The Poetic Art Of Football


There are few things on earth that evoke an emotional response like good poetry, but football is one of them. Footballers, at their best, are graceful as ballet dancers and perform superhuman feats. When they become a collective unit—a group of eleven with a quasi-telepathic understanding—the sport itself becomes art, an unchoreographed dance. Some people would argue football is too fluid to be considered a creative work, but what truly great piece of art is ever fixed? To paraphrase Zadie Smith, the best time to edit a piece is just before you go on stage for a live reading at a literary festival. 

The links between innovative art and innovative football are multifaceted, going deeper than fanaticism and emotion. Elite footballing brains will think like the best creatives do—outside the box—and there is nobody this is truer of than current Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa.

The way people in football talk about Bielsa is rarely seen outside motifs about ancient martial arts masters. Until he began his stint with Leeds, you’d have been hard-pressed to find casual British football fans who knew much about him, even though his acolytes include some of the most decorated and influential coaches in the modern game.

Bielsa is constantly displaying the sort of fervour widely associated with the beautiful game: he attends lower league games as a spectator; he made his Leeds team pick up litter for three hours so they could understand how hard fans work for tickets; he would rather lose 6-0 than have his team play antithetically to his philosophy, something rare among modern coaches. The man is an artist, and a purist.

The way Bielsa organises and manages is dialectical in nature; his teams are highly organised, yet he demands creativity from the players. This can be likened in many ways to the poetry of Imagist and Feminist Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D. 

In his essay, ‘The Imagist Poetics of H.D’s Sea Garden’, Burton Hatlen argues the primary allure and aliveness of H.D’s Imagist poetry is the fact it strains against boundaries she’s created, notably by utilising words like ‘cut’ or ‘tear’ at the point of emotional climax in many of the poems, contrasting with the more objective language and focus that make up the earlier stanzas in these works. 

Like H.D, notably with Imagism but also with her Feminist retellings of the classical canon, Bielsa is an innovator. He focuses on patterns and possession, using more technically gifted players in defensive positions so the entire team can perform to his standard. His game is focused on vertical movements that are practiced until they’re second nature, but in-game, players are encouraged to use their creativity and play right against the edges of the boundaries he’s created. Individual player actions, like individual words in poems, are important, but the collective is the most important; in ten of the twenty-seven poems in Sea Garden there are no personal pronouns, for example, as the objective and wholeness was vital to H.D.’s work, just as the overall team is to Bielsa, versus one-or-two star players.

Leeds mostly switch between two formations (3-3-1-3 and 4-1-4-1) and the players rotate places within these systems, driving into space opponents have left. The tension between rigid tactics and un-static players is what drives the momentum of his Leeds team, as the tension between the objective and subjective drives the emotion in the Imagist poems of H.D. 

The links to Imagism—especially H.D, who is widely regarded as the most influential Imagist after Ezra Pound—don’t stop there. The focus on directness and decisiveness found in Bielsa’s tactics are the footballing representation of Pound’s pronouncement that poetry should be “like Granite…it’s force will lie in its truth…I want it…direct”. This dogmatism ties in with how Bielsa sees football too: he’s held some jobs for as little as one game or just two days before leaving because of philosophical and moral clashes.

Bielsa certainly has the mind and temperament of an artist as well. While most modern coaches are focused on results, he has delved further into the philosophy of the game, going so far as to say: “Being successful deforms us…it makes us worse individuals…failure is the complete opposite…it brings us closer to our convictions.” This can easily be linked to the anti-heroism of H.D’s Imagist, and later explicitly Feminist, work, a high modernist device that seeks to garner joy from the quotidian. 

All in all, both H.D and Bielsa create perfectly defined little worlds in which they can make anything happen, and in which their philosophy can be expressed without any barriers, other than the ones they define. And, in the end, isn’t that the best kind of art?

Words by Sandeep Sandhu

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.

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