Somewhere in Romania, a career bureaucrat clocks out after a day of pencil-pushing and goes home to spend countless hours theorizing his ideal reformulation of the world’s most popular sport: soccer.
That man is Laurentiu Ginghina, and he is the subject of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2018 documentary “Infinite Football.” The film focuses in on the motivations and theories behind Ginghina’s envisioning of a safer, more spectator-friendly game of soccer. I want to bring to the front the metaphysical implication of Ginghina’s project, namely that of challenging the seemingly unshakable norms in pursuit of an existential utopia. But this challenge comes at the cost that renders the project futile and Sisyphean. That is, there is an unavoidable conflict in which it is unlikely that our goals, and by analog utopia, will ever be accomplished; however, to add more and more restrictive rules both to soccer and society only assures us that harmony of either institution will never be achieved.
So, what actually are Ginghina’s proposed revisions to soccer? And what do they have to do with utopia or existential improvement? As Harvard Crimson reviewer, Cassandra Luca, writes, the list “include[s] his ideas to remove the corners of the field to streamline the area of play, to restrict players’ motion in order to emphasize passing and reduce the chance of collisions, and to do away with offside” (Harvard Crimson, “Yearning for a Revolution in ‘Infinite Football,’” 03.12.2019). As Richard Brody of The New Yorker puts it, “[Ginghina] imagines dividing each team into [four] sub-teams,” with each pair of sub-teams having to stay in its quadrant. The idea is to keep the ball moving quickly, as Ginghina considers it to be the centerpiece of the game. Without the dynamic ball, “The supposed star players are only ‘the star of a shampoo commercial.’”
First, I must confess—the film was released in limited locations as part of a 2018 film festival, and the only version I could find online was a 20-minute portion of the 70-minute whole. However, those 20 minutes, combined with a plethora of reviews, string together the following picture: After sustaining a career-ending injury on the soccer pitch, Ginghina was motivated to imagine a style of soccer where injuries (like his own tibia fracture) would not happen. Over time it becomes evident that Ginghina’s theorizing is an allegory for the idea of a less violent and more harmonious world. (The New Yorker, “An Astounding Romanian Documentary About One Man’s Quest to Change the Rules of Soccer,” 04.26.2018). As evidenced by the increased division of physical space on the field, this harmony comes at the cost of freedom. Ginghina would disagree with me, as he mysteriously said, “It only seems [restrictive] to those who refuse to give themselves a certain freedom.”
OK, we’ve got enough in front of us to get philosophical. There are a few buzzwords here that intimate the metaphysical implications of Ginghina’s work, and I’m here to make the implicit explicit. There is a reason that I, someone who knows next to nothing about soccer, bothered to spend so much time on what most view as a nonsensical series of proposed changes to the sport. It was because Ginghina’s machinations exemplify the individual’s temptation to subconsciously acknowledge the likelihood that they will never accomplish their dreams, and accordingly choose to take on the yoke of hopelessness, an act which only ends up insuring their own defeat. This is shown in his attempt to subdivide the soccer pitch into quarters, as a result of which the game becomes fundamentally fractured but with the ball moving more efficiently through the four sectors (at least in theory). This is where the easily misunderstood, confusingly simply shot film transcends being just a documentary and becomes a true philosophical endeavor.
In proposing to streamline play at the expense of player mobility, Ginghini risks alienating the individual from their labor. That is, mathematically speaking, in an evenly matched game, the ball is likely to circulate the three sectors adjacent to the player’s own. This means that 75 percent of the game would be spent with the object of focus outside of the power of each player. This echoes Marx’s characterization of the capitalist alienation of the worker from their labor, foreshadowed in the Communist Manifesto as “Labor [becoming] more and more divided among the individual workers so that the worker who had previously done a complete piece of work now only did a part of that piece… It reduced the activity of the individual worker to simple, endlessly repeated mechanical motions” (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” 1848). Think of every goal a defender has ever scored, whether it be by Crystal Dunn or Virgil van Dijk. All defenders—and all field players, for that matter—would sit back to watch the ball from afar, never able to score themselves.
This brings me to the object of focus itself: the soccer ball. Ginghina’s assertion that the ball is the star of the game, rather than the players, reflects the inescapable separation between God and humanity affected by Ginghina’s Christianity (a hot take, I know). What do I mean by that? To Christians and many religious folk, people are infinitely insignificant particles in comparison to the infinite power and sublime substance that is God Himself. This sentiment is not unique to Christianity or religion in general, though; it’s inherent in the widespread idea that a person is or ought to be part of something bigger than one’s self. The general payoff of sacrificing one’s liberty and free will is that something greater than the self may be accomplished. In the case of soccer, this is scoring a goal; in the case of life, it is anything from the attainment of heaven upon death to something as earthly as raising a nuclear family.
Filmmaker Porumboiu refers to Ginghina’s vision as “Football as utopia.” But there are two problems with Ginghina’s approach to the revision of soccer and his implied revision of life. The first is the wrong-headed idea that something larger than one’s self can only be attained by the sacrifice of individual selfhood and liberty. The second is that, in truth, the willing sacrifice of one’s own liberty is only a means of justifying the distance that the individual has with the object they obsess over. To unpack: 1) One needn’t give oneself up to achieve something, and 2) to suggest otherwise is an explanation for the likelihood that one will never reach their goal.
When considering the first problem I turn to individual sports such as my own, fencing. First of all, individual sports undermine the moral claim that one needs to work as a team of any size to achieve anything meaningful (another hot take). Concerning revisions and rule changes in particular, sabre fencing itself encountered an attempt to redefine the boundaries of the playing field (which is already a comically narrow rectangle with a length of only 14 meters). Like Ginghina’s soccer reform, the attempt to move fencers’ starting positions was partially intended to make the sport more streamlined and action-packed. We fencers nihilistically nicknamed this short-lived pipe dream of international bigwigs “the Russian box of Death,” and any fencer active from 2016-2017 can tell you that it was, plainly, bullshit: The rate of injuries increased and the watchability of the sport decreased. This is where the second problem comes in. Simply put, I fear the futile reforms to soccer—and life—would bring about the pursuit of instant gratification, a method to stave off the realization of existence’s meaninglessness. This pursuit is merely a distraction never to be fulfilled.
So what can we learn from all of this? To revisit the two problems I mentioned earlier, Ginghina aims to use soccer as a mirror for everyday philosophical escapism. At one level, we’re afraid to get hurt, whether it be on or off the field. Therefore, we try to make regulations that really just encase our kids’ tricycles in bubble wrap. We’re robbing ourselves of the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
Regulating a soccer field to keep players in sectors largely away from the soccer ball is the same as purposely restricting someone from pursuing their dreams, an act that comes in forms from tyrannical authoritarianism or self-imposed Joycean resignation. That is, it creates defeat before there’s any attempt to resist defeat. The name “Infinite Football” stems from the sardonic quip that Porumboiu makes about the endless reform that Ginghina’s soccer would necessitate, intimating that the utopic goal would never be reified. Likewise, we cannot throw up our hands and isolate ourselves from the objects of our desires, lest we condemn ourselves to be content with never attaining them.