“Wow, fun!” might not be your first reaction to the idea of a game invented by a Danish philosopher in the 1960s intended to illustrate the nature of class struggle in the state and to deconstruct “the mythic bipolar structure of conventional football.” Your enthusiasm might dwindle even further when you gathered that the game had never actually been played in real life until 1993. Before I’d played a game, I thought three-sided football would be a curiosity, worth a go for the novelty value and out of love for 60s ideas, but probably less good than the real deal, and likely to be played exclusively by philosophy geeks.
But after going down to New Cross on Sunday for a game, I reckon I was wrong on all counts. It turns out that three-sided football is a genuinely good game in its own right. Teams of five or six play on a hexagonal pitch, with three goals arranged on alternate sides. The winner is the team which concedes the fewest goals, not the one that scores the most. So each of the teams have an interest in seeing goals scored against both of the others, meaning that alliances between teams emerge to gang up on an opponent – only for these alliances to be broken as the situation shifts. This adds mind-games to the match – you have to calculate whether you can trust an opponent to help you or to turn and try to score against you in the split second you have to make a pass. And it’s a game of three thirds, of course, with two third-time breaks when the teams rotate round the goals, not one half-time rest.
I particularly liked some practical things about the game – the pitch is big enough and there are enough people on it that you don’t get that pin-ball feeling you sometimes get with 5-a-side, where the ball is just ricocheting around and all the players are constantly sprinting. The pace is more similar to 11-a-side where there are plenty of moments when the action is not in your patch, and you just need to keep your eye on things and jog into a good position for when the situation changes, meaning that it’s not too demanding to play for 60 minutes we did on Sunday, or more even. Also, for someone who’s better at playing in defence, like me, it was much more fun having an opponent’s goal closer than it would be on an 11-a-side pitch, so you can have a go at attacking without being dangerously far from your own goal.
The other nice surprise was how mixed the other players were. My friend Tom and I were put on one of the regular teams, Strategic Optimists FC, who were missing a couple of players, and we were all the kind of 30-something graduates I’d been expecting. But we were up against a team of Poles who lived nearby and a team of south London lads called Philosophy Football FC, and there was another game between three other diverse teams going on at the same time. I was the only woman, but the oldest player must have been in his 50s, and the youngest was probably about 12. And the level of competitiveness was pretty ideal too – everyone was there to win, but not at any cost, so no one was at much risk of getting hurt.
So I reckon three-sided football deserves a place alongside Chessboxing (first imagined in a graphic novel and now something hundreds of spectators pay to watch) in the small category of new sports which are invented because they’re conceptually interesting but which catch on with people who don’t give a stuff about the concepts because they’re properly good.
Our match on Sunday ended 5-5-2, with Philosophy Football FC winning. There’s a game at 2pm in Fordham Park by New Cross station on the first Sunday of every month except during summer, and – regardless of your feelings about the Situationist International, Marxist Dialectics and class struggle – if you fancy a genuinely fun and welcoming game, you should probably head along.