Opinion: the worth of a football icon goes beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch and is measured in the devotion of the fan

By Connell Vaughan and Michael O'HaraTU Dublin

It is often remarked that "there is something about standing on the side of a football pitch that brings out a philosophical streak in grown men." Certainly, football, in all its different guises, occupies a space in the minds of men and women which is disproportionate to its apparent worth. In fact, it is difficult to imagine another activity that so routinely asks us to reflect and adjudicate on tactical, ethical and aesthetic questions. It is perhaps unsurprising then that football, and sport in general, is progressively subject to evermore critical and academic analysis.

One field where football is studied is the discipline of aesthetics. As the study of those things that are pleasing to our perception and imagination, aesthetics is well suited to tackling the purpose and function of football. Equally, football is a useful practice to challenge the existing theories of taste and criticism that have traditionally privileged the visual over the performing arts.

Take the discourse that surrounds certain players as icons. One way of understanding an icon is in terms of instant recognition. A figure - a person, a building, an artwork - is an icon if it is recognisable by its silhouette. A song, for example, can only ever be iconic if you can recognise it from the first chord. Given the team nature of the sport, to afford such status to a football player, as opposed to a jersey or a trophy, is an impropriety to the socialist collectivism often ascribed to the game. While the philosopher Simon Critchely has argued that "football is working-class ballet", there are certain figures, for fans and players alike, who are simply bigger than the game.

From RTÉ Six One News, report on the George Best documentary, George Best: All By Himself

If Roy Keane is the ultimate hero (or, to some, the villain) of Irish soccer, the icon is undoubtedly George Best. The hero is defined in terms of commitment and labour. The hero is a role model to be followed and can be often accommodated in the football field as the captain. The icon, however, is measured beyond the 90 minutes of the game. Their worth is measured in the devotion of the fan. Here, the suspicious nominative determinism of the Keane and Best is enjoyably useful.

Unlike Keane, the artistry and iconic status of Best is defined in its flawed genius. These flaws may be confined to the pitch or external, but they are necessary for it is only a flawed character that requires forgiveness. The icon is an image that necessarily and often justifiably attracts iconoclasm. We may like to imagine Best an immaculate image on the pitch, but this is not something we should extend to the person himself. Where the hero's drama is crucial to the story of the game, the icon literally stands in place of the game itself. Where the hero may stand above the other players and be mythologised, the icon stands above the game and is to be revered despite their flaws.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report from 2006 by Brendan Wright on Ulster Bank producing one million £5 notes to commemorate the first anniversary of George Best's death

An icon is also traditionally understood as an image (such as the Virgin of Tenderness) or an object (such as relics) elevated beyond simple aesthetic appreciation insofar as it demands and commands devotion. It lures us. Best is compelling not simply for his hair or his off the field proclivities, but for his style of play. He played with a relaxed seriousness that drew spectators to his movement at the expense of the other 21 players. In this style is the core of Best’s iconic status. A player who "thrilled crowds as no other player could…Best’s place in modern popular culture prefigured the great changes in how footballers would later be portrayed by the media and perceived by the public; in many respects, he was the first modern celebrity footballer although his talent was such that his was a career of genuine substance."

It is worth recognising that the artistic form of the icon is the portrait. In an attempt to capture the uniqueness of Best’s play, the German director Hellmuth Costard used eight 16mm cameras to track his every move during a 1970 English league game against Coventry City. This rarely seen film portrait, Football As Never Before, was released in 1971.

Extract from Football As Never Before

Stripped of corporate and aesthetic mediation, the vestiges of the tabloid caricature are shed in the singular focus on the athlete's performance over the 90 minutes of the game. Devoid of shirt sponsorship and the endless volume of commercial trappings that permeate modern football today, the film intimately reveals a tangible innocence long lost. Given the distance of a half century to Best in his prime, Matthew Nolan’s recent score, for the film both honours Best and serves as a requiem for this loss of innocence.

If Best the player and person presents a universally accessible, if conflicted, character, the enigma of Zinedine Zidane presented in Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s well known film portrait Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), maintains a cool and guarded distance. This distance is reflective of the difference between the 20th and 21st century footballing icon.

Trailer for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

Uniquely, Costard’s radical film portrays Best purely as footballer but in Zidane the film, the player remains entirely corporatised, packaged and stylised. For Critchley this presents: "a perfect or magical fetish, a pure commodity that inspires desire, a product with rights owned by Adidas, Siemens or his whole panoply of sponsors. Zizou is a spectacle." In contrast, Best in Costard’s film retains an intimacy in the unusual focus on the player at the expense of the surrounding spectacle.

Asif Kapadia’s latest film presents a third footballing portrait of an icon. Diego Maradona reveals a player surrounded by the circus of the tabloid media yet, like Best, owned by the fans who are compelled to touch these players. Where Ronaldo and Messi may attain all the superlatives the contemporary game has to offer they do not yet command the iconic status of Best or the literal religious devotion in the case of Maradona, of grown men and women

Vice documentary on Football As A Religion: The Church of Maradona 

Football As Never Before, accompanied with a live score by Matthew Nolan will be screened in Dalymount Park on Thursday July 4th.

Dr Connell Vaughan is a Philosopher and a lecturer in Aesthetics and Critical Theory at the Dublin School of Creative Arts at TU DublinMichael O'Hara is a lecturer and PhD researcher at the Dublin School of Creative Arts at TU Dublin

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ