Football Philosophy from an Hegelian Perspective.

When discussing methods of coaching and training footballers I have often encountered claims that one particular method is the ‘right’ one and other methods are ‘wrong’.   Past ways of doing things can often be rejected when new discoveries in the game come to light.   Unfortunately, current thought often implies that the modern football systems and philosophies are regarded as ‘right,’ and that the old systems are ‘wrong.’   However, in this paper I will argue that modern Coaches, who ignore previous historical and developmental phases of football philosophies, have taken a narrow approach to what is a wide-ranging and expansive issue.

The nineteenth century philosopher, Hegel, points out that ‘things’ can only be fully understood when their developmental history is also taken into account.   Judging events or situations purely as they appear at the time does not explain the history and the processes involved in its development.

G.W.F. Hegel.

“The truth is the whole.   But the whole is nothing other than the essence consummating itself through its development,” (Phenomenology of Spirit: S20).

In Hegel’s opinion, to grasp a complete knowledge of something needs an understanding of the background, and the stages of development which precede the final outcome.

As an example, take the process involved in the growth of a plant; the bud disappears when the blossom arrives, this could be construed as the former being cancelled out by the latter.   The same assumption can be made when the fruit appears; the blossom is now redundant and the fruit emerges as the truth, or the right.   One could argue that at each stage, in the process of development, a part of the plant’s growth has been discontinued, and is therefore, of no further value.   However, Hegel would point out that this mode of thought doesn’t allow for the ‘progressive unfolding of truth’.

He claims that traditionally, people tend to hold the bipolar view that if something is true, or right, then the alternative opinion is false, or wrong.   Hegel goes on to refute this line of thought by pointing out that there are “degrees of truth”.   Growth of ideas or concepts can be compared to the growth of a plant, however, Hegel would point out that each stage of the plants growth contains the residue of the previous stages of its growth; that the final fruit carries the properties of what has gone before.

As revealed in the above analogy concerning plant life, ideas and concepts go through stages, each stage leading to what could be considered a more developed stage, which in turn lead to further developmental stages.   Hegel points out that nothing can be fully understood independently of its developmental history.   That each stage, in the growth of a plant, is necessary in order to lead to further development in the plant’s life.  And, that each further stage comprises degrees of what has gone on previously; he proposes that this cycle reoccurs in most aspects of human endeavour.

Stages of Football Development.

It could be argued, that current philosophies of football have developed in the same manner as I have described in the above paragraphs concerning philosophy and plant life.

Prior to the Second World War, and into the early 1950’s, the training schedules of many professional footballers consisted of lapping the training pitch, a few drills, followed by a game amongst each other.   Another viewpoint at that time was to ‘starve’ the player of the ball during the week’s training sessions, on the assumption that he would want it more than ever on the Saturday match day.   However, more enlightened Coaches and Managers realized that training and practicing with the football tended to produce more technical and skilful players.   This more progressive approach culminated by producing teams such as the Hungarian National team of the early 1950’s, and the club teams of Real Madrid and Manchester United, later in the same decade.

Hungarians 1

The Hungarian team of the early 1950’s oppose England at Wembley.

Philosophies on the training of players and systems of play continued to pass through various stages; Brazil’s flamboyant style which won the World Cup in Sweden 1958, England’s wingless wonders, who captured the World Cup for the only time in that country’s history in 1966, Holland’s total footballers of the 1970’s, Italy and Germany’s man marking system, which employed a free man or sweeper.   This evolution of football tactics and training methods has continued right up to today’s connoisseurs, as witnessed in the form of Spain, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

germany 1970's
england world-cup-1966

Germany often employed a ‘Sweeper System’.  England won the World Cup without recognised ‘wingers’.

Frequently there are claims from various quarters that ‘their’ way of training footballers or manner of playing is the ‘right’ way, thus implying that previous methods were ‘wrong’.   As is discussed above, there are ‘degrees of truth,’ suggesting that current ‘truths’ can only be evaluated in the light of past processes of development and history.

Returning to the work of the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel; he proposed that wars, revolutions and political upheavals were all a necessary part of the human spirit’s growth towards idealism.   Although not using this precise vocabulary he demonstrated his thought, as in a triad of: Thesis – Anti-thesis – Synthesis.


In football terms any thesis can be put forward, for example, “football should be played in a particular style”.   This invokes an anti-thesis; “football should be played by a different method.”   Resulting from the clash of thesis/antithesis, a synthesis is produced from these two lines of thought. This synthesis of ideas now becomes the new thesis, which in turn prompts another anti-thesis, causing another new synthesis of ideas.   This cycle continues ‘ad infinitum,’ until perfection is achieved (see the diagram below).

Hegel syn 1

The next diagram (below) shows a few stages of development in the thought of how football should be coached and played.   They are examples of some of the various phases of change which I have experienced during my time as a Football Coach.   I could give more methods and approaches which I have experienced, but I hope that my point can be made by using a minimum of examples.


In 1968 I attended my first Coaching Certificate Course at Lilleshall, England in 1968, under the guidance of Allen Wade and Charles Hughes.   The prominent method at that time was to take areas out of the full game and coach in ‘grids’ or parts of the full pitch, thus allowing for a more concentrated learning environment.  These sessions were usually performed involving opponents, in order to give a realistic, ‘match situation’ approach.   At this time I was playing my football in Belgium, at Royal Antwerp FC, where training was typical of European countries, this included many unopposed drills.

As seen in the diagram, a synthesis of these two opposites could conceivably have resulted in (for example) the Coever system of ‘modelling excellence,’  which came to prominence in the late 1970’s.   Therefore, the synthesis of the two methods (AW/CH and European) could be considered to be the new thesis (Coerver).   Instructional functional practices and phases of play might be considered to be an anti-thesis to Coever methods, once again synthesizing to produce new ideas.   These new methods could well be in the form of ‘Game as Teacher,’ ‘Player Centred Coaching,’ and ‘Questioning as opposed to Instruction”.   Following Hegel’s dialectic of thesis – anti-thesis –synthesis; it will be evident to anyone who has followed my analysis to this point that a new anti-thesis is already beginning to take shape……

wiel Courver
Wiel Coerver
charles hughes
Charles Hughes
allan wade
Allen Wade


Hegel 1

The above diagram shows a synopsis of football development over a passage of time showing the progress of systems of play; Hegel’s pattern of development can also be applied here.

3 – 2 – 5 in the 1940’s; 4 – 2 – 4 in the 1950’s; 4 – 3 – 3 in the 1960’s; 4 – 4 – 2 in the 1970’s; 5 – 3 – 2; in the 1980’s, and so on and on, until we reach the currently popular 4 – 5 – 1 system; a method of play adopted by many teams in the modern game.   However, as previously discussed, new systems of play are already being formed and will become the new thesis.

Although it is wise to keep abreast of modern development in football, it is my belief that Coaches need not “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” and ignore what has preceded current thinking.   On many of occasions during my Coaching career I have reverted back to learning’s, principles, sessions, tactics and methods that I have ‘picked up,’ from over many years of experience as a player and a Coach.

If Hegel’s thought is deemed to be valid, then Coaches from any generation can take comfort from an overall evolution of football with current methods depending on past contributions.

In conclusion; Hegel thinks that something is transmitted from the past at each stage, during the process of development.    He maintains that a previous stage always leaves a remnant of evidence, which carries on through into the next stages.

It is accepted that current ideas on football development will take centre-stage, however, in time this will also weaken in influence, as other methods take over.   Nonetheless, it should be recognised that what is central in football methodology at this time will be conserved in future approaches, albeit in a diluted form.

Maurice Tillotson.


Coerver, Wiel: ‘Leerplan voor de ideale voetballer’: Pub; Elsevier-Amsterdam 1983.

Hegel, G.W.F: ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’: Oxford University Press.

Wade, Allen: ‘The FA Guide to Training and Coaching’.  Pub; Heinemann Ltd, 1967.

Wicks, Dr Robert: ‘German Idealism’: University of Auckland, 1999.