The beautiful game

As the World Cup gears up, Oliver Bennett takes a pre-emptive breather from the action with a Magnum anthology of football photography

While travelling in Ethiopia earlier this year, the universality of football was bought home to me. Some small boys, too poor to buy a real ball, had rolled together old rags and rubber bands to create a makeshift football, and were kicking it joyfully around in the dust. Aside from the east African context, the fun, shouting and jovial competition could have been at the local park.

Football is truly an international language, particularly among the younger male of the species. Something about its symmetry and simplicity (okay, let’s forget the offside rule) captures the imagination and doesn’t let go. The way children instinctively understand football almost convinces you that the ‘beautiful game’ is ingrained in human genetic nature: a common strand in our DNA.

Football’s global ubiquity is bought home by a new book, Magnum Football, published by Phaidon, clearly timed to capture the World Cup gift market. With photographs from Japan to Brazil via Sudan, the book has found football everywhere. Even America – one of a handful of countries in which ‘soccer’ remains marginal – is represented in a Florida scene by Alex Webb, in which small boys (small boys are everywhere in these photographs) play on regardless of a raging forest fire in the background.

The photographs are of typically gold-standard Magnum quality. Still the most authoritative voice in reportage, the club-like agency went into its archives and found 4000 pictures of football, many taken incidentally to other assignments, and edited about 150 for this book.

Magnum has ploughed the ‘lucky accident’ furrow of reportage photography (I’m trying not to parrot the old Henri Cartier-Bresson line about the ‘decisive moment’ too much) and the notion of serendipity is vital to its ethos. But this is conscious picture-making, with its roots deep in art history. Composition is crucial and the subjects are centrally arranged or exquisitely cropped: I would bet that many of these photographs justify the principles of the Golden Section. The graphic component of the goalposts is used several times as a frame-within-a-frame device – look at Herbert List’s image of a goalpost in Albania, or Abbas’ 1976 picture of boys playing in Columbia.

There is amusing juxtaposition – not one, but two pictures of priests kicking off, a naturist tackle in Brazil and a sheikh bending it like Beckham in Saudi Arabia. And being Magnum there is geopolitical linkage: Philip Jones Griffiths’ solitary player doing keepsy-upsies in front of an American tank in Grenada; Josef Koudelka’s match in the destroyed Muslim district of Mostar in Bosnia. This worthiness is tempered by the inclusion of cryptic social observer Martin Parr, one of the few Magnum photographers to venture out of the agency’s neo-classical format.

Make no mistake, these photographs are authored. The Magnum photographer is no cipher, but a carefully vetted star snapper. Vitally, the index is of the photographers, not of the places, although I find it unlikely that the consumers for whom this collection is intended will care either way about who took the pictures.

And in a sense, this book represents Magnum’s current challenge. In the face of the diminished market for photographic reportage, Magnum faces the problem of how to address the future. Going into the archives to bring out collections is one way to ensure its survival, and to keep the ‘brand’ alive, if you can put it like that.

But it is short-termist, and although books like this one reiterate the agency as a centre of excellence, they also serve to subtly position it as a thing of the past.

Magnum Football is published by Phaidon on 16 May, priced £14.95

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