Football: The philosophers' Coupe overflows

ANDY MARTIN At Large In France
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The Independent Online
IN MOST countries of the world, sport is mainly a pretext for talking about it afterwards. In Paris, the World Cup has become an immense opportunity for conversation afterwards, before, and, I suspect, during the match. Conspiracy theory is a way of life here. Which is why the French team is discreetly shut away from all media intrusion and England - with its more open style of training and big-match preparation - has become the subject of heated cafe speculation.

Sceptical Parisians automatically assume that anything they learn about in the media is false, so the ingenious (and flattering) theory which is gaining ground among avant-garde French observers is that all stories of Portuguese night-clubs, kebabs, lager and cigarettes are simply plants, cunning negative publicity stunts designed to lull the opposition into a false sense of confidence. The French are refusing to be tricked. They still think England could be a force to be reckoned with.

Even in the Quartier Latin, home to the Sorbonne and the College de France and now pulsating to samba rhythms and the wail of bagpipes, you cannot get away from Gazzology. If you wanted to ask: "How's it going?" people used to say, "Ca gaze?" When I walk into my local cafe in the Rue Mouffetard, I am asked "Ca gazza?" The World Cup has generated a frenzy of word-play. "Je m'en fous" (roughly, "I don't give a damn") has now evolved into "Je m'en foot". The "je-m'en-footistes" are the anti-football camp, who are intent on finding something else to do for the next month. If you want to insult a passing fan you refer to "le foutre-ball" (untranslatable).

But French culture seems to have taken football to its heart. There is a special football exhibition at the Museum of Erotic Art and a play about the game too ("Reflections sur le Foot" - "Thoughts on Football").

Contrary to some reports, the game has long been popular in France and is widely played even in Paris. Left-wingers are not exclusively radical students. I used to play for the Ecole Normale Superieure XI - Jean-Paul Sartre's old team. The attraction of the game for philosophers is obvious. The World Cup is designed to finally cut through all the hype and bluff and mystification. In an age of seven types of ambiguity, rampant indeterminacy, and transsexuality, football represents the last refuge of clarity, the relentless pursuit of absolute truth. While academics fumble the ball in a fog of conceptual equivocation, football, in contrast, is neo-classical: the World Cup is the sporting equivalent of Plato's philosophical heaven in which the soul can at last contemplate the archetypes of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (having disposed of the Bad, the False, and the Ugly) in all their glory and simplicity.

I imagine Albert Camus - the French-Algerian goalkeeper and philosopher had something like this in mind when he famously remarked: "Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I have learned from football." This saying has now achieved the accolade of appearing on t- shirts around the world

Le Monde recently published a special supplement gathering together eminent French writers' contributions to the intellectual discipline of football. It is surprising that they should have neglected the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus's contemporary and philosopher king of existentialism. "I am conscious of the ball," he wrote in Being and Nothingness. "But I am also conscious that I am not the ball. I desire to possess the ball. My project is to become a for-itself-in-itself a synthesis of self and non- self, in other words, God."

Here is a round-up of other modern French thinkers on le jeu:

Jean Baudrillard (Post-modernists): "The World Cup will not take place. It never has taken place." From the sociologist who also brought you an article in Le Monde: "The Gulf War Will Not Take Place", shortly before the Gulf War broke out. Offered a job as war correspondent, he chose to remain behind in Paris and write a book entitled, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Jacques Derrida (Deconstructionists): "There is nothing beyond the touchline." A characteristically gnomic statement from this radical sceptic who maintains that there is no "truth" or "reality" only le terrain or le foot.

Paul Eluard (Surrealists): "The ball is blue like an orange."

At the end of the day though the deepest contemporary French philosopher I have come across is a man called Michel who runs a bar in Marseilles. When I asked him what he thought about the Jacques Tapie corruption story (when Tapie, then manager of Olympique Marseille, was found to have bribed his team to European Cup victory) he replied with a sense of genuine indignation: "Mais c'est scandaleux! He was too stingy! If only he had paid the other teams more, they wouldn't have blown the whistle on him."