By Declan Cochran.
Introduction (Pre-Match Warm-Up)
Cinematically speaking, the filmed football match is a curious phenomenon, one that seems to integrate a number of cinematic techniques whilst, obviously, by definition not being actual cinema. The football match is pure documentary, divorced from the traditional narrative associations that one might have with the genre. It is, prima facie, a recording of a live instance of the sport, with all the attendant functionality that that might entail. Anybody watching the football match for anything other than the football itself is not really watching the football match, since it will always remain married to the function of presenting a football match. I have, however, observed little (sometimes not so little) pockets of cinema throughout the matches, and the form of the match is something I believe is a worthy object of study. I will not argue simply whether a football match has a form (it does, if even by sheer virtue of being filmed media), but instead I will look at what form this is, what cinematic techniques are used, and even, perhaps, what we can learn from it. This will be the purpose of this essay, which is comprised of two sections; the first exploring the theoretical similarities between football and film, and the second exploring the technical similarities between football and film.
Football and Film (First Half)
Is there an inherent disingenuousness to me analysing a football match in such a manner? Heretic connotations of reducing “the beautiful game” to a mundane analysis aside, does football even qualify under the remit of film studies? I believe so, and I will explain why in this section. In his analysis of the cinematic experience, John Ellis writes that cinema differs from TV on the grounds that “a particular individual is buying something that he or she has not seen before” (Ellis 1982: 26). This differentiates cinema from TV because TV relies more heavily on tropes and the familiar; cinema, conversely, is an activity (for most people) before it is an explicit engagement with a cinematic text.
Football is, by this definition, more cinema than TV, despite being married to the home of the television screen. A live football match has to be something that a particular individual has not seen before. There are similarities across matches, and the form (which we will get to) of the match remains largely the same, but football is as much about the context surrounding a match as it is about the match itself. The context has a consistent renewing function; even two matches with the same two teams are “different,” if one is a match for the FA Cup and the other for the Premier League. This is the spatial component, and there is a temporal one to consider also, if the two matches between the same teams occur across different years. Of course, once a match is over it ceases to be important, and as Ellis also writes, “to see a film again is usually accounted either as a sign of great devotion to the person accompanied, or as a rather suspect devotion to cinema itself” (Ellis 1982: 26). One cannot see a match “again” in the sense described above, but one can rewatch the match if it’s recorded live, or buy a DVD. This too would indicate “a rather suspect devotion” (this “devotion” was satirised effectively by David Mitchell and Robert Webb in their 2006 sketch entitled “Football Rant”).
Ellis then goes on to write, “cinema is enjoyed whether the film is or not (hence no refund on a dissatisfying film)” (Ellis 1982: 26). This is important, because a football fan may also (sometimes, more often than not) not enjoy the match at all, if the team loses, or a favoured player gets booked. Yet at the same time, no football fan would ask for a refund on a dissatisfying match; they might voice this dissatisfaction in another context, perhaps turning to punditry to make the dissatisfaction known, but there is an unspoken regle de jeu. You can be disappointed, but only to a point, and that point ends at asking for recompense for a result you don’t like.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock towards truly considering football as conceptually similar to film lies in the problem of audience participation; a live audience can, in some cases, alter the outcome of a match, and the use of chanting, songs, and other additions such as vuvuzelas are just that, additions. This is in contrast to film, which remains the same even if nobody is watching. Of course, the football match will continue even if nobody is watching, but it might not be the same. This is why playing at home in a football match is considered an advantage; more fans will be there to support you, and this in turn will improve your performance. The relationship becomes a two-ended one, playing out in real-time; cinema is fixed, and whilst an audience might participate the film itself remains the same regardless.
However, if you take away the real-time element, the entire history of mainstream cinema can be said to be predicated on such a symbiotic relationship. The very notion of film as a money-making commerce relies on an engagement with the audience to make films that will be popular. Notions of trends and genre are useful tools for study but they are also helpful categories which indicate markets, which in turn is used to try and direct films to where they’ll make the most money. This isn’t “real time” but it is a relationship that progresses over time, and relies on a two-way interaction. It is less immediate, and thus has a different texture to real-time interaction, but there is a similarity there.
This also links with the more modern writing on film concerned around “reception,” a broad category which covers fan behaviours. Football fandom, like cinema fandom, is an intense and verifiable occurrence, which covers such phenomena as fan interaction with players (akin to stars), speculation as to future matches and analysis of previous ones in post-match analysis (akin to close textual analysis), and signifiers of fandom, such as in wearing the football kit of your preferred team.
In addition to this, football contains a geographical and spatial element that is less common (although not absent) from cinema. When an individual team plays, the team becomes linked to that place; this is why a higher concentration of fans will come from the place where the team comes from. In international matches, fans will travel the world to bring the support to the players who may not be on home ground. This concept intermingles with national pride, and constitutes an apex of intensity that is absent from cinema in a large number of cases. Cinephilia, intense as it is, does not (often) transcend geographical boundaries in this way, instead concerned with more transient concepts of space. Cinephilia has a loci, but it is not as big as football. Nevertheless, despite their differences, they are both operating on the same level.
Another thing to consider is Jacques Rancière’s idea of the “gap,” in cinema. As Ranciére posits it, the gap is that which we as an audience, or spectators, traverse in our appreciation of cinema. Starting from the standpoint of “cinema just shows what it shows” (2014: 12), Ranciére asserts that the cinema is such a multifaceted thing that we construct our own paths and methods around it, some theoretical, some philosophical, some political. There is a hermeneutical element to this theory; cinema is an interpretive format, and everyone will construct their own theory to traverse it. As Ranciére coyly puts it, “the rest is up to you” (2014: 16).
It is this broadness that I speak to here. Conventional wisdom has it that we have been shaped by cinema, in our approach to the world and the ways in which we view it. If we have established in this section that, on a theoretical basis football can be described as similar to cinema, and if in the next we will look at the ways in which filmed football takes the form of cinema, then here we must pause to consider the ways in which football reflects our own internalised cinematic tendencies.
Here, Kendall Walton is useful. In his book Mimesis as Make-Believe, he explores in depth the way we as people construct fictions around us: fictions which are often reflected in, or derived from, the art (literature, film, music) we consume. In his section on participation, he writes that participating with art
provide[s] safe outlets for the expression of dangerous or socially unacceptable emotions, or purge us of undesirable ones, or help us to recognise and accept feelings that are repressed or just unarticulated. (2004: 272)
This, of course, recalls Aristotle’s defence of drama as a releasing of a valve, or “catharsis”; we feel things during art so that we may be better equipped to handle the day-to-day realities of emotional life.
Football has a function similar to this; communal football can be a joyous, shared experience that allows for the outpouring of various, uncomplicated emotions, such as joy, relief, expectation, fear. Even deeply codified social norms of what is and isn’t acceptable fall to the wayside; nobody will mock, or even consider noteworthy, the image of a grown man weeping at a particularly intense football match. Thus football encourages a heightened emotional state that can also be associated with cinema.
In this sense, film is a “make-believe” in the way that Walton means it; that is, a participation in a fiction that isn’t “real,” but we nevertheless address as such. Football is, of course, “real” (occurring as it does in real time), but we remain third parties as we are watching it, and it remains distant from us in the way that other arts remain distant from us. We can engage with them, but we will always be a detached spectator; involved, but separate.
Now that we have drawn the theoretical similarities between football and cinema, we can dive into the real crux of the matter, and analyse the composition of filmed space that we refer to as a football match.
Thoughts (Half Time)
Before I embark on this analysis, however, I should make clear a few caveats. A football match is not a film. This is not what I am trying to argue with the second half of my essay, and hopefully is not what I have argued with the first half. They are different entities; however, there is a persistent cinematic nature to the football match (and football’s accoutrements) that has struck me repeatedly over the course of the 2018 World Cup.
It is this nature, which Ranciére might term an extended gap, which I am interested in. I am applying the method and process of film analysis (both theoretical and practical), but this is more akin to Gilles Deleuze applying the methodology of phenomenology and structuralism, via Henri Bergson, to the study of film. In bringing in an external theoretical toolkit to get further under the hood of the object of his study, Deleuze didn’t do too bad a job, and it is in this spirit that the remaining sections of the essay are written.
The Form of Football (Second Half)
Football matches are composed predominantly of tilted-downwards long shots of a pitch with twenty-two players split into two teams each attempting to score goals at different ends of the pitch. In addition to the pitch, in a game played on a major stadium we can normally see just under a third of the audience on the side that the camera is facing. At any given time the camera will be presenting between a third and just over a half of the pitch; thus, the camera frequently pans left and right to track the action, and occasionally slightly zooms in to a centre of action. The action, in this case, is (most of the time) the ball being kicked from player to player, goals scored, and so on. The camera never moves quickly, but remains at a relatively constant speed, never obtrusively quick, but also constantly moving so as to contain the action properly. The camera is detached, passive, and omniscient; it sees everything.
Or does it? The camera pans, as mentioned, but sometimes the centre of action briefly falls outside the screen. There are usually two instances where this might happen. In the first, a ball might be kicked with unexpected speed which means the screen no longer contains the information; it then has to pan to catch the action, resulting in a surprise when we do finally have the action in shot again. In the second, a ball might be kicked near the edge of the screen or into an area of dead space on the pitch. We are unable to see the player running towards the ball, and thus it is a surprise when we see which player has reached the ball.
Most football watchers will, of course, know (through positioning of players and memory of what was previously onscreen) what lies outside the frame. But cinema, as the maxim goes, is a question of what’s in the frame and what isn’t. These two examples of interruptions in the spatial construction of the football match indicate a use (however inadvertent, and it is inadvertent) of the frame that is inherently cinematic.
There is, however, much more to the filmed football match than this. Cameras positioned at the periphery of the pitch photograph and record every occurrence in varying degrees of close-up. The camera often cuts away to these when something of note occurs on the pitch; if a goal is kicked, we will usually see the goal from three different angles and in slow-motion. If the action is stopped (say, in the build-up to a free kick), then the camera will cut between close-ups of the players looking at one another. This creates a spatial continuity that is incredibly cinematic in nature; cutaway shots to the audience reinforce this, and also constitute reaction shots. However, the composition is centred around the long-shots and so the traditional shot-reverse-shot does not apply.
There are other instances that constitute a film-grammar of football; for example, the camera takes on a floor-level upwards-tilt whenever a corner is being taken. The camera might also appear in a more medium-close up behind the goal when a goalkeeper is taking a kick. If a piece of particularly intricate football is played, the camera will isolate a close-up of the action and then return to the long-shot. The cutting is always quick in a football match; the multi-camera setup makes it a simple press of a button to isolate some action, as indicated in the shot presented below.
In this regard, the filmed football match can also engage in meta-textuality; if a referee is waiting on the VAR hub to make a decision on a potential foul, for example, the screen will split into three, with one section showing the activity in question, one smaller section showing the referee listening to his earpiece, and another smaller section still showing the cramped box where a number of officials assess the footage and reach their decision. This refracts one moment into three, maybe more, loci of activity which all then later culminate in a decision, which is then acted on, and moved from. It is a testament to the fluidity of the filmed football match that all of this is seamless and quick, and not once jarring, universally easy to follow, and entirely visual.
Football can thus be said to operate within the Eisensteinian principles of montage, defined succinctly as the use of images presented one after another to create links that guide the viewer through the narrative (Eisenstein 1986). In this sense, football matches present montage; we see different images spatially and temporally linked through their proximity to a football match, and thus “follow” the match.
However, whilst the form of the football match is Eisensteinian, the function is closer to what André Bazin asserted in his theory of “montage of mind”; Bazin took issue with the isolated images that Eisenstein favoured. For Bazin, giving the example of a sequence in a film where a tiger is chasing a child, if we see the tiger and the child in separate shots, we subconsciously register that the child is not next to the tiger and ergo the tension is lessened. If we can see the tiger in the same shot as the child, we will worry more about the child as we cannot separate them (Bazin 2004). From here, Bazin posited that instead of montage comprising of separate images, we should allow for a montage that is centred around a unity of action; the tiger, left side of the screen, jumps to the right, towards the child. Thus in our head we follow this action and link them causally in much the same way that Eisenstein wanted, except the links occur mentally, derived through an open-ended screen as opposed to individual images.
With football, all things that occur are continuous, across a ninety minute (necessarily fixed) temporal plane; we cannot jump temporally outside of the football match, because then it wouldn’t be football. The match adheres to Bazin’s principles of montage of mind, by presenting the action in a way we causally link (Rashford kicks the ball to Sterling), but using Eisenstein’s methods (by cutting around the pitch to follow the action).
However, just because we cannot jump temporally outside the football match does not mean that we cannot jump temporally inside the football match. Through the necessity of live TV we cannot jump forward, but we can jump backwards, and side to side, and this is perhaps the most interesting cinematic element of the football match, a technique I will term “continuous referential.” When a player is sent off, for instance, the screen might cut backwards to a shot of the player scoring a goal earlier in the match. This has a practical function, in that it reminds the viewer of what that player has done, and it has a substantive function, in that it contributes to the overall elated mood of the match by showing something exciting that had happened previously (and thus implying that something exciting might happen again).
The match continues forwards, but it also goes backwards. The time is necessarily continuous, but we are referred backwards at the same time. This is a bold cinematic technique that visualises what a filmmaker of a work of fiction might be tempted to tell through exposition; it reminds us of what has come previously, but not through laziness, instead in an attempt to reframe the present continuous match.
There remains one element unexplored; that of sound. Football is a largely visual sport (radio broadcasting notwithstanding), and the sport could be watched silently. However, the match is often accompanied by the sound of two or more commentators giving their opinions about the match. Often this commentary is very simple, giving an opinion here and there, articulating a point about the match that we have all seen. Thus, football commentary works a little like non-diegetic sound in a film (though the commentary is necessarily diegetic). Where a filmmaker might punctuate a scene through music that occurs outside of the cinematic space (but engages within it), so too does football commentary provide an accompaniment that is both outside (spatially speaking), but within (theoretically speaking) the match itself.
Other diegetic sounds (such as the roar of the audience, the shouting of football players), are there, but are very low in the soundtrack mix, thus contributing to football’s status as a visual phenomenon. The actual sounds of the football are secondary, an almost entirely unnecessary factor, within the activity of watching the game. The match, thus, relies on the visual techniques I have highlighted above. They are integrated to such a point that they become integral to filmed football as text.
Conclusion (Post-Match Analysis)
We have, hopefully, seen the myriad of ways in which football benefits from (and deeply integrates into the fabric of the game) cinematic techniques. Most of the techniques simply exacerbate that which an audience member would see live from the stadium, through differing angles and slow-motion. Some, such as the camera panning too slow to contain the action, artificially generate tension that is only available to the viewer at home.
This integration of football-text and cinema-technique points to interesting, and perhaps useful, ways in which we currently look at the modern world with regards to film. It certainly speaks to the way in which things that do not resemble cinema have become “cinematised”; this ubiquitousness of cinema culture at the very least points to the dissemination of cinema techniques across spaces that aren’t at all cinema. Perhaps this proves Jena-Luc Godard’s timeless maxim that everything is cinema; perhaps these are redundant observations. Nevertheless, whilst football is (for obvious current reasons) the object of study here, it would be very interesting to see how many other distinctly non-cinematic fields could have cinematic techniques applied to them in this manner.
Declan Cochran is an MA Film Studies student at the University of Southampton. His main areas of interest are in Aristotle’s Aesthetics, Mimesis Theory, Gestalt Theory, and Auteur Theory. He is currently writing his dissertation about Robert De Niro, although “not in the way that you’d think.”
Bazin, André (2004), What Is Cinema?, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1986), The Film Sense, London: Faber and Faber.
Ellis, John (1982), Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video, London: Routledge.
Walton, Kendall (2004), Mimesis as Make-Believe, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Rancière, Jacques (2014), The Intervals of Cinema, London: Verso.
 Also available at: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mitchell+and+webb+football+rant.