John Bale (United Kingdom)

John Bale is Reader in Education and Geography at Keele University.
He has pioneered the geographical study of sports and among his many publications are
Sport, Space and the City and Landscapes of Modern Sport.

The craze for the word 'space' ... expresses ... not only the themes that haunt the contemporary era ... but also the abstraction that corrodes and threatens them (Augé 1995).

The contributions to a geography of football have steadily increased over the last few decades. The kinds of geographic research undertaken during that period may be categorised into three main groups. These include studies exhibiting what I have termed a fetish for cartography (Bale 1992), essentially concerned with patterns of geographic variation in football phenomena, usually the 'production' and migration of superior players (e.g. Bale 1983). These have been complemented by similar approaches which have explored the geographical diffusion of certain aspects of the game (Bale 1978). A second group of studies has explored the spatial and environmental impact of football events, ranging from major tournaments to those of individual clubs, on their local communities (Bale 1993). These are basically applications of economic and welfare concepts and have explored both the positive and negative effects of such events. A third group of studies focus on what I would term the sports landscape. It is in this area that the application of ideas from the 'new cultural geography' have been most apparent though approaches continue to range across a wide spectrum. For example, Raitz's (1995) recent edited collection on The Theater of Sport follows a broadly traditional pattern while Allan Pred's (1995) analysis of the Stockholm arena, 'The Globe' (as part of his unusual exploration of European modernities), adopts a much more adventurous - not to say curious - approach. Though not explicitly applied to football, Pred's work on the politics and poetics of writing and representation, is a model which has much to offer. It is one of the few works which attempts to grapple with the 'crisis of representation' in a sport-place context. My own book, Landscapes of Modern Sport, tries to bring together different 'ways of seeing' the sports landscape (Bale 1994). Part of this 'landscape' approach includes studies of the micro- and meso-geography of fandoms. The former, builiding on the work of Christian Bromberger (1992), identify quite significant patterns of fan location within the stadium. The segmentation of fan groups into relatively homogeneous clusters has been identified for English clubs ranging from Oxford United to Arsenal (see Bale 1992). The more formal, indeed, officially sanctioned, segmentation of fans has been touched on since the Hillsborough disaster which led to recommendations for all-seat stadiums. This has led some observers to see the stadium as a 'carceral space', inspired by the ideas of Michel Foucault (Bale 1992).

Despite these studies, debates about a geography of football have hardly been prominent. Some allusions which were made to sports geography by Michael Dear (1998) have, however, sparked off a minor discussion, if not a debate. In a paper responding to the 'postmodern challenge' in human geography, Dear suggested that some sub-disciplines are less central than others. He argued, for example, that the geography of sport is not central to the structure and explanation of geographical knowledge and that it was not of scholarly centrality in the way that political, social and economic geography are. In a reply to Dear's paper, however, Jamie Scott and Paul Simpson-Housley (1989) noted that, in shifting a geography of sport to the periphery of the 'discipline' Dear failed to recognise that in the 'conditions predominating in any given field of study dictate which subdiscipline is more or less fruitful'. It could therefore be argued that 'the geography of the sport of soccer governs key aspects of the political, social and economic conditions of Rio de Janeiro, rather than vice versa'. Dear's observations also elicited comments from Chris Philo who rejected Dear's desire to 'police' geographic enquiry and locate it in the disciplinary 'heartland' of economic, social and political geography. Citing Foucault, Philo noted how 'all manner of insights about the workings of human society can best be found .. from sources which on first glance may seem quite marginal, peripheral, insignificant and often esoteric' - hence a geography of sport may 'open exciting new windows on a host of issues currently high on the agendas of many contemporary social scientists' (Philo 1995).

Such observations, while providing a convincing rationale for a geography of football, do not go very far towards a geographical theory of the sport. This lack of theorisation contrasts, for example, with work in sociology where interpretations of the sport have been rooted in several theoretical foundations. Most noteworthy has been the applications of Norbert Elias's 'civilising process', primarily associated with the work of the 'Leicester school' (Elias and Dunning, 1986) his is not to deny the importance of Gramsci or Bakhtin, for example (Jarvie and Maguire, 1994). The purpose of this chapter is to speculate about a geographic theory of football. This is rooted in Edward Relph's (1976) notion of 'placelessness' or, as Augé (1995) puts it in his more recent rendition, 'non-place'. It is to this that I now turn.

A Geographical Theory of Football
Philosophical discussions about the rationale or basis for a geographical theory of football are few and far between. It is worth noting, however, that in drawing attention to the distinction between sport and recreation or leisure, the cultural geographer Philip Wagner argued that there was nothing natural about sports (by which he meant 'achievement sports') and that as a result they are acted out in 'an entire class of very closely defined conventionalised places' (Wagner 1981). Wagner's little-read paper is important because it basically defined sport (as opposed to recreation or leisure) from an essentially geographic perspective. He argues that the sportised body and the sportised landscape are quite different from the bodies and landscapes of recreation, leisure and play, an approach similar to that of the German cultural sociologist, Henning Eichberg (1998). For Eichberg, the difference lies in the ideological or philosophical roots of each of these activities. The locations and landscapes of sportised football are basically the outcome of its achievement orientation - a basic characteristic of all modern sports to which I will return later. Achievement orientation is not central to play or recreation and the landscapes and locations of these activities are therefore different. Hence, the landscape required for playfully kicking a ball is fundamentally different from the serious business of 'playing' professional football.

My model - which might be a better way to present it -has one basic theorem- that the football landscape ought to be one of placelessness. Note that this a model of what 'ought to be'; it is a normative model which, in this case, is founded on the norms of the game itself. These norms provide the logic behind the model. With normative models it would be tilting at windmills to explore whether they fit the real world since it the model is based on 'what ought to be' rather than 'what is'. On the other hand, it is possible that the real world (in this case the 'landscape' of football) may be getting closer to the model, indicating that the model has some predictive qualities. If the world does not fit the model, it does not infer that the model is wrong; rather, it is the world that needs correcting in order to meet the norms of the model, assuming that the norms are widely subscribed to. In exploring the landscape of football, I predict that the norms of the game logically encourage a 'placeless' landscape and I conclude that over time there has been a tendency for football places to become increasingly placeless. At the same time, however, I note that there has been a counter-tendency to retain a degree of placefulness. There is, therefore, a tension between place and placelessness.

Because placelessness forms a central feature of the model I will summarise it as the existence of relatively homogeneous and standardised landscapes which diminish the local specificity and variety of places that characterised pre-industrial societies. It is reflected in what is often felt to be a growing 'sameness' in society. The term 'placelessness' is mainly associated with the geographer Edward Relph (1976) but has also been applied in the areas of architecture and theatre studies (see Bale 1994). In most areas of life where placelessness exists it seems to result from factors extrinsic to the activity upon which it is imposed. For example, McDonald's restaurants do not have to be the same in order for hamburgers to be produced. Likewise, suburban houses do not have to be the same for purposes of residential occupation. High rise buildings do not have to be standardised for office work to take place. It may be more efficient and more rational but it is not absolutely necessary. Placelessness in such contexts exists primarily for commercial, planning or design reasons. It is not intrinsic to the activities carried out at the places. In sports, on the other hand, I will argue that placelessness is intrinsic to the activity involved. It is part of the norms of sport, a part -often hidden- in its underlying (and sometimes conflicting) ideologies of fair play and achievement orientation.

My basic thesis is that the logic of achievement football seeks to eliminate place (a unique area or peopled space) and replace it with space - or 'non-place' or placelessness. In sport the pressures are not to produce regional inflexions in the landscape (except in a superficial sense) but instead to move steadily towards the elimination of place-to-place differences. Such an assertion is based on the two concepts central to professional football; these are fair play and achievement orientation. Each of these can be examined in turn.

1. Fair Play. The notion of fair play was established in football in the 1850s with its emergence as a modern mass phenomenon. 'Fair play' included the establishment of common rules, mainly referring to behaviour but also to the space on which football was played. The most basic spatial rule was the imposition of a boundary which marked the field of play and explicitly served to mark a line of segregation between players and spectators. Inside the line, the space was 'purified', being purged of spectators so that they could no longer wander on to an ill-defined playing space and interfere with the players and the progress of the game. It was a form of territorialisation, that of power over people and space (Sack 1986). This was a way of making football a fairer game. No such rules, however, were made in relation to place. There could be grandstands or open fields; spectators could number anything from 100,000 or more to 10 or less. Hence, in football we have rules which clearly specify the spatial dimensions of the 'play' (later, 'work') area but the details of the surrounding landscape ensemble - including the spectators - were left unspecified. If the spaces of football were different from game to game, the outcome might be more laughable and this did, of course, exist in pre-modern, less serious sport-like forms. A non-specialised football landscape was occupied by non-specialised bodies - the presence of the grotesque body was found in the less serious landscapes in which such activities were practised. With the growing seriousness of the game came the growing seriousness of the landscape in which it took place.

For most sports the spatial parameters are prescribed very precisely. In the case of football the prescribed spatial extent of the pitch does vary slightly but the geometry and size of segments on the field of play are precisely defined and standardised. Given the limited margins within which the size of the pitch is allowed to vary, team managers have, nevertheless, been known to alter the width and/or length for games against particular opponents. The 'space' of the Wembley pitch is often said to disadvantage certain teams. This seems to contravene the logic of fair play. For the ethos of fair play to be satisfied each space (and, I suggest later, each place) upon which a given sport occurs should logically be the same; otherwise, one participant or team would be unfairly advantaged.

An example of such an unfair advantage - though not often thought of as crossing the boundary of fair play - lies in the case of downhill skiers who live in, say Austria, and compete with those who live in, say, the Netherlands. Obviously, the former are widely thought to have an unfair advantage, but it is one which is tolerated by those who run the sport and many would argue that it is not necessarily unfair. As Roger Gardner (1995) argues, however, this claim 'would at least seem to suggest more analysis: because, at this point in time, such advantages do not seem to be clearly fair either'. An analogous football example would be one in which the topographic nature of fields of play differed. Hence, a club with a pitch possessing an idiosyncratic slope, for example, is often deemed to possess and 'unfair advantage' over its opponents during the playing of home games. Let me take this argument a little further with another hypothetical example from football. Assume the Football League allowed clubs to play on either natural or synthetic surfaces. Assume also that only two clubs retained natural (grass) surfaces. Would it be 'fair play' when these two clubs played every other club in the league? There seems to be a strong case to say that it would not and that the football authorities should logically prescribe the same surface for all clubs. For fair play to be achieved, therefore, I am initially suggesting that the surface of the playing field should be - literally - even. This view has been explicated forcefully by the philosopher Paul Weiss. Though couched in the context of track and field athletics its general idea applies also to football:

ideally a normal set of conditions for a race is one in which there are no turns, no wind, no interference, no interval between signal and start, and no irregularities to the track - in short no deviations from a standard situation' (Weiss, 1986)

Replace the word 'race' by 'games' and it seems logical that such a 'standard situation' should also apply in football. Standard situations are almost synonymous with the word 'placelessness'.

2. Achievement. A crucial characteristic of modern sport which distinguishes it from both its folk-game antecedents and recreation is its achievement orientation and its associated seeking after records. For records and 'progress' and to be meaningful, each space where a performance may be achieved should be the same - exactly the same or measurement of such progress would be impossible. The 'production' of a record requires placelessness.

Here is the sporting analogue of the isotropic plane - the rational solution to the problems of variety and individuality imposed by place. Indeed, although (as noted above) the size of pitches vary, the spatial dimensions of points and segments on football pitches are precisely prescribed; penalty area, centre circles, the penalty sport and the half way line have all quite precisely quantified dimensions. They must be the same on every football field in the world. Given these spatial regularities, progress in the tactical development of the game can take place. Skills can be developed which would be much more difficult if the spatial configurations of football fields differed from place to place. In such ways geometry triumphs over space, segmenting it and territorializing it.

Geometry is also seen to triumph over nature and considerable pressure exists to eliminate nature from the sports landscape. Environmental interference in a football match can be unfair. A strong wind blowing only during the second half of a match puts one of the teams at a disadvantage. This, and other kinds of environmental interference can be eliminated by moving sport indoors, a common tendency at the present time in North America and elsewhere. The introduction of prescribed artificial surfaces may lead to further predictability and placelessness. Until then, 'turf science' seeks to provide surfaces which, in effect, differ from each other as little as possible and, at the same time, encourage progress in technical skills.

So far I have suggested that there is a logic and a tendency to eliminate certain environmental factors in order to subscribe to the logic of 'fair play' and the protocols of achievement sport. I believe that there is considerable evidence that the football landscape - at least, the field of 'play' - is becoming more predictable, and hence more placeless, over time. Contributors to football fanzines bemoan the 'container architecture' of their stadiums and the sameness of the football environment and philosophers of sport arrive at a similar prediction for the logical landscape of achievement sport. However, the place-making qualities of football's milieu are difficult to deny - and to resist. Although spectators may have been prevented from encroaching on the field of play with the inscribing of the white line around it in 1882, they still, literally, present 'noise' with respect to my proposed theory. It is to the fans, therefore, that I now turn.


Lecturas: Educación Física y Deportes.
Año 3, Nº 10. Buenos Aires. Mayo 1998