“We’ve never even played the game before!” laughed the Danish captain as he paraded the trophy around the pitch. In one sense, he was right – participating in the inaugural three-sided football (3SF) ‘World Cup’, he and his teammates were playing 3SF for the first time. That being said, in 3SF the ball is still round, you still kick it with your feet, and much like the many other variations on football such as 5-a-side, futsal and the playground favourite Wembley Doubles (as we knew it, at least), if you’re used to kicking a round ball with your feet you’re not going to flounder uncontrollably. So, given the triumphant Danish team was composed of ex-professional footballers, they were used to kicking a ball about. They’d played the game before.
The World Cup was being played in Silkeborg, Denmark, the home town of artist and philosopher Asger Jorn, father of 3SF. Jorn conceived of 3SF in his 1962 book Naturens Orden as a demonstration of his principle of triolectics. Jorn’s position hinged around the idea that in a two party stand-off the dominant party will always triumph, whereas by introducing a third party there will be a natural balancing effect. As any of the three begins to dominate the contest the remaining two would form an alliance and outgun, out-muscle or, indeed, out score the would-be dominator.
In order to fit triolectics onto the football pitch Jorn had to make a few tweaks to the beautiful game. An extra team would have to be added of course, and to accommodate the extra goal that came with it the pitch would have to become a hexagon. But it was Jorn’s last tweak that set his version of football apart from all the others – the winning team is the one that concedes the fewest goals, rather than scores the most. This means that, in theory at least, no one team can pull too far ahead. If one team has conceded fewer than the other two, the trailing two will form an alliance, effectively ganging up on the leading team with double the players until their goal is breached and parity is restored.
In the discussions following early 3SF matches much was made of the fact that teams can betray each other. It’s true, you can receive a pass from an opposition player only to immediately attack their goal, but it is a very short term strategy. Players will remember. Players will hold a grudge. This lesson was learned in the harshest of fashions when, in one early match, a striker received the ball from an opposing goalkeeper only to blast it straight back the way it had come and into the unsuspecting net. Unfortunately for the striker, the ‘keeper’s two sons were playing outfield and for the rest of the game they pummeled the betrayer’s team, ignoring any pleas of mercy or, quite accurate, protestations that the third team in the game would win if the onslaught continued. It was all to no avail; the wronged party sought vengeance, not victory.
Rather than a game of betrayal then, 3SF is in fact a game of diplomacy. From minute to minute alliances are negotiated, enacted, revised, as the state of play continually fluctuates. Each attack, each switch of play, each goal has the potential to change the game plan of all three teams on the pitch as they try to eke out an advantage without inviting more pressure on themselves. You have to be able to score against someone and then somehow convince them to join you in attacking a common enemy, when you could just as easily be considered the very same. Fail in your diplomatic overtures, present a weak argument, or simply offend one or both of the opposing teams and you can quickly find yourself desperately defending your goal against an adversary that is quite literally twice your size.
Defending against a strong alliance is exhausting, physically and mentally. Continually outnumbered, man marking becomes impossible. It is treacherously easy to be pulled out of shape as you are caught between closing down the player on the ball or tracking the runner that will be left free if you do. Communication and discipline are key to surviving the siege, more often than not along with a large slice of luck. Survive and you will feel kings of the pitch, a brotherhood forged in the fires of adversity. Crumble, and you could well find yourself adrift of the match, dead by a thousand cuts.
Attacking play comes with its own challenges. In the two sided game the objective is always clear, even if the solution may not be. By contrast, in 3SF game theory dictates that your objective is constantly being reassessed and altered as you try to negotiate the ever changing variables. Do you attack the weaker team, seeking to score them out of the game? Or do you attack the stronger team, forcing them to take on both their adversaries in an effort to get back into the game? Any goal is not always a good goal; score at the wrong time and you can provoke retaliation or change the momentum of the game in the wrong way. Confusion among teammates can see promising moves break down immediately, as the wrong run is made or the wrong pass played. It is common for players new to 3SF to remain stuck in the mentality of the two-sided game, passing only to players in the same shirt as them. However, if they can wrap their head around passing to the opposition they can put the third team in all sorts of trouble, as well as relieving pressure on themselves. Just don’t do it anywhere near your own goal.
It is an exciting, fascinating time to be involved with 3SF. Every match teaches new lessons, sometimes immediately apparent in the fury of battle, sometimes not discovered until long after you have left the pitch, dissecting the game with teammates during post-match refreshments or in an idle moment on your own when suddenly a shaft of light reveals a new idea. And then, it’s waiting for the next match when you can experiment with your new tactic, your new formation, your new cunning ploy, and finding if it yields reward or ruin.
League play has brought with it an entirely new set of variables. As every goal goes in players furiously try to process each permutation of how that affects their position, while still trying to play a slide-rule pass or shepherd an attacker onto their weaker foot. Logic is abandoned as grudges play out over an entire season and teams win the league defending another team’s goal (as happened in the penultimate game of the 2014-15 season – a tale to be told another time).
One thing that was learned very early on playing 3SF was that nobody likes a winner. Indeed, it is central to the game. It is widely acknowledged that going into the final third ahead will usually mean you’ll spend a lot of the remaining time defending that lead. But what to do? Intentionally concede in the hope the opposition will focus elsewhere? It hasn’t happened yet, but it shouldn’t be discounted. Another generally accepted maxim is that teams will gang up on the team who has had the temerity to win recent matches. In the early days this was Philosophy Football FC, and since winning the league New Cross Irregulars have faced the dubious honour of heading into each match against a formal alliance between the other two teams. It is because of this that in three-sided football, the favourite will more often than not find themselves the underdog.
Unless that team is filled with ex-professionals playing against those more used to jumpers and schoolbags for goalposts.