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Three-sided football, a sport for anarchists

For a new Radio 4 documentary, poet and presenter Ian McMillan finds some of his greatest passions - football, art and philosophy - on the same playing field in South London.

I like football. I like art. I like philosophy. So that’s why I’m standing at the edge of a freezing field in South London with the great radio producer Bob Dickinson trying to describe a group of men running around shouting and kicking a ball into one of three nets set up around a hexagonal playing area.

...so much of three-sided football is built around improvisation and rule breaking"

This is Three-Sided Football, an endeavour that’s part art, part sport, part philosophy, invented by Danish artist Asger Jorn as a kind of physical representation of the Situationist International, an art movement of pranksters and subversives who wanted to change the world and have a good time in the process. I think that’s true: so much of three-sided football is built around improvisation and rule breaking that, in the words of Neil Young, I don’t know who to trust anymore.

Back to the freezing South London field on a Sunday afternoon. There are two games, each involving three teams, happening simultaneously. Each game consists of three 20-minute sections, and each team has to concede the fewest goals but also score some. The teams have wonderful names like Philosophy Football and the New Cross Irregulars, and they consist of artists and curators and storytellers and architects. Oh, and there’s a team of Polish men who look frighteningly fit and determined, despite the full-strength cigarettes they haul on desperately before and after each segment of the match.

As radio, it will be utterly beautiful; there is shouting, there is the sound of the ball hitting the net, there are discursive, profound and entertaining interviews with players and spectators, there is the sound of gospel singing from what appears to be a boxing club, and there is the constant London noise of passing traffic and aeroplanes. It’s a wonderful collage of sound and all the way through I’m trying to make sense of the game as Bob, whilst holding the mic, tries to remind me who has just scored, which teams are ganging up on which, and how long there is to go in each third. After a while I understand the beauty of it, and the anarchy, and the political/philosophical questions it asks.


That cold outdoor space near the boxing club becomes a canvas, a debating hall, a field of dreams. Maybe three-sided football will sweep across the world and displace the boring old two-sided variety. Three-sided chess, anyone? Three-sided ping pong, or ping pong ping, anyone?

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