"And Boom, you're world champion"

Why is soccer the most popular sport? Because it re-enacts the drama of life—says philosopher Paul Hoyningen-Huene. In this interview he talks about this comparison and why nothing would work without a clear system of rules.

Interview Jörg Riedle & Tino Scholz Photos Conny Mirbach

Professor Hoyningen-Huene, you’re a philosopher of science but also focus on the philosophical connections between soccer and society. How did that come about?

In 2002, when the World Cup was taking place in Japan and South Korea, I got home late one night, very tired. My son, who was ten at the time, absolutely wanted to watch the rerun of a match. In my exhaustion, I asked myself what was so fascinating about a ball rolling over a line painted on the grass and why it aroused such strong emotions in so many people.


What conclusions did you come to?

Every soccer fan knows how important chance, along with ability, is in soccer. It makes the result unpredictable. This fortune and misfortune, in combination with skill or the lack thereof, is also representative of the “drama of our life,” meaning what happens to us in everyday life.  


What exactly do you mean by that?

Our lives aren’t completely predictable. If we wish to do something, there are always circumstances that can influence the results in a positive or negative way. Anyone looking back on their life so far undoubtedly recognizes that many decisive courses of action were products of chance—for instance, because you met a particular person or were at the right place at the right time. That’s what I call the “drama of life.” nbsp;


And this takes place in a condensed manner on a soccer field?

Yes, because coincidences always play a role there. If you take a close look at both teams before a match, you can often say which is more likely to win. But it’s not certain—particularly at events like the World Cup, it happens again and again that the supposedly weaker team defeats the stronger one. This sort of drama with this intensity is nearly impossible to find in other sports.


Life’s drama lasts… a lifetime. Football’s is limited to 90 minutes.

Why is that?

It starts with the fact that in soccer, the ball can only be touched with the foot, head or chest. This adds a strong element of randomness. Furthermore, there are so few goals that a fluke goal plays a greater role. My basic premise is: the mixture of skill and chance in soccer, which is what makes up the drama of life, is realized in a unique way.


No other sport is as popular as soccer around the world: the final of the previous World Cup was apparently watched by more than 1 billion people.

The enthusiasm is historically unprecedented, world-spanning and independent of social class and age. Indeed, there are just two “continents” that haven’t been permeated by it. 



Antarctica. And women.  



IIn fact, many more men are interested in soccer than women are. Why this is the case ultimately cannot be answered. Perhaps it’s because soccer is a militant competition—something that may not be as attractive to women. But we are witnessing a certain upturn in this, namely to the extent that soccer is treated more and more like an event.  




Asked about the upcoming Soccer World Cup in Russia, which starts on June 14, 2018, Professor Paul Hoyningen-Huene says, “I’m looking forward to perfectly played soccer, but always keep an eye out for when and how the element of chance changes the course of a match.” Hoyningen-Huene, born in 1946 in Pfronten, Bavaria, lives in Zurich and is a German philosopher who specializes in the general philosophy of science and research ethics. Main topics include the philosophy of Thomas S. Kuhn and the question of the nature of science, as well as the responsibility of scientists and engineers. Hoyningen-Huene also regularly writes on the topic of soccer. His first specialist article, “The Drama of Life: Why Soccer Fascinates,” was published (in German) in 2006.

Well, it’s not only confrontation, but also a very clear system of rules that plays a role.

Correct. A fundamental difference between the drama of life and the drama of soccer is the time constraint. The drama of a soccer match is usually over after 90 minutes, at least out on the field. The drama of life, however, doesn’t have any clear time limits. That is the advantage of soccer: every weekend, every season or during every international competition, a new soccer drama can start—and end. 


Getting back to the rules…

The drama of life and the drama of soccer take place within a system of rules. Without them, neither would work. In our everyday lives there are laws and non-codified rules of behavior. And so, just as there are consequences when someone steals something, there are penalties for illegal moves in soccer. A soccer match is only accepted when there are fair rules and viewers can assume that only the team that scores more regular goals will win. The idea of the game is that there are fair baseline conditions within which the drama of the match unfolds. Chance and skill form a mixture, and the point is that no one knows what the result will be in the end, and this is what makes the match so exciting.


One for all - all for one: “Football receives unparalleled attention worldwide,” says Prof. Hoyningen-Huene.

Instant replay will be used for the first time for the upcoming World Cup. Was that a good decision?

I think the decision was inevitable. When Joseph Blatter was still president of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, he said that it [instant replay] would take a fundamental element of excitement away from the sport. And it’s true: even today, people still talk about the “Wembley goal” in 1966, or the “Hand of God goal” by Diego Maradona in 1986. Yet compared to today, there’s a huge difference.


Which is?

Previously, the referees’ decisions were irrevocable; there was no other choice. Now there are more equitable possibilities and it makes sense to use them. Only if equality of opportunity is a given does the drama of the game work. So there’s really no way to avoid the use of new technologies. 


Innovation isn’t just in demand out on the field, but also in business. Will success only come to those who evolve and constantly re-invent themselves?

It really varies a lot. It’s not like the most innovative is always the most successful. Sometimes it’s better to be the second in the field, able to learn from the innovator’s mistakes. It’s the same with soccer. Take Greece at the European Championships in 2004. At the time their style of play, with a straight three-man backfield and sweeper, was considered completely outdated. But they still won. 


In soccer as in business, you don’t have to be an innovator. Sometimes it’s better to be second so that you can learn from the innovator’s mistakes.

Yet everyone is trying to be number one. Is it necessary to constantly question your actions?

I think so, yes. A Jupp Heynckes or a Pep Guardiola does that too. Every opponent, no matter how easy they might seem, is analyzed in detail and isn’t taken lightly. We’re talking about absolute perfectionists who need to do that to be successful.


Should a person scrutinize themselves or the competition?

Both, of course. Again there are parallels to real life and to business: small companies or huge corporations must continually question themselves, keeping an eye on the competition and the market, to be able to act or to react to new challenges. It isn’t enough to look only at yourself and to trust that everything will end up working out in the end.


Who wins in the end? It’s often a matter of chance, which is what makes football so attractive, says Prof. Hoyningen-Huene.

If we take the drama of life and therefore the drama of soccer, too, as our basis, then who will be the next World Champion?

At any rate, what we can say is that there is a group of teams that probably won’t be the next World Champion and they include for instance Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Senegal, Iceland and Costa Rica. These teams simply lack the necessary skill: even combined with luck, it wouldn’t be enough to see them through the entire competition. So I would be extremely surprised if the World Champion were to come from this group. The group of potential World Champions is easy to determine—they’re the usual suspects. 


So a glimmer of luck will decide it?

Of course there can always be a vastly superior team that plays all the other teams into the ground. But if you look back to the past, that hasn’t really happened that often. And even when there was such a vastly superior team, it wasn’t absolutely certain that they would become World Champion in the end—take for instance the 1954 World Cup, when Germany won and Hungary didn’t. In soccer, all sorts of unbelievable things can happen: sometimes it’s a bizarre bounce at the last second that determines who wins and who loses. And, boom, you’re World Champion.