Can football really be art?
It's not every day that one hears the manager of the England football team describe an opponent's winning goal as a "work of art".
Then again, it's not exactly normal to see a big Swede leaping backwards like a giant salmon and bicycle-kicking the ball 30m over the head of a stranded England goalkeeper. One only needed to see the Swedish reaction to Zlatan Ibrahimovic's fourth goal last Wednesday to realise something remarkable had occurred. Even the England fans were wreathed in smiles. Manager Roy Hodgson's generous response was understandable.
But is football really art? Did Ibrahimovic's combination of delicacy and daring add up to a masterpiece? Where does it stand in the pantheon of football's most beautiful moments? Was it as spine-tingling as Pele's dummy of the Uruguayan goalkeeper in 1970? As jaw-dropping as Maradona's dribble through the England defence in 1986? I'd say not, but these are questions of taste.
Football can be many things: quasi-religion, politics by other means, a locus of local and national identity. But we also instinctively understand the game to be, on occasion, numinous. That's why former manager Tony Waddington from football club Stoke City called it "the working man's ballet".
Indeed, aesthetic considerations crop up in discussion of everything from tactics to fan songs. At peak moments such as world cups, football reveals its power as a story form that holds entire nations rapt. That was one reason Stanley Kubrick was fascinated by it. Characteristically, he preferred the dark psychology of Italian defending to the "facile" prettiness of Brazilian or Dutch attacking. On retirement, Ruud Krol, one of the stars of the "total football" movement of the 1970s, spent three years visiting the art galleries of the world. "Football is not art," he declared enigmatically, "but there is an art to playing good football."
Excellence certainly comes in numerous styles and flavours. Much like English player George Best or Lord Byron, Ibrahimovic fits the profile of the moody, impulsive romantic hero. The son of Yugoslav immigrants, he developed his baffling array of flicks, feints and juggling skills on the streets of Malmo, and embodies the idea of the creative footballer as maverick individualist.
However, he also spent unhappy years with Ajax in Holland and at Barcelona, where a very different aesthetic prevails. Ibrahimovic was baffled by the no less lustrous positional game, which is built on passing and geometric patterns of movement.
The English traditionally viewed football as a rumbustious fighting game. Their best-loved heroes were not ball artists in the Zlatanian sense but oak-hearted warriors such as Nat Lofthouse, the "Lion of Vienna".
There was beauty in that too, as there was in the generosity of Hodgson's comments, which recalled the warmth in 1953 for the Hungarians who won 6-3 at Wembley, north London, to end England's unbeaten home record. Rather than resenting the defeat, English fans fell in love with "the Magical Magyars".
In the beginning, as they say, was the word, and it seems there may be some connection between the ability to talk about the game in an original and beautiful way and to play it in an original and beautiful way. Dennis Bergkamp was one of the most interesting of all footballing artists.
Arsenal supporters voted his goal at Newcastle in 2002 the best they had ever seen. But he dissented. "It was not pure," he explained. If the defender had anticipated the touch and spin he could have stopped the goal.
And although the English fall back in amazement at the skills of Ibrahimovic, Johan Cruyff, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most influential footballer of modern times, was less impressed.
"For a bad player his technique is rather good," he said in 2010. "And for a good player his technique is rather bad." – © Guardian News & Media 2012
David Winner is author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football