Guilty By Association

If we are to view sport as a living, organic cultural process, then we must be cognizant of the patterns of evolution and emergence that shape its forms. Some time ago, I discussed what I referred to as a cladogenesis that occurred in the evolution of football culture: there was essentially a branching from the earlier folk football in which certain factions decided to carry the ball while others decided to kick the ball. The contrasts between these evolutionary strands are perhaps most acutely observed in the differences between association football (soccer) and American football.

Of course, manoeuvring the ball with hands or feet is not the only difference between these two sports. Another such difference involves the field of play: in American football, the field is dissected at 5-yard intervals by thick white painted lines, while minor tick marks graduate every other yard. The material grid on the football field facilitates the optical fixation of a body on the plane of competition ("the line of scrimmage is at the 35-yard line") or serves to constrict a particular body's movement ("run a 15-yard button hook").

The grid also enables easier measurement as teams continue their forward progress to the end zone goal. Unlike rugby league, a sport that displays a high degree of filiation to American football post-cladogenesis, and which allows 6 downs to reach the end zone, the parameters of American football are slightly more modest: while only 4 downs are allowed per possession, these may be refreshed by moving the ball forward 10 yards. In concert with the vertical lines of progressive force and 4-down system of possession, these horizontal yard lines form a tight mesh of striation, hence the colloquial term for the sport: gridiron.

The soccer field, by contrast, is relatively free of such constraining lines. Besides the side and end lines that enclose the playing space proper, there exists only a mid-field line and circle that assume relevance on kickoffs, as well as penalty and goalkeeper crease areas that are related to specific infractions. The soccer field is otherwise an open expanse, almost absent of constraints on movement for the 22 players circulating during a match. In other words, within the enclosure of the playing surface, the pitch consists of smooth, mostly undifferentiated space.

It would seem that this smooth space of soccer would resist attempts to accurately plot and track bodies in space and time. The sport is continuous and open-ended, in contrast with the closed nature of football and its discrete plays. The discrete, closed nature of American football plays — or, the breaks in the flow of competition — introduce other opportunities for measure: a new flow of meta-data is diverted from the productive motion of the athletes, such as down, field position, score, time, run or pass play, etc. In contrast, the continuous movement of the soccer match is such that the opportunity to siphon flows of meta-data is negated.

But not all lines that effect a striated space need have a material presence, we must remember. For example, circles of latitude and meridians of longitude, time zones, and state borders are virtually imposed upon large open expanses, yet are generally understood by populations such as to effect a striation or modulation of bodies in space and time. In American football we introduce a virtual line known as the first down line to modulate a direction of force and measure the level of achievement in progressing towards the end zone goal.


It is in virtualization that soccer yields to the forces of striation, generally, or to production efficiencies in the service of capital, more specifically. Absent a native material grid, such as that which exists in American football, software such as ProZone effectively superimposes a virtual grid on the soccer pitch; this grid is created by a calculated and measured distribution of several cameras that capture images every tenth of a second and are then calibrated and processed by computers to track the athletes as they move in open space and time. Sophisticated statistical filtering allows a soccer manager to monitor player work rate and physical fitness, analyze field zones and team tempo, and find positional patterns from an overhead two-dimensional viewpoint.

The tracking-representation: an image ahead of itself, a post-image in which past activity, present actuality, and future inclination are interwoven.

Images, integrated with databases, containing traces of the future.

Ideologies of preventivity, installed in the public mind.

Statistical tendencies. Inclination carried as part of the body. Processes immersed in active processes of incorporation and integration marking a gradual colonization of the now, a now always slightly after itself. The emergence of "statistical persons." No person existing outside of the database, or who speaks without its mediations (Crandall, Drive, p.61).

So when Eduardo Galeano laments the technocratic shift in association football, we must note that this shift today incorporates the database-enabled tracking-image — and that this shift in the ludic arena of sport-work is increasingly consonant with broader shifts in a militarized post-industrial society.

(Thanks to Michael Silk for the heads-up on ProZone)


One response to Guilty By Association

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  1. sportsBabel » Sensory Inter/Play says:

    [...] long ago I suggested that, in contrast with the striated space of the gridiron football field, the association football pitch [...]