as diagram traced on exported landscape – mammoth // building nothing out of something

as diagram traced on exported landscape

[photograph by Maximilian Haidacher, via polar inertia]

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.

Old Cathkin Park in Glasgow, once the home of Queens Park (the oldest football club in Scotland), then of Third Lanark, and now melancholic fusion of pitch, terrace, and forest, via google maps

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).

A field in Knippia, Sweden, photographed by Hans van der Meer.

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]

19 Responses to “as diagram traced on exported landscape”

  1. My mind was similarly on game spaces today: Urban Golf.

    Even Sam Jacob’s post on folk football landscapes inspired at least one section of my post!

  2. You guys—Alex, too, I mean—should check out this article in the Wall Street Journal about the history of the “Wildcat offense” in American football. Here are some random excerpts—and though the article is more about the tactical geometry of the players, and not the spatialization of the playing field, it’s still an interesting read.

    The WSJ suggests that “offensive coordinators are forever scratching about for ways to pry open and fly the confines of a 100-yard gridiron.” For instance:

    “…last year, when the then-struggling Miami Dolphins overwhelmed the mighty New England Patriots in game three of the season with a sudden, whirlwind display of Wildcat wizardry. Six times in the course of that game, the Patriots’ defenders suddenly found themselves standing opposite an odd-looking offensive alignment. Rather than the traditional front line of a guard, a tackle, and a tight end on either side of the center, the Dolphins now had a guard, two tackles and a tight end all stacked on one side. More disturbing still, standing a few yards behind the center, awaiting the snap in the quarterback’s traditional ‘shotgun’ position, were two running backs, the dual run-and-pass threat of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. As for the Dolphins’ quarterback, Chad Pennington, he was positioned up on the overstacked side of the line, just outside the tight end, now an entirely misplaced and therefore unknown proposition.”

    This, too:

    “In this regard, the Wildcat is an inspired bit of football poetry, affirming as it does that there are still an infinite number of new ways to re-imagine inherently finite spaces. And when one considers the growing number of big, fast, multidimensional, run-and-throw style quarterbacks that high schools and colleges are now churning out—to the extent that some pro scouts are lamenting the imminent extinction of the classic drop-back, field-general style—then the Wildcat formation begins to look less like a passing fancy and more like something permanent.” It’s a permanent re-geometricization of the game.

    In any case, I’ve also got some links about defensive formations in college football, if you’re interested… Or there’s also this article about the so-called A-11 Formation, which becomes more interesting with further Googling.

  3. Carl Douglas says:

    Brian Massumi, in Parables for the Virtual makes a nice reading of football in terms of the spatial tensions between players, and the activating role of the ball. He argues that the traditional distinction between active subjects and passive objects breaks down in a football game: the ‘inanimate’ ball actually summons and provokes action, while the ‘animate’ players are themselves being deployed and moved around by the game. It’s all written in Massumi-speak, but it’s a good reading, I think.

  4. rholmes says:


    though the article is more about the tactical geometry of the players, and not the spatialization of the playing field

    What is really fascinating to me is the overlap between two ways of understanding the sport field as an urban diagram — one being that geometry of the game on the field, and the other being the spatial qualities/embodied landscapes of the field itself, though I haven’t really teased out why it’s so interesting, other than the aesthetic pleasure of seeing two individually interesting things juxtaposed (reading interdependent team sports like a James Corner diagram, I guess).

    I had not seen that article on the Wildcat, but it is quite interesting. One of the more obvious contrasts between soccer and football is the degree to which the players’ roles are specialized (relatively high in football) and/or generalized (relatively high in soccer); the Wildcat claims an advantage by reducing the specialization of the offensive players, while tactical advantages in soccer have often been claimed by increasing the specialization of a particular player (the libero, the playmaker, the trequartista, etc.). Also interesting that the Wildcat’s value has so much to do with it’s ability to confound the regularization of patterns, to disrupt the expectations of defenders. Both soccer and football contain some mix of improvisation and execution, but I think it’s pretty easy to argue that football is more explicitly about executing, about performing the planned diagram in exactly the way that it was intended to be performed. While the Wildcat is encoded in the playbook like other formations, much of it’s value comes in being able to subvert the expectations generated by a shared football culture.

    And while I don’t follow American football as closely as I once did, I’m all for more links…


    Thanks for the tip. I assume he’s talking about American football? (Though it would probably make some sense read either way…)

  5. Carl Douglas says:

    no, soccer actually. (I was going to say proper football, but i don’t want to start a riot).

  6. rholmes says:

    Interesting… I think that makes it more provocative (given the tendency of football romantics to wax poetic about the game as a vehicle for individualistic expression). I knew Massumi was North American (or, at least, he teaches/did school here — I don’t have any idea where he grew up), so I assumed American football. But I guess all that continental philosophy is bound to make one a bit of a Europhile.

  7. Vis-a-vis the specialization of spatial roles on the pitch, there was an interesting article—spotted via City of Sound last summer—about the disappearance of certain specialized positions, or the disappearance of landscape specialities, in football/soccer. You can read it here. It’s a great article for its survey of different attack/defense structures; but here are two paragraphs by way of an intro to its central point:

    “Five years ago, at the coaching conference he hosts in Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Alberto Parreira made a prediction that left the room stunned. Discussing how tactics might evolve, the coach who had led Brazil to victory in the 1994 World Cup, suggested that the formation of the future might be 4-6-0.

    “True, wingers had once seemed sacrosanct, only to be refined out of existence and then reinvented. Yes, playmakers were undergoing a similar process of redevelopment. But centre-forwards? Could football really function with no centre-forward – without a recognised forward line at all? The answer came in this season’s Champions League final: yes, it could. Manchester United won the world’s premier football tournament with a team that featured no out-and-out striker.”

    The idea that each team is adopting a particular landscape strategy and, as you suggest, enacting an abstract diagram, and that the play of the game thus comes as a productive confrontation between those strategies is a way of looking at football—both American and non—that seriously blows me away.

    However, there is also the dimension of time—and I think American football, with its play-by-play temporal structure, as opposed to the effectively un-interrupted flow of soccer time, offers some amazing tactics on the level of how the game is broken up into specific temporal events.

    This, too, lends itself to some amazing thought-exercises. For instance, an idea was proposed in the Boston Globe a while back for what the author called the “time-in” (the opposite of the “time-out”). With it, you could force the game clock to begin ticking again. This seemingly uninteresting and minor addition to the rules, however, would have absolutely huge implications for how coaches strategize their end-games. You can read about it here.

    So this opens up the idea of the game also as a diagram of events in time—in which case, what weirdness might result if you could “export” game time, specific instances of game time, into other temporal arenas? It’s very exciting, I think.

    And don’t write off the NFL; it’s notorious for abusing public funding sources, but don’t let distract you from the weird overlapping crystallizations that occur within the game itself.

  8. rob says:


    That Guardian article is by the one of the authors I was talking about above — Jonathan Wilson. He’s really insightful, and talks about space on the playing field in a different way than just about every other writer I’ve read (that’s not an exhaustive catalog of sport writers, though). I think he does make the case very effectively that the game is, at a very fundamental level, about the competition between different strategies for the occupation of space. Not that that’s the only fundamental component (the evolution of player conditioning, whether focused on size and strength in American football, or on conditioning and endurance, as in soccer, would be another fundamental component), but it certainly is a fundamental component.

    However, there is also the dimension of time…

    Yes, exactly — I’d thought, but didn’t say, that the diagram constructed by the play of a football game can really only be perceived in four dimensions, with the fourth obviously being time. I’d say this is particularly true of soccer, because the temporal structure of the soccer game is so much more fluid than that of the football game (and resistant to line-by-line analysis — a frozen diagram of the locations of soccer players at any given point in the game tells you a good bit less about the patterns of the game than a similar diagram of the moment just before a football play begins would), but, as you note, there are many fascinating possibilities inherent within the consideration of the temporal and spatial properties of the game as part of a single diagram, even (or because) that time’s flow is more regimented — the idea of the “time in”, in particular. And this of course only reinforces the parallel between the game and urban space or the pitch and landscape, as time is an equally essential part of a good diagram of either an urban system or a landscape.

  9. Stephen says:

    Talking about temporal diagramming of spatial occupation in sport gives me an excuse to bring up my euro-sport passion, Formula 1 racing. The landscape of F1 racing is also an abstraction of urban space, this is pretty obvious. Actually, F1 might be the only sport where temporary re-appropriation of an urban landscape by sport isn’t just an interesting OUA proposal, but commonplace. Where this field of play differs from those of soccer and American football, however, is in how the specificity of each landscape dictates very specific tactics for engaging it – basically, there are only one or two fastest lines around a racetrack. There is a fast space, surrounded by slow space.

    Because two cars can’t be in the same place at the same time, and unlike a field where there are many spaces with equal starting potential, timing your occupancy of the fast space becomes the critical tactical decision. This has consequences for every aspect of race strategy: fuel levels for qualifying, choosing the number of stops to make in a race, which tires will be used at what point. Teams bluff, sending false signals about when they will pit, when their cars will be light (and more easily able to pass a slower car, heavy with fuel, by straying from the fastest space) and when they will be heavy (and vulnerable).

    There are a whole host of other considerations as well. The level of customization of the cars for each track is incredible. Before dramatic attempts to cut costs in recent years, teams were designing custom engines, custom wings, custom everything for each track. Now, this is limited to wing adjustments, gearing ratios, and a couple other things. But the notion of optimizing a machine for a certain space of play, and the tactic that space dictates, is fascinating to me. For example, some tracks (such as Montreal, a street circuit) have sections full of tight, twisting turns which call for a car set up with significant downforce, as well as long straights which are more quickly navigated by cars set up to be more slippery, with lighter downforce.

    But teams can’t just calculate which balance gives the the fastest overall lap-time without also considering where they might need a speed advantage over the other competitors – maybe there is a prime passing space in the infield which causes them to tip the balance more toward a high downforce setup than they would in a qualifying situation (when passing is a much less significant concern). That temporal occupation considerations are the key element in Formula 1 strategy probably isn’t that surprising when we remember that unlike soccer or American football, time itself is the measure of the victor.

  10. rholmes says:


    The interesting thing that occurs to me from reading that is that, unlike footballs, the tactics being deployed in the competing strategies for the occupation of space are totally invisible to the uninformed spectator. Put another way, many of the interesting decisions are only apparent if you know what is happening outside the field of play. Not just sport as competing landscape strategies, but sport as competing and camouflaged landscape strategies.

  11. Stephen says:


    Right, this is a great point. The sport has actually taken several steps recently to help the spectator more fully understand these strategies – things like requiring the different tire compounds to be marked (basically, tires can be softer and grippier, but only last a couple laps, or harder with less grip, but able to reduce the number of pit stops by lasting longer. Teams switch between tire types at least once in a race); publishing fuel loads before the race (allowing you to estimate the time of the first stop, and thus have an idea of how many stops the driver is likely to make); and timing the fueling rig during a pit stop (because the fuel rigs are standardized, and pump at a constant rate, this allows you to estimate how much fuel a driver has, and when they might need to stop again).

    But a lot of the strategy remains initially ambiguous (like car downforce setup). Comparing your performance expectations with the action on the track is what makes watching the races so much fun.

  12. Speaking of race tracks (or rather, non-racing tracks), I’ve always had a fondness for automotive test tracks, a preoccupation pretty much in line with my larger interest in testing grounds. (Excuse the self-link.)

    Worth reproducing here is CLUI’s text for its photo exibition, Autotechnogeoglyphics, which is the subject of the post to which I first linked above:

    “They represent the condition of America, land of the automobile, a syndrome that transformed the landscape of the nation, and the world, more than any other. These tracks are the nurseries for the vehicular companions that we can’t seem to live with, or without.

    “Despite their vastness, often a few square miles in size, these track complexes are a condensation of space, a microcosm of the country, built for subjecting vehicles to all the types of terrain – from interstates, to suburban stop and go; from dirt roads to black ice – that the vehicle might encounter in the real world.

    “The need for space pushes them to the edge of the suburbs, and beyond, where land is cheaper. And where visitors are less likely, as these are, famously, secret places, where new ideas in this competitive, capital intensive industry, are covertly aired.

    “Despite their size, they are supremely surficial, nearly two dimensional. Outside, on the ground, they are obscure horizontal bands of bermed earth, beyond a distant fence line. From the air, they are fully exposed, laid out like a diagram, hidden, in plain sight, and curious to behold.”

  13. […] the comments on my post on soccer as a diagram traced on an exported landscape, Stephen notes that : The landscape of […]

  14. Nick Brown says:

    I would like to broaden the discussion on urban environments and sports by offering what some would say is the very antithesis of organized games – skateboarding in general, and street skateboarding in particular. It is much more akin to the F1 racing that Stephen brings up, with several crucial differences.

    Though F1 offers a new way of reading the city, where the primary consideration is speed and time, it does not offer a new way of using the city; the race cars only use space purpose built for automotive travel. However, street skateboarding appropriates objects and spaces within the urban environment for its own use, irrespective of the original purpose. A bench is no longer used for sitting, but for performing tricks on.

    These places, or “spots”, as they are called, can be as large as a plaza, or as small as a curb cut, and represent a subcultural mapping of the city. Their appropriation by skateboarders is also contingent upon the fourth dimension of time as well. For example, a spot that is occupied during the day by office workers on their lunch break, might well be deserted after 5 pm, whereon skateboarders might then colonize (to use Iain Borden’s term from his book Skateboarding, Space and the City) the space for the rest of the day. Interestingly enough, the current skatepark building boom is focusing more on recreating an urban environment for skateboarding, than on producing half-pipes and pools that gave skateboarding its initial boost. These are called skate plazas.

    Though skateparks and plazas are very popular for obvious reasons – ideal obstacles, a place to hang out with friends, no pedestrians to get in the way, minimal chance of getting a ticket or arrested – they are seen as a place only for training. Professional skateboarding videos only show a skatepark if people are using the ramps, as the “street” obstacles are considered less authentic than those found within a true urban environment. It basically inverts the operational strategies of golf, where the urban golf course is dismissed as a bastardization of a legitimate venue for participation. Extending this comparison one finds that most skateparks are built in wealthier suburbs than inner city neighborhoods, making them a tenuous stand in for the country club golf course.

    Being a skateboarder myself, albeit an aging one, I have always been fascinated by how each specific spot dictates the tricks one can do on it. In this way, it is a sport that bases its performance solely on the particularities of the urban environment itself. It extends the playing field throughout the city, making it fair game at any time, day or night.

  15. Zach says:

    As far as Stephen’s comments go, “The landscape of F1 racing is also an abstraction of urban space, this is pretty obvious. Actually, F1 might be the only sport where temporary re-appropriation of an urban landscape by sport isn’t just an interesting OUA proposal, but commonplace.”

    What then of cycling, too? That sport completely appropriates the landscape, rural and urban, and much like skateboarding, the terrain has an outright effect on the sport.

  16. Stephen says:

    Nick and Zach

    Yeah, ‘the only sport’ certainly seems like a bad choice of wording on my part, doesn’t it? Thanks for the expanded context, guys.

  17. […] I’ve previously talked about my interest in sport as a representative diagram of urban space — noting that the soccer field can be read both as an abstracted embodiment of a particular […]