The Philosophy Of Sport In Practice (Part 1): The FIFA World Cup

The Philosophy Of Sport In Practice (Part I)

The FIFA World Cup

By Guillaume A.W. Attia (Editor-In-Chief)

June 10, 2015         Damir Sagolj/REUTERS.


On Wednesday July 9th 2014, millions of soccer devotees took time off their summer schedules to watch a resurgent Argentina challenge a thrilling Dutch team in the semi-final of the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Eager for this much-anticipated duel were some residents of the war-torn Gaza who, due to a power outage in some parts of the bombarded strip on Wednesday night, made arrangements to travel to “Fun Time Beach Café”- a popular beach eatery in Khan Younis, south of the Gaza Strip. Expecting the safe and uninterrupted provision of food and entertainment, Ahmed, Suleiman and Mussa Astal, all members of an extended family, considered the seaside bistro an ideal place to break their Ramadan fast. This expectation was unfortunately not met. The game was cut short in the early hours of Thursday when an Israeli missile levelled the café, leaving 9 dead and 15 wounded. All three young men died.

The Fun Beach Café was one of more than 750 locations hit by the precision missiles launched in Israel’s attempt to halt the firing of rockets by Hamas into its civilian populated areas. The aerial raid in the early hours of Thursday, resulting, as often is the case, in civilian casualties, was part of Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” campaign: a military initiative which officially began a day before the World Cup semi-finals and lasted for 7 more weeks. On the day of the beach attack, 81 Palestinians were killed, including 22 children, without much international pressure on the State of Israel to modify its military strategy. As a result of this apparent unconcern, commentators wondered if the world’s fascination with was happening in Brazil was somehow overshadowing the violently escalating crisis in Gaza. Indeed, in the aftermath of the war, which resulted in 2,131 Palestinian deaths and 71 Israelis killed via rockets launched from within Gaza, some sources lamented the slow turn in public concern and outrage, which incidentally turned feverish once the Germans had taken the cup.

As Stephen Mumford explains in the opening piece of this issue, the fact that a sport such as football may seem to have no practical import will probably not help to endear it to those who see its powerful capture of the world’s attention, as an asinine trivialization of more serious and deserving problems such as the high infant death toll in Gaza. Mumford is in agreement with those who do not think sports should take precedence over immediate life-and-death issues such as war, but offers a limited defense of the value of sport, to save the practice from being rendered completely senseless.

As much as the media does at times get it wrong in its disproportionate coverage of sporting events over arguably more vital topics, its focus on sports controversies can occasionally provide valuable public awareness of broad issues of social justice, fairness and law. A recent case in point was the women football players’ short-lived gender discrimination lawsuit against FIFA & The Canadian Soccer Association. Cesar R. Torres and Douglas W. McLaughlin offer an insightful analysis of what is now known as “the turf war”: the moral and legal dispute between the coalition of women players and the two football organizations over the CSA’s decision to host all of The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup games on artificial turf rather than on the organic grass the elite male players have become accustomed to. As indicated above, although the lawsuit was ultimately dropped, U.S forward Abby Wambach was thankful for the ongoing coverage and public support for their campaign. She remained hopeful that “the players’ willingness to contest the unequal playing fields — and the tremendous public support we received during the effort — marks the start of even greater activism to ensure fair treatment when it comes to women’s sports”.

The pre-tournament debate about the women’s field of play was superficially reminiscent of the goal decision talk that preceded the 2014 Men’s World Cup. Situating the growing public anxiety over the accuracy of referee calls in an infamous 2010 World Cup injustice (England’s Frank Lampard’s equalizing shot evidently crosses the German goal line but is disallowed by referee Jorge Larrionda), Emily Ryall reviews the scholarly arguments presented on both sides of the goal line technology debate. As history would have it, goal line technology was eventually (though reluctantly) approved by FIFA and implemented for Brazil 2014. With host Brazil facing Croatia in the opening game of the competition, technology would interestingly prove decisive in shaping public perception of the significance of the game. At the 71st minute of the game, with both teams on parity, the Brazilian striker “Fred” went down in the penalty box after negligible contact from the Croatian defender Dejan Novren. The penalty was accorded and Neymar converted on the spot. Neymar’s dead ball shot was consolidated by a victorious third goal later in the game. Regardless of the final score, numerous video replays of the incident confirmed what many on the pitch suspected was a blatant dive. As expected, players, managers, fans and sports commentators condemned the striker and called for severe punishment. Sympathizing with their indignation, Jim Parry lays out the moral problems with the act of diving and attempts to make sense of whether it can ever be justified.

Another controversial 2014 World Cup transgression that escaped the eyes of an official was Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez’s biting assault on the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini during a crucial group game between the two nations. In his second essay, Jim Parry neglects the various apologies for Suárez’s conduct for an illuminating examination of the moral standpoint on biting in sports. Surprisingly, Suárez’s brief moment of madness was arguably matched by Benoit Assou-Ekottos’ head-butt of Cameroonian teammate Benjamin Moukandjo during a 4-0 thrashing against Croatia in their second group game. This came after another Cameroonian player, Alex Song, was expelled for elbowing Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic. The utter disintegration of the Cameroonian team in the first round marked the beginning of a dismal campaign for African teams at the tournament: the most promising team, the Ivory Coast, failed to qualify for the last 16 after a lacklustre performance against Greece, Ghana struggled to deliver a crucial group game victory against Portugal after a well publicized locker room meltdown over unpaid cash bonuses, and both Nigeria and Algeria were eliminated in the second round. Following such disappointing performances and behaviour on and off the pitch, Tamba Nlandu explains why the dilemma of African football has so far been unsolvable-especially when team cohesion and excellence is most needed.

The disappointment of the African players and fans did not however dominate the news headlines. Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany both shocked and broke the host nation’s heart but did not frankly come as too much of a surprise to sports analysts who took into account Brazil’s overall performance in the tournament. Luis Felipe Scolari’s team barely made it through their quarterfinal duel with the clinical Chile. The game was decided by a penalty kick session throughout which Brazilian players, notably David Luiz, were seen praying desperately for divine assistance. Superstition has become a normalized feature of the modern game of football but, as Brian Leftow puts it, “Why would one think that God would care about something as trivial as the outcome of a football game?”. Why indeed? Does God really care about football? Leftow answers in the affirmative and Graham Oppy problematizes this answer in his rejoinder.

This special issue on the philosophy of sport closes with the obligatory essay on the much talked about FIFA corruption scandal. Mike McNamee argues that major institutional changes involving -amongst other things- the creation of a new class of sports ethics officials, dedicating their expertise to both broad and narrow issues of integrity, are required for long-term positive change at FIFA. The substantive impact of the FBI investigation of FIFA has yet to be fully appreciated, but as this collection of essays may signal, there are reasons to think that philosophers may be able to play a significant role in solving some of the ethical challenges that frequently surface in the process of organizing, practicing and viewing the beautiful game.

The Philosophy World Cup

Also included in this series as a bonus feature is Andrew Bowie’s report on The Critique’s June 2014 Philosophy World Cup. As he provocatively points out, the dominance of the German team may speak to a number of interesting trends in current academic philosophy. Our hope is to determine whether these observations still hold true in four years time.


Article #1: “Bread and Circuses: Is it Morally Irresponsible To Be Consumed With The FIFA World Cup?” by Stephen Mumford (University of Nottingham)

The Roman poet Juvenal long ago introduced the phrase ‘Bread and Circuses’ to our culture, alluding to the idea that political power is easily bought through the simple provision of wheat and entertainment. As well as food, the people need a distraction and in the modern era sport has come to replace the circus as the dominant mode. Chief among contemporary world sports is Association Football. Football may be the modern equivalent with the 2014 World Cup taking place against a troubled global context. The fact that sport has no other practical use may seem to condemn it. But it shares this feature with art, which might be a clue to its real importance. It is arguable that sports tell us something profound about the human condition and our striving to develop excellences. The world governing body FIFA was formed in France and hosted its first World Cup in 1930. Television has taken the accessibility of football to the highest level. The Final match in each competition is the most watched event in the world, every fourth year.Yet we still must ask the question made pressing by Juvenal’s thought. Are we being pacified by mere Bread and Circuses?

Stephen Mumford Profile

Stephen Mumford is Professor of Metaphysics in the Department of Philosophy and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham, UK, as well as Professor II at Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB). He is the author of Dispositions (Oxford, 1998), Russell on Metaphysics (Routledge, 2003), Laws in Nature (Routledge, 2004), David Armstrong (Acumen, 2007), Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics and Emotion (Routledge, 2011), Getting Causes from Powers (Oxford, 2011 with Rani Lill Anjum), Metaphysics: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2012) and Causation: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2013, with Rani Lill Anjum). He is editor of George Molnar’s posthumous Powers: a Study in Metaphysics (Oxford, 2003) and co-editor of Metaphysics and Science (Oxford, 2013 with Matthew Tugby). His PhD was from the University of Leeds in 1994 and he has been at Nottingham since 1995 having served as Head of the Department of Philosophy and Head of the School of Humanities.

Article #2: “On The Women’s World Cup Turf War” by Cesar R. Torres (The College at Brockport, State University of New York) & Douglas W. McLaughlin (California State University Northridge)

The “turf war” refers to the controversy over the surface on which the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup’s matches would be played.  As is known, the organizers decided to use artificial grass in the tournament instead of natural grass.  This article analyzes the three main arguments advanced by a large group of women players to oppose the use of artificial grass.  Although creditable, the women players’ arguments to reverse the decision to use such playing surface are susceptible to objection.  However, this decision is not necessarily decisive in regards to the moral claims raised by the women players.  Even if the decision to play on artificial grass is not discriminatory, nor distortive of the game, nor riskier to players’ health than natural grass, arguments which are far from conclusive, the process and procedures that led to this decision are in themselves morally suspicious.  The article contends that the legacy of the turf war may not be only related to the moral issues concerning the playing surface at this Women’s World Cup, but rather to drawing attention to the systemic marginalization and trivialization of women players’ interests and concerns in particular and players’ interests and concerns in general.

Cesar Torres Profile

Cesar R. Torres is professor in the Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies and Physical Education at The College at Brockport, State University of New York.  He is a fellow in the National Academy of Kinesiology and a former president of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.  He is the editor of The Bloomsbury Companion to the Philosophy of Sport (Bloomsbury, 2014) and coauthor (with Robert L. Simon and Peter F. Hager) of the fourth edition of Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport (Westview Press, 2015).

Douglas W. McLaughlin is associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at California State University Northridge. He is a past secretary-treasurer of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport.  He has published in sport philosophy and Olympic Studies.

Article #3: “Goal Line Technology: A Retrospective Look At Scholarship On The Issue” by Emily Ryall (University of Gloucestershire)

Goal-line technology was finally accepted by FIFA in 2012 after years of equivocation and reluctance. This article takes a retrospective look at the reasons given both for and against the implementation of this technology and in particular, focuses upon the core issues of justice and the authority of officials. It draws upon Collins’ work on officiating technology and considers questions around judgment and fact. Finally, although it notes both conceptual and practical problems with using officiating technology it suggests that FIFA’s initial concerns seem to have been unfounded.

Emily Ryall is a Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Sport at the University of Gloucestershire, UK. She specialises in issues of technology, ethics and play. She is author of Critical Thinking for Sports Students  and  (Routledge, 2014), and has written academic and magazine articles on a range of subjects in sport, including goal-line technology, mental toughness, the nature of competition and the aesthetics of football.

Article #4: “Is Diving Ever Morally Justified?” by Jim Parry (Charles University)

It’s been a great game of football – fast, thrilling, end to end, both teams playing well, individuals exhibiting a wide range of effective and exciting skills. Tension rises as the final whistle nears. Then … oops … a striker goes down in the penalty box, as if fouled. Most of the crowd can see that it is a dive, and that no contact was made by the defender, but the referee is deceived and gives a penalty. 1-0, game over. In a trice, the game is won and lost – by a bit of clever and successful play-acting. Doubtless you can think of many ways to fill in names, dates, circumstances and outcomes. Such incidents are not that uncommon. Don’t you think that this seems an unsatisfactory outcome – not only unfair but, in some other way, just … wrong? But, if so, why? What, exactly, is wrong with diving?

Jim Parry Profile

Jim Parry is former Head of the Department of Philosophy and Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Leeds, where he was also the University Dean for Students. He now lives in the Czech Republic, where he is Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of PE and Sport, Charles University in Prague. His main interests are in applied ethics (especially sports ethics) and social and political philosophy. Jim is co-author of The Olympic Games Explained (Routledge, 2005) and Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction (Routledge, 2007), as well as co-editor of Ethics & Sport (Routledge, 2002), Theology, Ethics and Transcendence in Sports (Routledge, 2011) and Olympic Ethics and Philosophy (Routledge, 2014).

Article #5: “On Biting in Sport: The Case of Luis Suárez” by Jim Parry (Charles University)

When the Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez confessed and apologized for his biting assault on the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, some people complained that the public outrage and the 4 months ban handed by FIFA after the incident seemed rather excessive given that no serious harm befell the victim, and that much more serious, violent and harmful incidents at the World Cup were not subject to the same scrutiny. If it is indeed true that a bite on the shoulder is a less serious outcome of a challenge, in terms of physical trauma, than a broken ankle or a damaged vertebra, we must ask: what, if anything, makes biting in sport such a bad thing, especially since it does not seem always to threaten as much harm to opponents as some other practices?

Article #6: “The Dilemma of African Football” by Tamba Nlandu (John Carroll University) 

The disappointing performances of most African national soccer teams in competitions organized by FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) and CAF (Confederation of African Football) are deeply rooted in a fundamental dilemma. The issue is whether to rely on home-based amateur players and risk the embarrassment of Zaire at Germany 1974 or rely on professional players based in Europe and/or the Middle East and face the type of team-dysfunction displayed by the likes of Cameroon, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire during Brazil 2014. For some reasons, since the debacle of Zaire at Germany 1974, most African national federations have chosen the latter option. However, this choice seems to only offer a quick “fix,” that is, a short-term solution to a complex problem which requires hard work and long-term planning. This decision, for better or worse, has led to either some of the best performances of African teams (Algeria 1982, Cameroon 1990, Nigeria 1994 and 1998, Senegal 2002, Ghana 2006 and 2010, and Algeria 2014) during the first  stages of World Cups or unconvincing first round eliminations such as the ones suffered by Cameroon and Ghana at Brazil 2014. This article explores some apparent and hidden reasons behind the decision to rely almost exclusively on professional players based outside the continent despite the fact that such an option appears to preclude the formation of the type of cohesive teams required in order to perform well at the highest platforms of world football. It also suggests some genuine ways in which the African national federations might attempt to address the issues inherent in their soccer-related decisions, which are, oftentimes, politically-driven.

Dr. Tamba Nlandu has always been a soccer fan. He grew up in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), one of the world largest soccer-crazy cities. As a youngster, he played with FC Lisano of Limete, where his fond memories include opening for two African club champions, AS Vita Club-Hafia Conakry (2-0), and two of the biggest clubs in Kinshasa, CS Imana-AS Bilima (2-1), in front of thousands of screaming fans in the then Stade du 20 Mai. He went on to play with two first division teams in the City of Lubumbashi, namely, The Kassapards (University of Lubumbashi) and FC Salongo. Over the years, he has coached club, middle school, and high school soccer. He has been a USSF (United States Soccer Federation) and NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) certified referee since 2001. As a professor, he has taught courses in the philosophy of sport, introduction to philosophy, American philosophy, African philosophy, business ethics, and contemporary ethical problems. As a philosophy of sport scholar, his focus is on sportsmanship and sport education. His published articles include, among others, (1) “The Fallacies of the Assumptions behind the Arguments for Goal-line Technology in Soccer,” Sport, Ethics, and Philosophy, Volume 6, Number 4, 2012, December 2012, 451-66, (2) “One Play Cannot Be Known to Win or Lose a Game: A Fallibilist Account of Game,” Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, Volume 5, Number 1, February 2011, 21-33, and (3) “Play Until the Whistle Blows: Sportsmanship as the Outcome of Thirdness,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, Volume 35, 2008, 73-89.

Article #7: “Does God Care About Football? Part I” by Brian Leftow (Oxford University) 

In this article I suggest reasons for God to care about football results, and suggest rationales for His responses (if any) to prayers about them.

[Photo Credit:Keiko Ikeuchi]

Brian Leftow has been Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford University since 2002.  Prior to that, he taught at Fordham University.  He is the author of Anselm’s God (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Aquinas on Metaphysics ( Oxford UniversityPress, forthcoming), God and Necessity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), Time and Eternity (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), and many articles in philosophy of religion, metaphysics and medieval philosophy.

Article #8: “Does God Care About Football? Part II” by Graham Oppy (Monash University)

Can we make sense of the prayer habits of religious footballers and fans? A response to Brian Leftow.

Graham Oppy is Professor of Philosophy and Head of the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies (SOPHIS) at Monash University. He is also Chair of Council of the Australasian Association of Philosophy. Professor Oppy completed his PhD at Princeton University, where he wrote his dissertation on semantics for propositional attitude ascriptions. Most of his recent work has focused on the philosophy of religion. He is the author of ‘Arguing About Gods‘ (Cambridge University Press, 2006), an internationally acclaimed prequel to ‘Describing Gods: An Investigation of Divine Attributes‘ (Cambridge University Press, November 30th 2014). His other books include: ‘Ontological Arguments and Belief in God‘ (Cambridge University Press, 1996), ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Infinity‘ (Cambridge University Press, 2009), ‘The Best Argument against God‘ (Palgrave Pivot, 2013) and ‘Reinventing Philosophy of Religion: An Opinionated Introduction‘ (Palgrave Pivot, 2014). He has also co-authored the most comprehensive introduction to ‘The History of Western Philosophy of Religion‘ (Oxford University Press, 2009), with Professor Nick Trakakis, as well as ‘Reading Philosophy of Religion‘ (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) with Professor Michael Scott.

Article #9: “Football, Ethics and Integrity” by Mike McNamee (Swansea University)

In light of recent scandals implicating FIFA and other footballing organizations, it is clear that the beautiful game is clearly in need not of simple cosmetic surgery but a whole new diet and lifestyle make-over. At the heart of this is an approach to governance that takes more seriously not just financial integrity and political integrity, but a broader conception of the entire ethical landscape.

Mike McNamee is Professor of Applied Ethics in the College of Engineering at Swansea University, UK.  His teaching and research interests are in the philosophy and ethics of engineering, medicine, research, and sports. He has held Visiting Professorships at Hunan Normal University, China; Linfield College, USA; Norwegian University of Sport and Exercise Sciences; University of Canterbury, New Zealand; University of Gent and Universite Catholique du Louvain, Belgium; and University of Peloponnese  Greece.   He is a former President of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport and was the founding Chair of the British Philosophy of Sport Association. He serves or has served on the executive committees of many national and inter- national associations, including the European College of Sport Science, the International Council for sport Science and Physical Education and the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. He is the founding Editor of the journal Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, has written or edited 16 books in applied philosophy and ethics, and is a founding Co-editor of the landmark book series Ethics and Sport (Routledge).  His most recent books are Sports, Virtues and Vices (Routledge, 2008); Sport, Medicine, Ethics (Routledge, 2014); and The Handbook of the Philosophy of Sport (Routledge, 2015) co-edited with William Morgan.

Article #10: “Why Germany Won The Philosophy World Cup” by Andrew Bowie (Royal Holloway University Of London) 

In 2014, the Germans won two World Cups: The FIFA World Cup and The Philosophy World Cup. The football win was clearly deserved. But did they deserve to win the Philosophy cup? Whereas the football team was striking for its balance of individual brilliance and team play, the philosophy team is noted for its fractious lack of cohesion, and there were clearly arguments about the selection of the first eleven. The central role in establishing German preeminence in philosophy must go to Kant, however there are other figures who make this German team a philosophical force for other nations to seriously contend with. In all, one might say that the success of the German team in the Philosophy World Cup may be a sign that the dominance since the Second World War of the English and United States philosophical teams, who generally follow the tactics of an exclusively analytical, science-oriented approach in academic philosophy, may be on the wane.

Andrew Bowie is a Professor of Philosophy and German at the University of London, Royal Holloway. He is the author of German Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2010), Introduction to German Philosophy: From Kant to Habermas (Polity Press, 20013), as well as a book on Schelling (Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, Routledge, 1993) and Adorno ( Adorno and The Ends of Philosophy, Polity Press, 2013). He is an accomplished Jazz Saxophonist who has played with some of Britain’s top jazz musicians, and is supervising theses on jazz and philosophy ( His interest in music has produced a number of publications, including Music, Philosophy, and Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2007).


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