Belgium’s second goal in their World Cup quarter-final against Brazil was an explosive counter-attack – a display of ruthless pace and power. It was also a thing of beauty: Romelu Lukaku picking up the ball deep in his own half surrounded by opposition players, turning and charging up the field eluding everyone, falling over finally, just after playing the decisive pass to Kevin de Bruyne on the right. And then de Bruyne shooting the ball into the goal like an arrow. A breathtaking goal.
Watching it on television with a group of seminarians, I was reminded of something the great German theologian Romano Guardini once wrote of play: “Play is life rushing and streaming out of itself, free of utility, taking possession of its own fullness – meaningful in its very act of existing.” By saying that play is free of utility he meant that play does not derive its meaning from something else which it achieves – the way sweeping derives its meaning from clean floors. Rather, it is has meaning in itself. It is entirely useless, but it is full of meaning.
Belgium’s goal was a display of human activity “taking possession of its own fullness” – meaningful in its enactment of its own perfection. Of course, players can have ulterior motives – professional players especially – but the activity of playing itself is not defined by those ulterior motives. Lukaku’s run and pass that led to de Bruyne’s goal were inexorably purpose-driven: the goal was the purpose. But goals derive their meaning from the game of football, and not the other way around.
Guardini himself, however, would probably contradict my application of his definition of play to de Bruyne’s goal. Guardini distinguished between “play”, which he thought was good, and “sports”, which he thought were bad. In sport, as Guardini understood it, the overriding concern with victory, with setting records and being “the best”, robs play of its graciousness. The “drilling” and “training” turns the player into a “machine”. Instead of raising human activity to its highest pitch, it stifles humanity.
But here I think Guardini is wrong. A brilliant piece of play in football, such as Lukaku’s, shows how drilling and training can indeed enable graciousness and freedom. And Guardini’s own thoughts on art, an activity that he saw as being related to play, can help to show us why.
Guardini argues that art has for grown-ups something of the character of play in children. In art the contradiction between what human beings wish to be and what their limitations make them, is reconciled. Art, Guardini writes, harmonises “the spirit within and nature without, the body and the soul”.
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