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Express Yourself: The Value of Theatricality in Soccer

Kenneth Aggerholm

The Big Idea

The author of this study on the nature and significance of the aesthetic aspects of soccer sees theatricality as a “dramatic movement phenomenon in soccer.” This means that common to both theatre and sport is human expression, pure and simple. Maybe at first glance the reader may think only of the historical negativity of connecting theatre to sport; namely the unfortunate remembering of athletes playing to the crowd or the referee, or preoccupation with the exaggerations, overdoing for effect, and the artificial and melodramatic. In other words, when sport is reduced to theatre it is bad sport.

But more truthfully, the positive possibilities of seeing sport as essentially the experience of living dramas means that there is expressive value in sport performances. After all, Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games, was among the first to see the aesthetic possibilities of sport. His original perception was that sport must be presented as theatre, complete with setting, continuity, intermissions, and suitably prepared audiences. 

In the case of this present study, however, the author has focused not so much on theatre in sport from the standpoint of the spectators of it. Instead, and consistent with the existential phenomenology literature discussed, the standpoint is performance; that is, studying the expressive value of soccer from the players’ lived experience of performing. The author, by way of a description of the dimensions of expression in soccer, argues for the constructive relevance of theatricality in game performance.

Takeaways

  • To understand the variety of expressive forms in sport is to multiply the possible sources of meaning in performance and player development.
  • Theatricality is a special form of expression in soccer that can be advantageous to players and teams and clubs in national and international competition.
  • There are four dimensions of such expression: in the individual, in player interactions, in the group, and in the institution of soccer itself.
  • Overall, these expressive forms, when understood as theatre, are lived experiences that together can humanise the players, the teams, and the cultural impact of the sport of soccer around the world. 

The Research

The study is divided into four sections. They represent the four dimensions of expression possibilities in soccer: the subjective; the intersubjective; the collective; and the institutional. These are essentially the dominant ideas of the modes of theatrical appearance in soccer.

Maybe the easiest way to see the experience of players as individual subjectivities is to recall the way in which players say they lose themselves in the play. Dynamically moving at the same time in the “here and now” (realising, grasping) players are also oriented toward the “there and then” (imagining, pointing the way). It is the process of expression that creates the meaning of the movement. Players are then said to have transported themselves from the habitual and common to the expressive and the individual. This passage is a meaning giving expressive experience. The player is achieving agency by being in play and at the same time achieving distance towards individual expression.

Another dimension of expression in soccer is acting in relation to others in performance. This intersubjectivity just means that in our play there is reciprocity of interactions. We can convey a certain kind of impression by our expression—the obvious example is how player will, by their facial expressions and body comportment, telegraph to their opponents before a game how serious, tough, and confident they are. In the midst of play however, expression becomes more often than not, deception—a player will hide their intention as a pretense to unexpected action. It is as though one player seduces another in order to give free expression to a creative solution not anticipated by the opponent, and thereby expression is used to gain an advantage.

Yet another dimension of theatrical expression is within the larger collective of a team. This level is not merely individual or dual (in relation an opponent), but expression within a group. This is a third level, the level of the “we.” Those representing the presence of a third party come from coaches, parents, the opposing team, scouts, or friends. One becomes a team player integrated into a match, and ostensibly sharing the common goal of winning the match. The player has a position, a role perhaps, even a reputation. But expression in this dimension is exactly how a player avoids being reduced to his or her function. The expressive possibilities means that the player is aware of their function but in truth only toys at it—in other words there a many ways to play centre forward. The expressive freedom is to play out the function in ways that include the responsibilities of the position, but are not limited by those responsibilities. In fact, when an entire team is theatrically coached the teammates become collaborators who, for example, might be presuming to play hard-nosed defence but who at a signal become instantly offensively inclined.

The final dimension of expression is what the author calls the game institution. This aspect is not yet another level, but rather the more inclusive presentation possibilities of all levels of player and team expression. We move from the level of play to what on philosopher (Merleau-Ponty) describes as the field of meaning. The basic game rules, skills, techniques, functions, tactics compose the foundation of soccer. But the field of meaning is more routinely referred to as a style of play. As one style of play is pressed out (expressed) into another style, a new field of meaning appears. Local customs and formalities can constrain soccer clubs, and hence make them somewhat predictable in their play. But the value of the larger institutional theatre is to explore artistic possibilities that are not just historically faithful, but expressively novel in and of themselves. Norms and traditions can thereby change or grow as institutional meaning redoubles.