A Game of Three Halves

The 3SF pitch

When there are three top flight games on in the pub of a Sunday, it’s hard to look beyond the simple pleasures of a late summer afternoon in a boozer, watching men kick a ball, in the company of your favourite idiots. Indeed, the Raider had just left home with a cheery, ‘Back in six hours, darling,’ when he got my text:

‘Heading to three-sided football, Fordham Park. New Cross v Deptford v Philosophy.’

He was powerless to resist.

We arrived at the little grass oasis behind New Cross Station with our bag of tinnies, as the players were setting out two pitches. It was a double header. Bonus. The adjacent pitch would host Strategic Optimism v Husaria v Athletico Aesthetico. We were going to watch the top six sides of the Deptford Three-Sided Football League. Or to put it another way, the bottom six sides of the D3SFL.

Strategic gin
Warm up

It was nice to see the players didn’t mind interacting with members of the public during their warm up routine.

‘Is that a gin and tonic?’ I asked Chris of SOFC as he downed a can.

‘Gin and diet tonic.’

‘Silly me.’

What is Three-Sided Football?

Three-sided football is a match between three teams: Three teams of five players, with three goals and one ball on a hexagonal pitch. They play for three 20-minute thirds and the winner is the team that concedes the fewest goals. All teams attack both their opponents goals, unless they form an alliance with one of them. Teams form temporary unions within the game to attack the third side but can be subject to sudden betrayal and attack from both the other teams, leaving five players defending their goal against ten. There is no offside and there are rush goalies. Teams get no points for a win, one for coming second and two for coming third, so the team with the least points wins the league. It’s as simple as that.

The game is the brainchild of Asger Jorn, the Danish artist and author who co-founded the Situationist International along with, among others, Guy Debord (who we have already met in our Psychogeography for Beginners). Jorn devised it to illustrate his theory of triolectics, a three-sided logic system that goes beyond the focus on true or false outcomes, by adding a third option. And what better way to manifest the refinement of dialectic materialism than with an impenetrable, three-sided game of soccerball?

Jorn never got to play the game he invented – I’m not even sure he was the sporty type. It is thought the first game was played in 1994 in Scotland as an offshoot of a Glasgow anarchist gathering. The match was chaotic and the players swiftly decamped to the pub, but a seed had been planted and games continued to crop up around the world, often in unlikely places: Tenement roofs, town squares, Lithuanian woods.

Mark Dyson played in that very first match and many others since, before starting Deptford Three-Sided Football Club (D3FC) and founding the league in 2012, which some know as the Luther Blissett Three-Sided Football League.

Silkeborg, Denmark – Jorn’s hometown – hosted the first Three-Sided Football World Cup in 2014, with teams from England, France, Germany, Poland and Lithuania (who chose to represent Uruguay). The competition is to be repeated every three years, natch.

Can't see the goals for the trees
Can’t see the goals for the trees

South East London is the hub of the three-sided game in the UK with New Cross hosting games on the first Sunday of the month from September to June. The same six teams are competing in this the fourth season of league football. In theory the game is free of the kind of ‘us and them’ aggression of regular football, but with added treachery and connivance. Naturally some players and teams take it more seriously than others, but with the pitches free and everyone welcome to watch or play, it retains a kind of purity that our long-sullied national game has lost.

Amazingly, after four years and 41 games they have never experienced anything but good weather for a three-sided game. The sun shines on the tri-ghteous.

Match Report: New Cross Irregulars (0) D3FC (3) Philosophy Football FC (3)

It was only the second game of the season, but PFFC and D3FC seemed determined to gang up on last year’s champions New X, attacking their goal together, but to no avail. The orange shirts of New X held firm, prompting shifting alliances. One moment Deptford were attacking New X’s goal, but seeing the path blocked, they quickly switched to a surprise attack on PFFC. Even though the emphasis, in theory, should be on defence and possession, all teams are more intent on attack, which makes for a much better game.

Though all sides display a level of skill and commitment, New X were well organised and attacked more purposefully as a team. With Philosophy and Deptford both having conceded two goals, it was clear neither was likely to overhaul New X, so they began to attack each other. No one wants to come third in a game of football. They both conceded again, which meant they shared a losing draw and picked up two points each.

Field of threams
New X v D3FC v PFFC at the theatre of threams

Elsewhere in the league, Strategic Optimism performed their trademark tactic of conceding a plethora of goals early doors. This meant their goal was pretty much disregarded late in the contest and they were able to mount a stirring comeback that saw them come second to the Polish team, Husaria FC. It was both a strategic and optimistic manoeuvre. The match finished Husaria (1) SOFC (4) Athletico Aesthetico (5).

Over to you, Barry.

Post-game analysis

Some of the players trooped to the Marquis of Granby, the only proper football pub at this end of New Cross, to catch the end of a fascinating Tottenham v Man City game and sit outside chatting to the smorgasbord of strangers that settle on the table out front.

It’s a fine pub for the footy. The beer is pretty good, the staff are nice and there’s a big screen at the back, one telly at the front and a little TV for the racing by the side of the bar. There were plenty watching, the sound was up; it were proper. After watching Spurs surprise City, we caught up with a couple of 3-sided footballers and their friends, joined on a table by an eclectic mix of wanderers. There was an ex-raver in his 40s for whom the beat goes on and on. He sat down in the middle of the crowd and introduced himself to everyone, talking non-stop, quite pissed, but warm and chatty and cheeky. There were people having their first night out in New Cross at the start of their life at Goldsmith’s but holding their own and showing great judgement by sitting outside the boozer on a Sunday afternoon when their fellow students were busy nesting in halls. It was an inspiring confluence of humanity’s oddness, not unlike three-sided football.

The three-siders spoke of legendary games of the past: The stone circle at Hilly Fields, Marx’s grave and the Tate Modern. They tried playing in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, but were stopped by security, who weren’t too heavy about it. They were told to just email in and ask for permission. They did so the very next day and got an immediate response asking when they wanted to do it. They replied: ‘Yesterday.’

Is it any wonder we’re drawn to such genius? As Mark Dyson told Vice magazine: ‘[We’re] just trying to work as little as possible and play as much as possible.’

Heroes, all.

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Image credit: Woods by Florina Tudose

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