist because his football, as Dave Zirin theorised, “rises to the level of art”, then it is necessary to recognise him in relation to the coaches who came before him who are responsible for influencing the football his sides are known for.

In Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich, the author tells of how “Guardiola has never considered himself a creative genius. Instead he has defined himself as an ‘ideas thief’, someone who, as a footballer, experimented but most of all learned, and when he decided to be a coach kept on learning. When he reached the top as a coach, he felt he still had more to learn, so he studied the strategies of the best. ‘Ideas belong to everyone and I have stolen as many as I could.’”

Intellectual thievery in this sense is pivotal to the progression of art, literature and sport and other mediums. In terms of art, the transition and development of Expressionism which took place in between the works of Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollock owes much to this notion: Early Expressionism was born out of the Impressionism of Claud Monet and his contemporaries; van Gogh’s particular colourful style would influence Picasso, particularly when it came to self-portraits; Henry Matisse took inspiration from this experimentation with colour, using it to represent emotion on the canvas and later when using large paper cut-outs; Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock became famous for flicking and dribbling paint to create wild colourful works reflecting deep emotion.

As Eliot states, “you cannot value him alone”, and Pollock’s masterpieces would not exist without the pioneering work of those before him. Thus, it is impossible to fully understand the context and significance of his paintings without first considering his influences.

This borrowing of techniques and ideas can even cross over platforms and boundaries. Without the repetitive writing style of Gertrude Stein (who, interestingly, was a friend and subject of Pablo Picasso), perhaps we would not have the intense works of Ernest Hemingway which inspired Jack Kerouac and therefore he may never have become the writer he did. And without Kerouac’s novels, specifically On the Road, the hugely influential Bob Dylan may never have created some of his famous protest songs: perhaps, for example, Dylan’s 1964 single The Times They Are a-Changin’ and his LP of the same name, owes its conception to this particular river of intellectual thievery.

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Similarly, Pep Guardiola is the modern figurehead of a bloodstream of tactical and stylistic thievery which flows throughout the veins of football history. The man who could perhaps be considered as football’s Plato, in terms of his interest in aesthetics, was British coach Jimmy Hogan.

The Lancastrian, reared on scrappy, long-ball football during his modest playing career in his home nation, departed Bolton Wanderers in 1913 for Europe in order to profess how he believed the beautiful game should be played. His travels took him to Austria, where he became a coach for Hugo Meisl’s famous national side nicknamed Das Wunderteam which lit up – despite exiting to the hosts and eventual winners – the 1934 World Cup in Italy. The Austrians played flowing football, turning defence seamlessly into attack and utilising the nearest man to fill gaps, thus dissolving the rigidity of positions and roles. This was a tactic the Magical Magyars would be renowned for twenty years later.

By the time the Hungarians outclassed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in the reverse fixture the following year, Hogan’s great influence upon continental football was unquestionable. He had worked in not only Hungary but Switzerland and Germany too and also lectured to fellow coaches around Europe. Later, his belief in simple yet aesthetically pleasing and effective football was fused with the ideas of Márton Bukovi, coach of domestic side MTK Hungaria, which resulted in a dominant 4-2-4 which national coach and communist government employee Gusztáv Sebes translated to the Magyars.

Perarnau comments in his book that Guardiola admires the “innovations of the Hungarians” and it is not difficult to understand why. Sebes’ ‘socialist football’ as he called it emphasised the importance of working for one another and the dissolution of individual roles. Nándor Hidegkuti was utilised as a ‘deep lying centre-forward’ in the Golden Team many years before the term ‘false nine’ even existed.

It is this incredible versatility which Guardiola’s teams demonstrate with great precision; just think of Lionel Messi as the False 9 or defenders Philipp Lahm and David Alaba becoming Bayern Munich’s double-pivot.

However, in between the Magyars taking on the world and Guardiola taking over at Barcelona, Totaalvoetbal was forged from the fires of Hungarian socialist philosophy.

In 1965 Rinus Michels was appointed coach of Ajax and began to use the famous 4-2-4 system at the Amsterdam club. Michels drew great inspiration from the extremely successful Jack Reynolds for whom he had played under when the Englishman was in charge of Ajax; Reynolds, of course, had been inspired by the teachings of his fellow countryman Hogan.

It was during Michels’ managerial career, however, that this school of thought truly blossomed into something special on the club and international stage: with Piet Keizer, Johan Cruyff, Sjaak Swart and Henk Groot as the attacking quartet, Ajax won four Dutch league titles and the coach was rewarded with a move to Barcelona in 1971. Cruyff followed.

In 1974 Barcelona claimed the league title and Michels subsequently left in search of international success with the Oranje – however they would lose the final of the World Cup that summer to West Germany, meaning that it is widely regarded that three of the best international sides never to win football’s ultimate prize came from this influential chain: first Austria, then Hungary, then the Netherlands. Although, Michels would later lead them to eventual success at the 1988 European Championships.

Coincidentally, Johan Cruyff, following in the footsteps of Michels, was appointed coach of Barcelona that same year. He had enjoyed a fruitful spell at Ajax which involved the 1987 European Cup Winners’ Cup. In Catalonia, however, he was to take his managerial ability to another level; the ‘Dream Team’ claimed the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989, four La Liga titles between ‘91 and ’94 as well as the club’s first European Cup in 1992. That 1992 team included Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov among others.

Its midfield pivot was a tall, gangly young man, the son of a Catalan bricklayer in fact, who would become Cruyff’s primary disciple and indeed go on to eclipse the success the Dutchman enjoyed at Barcelona. His name, of course, was Josep Guardiola Sala.

The rest, as they say, is history.


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Once Guardiola’s influences are traced, it is possible to appreciate his work in relation to his predecessors and indeed the history of football itself. His success is not only a consequence of his own ability, but the culmination of footballing ideology and aesthetic values which have developed over the best part of a century. And it continues to progress. Guardiola’s success has already had knock-on effects on the international stage, for it is no consequence that both Spain and Germany won the World Cup while he was coaching in both countries respectively. Both squads consisted of multiple players from his Barcelona and Bayern sides.

While many fans of the sport will naturally disagree with Guardiola on the stance that “titles are numbers and numbers are boring”, it is indicative of how the Catalan understands his role in football in relation to Cruyff and those before him. His desire to be remembered for style rather than success suggests that he is committed to the progression of the sport.

While Guardiola’s successors in this chain of coaches will find it difficult to exceed his extreme success, the reality is that in one form or another we will be able to recognise his influence in the distant future. There will continue to be figures who conform to the belief that there is artistic value in performance and therefore bring success with this strive for an ideal. Just as art and literature and music and philosophy will continue to progress through intellectual thievery and inspiration, so will football.

Over the next three years Guardiola will bring to England an uncommon view and an ideology which will likely not sit comfortably with all. It is inevitable that – perhaps in the things he says or does – there will be some form of culture clash. He may not influence the landscape in the Premier League dramatically and the mind-set, in contrary to his father’s beliefs, may not particularly shift. Although he will at least offer an insight into football that is as unfamiliar as it is obsessive and romantic.

Guardiola’s beliefs are a blend of the values present in Plato’s Universals and Expressionist art; his approach is the culmination of the work of those before him yet at the same time it is uniquely his because it is his interpretation of the game. Like any painting or novel, sculpture or poem, football is open to interpretation and this study has ultimately considered just one of possibly endless different strands. That the sport is quite so flexible and that it means so many different things to so many different people is what makes the beautiful game quite so beautiful.

Tactical innovation and creativity and borrowing or developing existing ideas is what keeps football constantly in motion. Generally, we admire those who have the ability to make this happen on the playing field and off it: the philosophers and the artists and those who are not scared to oppose the common way of thinking. While such individuals come and go, the desire to create and express through various mediums which drives civilisation lives on and will always remain a fundamental trait of human nature and, as a consequence, football.

By Alex Leonard @AlexLen1995

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