The Meaning of Football

After watching the 2021 Euro Cup Final between England and Italy and witnessing the tragic penalty shootout in a pub garden in Islington, I went with a friend to get some provisions from the Turkish shop down the road. There were other football fans there somewhat aimlessly milling about and I overheard one young lad in an England shirt say, “I can’t see the point of living any more”.

I don’t think he actually took his life that fateful night and I don’t know if anyone else did. But it did get me thinking about the meaning of football. What’s going on? Isn’t it “just a game”? Obviously not!

I’ve been thinking a lot about what John Vervaeke calls “The Meaning Crisis”. His claim is that people in modern Western societies have lost a sense of meaning in life, with a whole host of negative consequences and related crises, such as the mental health crisis, the opioid crisis, the obesity crisis and even the environmental crisis.

He makes a strong argument to the effect that meaning is closely associated with what he calls “Relevance Realization”, which is the ability to identify relevant information in any given situation. This is also obviously connected to the ability to be a general problem solver (G.P.S.) and thus to general intelligence.

What’s that got to do with football? Bear with me!

Optimal relevance realization is when your theoretical construct, insight or idea has strong convergence (many lines of supporting evidence or argumentation), making it trustworthy, while also having strong elegance (many lines of applicability and explanatory power, or “multi-aptness”), making it interesting.

What if your theory is high in convergence but low in elegance? Then it’s true but trivial. It doesn’t explain much beyond itself. What if your theory is low in convergence but high in elegance? Then it’s far-fetched. The former set of theories and ideas are trivial and boring. The latter set are interesting but far-fetched – the stuff of conspiracy theories.

So what? What about the football? Hang on!

If we put triviality at one end of a relevance spectrum and far-fetchedness at the other end, with optimal relevance realization bang in the middle, like this:


we can more easily see where we can and can’t find existentially satisfying meaning.

On the triviality end, there is very low entropy – information is highly ordered – which means that there isn’t much meaning. At the extreme, everything is meaningless, a state of mind experienced by people with severe clinical depression.

On the far-fetched end, there is high entropy – information is chaotic and things easily fly apart – which means that there is too much meaning. At the extreme, this results in psychotic and paranoid delusional states of consciousness, where everything is pregnant with meaning and esoteric significance.

In the Wheel of Babylon model, these two ends of the relevance spectrum are represented by two archetypes, the Muggle and the Muppet:


The Muggle archetype is associated with narrow-mindedness and triviality. The Muppet archetype is associated with careless thinking and far-fetchedness. Muggle culture tends towards the conservative and conformist, circling around well-worn patterns of thought and behaviour, whereas Muppet culture tends towards the revolutionary and counter-cultural, rejecting established modes of being in favour of wildly creative flights of fancy.

But as I pointed out, there is no satisfying intrinsic meaning at either pole. So where do Muggles and Muppets find meaning? In victory. They are both motivated by philia nikea, the love of victory. This is because when there is no intrinsic satisfying existential meaning (there is either too little or too much meaning-making), you end up with a meaning crisis, and the meaning associated with power, success and victory promises to plug the gap. The motivating factor in both cases, then, is the desire to be Top Dog.

The Top Dog is at the top of the Muggle or Muppet status hierarchy. In the Wheel of Babylon model, this is called the Diva. Part of the meaning of football, then, is “the love of victory”. Just like in a war, we want our team or our country to come out victorious by defeating all opposition. The same logic obviously applies to other situations where there is a competitive arena or competitive market. For example, doing well at school and achieving success in a career.

By winning a competition like the Euros, we obtain the emotional rewards of achieving Diva status. We are the champions. This provides us with a powerful sense of meaning in life. (Presumably Italians woke up this morning with a stronger sense of meaningfulness than English people). When we lose, especially when we have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, it feels as if life has been drained of meaning. We feel depressed and “can’t see the point of living any more”.

If you base the meaning of your life on philia nikea, you will be continually haunted by the meaning crisis. You can’t always win. You can’t always be Top Dog. And even if you are one of the “lucky few” and manage to secure your position at the top of the heap, power, success, fame and fortune cannot deeply satisfy your need for existential meaning.

But football is not just about the winning. It’s also about the taking part (to roll out the parental cliche). Football is “the beautiful game” and it is the appreciation of this beauty, of the skill, intelligence, athleticism and elegance of the players working together in harmony, that we can glimpse the deeper meaning of football. The Arsenal F.C. motto, victoria concordia crescit, or “victory through harmony”, nicely brings both meanings together.

The “harmony” side of the equation is related to the idea of “flow”. When you are in flow, or “in the zone”, that’s when you play beautiful football. And we can appreciate the graceful beauty of this state as spectators, both in the flow of individual players and in the collective flow of the team as a whole. When the players are in harmony with each other and within themselves, they can enter the flow state, where real football magic becomes possible. Which also, as a side-effect, means that they have a greater chance of winning.

So as well as the love of victory, there is the love of flow. In Ancient Greek, this is philia rheo. (A rheophile is an organism that prefers to live in flowing water).

If we turn back to the work of John Vervaeke, we can see that a defining characteristic of the flow state is precisely relevance realization. This is experienced as an intuitive grasp of the right thing to do and the right way to do it, via a kind of body intelligence. Vervaeke also points out that flow states are experienced as profoundly meaningful. The more often and more deeply you can enter a flow state, the more you will experience your life as meaningful. And this is a more satisfying source of meaning than the meaning derived from nikea.

As well as the physical flow state achieved in competitive sports like football or tennis (Novak Djokovic won the Wimbledon men’s final, notching up his twentieth Grand Slam and creating a triumvarate of joint record-holders with Nadal and Federer on the same day that Italy won the Euros), there is the mental flow state of “insight cascades”. This is a state of deep understanding beyond mere logic, which is neither trivial nor far-fetched. It is the essence of relevance realization, of what we call “wisdom”.

So as well as the love of victory, philia nikea, and the love of flow, philia rheo, there is the love of wisdom, philia sophia, from which we derive the word “philosophy”.

The only kind of meaning available to Muggles and Muppets beyond the trivial and the far-fetched is the meaning that comes with the pursuit and achievement of victory, which is the drive to Divahood, or “the will to power”, as Nietzsche called it. But as we begin to release ourselves from the hold of philia nikea and to pursue philia rheo and philia sophia instead, our lives become oriented along a different dimension of value, where flow and wisdom become more important and meaningful than victory.

By optimising our relevance realization, therefore, we create the possibility of connecting more deeply with the body through flow states and with the mind through insight states. These states are often experienced as higher states of consciousness, typically described in spiritual and mystical terms. Considering that they are closely related to radical self-transcendence, this should be unsurprising.

Psychedelics work by disrupting the habitual meaning-making machinery of the Muggle and Muppet systems and facilitating a state of flow and insight. This is not automatic, however. If the underlying motivation is still philia nikea, the movement towards flow and insight will be sabotaged by egocentric obsession with victory. This is why the spiritual-therapeutic use of psychedelics should be accompanied by the cultivation of philea rheo and philia sophia.

This insight provides us with a simple heuristic for assessing people’s suitability for psychedelic work. If you don’t care much for football (or for music or dance) and you don’t know much about Socrates, Plato or Aristotle (or Buddhism), then you probably don’t have much love of flow or love of wisdom and you will struggle to achieve the necessary relevance realization needed to deepen your connection with life and meaning.

The sacred meaning of psychedelics is to be found in the interplay between altered states, flow states and insight states made possible through relevance realization. (These three states are represented in my model by the MYSTIC SHAMAN, WARRIOR MONK and PHILOSOPHER KING archetypes). The true meaning of football is similarly to be found in these states, and in the victory of rheosophia over nikea, not just “victory through harmony” but genuine “harmony over victory”.