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Discovering Three Sided Football

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MADRID -- As the clock ticked down on the final minutes of the match, the onslaught became irresistible. Deeper and deeper they defended. More and more attackers appeared. The siege became overwhelming. Desperate challenges, heroic lunges, astonishing saves. The ball thudding against the post. A penalty turned down. Shots raining down upon them. And ultimately resistance proved futile -- eventually the winning goal came. The goalkeeper could do nothing. Nor could his outnumbered defenders. To a huge roar, victory had been secured in the very last minute.

Nothing unusual there. Only there is. This was not just a siege; this was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid facing the Bolivian army. Those defenders really were outnumbered, the assault irresistible. This was not just a team defending itself against the onslaught of another team; it was a team resisting the onslaught of two other teams. Five men were defending themselves against 10 men. And the final score was not 2-1 or 3-2 or a dramatic 5-4. The final score was 3(5) -- 4(3) -- 4(2).

Yes, 3-4-4. And the team on three, wearing red, were the winners.

This wasn't normal football but Three Sided Football. In Three Sided Football, there are three "halves," after each of which you change "ends," three goals and three teams playing at once. There is only one ref, though, one ball, and one pitch. The pitch is (at least in theory) hexagonal, so that all the goals effectively face each other, and the winning team is not the team that scores the most but the team that concedes the fewest.

If that suggests a defensive game, think again. And not just because on this occasion, played in Madrid, a modification had been made: goals scored counted too, but only as a way of deciding the winner in the event of a draw. It finished 3(5) -- 4(3) -- 4(2). The team in Red won because it had conceded only three goals (it had also scored five); the team in black had conceded four (and scored three); and the whites had also conceded four (and scored two). Because every goal has two values (the goal conceded and the goal scored), the game invariably stays alive until the very end.

Not least because the interests of each team shift throughout the game.

And that's the thing that really makes it different. Three Sided football was created by the Danish artist, intellectual and author, Asger Jon. Jon was Situationist -- a movement that had its roots in Marxism and was active in Paris in 1968. His idea, it is said, was to break with the idea of football as a representation of a straightforward class struggle in which the referee represents the state. Or to put it his way: Three Sided football "deconstructs the mythic bipolar structure of conventional football." Instead, it reflects the complexity of the society, of shifting alliances and cooperation.

Although it is hard to be completely sure, Three Sided Football has been played very, very occasionally since 1993. Some professional coaches admit to using something similar for training sessions as a way of keeping things fresh and different and also because it makes important physical demands on their players. It has been played as part of art events in France. And in England it has been especially promoted in the last couple of years by the Philosophy Football Group, who brought it to Spain too.

Promoted by Philosophy Football, the first known game in Spain was played in Madrid earlier this year. At the start, copies of great philosophical tracts were exchanged pregame. Friedrich Nietzsche stood in one goal, Albert Camus in another.

Recently, the Athletic Bilbao foundation have started to promote Three Sided Football as part of their Thinking Football program. Coaches at the club's Lezama training ground have played the game and sought to refine the rules. (In theory, for example, a throw-in or corner is taken by either of the other two teams who did not concede it, but free kicks or penalties are taken by the team that suffered the infraction, while there is no definitive agreement on pitch size or numbers in each team.) The idea is to finalize a formal set of Three Sided Football rules and hold a tournament in front of the famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Last Friday, the Athletic Fundación arranged another game in Madrid -- at the Spanish Football Federation's Las Rozas HQ.

As the three teams gather before the game to be told the rules and the idiosyncrasies of what they're about to undertake, they are reminded that three Sided Football is a game of cooperation. Which sounds nice. But it is not. Not necessarily. During a game, the reds and the whites can attack the blacks, working together. If you are running through toward the black goal and a white player is free with an easy shot, he becomes a teammate not an opponent. He after all can score against them -- for you.

Only he is scoring for him too. And if there is collaboration there is also betrayal. Throughout the game, your interests shift. The Entente is not always Cordiale. Frankly, you don't trust each other. This is more Nazi-Soviet Pact than some kind of genuine brotherhood. It is a lesson you learn the hard way, when you play the ball to someone in the white team ready to attack the blacks and he turns round and sticks it in your net instead. That is in your mind; distrust infuses your every move. So does self-interest. You can shout at the whites that they should attack the blacks but they might prefer to attack you. With the blacks. And don't think for a minute that the mistrust is not mutual.

The introduction of goals scored as a tiebreaker -- which was the case last Friday but not during the previous game in Madrid -- means that, if you are running through on goal and an opposition teammate supports you in the attack, you think twice. Thrice, in fact: first, as you try to remember if he was an attacker or a defender of that particular goal, then as you think: Yes, he can score, which is good for me. But me scoring is even better. Isn't it? Only if you actually do score. You also know that if there is a chance to score, even if it is not against the team that it is in your interests to attack, you would be foolish not to take it.

In certain areas of the pitch, you learn to pass the ball to opponents who are temporary teammates. In others, you quickly learn never to do so -- however earnest they claim their intentions are. As the game moves fast there is not time for discussions and pacts, careful treaties or long analyses of interests. Decisions are taken quickly and individually: communication is even more continuous than in normal football. So is thinking; forever processing every permutation. And, let's face it, if you can screw your erstwhile partners, you will. Halftime team talks focus not just on what you can do but who you can do. And what others can do for you.

The pitch opens out in a fan shape, almost like a baseball diamond. Attacking one goal is the best way to attack the other one; as players gravitate toward one goal, spaces open up at the other 'end' (or is it a side?). A swift, long pass and there's an open goal. The wings, either side of that fan, where the crowd thins out and defenses open, become the best route to goal. That imposes a speed upon the game -- creating a sense that, somehow, every attack is a counterattack. The physical demands are extraordinary. Tactics change; a line of three, like a Chevron, protects your goal and launches attacks on the others. At least that appears the best approach for now. But then the game is still embryonic.

As the match progresses, the interests become clearer. Victory is never really secure because a soon as you lead you find yourself facing two opponents; you know that oddly an early lead is not necessarily a good idea but not taking the lead would be ridiculous too. Perhaps Jon would be proud of this at least: rather than the powerful ganging up on the weak, the weak gang up on the powerful. Together, they are stronger. Alone, the powerful are vulnerable. Rulers are overthrown. In the final minutes, a team is winning. Because goals conceded is the decider (unless there is a tie -- and that is always lingering in the back of your mind), the two other teams know that scoring against each other is now largely irrelevant.

There is no unwritten pact now, no pretense that joining forces happens organically. There is a pause in the play -- the Athletic Fundación have introduced timeouts which many not survive the final cut when the rules are defined -- and there is a huddle. Reds and whites together. At the other end, the black -- in the lead but in the firing line.

They know there are only a few minutes left, but they know what is coming now. An all-out assault. In normal football when there is a break there is a team talk. This is a two-team talk. The tactics are simple, even if both teams are wondering what comes next, after the goal they seek: it is time to join forces to attack the leaders. That shifting of alliances keeps the game alive to the end. The black team are winning. Ok, whites, say reds, let's attack blacks. And so, together, they do.

And then a siege is inevitable.