First in an intermittent series (since discussing football is almost as good for my viewing statistics as insulting well-loved writers of popular history and fans of Richard III…).
It’s clear that Thucydides’ analysis offers not only a sound basis for forecasting the results of football tournaments on the basis of the qualities and psychological tendencies of different teams, but also a rich source of advice on the nature and dynamics of the game – including some maxims that foreshadow, with remarkable accuracy, the pronouncements of some of the great figures of the modern game.
1.78: “Consider how unpredictable are the fortunes of the struggle.” A persistent theme in Thucydides – seen not only in the pronouncements of figures like these Athenian ambassadors, but also in the way that confident claims about the future made by other speakers are then undermined by the subsequent course of events. Thucydides’ attitude could not be further from that expressed by Gary Lineker (“22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and then the Germans always win”), with its fatalistic acceptance of a deterministic universe. It is far closer to the gnomic maxim of the great German post-war coach Sepp Herberger: “Der Ball ist rund”. The ball is round; it can roll in any direction; the flow of the game and the fortunes of the two sides can switch in a moment.
“Thus ended the summer. In the following winter…” (passim). Not, on the face of it, a terribly inspiring statement; Thucydides’ organisation of his history around a relentless chronological pattern has often been criticised, on the grounds that it undermines the flow of the narrative of a particular incident to switch half-way through to what’s going on elsewhere. But how better to emphasise that individual games are never to be understood in isolation; through most of the tournament, the ultimate outcome will be determined not by the result of a single game but by a series of different sequences of events which will only later intersect – and in any case, as Herberger sagely noted, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel”; after the game is before the (next) game, and that holds true even for the World Cup final. The importance of Thucydides’ apparently simple, repeated phrase was recognised by one of the greatest modern football novelists, Peter Handke (see Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter), who adopted it as the structuring principle for his novel Kindergeschichte.