The few of you who may have followed my rather undirected ramblings at eatingbark before the launch of mammoth will be aware that I’ve long been rather fascinated by the notion that sport fields, in general, and soccer fields (football pitches for the non-North Americans), in particular, are canvases for the construction of diagrams of urban space — that the movements of the players and the ball, the rules of the game, the condition of the field (water-logged; frozen; pristine), and the formations proscribed by coaches and managers are mirrors of urban processes. Geoff Manaugh has described ‘football’ (I don’t know which football he had in mind, and I don’t think it really matters) as “a series of contradictory landscapes strategies… competing ways of using and filling space,” the truth of which is elegantly demonstrated in Jonathan Wilson’s definitive book on the development of soccer tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, which traces the history of the sport not as a list of winners and losers or a narrative of heroes and villains, but as the continual search for free space (“the question is always where is the space”), for seams in the “analytic geometry” created by dominant formations and patterns of play.
Relatedly, Sam Jacobs has described soccer as “a kind of essentialised urbanism”, tracing the lineage of the pitch from its “chaotic vernacular origins” in the football of the 14th and 15th centuries, when opposing groups battled across the whole landscape of a village — “houses, agriculture, sites of worship” — to place the ball into or onto a selected marker at the other end of the selected landscape. So not just the patterns of play, but also the white lines carefully chalked into grass or turf embody patterns of urbanization within the space of the game (which allows one to fairly easily read metaphors about conflicting rulesets for urbanism into North American fields with both American football and soccer markings).
The point of all this is to point you to this essay in The Norman Einsteins (a “Sports & Rocket Science Monthly”), by Sport is a TV Show’s Fredorrarci, which is fueled by the photography of Hans van der Meer, though it is about a good bit more than them:
What are the most impressive elements to me about the photographs of Hans van der Meer are the backdrops, or rather, the contrast they present. The background changes from picture to picture. First, a mountain, then some chimney stacks, then some scrubland or a housing estate or a harbour. The foreground, however, is the same each time. The marking is identical. The game is identical. It’s all the more remarkable when you remember how recent the idea of mass organised sport is. It’s impossible — try as some might — to imagine a world without it. Yet it took people not so many generations removed from our own to conceive of these games, or to take existing games and properly codify them and give them form. It took the endeavour and enthsiasm of people to spread the games. It’s easy to take sport for granted, like a river or a mountain, but it didn’t just happen. It wasn’t always there.
Van der Meer’s photographs demonstrate the persistence of abstraction, of the need to maintain the regularlized and minimalist interpretation that Jacobs identifies, even in the face of terrains which defy it. Thus the idealized form (or nearly the Platonic idea) of the English village is projected onto and carefully protected from the landscapes of every other continent, an exported landscape covered by a myriad of invisible diagrams.
[see also this old City of Sound post on design, architecture, and football]