Lucas Moura scores for Spurs against Ajax in the 2019 Champions League semi final. Cue Beethoven’s Ninth!

Musical scores

Great passages of play evoke great music


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I’ve always been fascinated by synaesthesia — the phenomenon in which some people associate ideas or concepts in their mind with a sense, such as seeing colours as you hear music, or associating smells or sounds with different numbers.

I don’t know if it would be a boon or a burden, and I struggle to imagine what it would be like.

Football and ballet do indeed have much in common

That said, I have my own prosaic version of it — although as far as I know there is no label or official description for the way I often react to watching football (and it is only football). More often than not, a passage of play will be accompanied in my mind by music, music which is lodged somewhere in my consciousness and which my brain decides to play to me when something on the pitch prompts it.

The only label I can think of is “pretentious”.

Football is often compared to ballet. Google “Johan Cruyff” and the word “balletic” pops up almost as often as “genius”. To watch Cruyff was to see football’s own Nureyev. More so, because Cruyff changed football, redefining what footballers did and how they did it in a way no ballet dancer has really done on his or her own. Cruyff was at one and the same time the choreographer, the soloist and the conductor, and reinvented the performance of all of those roles.

Football and ballet do indeed have much in common. Football has its own version of the corps de ballet — the team as a whole — with the star players its prima ballerinas. But even today, with many of the caricatures of blokeish footballing dunderheads having been wiped away, you would struggle to name a footballer you could imagine enjoying a night at the ballet. Certainly not one who would admit it, at least not if he wanted to survive the ribbing he would get back in the dressing room.

And then one evening at the Royal Ballet I was introduced by a mutual friend to David Ginola.

But the comparison only goes so far, because while ballet is choreographed and rehearsed, with every move finessed to the nth degree, football is the opposite. 

No matter how many choreographed moments it has — free kicks, corners and such like — when they move from rehearsal on the training pitch to the real thing, they come up against eleven other players. It’s football’s version of Mike Tyson’s reply when he was asked if he was worried about Evander Holyfield’s plan to beat him: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

I digress. Because while the balletic elements of football are part of its lure, it’s not what I feel when I watch. That’s the music.

There is a wonderful podcast, Life Goals, in which football fanatics are asked to talk about their eight desert island goals, and then to choose some music alongside them. I wasn’t sure how to approach it when I took part; sometimes the goal is the music for me. Adding something else would be cacophonous, like playing two pieces of music on top of each other.

Let me explain with one of the greatest, most famous of all goals — Ricardo Villa’s all the way zig-zag run in the 1981 FA Cup Final replay. It is, of course, balletic. The balance and poise would seem miraculous on any stage; let alone with the other dancers trying to kick you off your balance as you performed. 

But at Wembley, on the ground, watching the whole move — it’s not so much balletic as Mozartian. Villa’s goal is at one and the same time both a miracle of human skill and something so complete and so perfect, and so seemingly inevitable, as to seem as if it were handed down directly from heaven. 

For Bach, every element of the team has to be operating as one

As I watch it, I hear the final movement of Mozart’s clarinet concerto — the fluidity, the poise, the sun, the joy. There is a Mozartian quality to so much of the sport. The quartet from Act 3 of Idomeneo is the soundtrack when the players surround the referee, each making their own separate argument, from the tender to the enraged, but doing so as one, together. Or the final fugue movement of the Jupiter symphony, which surely marks the third goal in a clean sheet romp as your team flays the ball around the pitch seemingly at will.

The fugue element is interesting, as it mirrors the control which is part of so much that is best about football. For sure, the inspired goal out of nowhere — the sudden, immediate entry of the piano at the start of the final movement of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto — is something to cherish, but it’s those matches where everything clicks that we long for. 

Perhaps that’s why, more even than Mozart, I have often heard Bach — although as a Spurs fan there have been far fewer of those moments in recent years. 

For Bach, every element of the team has to be operating as one, the disparate skills and roles all subsumed into an overall pattern. Under Mauricio Pochettino, there were many such Bach moments. 

In recent years it’s been more like some of those modern “reinterpretations” of Bach, where the more you hear, the more obvious it is that the composer reinterpreting Bach is a hack trying to forge a career off someone else’s genius. 

At the moment, there is one proper Bach team: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, which sometimes seems as if it is playing by algorithm. The mathematical perfection of Bach is often mirrored on the pitch.

Liverpool might be a more exciting team to watch, even a better team, but they’re certainly not Bach. There is too much of the helter-skelter. You are awed by Liverpool as they pound you into submission. Hello Beethoven!

Much as I would love the idea that I always have music running through my mind as I am watching football, sometimes it’s hindsight. I was talking the other day about the worst foul I’ve ever seen, the infamous head punch by West German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher on French striker, Patrick Battiston, in the 1982 World Cup semi-final. It wasn’t so much a foul as an assault, and Schumacher ought to have done time for it.

I recall the exact circumstances when I watched it — sitting with my dad, while my mum feigned interest — and I have no recollection at all of hearing any music at the time. 

But at some point since, the music attached itself. And so now as I watch it, I always and only hear the “Dies Irae” from Verdi’s Requiem. Day of wrath, indeed.

Three years ago, I watched Spurs go an aggregate 3-0 behind to Ajax in the semi-final of the Champions League. Whatever music I was hearing would have been dirge-like, to mirror the awful, limp display we were putting up. At half time in the second leg we were out of the competition. And then a miracle happened. 

Lucas Moura scored three goals, with the critical final goal coming in the sixth minute of injury time. It was magical, it was intense, it was like nothing that had happened before. There was pandemonium as the world turned on its head. 

Even now, as I write this, I hear what I heard then: the chaotic, cacophonous opening to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Except that while that music lasts around ten seconds, somehow in my mind it felt as if it was taking the minutes that were playing out, elongated, as it all sunk in. The music was fusing with the scene I was watching.

I hope I’ve made clear that this isn’t about background music. All of us can suggest music that suits any goal — or pretty much anything. The number of times I’ve heard Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” accompanying a montage of goals …

No, this is about how the goals, the matches or even just the moments are as one with the music. As they happen, I hear the music unprompted.

I’ve left out some of the less elevating moments — when it’s more Keystone Kops than Berlin Philharmonic. But for every Bach partita there is also a conductorless band that falls apart the moment they start to play. Too many Spurs games, you see.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover