Wednesday, 30 June 2010

England: Not Anarchist Enough

After John Barnes' extraordinary claim that England's footballers don't have enough of a socialist mentality comes Germany's two-goal hero Thomas Müller, who makes a similar point (minus the political metaphor)- arguing that England have 'too many chiefs and not enough Indians'.

pic: Toby Price

Both, I feel, are on to something. Perhaps the most prominent example of what they're getting at was Steven Gerrard's incessantly hopeless long-range shooting: a marked feature of England's World Cup campaign (and noted in this post of Mark's). He frequently persisted with it even when there were better placed teammates, so it's easy to support Barnes and Müller and note that a rather more 'collective' mentality might have served England a little better.

Yet to my mind this analysis rests on a troublesome dichotomy: that of the individual versus the collective. To overcome this- and think how a football team should match individual 'talent' with collective strength- we might turn again to political theory, appealing this time to anarchism rather than socialism.

For 'classical' anarchists, there is no inherent tension between the individual and their society; the relationship is one of mutuality in which the interests of the individual are best served by working as part of a collective. Kropotkin's Mutual Aid is perhaps the best known proponent of this work arguing for this, portraying a convergence of the interests of the one and the many:

'On our mutual relations every one of us has his moments of revolt against the fashionable individualistic creed of the day, and actions in which men are guided by their mutual aid inclinations constitute so great a part of our daily intercourse that if a stop to such actions could be put all further ethical progress would be stopped at once. Human society itself could not be maintained for even so much as the lifetime of one generation'.

George Woodcock, meanwhile, argues that anarchism is to be distinguished from Marxism in its insistence that collectivity is not privileged over the individual: anarchist but survive because each individual retains their freedom, but sees that it is in their interests to keep the bonds strong.

Of particular interest to me, though, is the 'post-left' guise of anarchism: a strongly individualist current which flows through Nietzsche and Stirner through Deleuze (& Guattari) and on to thinkers like Alfredo M. Bonnano and Hakim Bey. It is a strand of thought with which I have a number of problems (particularly in the anti-civilisational guise of John Zerzan), but there's much I find to admire in its urgent calls for individual liberty*.

Suspicious of the essentialism inherent in Kropotkin's appeal to the 'laws of nature', post-left anarchism further muddies the boundary between the individual and the collective: individuals are both 'fully a part of the crowd and at the same time completely outside it', as Deleuze and Guattari would have it. It is not possible to say that 'the interests of the individual tally with the interests of the collective', because it is not possible to discern where the interests of the individual and the interests of the collective begin and end. As Hakim Bey puts it, 'Individual vs Group- Self vs. Other [is] a false dichotomy propagated through the Media of Control...Self and Other complement and complete one another.'

To me, this speaks loudly to the needs of a football team. Supremely disciplined collective play can be successful (and, in its own way, fascinating)- Greece's Euro 2004 triumph and Inter Milan's success this season just finished are testament to that- but all too often well-drilled, disciplined teams are too predictable in attack and struggle when the onus is on them to make something happen (Greece v Argentina and Portugal v Spain would be prime examples at this World Cup). To answer this problem- and the problem of England's lack of solidarity- I would argue for a form of anarchist football in which attacking players are allowed to express their creativity in full (of course, defensive players need to be somewhat more disciplined and team-spirited- curbing any attacking urges to prevent the opposition from exploiting space they leave unoccupied). Revelling in their freedom, attackers see no need to try the ridiculous in order to prove themselves or give themselves a feeling of legitimacy (this echoes Max Stirner's account of the 'union of egoists' in The Ego and Its Own).

The point for a manager, then, is not to deny their attacking players their egos- but to get players' egos to co-operate; to pull in the same direction. There must be no competition between the attackers in a team; each member must be happy for his teammates to retain their individuality and happy that their own individuality is respected. There is no need to shoot from ridiculous angles and distances merely to show (to themselves as much as anyone) that they can do it. Gerrard and Lampard no longer need to compete to show who is most worthy of playing; Rooney does not need to prove to himself how good he is.

Manchester United's triumvarate of Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo was perhaps the ultimate expression of this form of football: the three of them swarming forward and retaining their individual flair but acting as a devestating unit. You cannot tell me that any of them tempered their egos- rather they followed them through to the full and strengthened their bonds as they did. They were fully a part of the team and yet fully outside any notion of 'collectivity': there is nothing 'collective' about a sharp turn of pace, a stepover, an improvised chip into the corner**. As I discuss here, Carlos Alberto Parriera's claim that the formation of the future is 4-6-0 resonates strongly with this form of 'anarchist' football.

The problem for England is not that they have too many chiefs and not enough Indians, but that they have too many players who want to be chief and rule over the other Indians. They're worried about their place in the team; scared of each other; fearful of not being as good as they could be. It's a problem of Nietzschean ressentiment- a 'slave mentality'. Rather than having more Indians, England needs more Chiefs. Rather than being socialist, England need to be more anarchist.

*though I do quite like Colin Ward's scathing riposte (in Talking Anarchy, with David Goodaway) that he'd known a good few 'individualist' anarchists and found them all to be startlingly boring people.

**I once saw an interview with a footballing legend- it may well have been George Best- and he said he didn't really care whether his team won; he just wanted to play beautiful football. But of course him playing beautiful football would make it more likely that his team would win, and his team winning would make it more likely he would have the time and space to play beautiful football.

Patterning (or Why Ronaldo spits)

Ronaldo spitting, his (adams) apple bobbing; Gerrard's thousand yard stare; Rooney's simian growl; Torres's odd gait, like an adolescent whose body is growing too fast for his brain; Messi's shocked awe at a team winning without him. So far, these have been the lowlights of the World Cup; the stars going out, the Nike curse...

Why such terrible form for their country?

There's already plenty of data unfolding, theories being unravelled... you just have to peer through the cracks in the fans' hands to see that everyone has a theory. There's a lot of bellyaching in the British Press about honour and national identity and... guff mostly and unsupportable. It seems unlikely that Patriotism or lack of it is responsible. At least 3 of the Germans actively refuse to sing their National Anthem on the grounds that it isn't their National Anthem but their team spirit doesn't seem to be lacking and, if anything their players seem to be displaying the reverse effect; playing better for their country after an indifferent season for their clubs.

People haven't been going crazy trying to buy Klose or Podolski in the close season but...

An idea struck me while watching the Spain vs Portugal game. A simple idea but one I think is worthy of further investigation. In Ronaldo et al's club teams, the team and the tactics are based around them, are for them, are built around their strengths. Man United buy some wingers to whip crosses in and Rooney scores, gulp, lots of headers. Torres has Gerrard can only really play together now, apart all the flaws start to show - Liverpool have to play in a way that gets the best out of them (Kuyt seems to have had a reasonable tournament; the unflashiness helping the Netherlands steady progress). Ronaldo has nippy strikers to play against and with and some serious looking, though skillful, holding players to negate the problem of him losing the ball (to be fair, he often loses the ball but mostly it matters less because his club team mates are able to get the ball back).

In their club teams, the weaknesses in their teams can be bought around, can be coolly considered and weighted against other other concerns - this inevitably makes the star player even more of a star since everything is weighted in their favour. In the National team, the dynamic is different; there are either more stars or less choice and either way this can be a killer for the over-indulged big players, things aren't set up to go their way and, in fact, in the case of the England set up things may even seem to be actively against them - just look at their little faces...

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

"Football is a socialist sport"

John Barnes gives his opinion on the reasons behind England's exit from the World Cup. Worth reading in its entirety.

"The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don't perceive themselves to be that. That's why I use Messi as an example. As much as he's a superstar he respects his team-mates and their collective efforts. [...] Players from other nations when they play for their country are once again a socialist entity, all pulling in the same direction [...] football was different in our day because we had a relationship with the fans and we were normal people [...] England gets by on the individual ability of a Rooney or a Gerrard or a Lampard, rather than collective method or strategy. Now if that individual either isn't playing or he doesn't play well, that means you can't win. Spain has an identity. If you black out the faces and don't know who's playing, you can still say this Spain because of the way they play. You can see Brazil because of the way they play. We haven't got a method. We need to create an identity."

Via Ed Knock of The Crystal World on Twitter.

"The funniest book about football ever written ..."

Deserved praise for David Stubbs' Send Them Victorious from Scott Murray in The Guardian's World Cup blog on Sunday:

    Anyway, the English papers have been embarrassing themselves today, as you'd expect. It's been war this, blitz that, Churchill speeches the other. Any English fan thoroughly sick of this myopic nonsense – and anyone else interested in football, frankly – is advised to read a new book called Send Them Victorious: England's Path To Glory 2006-2010 by David Stubbs. A series of England match reports written by "biased but fair" jingoistic Boer War veteran The Wing Commander, it gives both the Fourth Estate and the players they overhype a right old shoeing, and is pretty much the funniest book about football ever written. Here's a tinder-dry snippet from an England-Germany report:

    "It is no exaggeration, but rather an imaginative simile, to compare this game to World War II – World War II, that is, minus the participation of Churchill, Field Marshall Montgomery, Adolf Hitler, Herman Goering, and Douglas Bader, who like our own Frank Lampard, suffered from the handicap of not being able to use his legs in any effective way."

    You have got to love this book.

Musical interlude: crossbar challenge

Baron Mordant vs...

The golden generation's statistical failure

James Lawton makes a spirited defence of Capello in the Independent today, but I fear that the tabloid/ TV narrative has already locked into the familiar pattern that can only end with Capello's sacking. As ever with these artifically-generated "clamours", there's plenty of bloodlust but little thought about who could do the job better. With Hodgson, the only English candidate with any international or European experience, looking as if he will take on the Liverpool job, the FA will have to look for another foreign coach (with an inferior record to Capello's) or turn to a manager with pretty modest record of domestic success like Redknapp, or, God forbid, back to the dark ages with the likes of Allardyce.

The statistics below, listed in Lawton's piece, tell their own story - confirming, for one thing, my long-held conviction that Gerrard is one of the most wasteful midfielders around. I doubt you will find another midfielder in international football so profligate with possession as Gerrard.


    3 Lost the ball in in tackles 32 times in the Germany game – more than anyone other player

    55 Completed only 55 per cent of his passes against Germany, less than any other player

    9 Failed to score in his last nine England games, his longest barren spell for the national team


    10 Struck 10 shots from outside the penalty area, none of which went in

    3 Only three of 16 crosses from Gerrard found another player in a red shirt

    64 Gerrard's pass completion rate was the lowest amongst England's midfielders


    37 The free-kick that struck the bar in the crushing defeat against Germany was Lampard's 37th shot without scoring

    16 Has the most shots in this World Cup without scoring

    29 Of 197 completed passes, only 29 were to a forward


    8 Was forced to make eight blocks over the course of the finals, more than any other player at the finals

    39 Resorted to playing long balls from the back on 39 occasions

    4 The defensive display against Germany was the worst since England conceded four against Uruguay in 1954


    19 Fabio Capello has the highest win percentage ratio of any England manager, winning 19 of his 28 games in charge (67.9 per cent)

Monday, 28 June 2010

Options, illustrated

David Beckham, there, placing a strong fourth. That's the David Beckham who has no coaching or managerial experience, and who didn't even seem like a great thinker or communicator as a player. Still, he looks good in a three-piece suit, and he gets angry when things go against England on the pitch. What could go wrong?

(I suppose the logic is that we tried a vastly experienced, decorated coaching legend with a great reputation in the game, and that didn't work, so now it's time to try something different...)

Steve McLaren is on the list, and somebody in the comments thread makes a plea for recalling Glenn Hoddle. As Danny Baker quipped to a caller making a similar argument after the Algeria game, "I hear Walter Winterbottom's available..."

In a way, Hodgson is another name from the past. He's been in the running for this job since the nineties - he was touted as a candidate after Glenn Hoddle's departure, and he made the FA's three-man shortlist to replace Keegan in 2000. He may well be the best of the candidates, but like David James in the No.1 jersey, he seems to have got there by outlasting all of his rivals, rather than through any tremendous effort of his own. What probably put the final gloss on Hodgson's CV from the FA's point of view was the relative success of his current spell with Fulham - managerial achievements abroad still seem to count for little over here.

Hoorah for neo-Victorian insularity!

Brazil have already won this World Cup

Long, long ago, Brazil used to represent fantasy football. Now - everywere but in the minds of commentators, still clogged with mouldering images of 1970 - Brazil are international football's equivalent of the reality principle. Their victories are as inevitable as they are joyless, pulverising not only their opponents but any sense of drama and romance like flowers under the wheels of a tank. This is not a team that has tempered flair with organisation; it is a team whose success is entirely almost based on athleticism and positional discipline. There was a suffocating flatness about Brazil's destruction of Chile tonight; it was if Brazil's remorselessy effective defence - by some distance the most miserly in the competition, protected by a steely shield of two holding midfielders - had drawn the very oxygen from the air.
Brazil are the Terminator of the World Cup. "There is no fate," was the slogan of the latest Terminator film, but Brazil's success in this World Cup seems fated, the script written by their corporate sponsors, Nike, with teams like Chile tonight reduced to the role of background drones in the tediously slick CGI-driven commercials. It feels like Brazil have already won the World Cup, and that anything else will be a triumph for surprise over grim inevitability. That inevitability feels even more fated when you remember that no European teams have won outside Europe, and that Brazil have won all but two of the tournaments held outside Europe since 1958, including both of the tournaments that were hosted outside Europe and South America. Who, if anyone, can stop the inevitable from happening, and restore some sense of surprise and romance to the World Cup?

Fairness and Video Technology

Following Frank Lampard's disallowed goal against Germany, and then Carlos Tevez's goal against Mexico which in turn was allowed, despite an impromptu video replay in the stadium showing that Tevez was conspicuously offside, the cry has been renewed for video technology to be introduced into the “multi-million pound” world of football, as a matter of urgent common sense. Frank Lampard wants it. Tim Henman wants it, as does Sue Barker, who interviewed him the day after at Wimbledon. Gary Lineker certainly wants it. (This is far too important an issue for the BBC to maintain its customary effort at impartiality). Smarting redly at England's ignominious defeat against Germany, Lineker muttered to Match Of The Day panellists Hansen and Shearer that video technology was something for which “everyone” was clamouring but which was denied solely because of the obduracy of “Sepp Blatter and his cronies”.

Now, there are doubtless plenty of reasons to narrow one's eyes in the direction of Sepp Blatter, as well as the dubious operations of FIFA. However, in this context, Blatter's role is the nebulous one of greasy, foreign Head Gnome, acting in an arbitrary and high-handed way, his agenda, like that of Michel Platini, to do England down.

However, wrong as he may be in all kinds of ways and about all kinds of things, Blatter is right to rule out video technology. This is not to say that mistakes have not been made, will be made. However, so it has been since the beginning of footballing time. They are a very occasional hazard, rather than fatal occurrences. In 1932, for example, in what became known as the “over the line” final, Newcastle beat Arsenal following an equaliser from a long ball which according to photographic evidence crossed the dead ball line before winger Jimmy Richardson crossed it back into play. Unfortunate, but hardly the ruin of Arsenal, who went on to dominate the decade, winning three successive championships. And one hardly needs point up the disingenuous smirks with which Englanders discuss Geoff Hurst's extra time goal in the 1966 World Cup Final, which are doubtless on the lips of German fans today. In both games, it was clear who ultimately deserved to win.

But then, some argue, now that we have such technology, which is applied in tennis and rugby, why not apply it in football? Well, for one thing, both tennis and rugby are games which are full of pauses in play, changes of end, interruptions. The technology slots in well to such games. In football, which is already increasingly blighted by outbreaks of heated, onfield litigation, you can be sure that the natural flow of the game would be broken up even more.

There is also the principle, cited by FIFA, of expense. It is one thing to have VT installed at the high end of the game, the World Cup, the Champions League. But then how far down into the domestic leagues can such a fundamental change in the way the game is refereed be applied? It is one of the virtues of football that the rules as abided by in organised leagues of pub teams on Hackney Marshes are the same as those abided by at the Nou Camp. In a game that is becoming increasingly high ended and subject to corporate forces, this egalitarian thread feels sovereign. Video Technology would be in breach of that. Sure, it's been argued, there are no fourth officials or technical areas on Hackney Marshes. Fair point, but these are far less radical tools of adjudication. Moreover, despite the claims of VT advocates that they would be sparing in its use, there's little doubt that once introduced it would be the thin end of the wedge – pressure would soon be applied, and succumbed to, for video adjudication on penalties, offsides, free-kicks, off-the-ball incidents. Then you would have a two-tier football – one at the high end, full on interruptions and contested decisions, the other its poor, increasingly detached, video-less relation.

Rugby is a salutary example in other ways. A relatively small sport compared with football, it's been subjected to all kinds of modernisation (Murdochisation?) in order to make a play for a bigger audience, suffering the undignified uprooting of many of its traditions. It isn't just video technology, it's giant hooters in lieu of final whistles and teams renamed The Rhinos. The marketing people, the meddlers, have been able to have their way with it, and to an extent, cricket. They would love to do the same to football and have certainly succeeded in making some inroads in some ways. However, the deep-rooted, worldwide nature of the game has made it fundamentally resistant in other respects. In football, you still get teams called Wanderers and Rovers. There are, as yet, no Super leagues, 39th games. And there is, as yet, no video technology. It's all of a piece.

The most loudly professed concern of those pressing for VT is fairness. However, in the balance of things, a sort of makeshift karma, or simply the laws of chance, ensures that eventually these things balance out – cf, 1966, 2010. The imperfections of the present system should function as a reminder that this is just a game, which should be neither overvalued nor undervalued as such. Moreover, if fairness is the paramount concern, than there are surely far more pressing issues to address in the modern game – the super-privileges of the top few moneyed teams in Europe, and their continued efforts to ensure that the ladder of opportunity is pulled up behind them, with success and access to the best emerging talent exclusive to them in perpetuity. Or the way fans are increasingly squeezed by opportunistic club owners, some of whom are making them pay for their own, ill-advised, leveraged purchases. These represent far larger injustices than the odd bad decision visited on a just wage earner like Frank Lampard.

England's Super-GAU

The likelihood is that this match will leave more scars more than any of England's World Cup defeats. I hesitate to use the phrase perfect storm, but almost every detail of the game seems to accumulate into a massive migraine-inducing weatherfront of depression. Practically every potential weakness identified in the team manifested itself, and what should have been its strengths were only demonstrated by the opposing side. [EDIT: I've retitled this post in the light of Locus's fascinating explanation of the term 'super-GAU' in the comment below: 'largest presumable accident: the limit of calculation of breakdown in any particular context.'). Let us count the ways.

There are no excuses: this England team was coached and organized by one of the best coaches in the world. Capello was given absolutely everything he asked for in preparation, superb facilities, altitude training. It was played in the cooler temperatures of a South African winter. Fatigue cannot be blamed. The players had weeks to recuperate and recover from their season. None were involved in the Champions League after the quarterfinal stage. (The 38-game Premier League schedule cannot seriously be blamed: the Spanish, Italian and French leagues all play 38 games, and while France and Italy also went home early, Spain did not, and have in fact dominated the last few years of international football. Above all else, those four leagues are packed with most of the world's best players, so the 20-team, 38-game schedule cannot be exclusively impacting on England's performances, yet not say, Brazil's.)

No consolation: this was no heroic, glorious failure. England only dominated the game for two spells, shortly before and after half-time. Lampard's disallowed goal aside, there was nothing about Germany's goals to complain about, no referee-ing outrages, no injustices, just stunning ineptitude in the English defensive and midfield.

And then the historical ironies. In the build up, Franz Beckenbauer had disparaged the English for playing the same old kick-and-rush percentage game. Germany's first goal? A huge goal-kick straight up the middle into the space left by two dozing centrebacks. The first time an outfield player touched it was also the last, as Klose diverted it past James. And Lampard's goal will of course be greeted as no more than cosmic justice by the many German fans who still dispute Hurst's winning goal in '66.

Even more painful was the degree to which the England team - the apotheosis in theory of all the Premiership's power - was systematically taken apart by a team playing Premiership football: fast, direct, relentless and set up in a 4-2-3-1. As this interview with Jürgen Klinsmann reveals, the Premier League's pace and pattern of play was the explicit model for the reinvention of the German side undertaken in preparation for World Cup 2006. In fact the seeds of this re-invention probably lie a few years earlier, and therein lies another historical cruelty. In 2001, a young English side beat a more senior and experienced Germany 5-1 in Munich. They didn't dominate possession and steamroller their opponents from first to last, but having gone in at half-time at 2-1 after an early German goal, they played superbly on the break thereafter. Germany had to come forward, and clinical through-balls from Gerrard, Beckham and Scholes for the lightning fast Owen and Heskey made the win look more comprehensive than it really was. The effect on the Germans was massive though: a 'supergau', said Oliver Kahn, a nuclear explosion. The year zero from which German football began to rebuild. Only a fifth German goal was wanting to underline this game's lineage.

And England lost playing in 4-4-2, the archetypal English formation.

But this is where things get confusing and discussion of a national footballing ethos begins to breakdown. Because 4-4-2 just isn't the 'English' way anymore. In fact it's hardly ever seen anymore in the Premier League, and one of its most dogged adherents was the not very English Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

That 'English' footballing template Klinsmann and Löw adopted? Its directness is in fact a highly cosmopolitan concept, introduced by managers open to ideas from across Europe. The Premier League is often equated with the England team. But as the most popular league in the world, there is little sense in which it is English. Its international audience is massive. Licensing peculiarities mean that it is easier to watch in Iran and Uganda than it is in the UK where it is mostly locked up in pay TV. Its top clubs are owned by foreign oligarchs and billionaires. They are not, and have not been for a long time, managed by Englishmen. These England players have been trained to play the game by the elite of continental footballing technocrats: Mourinho, Houllier, Benitez, Wenger, Hiddink, Ancelotti. I would even include Carlos Queiroz in that list, because though he has never managed in the PL and was a dismal failure at Real Madrid, he is universally credited with organizing Man United's shift to 4-2-3-1, as well as their defensive solidity and dependence on lightning counter-attacks. The fact that the England team hold their own individually in this environment proves not just that they can compete at international level, but that they can play disciplined, structured, subtle and flexible football.

So Capello's choice of 4-4-2 and the players' interpretation of it is a post in itself (coming soon since you ask).

But psychological pressure, the massive glacial pressure of personal confidence (over-inflated by the Sky-tabloid hype machine), multiplied by the nine noughts of national hope and expectation, and then set against the weight of history's defeats, is clearly a problem that had not been dealt with. This is a neurotic team, so fixated on not failing for once that it is drawn magnetically towards the trapdoor exit. You have to hope none of the team had read Richard Williams' piece last week on the stakes of the Slovenia game: essentially the future financial health, even viability of the Premier League and FA, in a period when few promising England players seem to be coming through. Whoever is managing England when qualification for Euro 2012 begins, perhaps the most important signing the FA could make would be this man: Steve Peters.

Heskey isn't the problem

"There's a sense of relief when England go out of a major championship, like the end of a short but crap relationship," wrote Charles on his twitter feed. In truth, there is little to love about the "golden generation". Lampard does everything to conceal his reputed intelligence; there's an air of mealy-mouthed cruelty about him, as if he's fresh from reducing someone to tears at a nightclub. Gerrard has a kind of feckless fatalism. But it's Terry, with his slow, animal-stupid eyes, lumbering frame and brute malice, who sums up all that's loathsome about the England team, and indeed English culture. It's no accident that Enric Gonzalez singles out Terry - who mocked American tourists after 9/11, was arrested for brawling, parked his car in a disabled bay, all before the business with Wayne Bridge's ex - in his piece on how Thatcherite individualism has wrecked England's capacity for collective endeavour.

Heskey's being scapegoated, but he wasn't the problem. Yes, it was mystifying why Capello put him on yesterday when England needed goals, but the general thinking behind the inclusion of a player like Heskey is sound. He's the exact opposite of Hollywood - a player whose role is to allow others to play. The same is the case for Barry - a player of limited ability for sure, but one who can play short passes to team-mates and who will work for the team. (Yes, he was caught in possession for one of the Germany goals, but that was in the opponents' penalty area: he might legitimately have expected his team-mates to cover for him.) Millner, too, who at his best in this tournament resembled his Villa mentor John Robertson - his loping stride meant that he looks too slow to beat the full-back, but suddenly, inexplicably, he's past the defender and putting in a deadly cross. Germany has far more Heskeys, Barrys and Milners than it does Lampards or Gerrards; it's just that their equivalents of Barry, Heskey and Milner are fitter and faster. (The one England superstar who did live up to his reputation in my view was Ashley Cole - solid defensively when not exposed by Terry, comfortable on the ball, and a threat going forward.)

One of the pleasing trends in this World Cup, actually, has been its underming of the cult of the individual. It's as if the games so far have been an answer of the Real to capitalism's obsessive individualism.
Despite the punditocracy palpably willing him to excel (Digital Ben has pointed out the absurdity of newspapers making him man of the match even when they score other players in the Argentina team higher in the match ratings), Messi has yet to really impress in the required way. As @andrewspooner acidly observed on twitter yesterday, "Drogba, Canavaro, Walcott, Evra, Ribery, Rooney, Ronaldhino - all suffering from Nike advert curse - only Ronaldo left."

The photophobic Englishman

One of the many reasons that gets put forward to explain England's failure to win a second World Cup is that of its timing.

Faced with explaining the disparity between players who shine in the league over the winter, but play like shadows of themselves in the summer, experts point out that having been raised to play on such blasted tundra as the London suburbs, and in some cases - Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle - well within the Arctic Circle and exclusively with those hi-vis orange balls that show up in the snow, England players struggle when the sun is out and they are asked to run in temperatures as high as 28 degrees.

There are times when this seems almost plausible. In 2002 England went 1-0 up against Brazil, in a quarterfinal played in the stifling humidity of a Japanese summer. The memory of Oldham-born asthmatic redhead Paul Scholes labouring in the blazing sun to keep the ball while all around him were losing it, can still stir pity in my stony heart (the one I keep in a box and install only when called upon to imagine that Man United players are human beings too). Brazil dominated possession, forcing England to expend energy in chasing the ball, but they did indeed seem less bothered by the heat, and who knows, maybe their formative years in the Brazilian climate had left them better prepared.

The problem essentially with this theory is that it's complete bollocks. For a start, in 2002, the same year England came down with heat exhaustion, Germany – not exactly a set of players raised in tropical climates – reached the final. And this year, England, playing in in the cooler temperatures of the South African winter, completely failed to play their natural high-tempo, high-pressing game.

Of course the next World Cup is also to be played in the Southern hemisphere so England has one more chance to prove the photophobia thesis. It's just unfortunate that the same World Cup gives Brazil home advantage.


Before a inane montage featuring quotes juxaposing English and German authors (Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche versus Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, a rubric of selection interesting in itself), the BBC showed a short clip of the abilities of the German squad and in particular mid-fielder Mesut Özil. The kind of play the Germans exhibited here favoured good passes ahead of the man, who sprints forward now having gained huge space, or incisive diagonal passes through opposition players as team mates run forward. Özil, as the pundit-bot remarks, has great intelligence, an ability to look up and pass and as Mark pointed out, compared to the England side, a refreshing lack of ego with regard to his need to shoot blindly from a distance and squander precious chances. It was precisely these kind of moves that enabled the two near identical German goals scored on the break as well as the second German goal - the first we can put down to, as the commentators noted, unbelievably weak Sunday league goalkeeping. In fact, substituting highlights of yesterday's game for the short clip they showed, it would be difficult to tell the difference. This is apart from adding several embarrassing minutes of Germany forming almost neat triangles and passing the ball about in a humiliating game of piggy in the middle. Indeed, the discipline of the German side, and its ability to stay in position (compare the first shot) and form these triangles where you always have passing options, people in space and support, was clear throughout the game. Compare this to England's bunching around one another.




Does anyone on the England squad actually watch their opposition's form?

Don't blame Capello, blame the players

With his talk of "unrest in the camp" yesterday, Alan Shearer was starting to play his part in the standard responsibility-shifting exercise with which the English media always collude: blame the coach, not the player. A story is being prepared: the players weren't happy, Capello was too strict (just as, according to prevailing tabloid opinion, Sven, Mclaren and Venables were too lax), OK, Capello made mistakes (what coach doesn't), but, if anything, the problem was the Don's inability to impose sufficient discipline on the (golden) shower of players. I'm not resiling on my previous claim that the problem with these players is not their lack of technical ability; what most of the "golden genetration" lack, rather, is a certain kind of humility. (And athleticism: the most evident physical failing of the England team yesterday was their alarming lack of pace.)

Compare Schweinsteiger to Gerrard and Lampard. Most of Schweinsteiger's work is unfussy, even anonymous; it's a matter of short linking passes and rapid worker-bee movement. But Gerrard, with his raking, would-be defence-splitting passes to nowhere, and Lampard, invisible until he squanders a goalscoring opportunity, won't come on set if it isn't Hollywood. The longstanding difficulty with playing them together isn't just a question of the incompatibility of their playing styles. It's that (1) you can't afford players like this who contribute so little to the humdrum cohesion of the team and (2) in order to thrive, such players depend on others who will do this more mundane linking work. The problem for England in many ways is not that the players can't make the step up to international football, but that they are not willing to make (what they see as) the step down to the menial watercarrying duties that are essential to team play. The case against Gerrard was made by the graphic showing his contributions during play for England. The fact that Gerrard can't hold his assigned position was being posited as a reason for Capello not playing on the left, but really it is a testament to his indiscipline and egotism.

No-one sums this up this syndrome more than John Terry, as Sid Lowe argued yesterday:

    Germany's opener came directly from their keeper, the ball bouncing twice before Klose scored. As the ball flew through the air, John Terry was in line with Upson. But not in line alongside him, as you'd expect two centre-backs to be, but in line in front of him, by six or seven metres. He'd come out from the back for no apparent reason whatsoever.

    When it sailed over Terry's head neither Upson nor James dealt with it well, but they had been sold down the river.

    In England, Terry is held up as one of the best defenders in the world. But where the hell was he going?

    Pretty much the same place he was going for the second goal, as it happens. Again he left his post, leaving a huge gap in his wake. Most the fingers were pointed at Glenn Johnson when Podolski got away from him to finish the move off. But the goal was actually created on the other side of the pitch.

    Again, Germany exploited a huge space in the channel between Ashley Cole's position and the centre-back slot that Terry had vacated - it had come from exactly the same place as a chance James saved from Klose three minutes earlier.

    It was no coincidence that throughout Muller, on Germany's right, was the game's most dangerous player.

My theory on yesterday's defensive anarchy is that players like Terry decided to rebel against what they perceived as Capello's restrictions, thinking that they knew better than the Boss, and choosing to roam wherever they pleased. How else can you account for the crazed indiscipline at 2-1? England were creating goalscoring opportunities; Germany's defence looked nervous. Why push most of the team up, in a straight line, for free kicks and throw ins, leaving yawning, cavernous gaps for Germany to run and pass through at will?

The roots of this individualism no doubt run deep in recent English culture (Enric Gonzalez blames Thatcher's destruction of social cohesion and working class soldarity). If Capello remains in the job, he now has a mandate to crush the golden generation. If someone else, such as Hodgson, comes in, it is imperative that they do it. Gerrard and Lampard can blame the coach if they like, but the reality is that they have underperformed at major international tournaments under a sucession of England managers. Mark E Smith's article on the management of the England team, which Alex Andrews linked to a few days ago, describes exactly what needs to be done.

    The way the England team is now is ridiculous. A team of superstars is like a supergroup. It's like picking the best guitarist in Britain, the best drummer and the best singer, and expecting them to produce something that isn't prog-rock mush. It doesn't work: this England team will never work at the highest level. I know that. See, Sir Alf Ramsey [who managed England's 1966 World Cup win] - people never liked him for it, but he'd always have the full-backs from the second division. He took players and moulded them, like I do with musicians. Gordon Banks, the goalkeeper, was from Stoke City, who were bottom of the first division. They'd conceded more goals that World Cup season than anybody else. But it works. You want a goalie who gets bloody shot at every week!

It's strking how closely the German team - with Klose and Podolkski, who, as I said yesterday, couldn't score a goal for their club to save their lives - fit the model that Smith describes. Meanwhile, teams full of lesser known Premiership or even Championship players and their equivalents, have performed much better than England. But if even Capello can't break the superstar culture at England, who can?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Negative alchemy

Perhaps the key fact about England's dreadful capitulation to Germany today was the : Podolski and Klose can't score for their clubs, but are deadly for Germany. The exact reverse is the case for England's "golden generation" who came nowhere close - not even remotely close - to capturing their premiership form in this tournament. (Well, that's not quite true: Gerrard matched his dreadful premiership form this year, with his standard retinue of ludicrously ambitous possession-losing passes, no-hope shots from distance and positional indiscipline. As @Liverpool_FC noted on twitter, "Let's not mince words - Gerrard's been as poor for ENG as he has been for LFC this season. Real shame to see.") I know some commenters have argued here that the failure of England's top players to reproduce their premiership form is because they are hiding behind better-quality foreign imports at club level, but this doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. Rooney and Lampard are at the heart of the United and Chelsea sides; they aren't peripheral fellow-travellers. Terry, I think, is the one England player whose weaknesses at club level are hidden by superior players around him. He's manifestly too slow, both physically and in his thinking, to be a top quality defender.
I can't remember an England defeat like this - its comprehensive manner removed all tension, depriving England supporters of even the accustomed rush of jouissance that comes from losing heroically. (There was nothing heroic today, and Lampard's disallowed goal is an irrelevance - no team that defended as amateurishly as England did today could expect to progress in the World Cup finals.) In fact, the three first-half goals - and the sense that there were more to goals to come, with Germany's defence scarcely any more watertight than England's - dissipated much of the tension early in the game. And the third and fourth goals killed off all remaining tension long before the final whistle. By then, it was a question of embarrassment, not tension.
I've stuck with Capello throughout but his decisions today were frankly bizarre. The problem was clearly the massive gaps in- and in front of - England's defence, but Don Fabio did nothing to rectify this. Then the mystifying substitutions. Cole was poor when he came on against Slovenia, while Milner still looked like his crosses could pose some threat. If there was ever a time to send on Heskey, it wasn't when England needed three goals to get back in the game. Shaun Wright-Phillips? Words fail me. You have to wonder what Crouch has done to offend the Don (score goals, perhaps: apart from Defoe, he's the only England striker to have hit the back of the net for some time). Perhaps even Capello was subject to the same negative alchemy that afflicted his players. Congratulations to Germany, for sure, but it's still not clear how good they are. What's certain is that they will not come up against a defence that inept again - not only in this World Cup finals, but in international football.

Friday, 25 June 2010

"He'll be in Lake Garda in a few weeks"

Don Fabio showing how he lacks the passion to be an effective manager of England in the World Cup finals . . .

The Ontology of Alan Hansen

Ardent BBC watchers may have noticed that Alan Hansen - always at the forefront of contemporary thought - has developed a new concept in his analyses.

In the buildup to the Greece-Argentina foregone conclusion, having exhausted all possible avenues of conversation relating to Lionel Messi, the panel reluctantly turned their attention to Greece. Hansen, lolling in his usual recumbent position, managed to tip his head forward long enough to drawl 'I saw the Nigeria game... they're officially useless.'

Last night, setting the scene for a competitive all-or-nothing encounter between Denmark and Japan, Hansen commented that the Danes, in their first game against Holland (whose match the panel would clearly rather have been watching), had been 'officially useless'.

What can we learn, then, from Hansen's new construction - 'official uselessness?'

Footballers have long been called 'useless' by their critics. Frank Lampard provides a salutary example of this, and doubtless many other things too. But Hansen's term has connotations beyond the everyday usage of the word. It is not merely a stricter category than 'conventional' uselessness - at times, the two concepts seem to be in complete opposition.

Players who, to laymen, may appear to have served no discernible function in this tournament - Wayne Rooney, most of the French team, several Italians - are not officially useless.

Conversely, players whose utility on the pitch is seemingly obvious (as they, for example, successfully shackle Lionel Messi, or take their unfancied teams beyond the first round) fall into the category of 'officially useless' all the same.

The exact co-ordinates of Hansen Usefulness are difficult to plot, but victory or defeat on the pitch are clearly not relevant to the calculations. Total career transfer value, presence at a top Premier League club, and appearances in sportswear adverts would appear to be the significant factors. We are left to ask ourselves - of the players still competing in the tournament, would Alan Hansen consider more than two dozen or so 'officially useful'? We know that Hansen is difficult to please - a droll Littlewoods Pools advert once played on this fact - but his standards must be becoming more severe than ever.

I think the only conclusion we can draw is that Alan Hansen is capable of perceiving football in dimensions inaccessible to the rest of us, and that if he deems that none of Slovakia's team are worth recalling by name, then he must be correct, regardless of what drab, empirical, unofficial reality suggests.

We can only hope that his Official World Cup has proved as enjoyable as our Apparent one.

Post Hoc, Ergo Bugger Off

Both of 'my' teams exited the World Cup in spite of playing in the same group, which is quite a feat thank you very fucking much, but the reaction in the two nations couldn't have been more different. So while former All Blacks flanker Michael Jones hailed the unbeaten exit by the All Whites as the greatest achievement in New Zealand sporting history, Fabrizio Bocca declared Italy's last place in group F as our worst World Cup performance ever - worse than 1966, even. The best ever, the worst ever. In terms of New Zealand's achievements, I have my reservations about comparing different sports. Why should the fact that it was the Soccer World Cup - the world stage we crave so much down here - mean that a honourable placement in it is worth more than any other feats, including actual victories - say, those racked up by this bloke? But opinions may differ, and Jones was quite gracious in tipping his hat to the rival code. Bocca's indictment of the Italian expedition, on the other hand, is such a prime and depressing example of post hoc punditry that I'm afraid I'm going to have to have a little moan.

For one thing, we took a very different team to England 66, one that included the once-in-a-generation talents of Rivera, Mazzola and Bulgarelli. None of the players available for selection in 2010 are comparable to those gentlemen, and it seems churlish to blame the current crop for not being more talented. But Bocca is not really interested in defending the comparison, rather in making the case against the Italian football federation and Marcello Lippi, in the grand tradition of il processo, the trial, that Kafkaesque ritual that befalls all our failed sporting expeditions as well as the parties of the Left in the aftermath of a national election. So Lippi gets blamed for, in random order: taking the job, relying too much on the aged backbone of the 2006 team, selecting too many Juventus players, changing and chopping formation too often, giving too much importance to team bonding at the cost of not selecting the best talent. Not all of the charges are downright stupid, but some of them are: Juventus players were selected because it's a team that happens to have a number of Italian players. Inter's starting eleven, by comparison, has none. Yet Bocca actually reckons that Lippi ought to have emulated Inter's xenophilia by selecting and hence co-opting eligible foreign players (a reference to Brazil-born striker Amauri, who actually plays for Juve and has scored the grand total of five goals in the last season). Most of the other accusations rely on that splendid thing, hindsight: what’s the bet that if Lippi hadn't changed formation for the game against the Slovaks, he would have been blamed for sticking with the team that had failed against the All Whites?

By which I don't mean that a coach's technical decisions cannot be criticised, but rather that the punditry should be a little readier to acknowledge its role in setting the narrative and creating the expectations against which the team will be matched - were our players really that much more talented than theirs? - not to mention its extraordinary penchant for applying hindsight only to players, coaches and administrators, never to themselves. Mr. Bocca for instance no longer than a week ago reckoned that yes, we were mediocre, but in with a chance for a cup repeat because none of the other big teams seemed crash-hot either. As if the Italian eleven that drew against Paraguay could afford to concentrate on anything besides getting out of its group.

I guess this too is a function of sport's obsession with historicity, but what gets on my tits the most is the utter predictability of it all. I could have written most of the articles I saw in the Italian press today myself, just by changing the names of teams and trainers in any old article from past editions. Yet it's not such a compelling script that it needs to be followed every time, surely. It never fails, for instance, to completely ignore the opposition, as if it was accidental to our history, a sort of drab anonymous constant - the teams beneath us that we occasionally fail to rise above. And so the pundits neglected to blame Lippi for his greatest fault, the one that was truly inexcusable: that he didn't shake hands with Slovak coach Vladimir Weiss at the end of the game. I'll judge him solely on that.

Let us acknowlege this, then: that Slovakia needed to win, and they did so by taking the game to a much more fancied side. They played courageously, and won deservedly. I wish them well.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

28 Years Later

I don't know Slovakia except for what I saw of it on television and having admired some of its moves. I observe that they almost beat the New Zealanders, and cannot rule out that they might thwart us too. I shall therefore emulate a Catholic friend of mine whose name I am not going to mention since he is numbered amongst one of Italy's foremost literary figures.

Whenever I invite him to dine with me, this Catholic friend looks at me with the utmost contempt, for I have fallen victim to the temptations of gluttony. He turns down the dish I order almost with disdain. As I proceed to embrace my sin with great abandon, I can see that he's happy because he has mortified his flesh. Choosing a path of wise abstinence, he hasn't sinned: he is therefore in a perfect state of grace. I wolf down my meal and I can see my friend looking at me with an occasional air of curiosity. In the meantime, he nibbles on his dish, that is decidedly less appetising, and when he can't take it any longer he exclaims: "I see you like it, it looks good." And I, concealing my inner delight: "Yeah, it's not bad. You can taste some if you like." My Catholic friend tastes the dish and glances at me with hate: "Bastard!" he cries, "You could have told me it was such a delicacy!"

I pass him my plate and he helps himself, drooling like an ordinary glutton. Thus he manages to be happy twice: he mortified his flesh, he triumphed over his desire, and then he surrendered to the tastiness of the food.

So for my part what I'm going to do here is paraphrase
ser Francesco Guicciardini, and proclaim after my long experience that "if you put your trust in the Italians, you shall always be disappointed". From the team that Lippi assembled for this World Cup I never expected nor I do expect now anything good. I doubt we shall manage to beat Slovakia: I cannot in fact rule out that we might lose, causing the pundits to exclaim that we have met a new Korea.

This way I shall have mortified my desire to cheer for the team and I might be happy to have made such an inauspicious prediction, if it proves correct. If on the other hand we should manage (God knows how) to win, the patriotic supporter in me shall rejoice! I shall then take the game and comment on it with the prettiest possible arguments, lauding my shorts-wearing mates and swear on the intrinsic qualities of our footballing kind, and on the unfailingly bright destiny of our beloved national squad.

(Translated and adapted from an excerpt from Gianni Brera's article for La Repubblica on the eve of the last game of the first phase of the 1982 World Cup, between Italy and Cameroon. The game ended 1-1 and Italy progressed to the second stage.)

watershed moment for U.S. soccer

Last night was a unique concurrence of events that will never be repeated. I watched USA-Algeria at ACE, a heavily English drinking club in Cairo's southern suburb Ma'adi. Rarely has there been such a conjunction of feel-good elements in a situation.

Though it was still fairly miserable outside, England fans were exiled there, in their own club, simply because their numbers required the huge garden with its large-screen TV. There must have been 200 England fans in total. The 100 or so USA fans were put inside: with the advantage of air conditioning, but the disadvantage of a smaller screen and absurdly crowded conditions. I arrived with my friends early enough to snag one of the few actual seats in the place.

In any case, conditions and outcomes were ideal. The night ended with two large happy groups of fans. And not only that... All the Egyptians outside the club were happy too, simply because Algeria lost. It was bizarre to hear Egyptians saying "Kill them!" all day long-- the first and perhaps only time one will ever hear Egyptians encourage Americans to success in violent acts, especially against an Arab team.

And yes, it was an unexpected thrill to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" last night (my first time in years) with a hundred or so American friends and strangers. And I hardly need to comment on Donovan's goal. But whenever I cheer for the U.S. team in a World Cup, I am also cheering for the sport itself: every time our team breaks fresh ground in international play like last night, there is more hope for soccer in our country.

I joined my local team in Iowa in the late 1970's, and it was still a fairly exotic thing to do. I was 11 years old, and on my first day of practice I didn't even understand the rules of the sport: in fact, I still clearly remember the day when "offsides" was explained to us. Later, we were practically laughed out of the room when we requested status as an official team representing our high school, though a little over 20 years later it finally happened. (On a side note, the sport almost cost me my right eye a few days before my 16th birthday. While playing midfield for Mt. Vernon, I and a Coralville defender were charging for the same loose ball. Mr. Coralville got there first, and kicked the ball straight into my right eye; I was blinded outright for half an hour or so, then had cloudy vision, and ended up with the only hospital stay of my life so far. My right eye still has worse vision than my left, and is especially sensitive to sunlight.)

But back to the topic at hand... soccer was already considered the "sport of the future" in the USA back in 1978 or 1979, even though it began as the province of upscale East Coast preppie kids. Elsewhere, it has been a grindingly slow process. I've mentioned that several of my homegrown American friends have dropped all U.S. sports for exclusive attention to the English Premier League (after this Cup, and given the irreversible decline in my American sports knowledge, perhaps I'll do the same; last night I was toying aloud with various English teams as my possible favorite; Werder Bremen has already been my favorite Bundesliga club for more than 20 years, since my first summer in Europe was spent in Bremen, and I attended two of their games).

It is no longer a fringe affectation when Americans name their favorite Italian, Spanish, or Bundesliga clubs. And I've mentioned my shock at seeing FC Barcelona duffel bags in a sort of low-rent retail store in Iowa a few weeks ago. No doubt some of the momentum has come from the increasing Latino population in the U.S.A., but much of it simply reflects a more sophisticated attention to the sport among the American populace. Satellite TV and the web certainly add a lot of momentum, since information is no longer hard to come by-- if I had wanted to know the Bundesliga standings in 1990, I would have had to check actual German newspapers in a library. Now I can do it on my iPhone in a couple of seconds while on the sidewalk in Cairo.

But what the U.S. has always needed to give the sport a big push domestically is a defining World Cup moment. Donovan's late goal last night was a dramatic instant with quasi-iconic potential. But better yet, the USA now has a golden opportunity to advance to ... (gulp)... the World Cup Semifinals.

Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea are certainly good teams. But are any of them out of the USA's league? Hardly. None of them are remotely as intimidating as England was for the past 6 months of waiting. I'm not saying we'll succeed, I'm just saying an opportunity this good will not come again for a long time. (Of course, we had a similar opportunity in 2002 if not for Ballack's undetected handball in a quarterfinal with Germany that we dominated and should have won. And we would have faced South Korea in the semi, a team with which we had already earned a draw in group play.)

When I cheer the USA against Ghana in a few days, I will also be cheering for the sport itself to capture the imagination of a previously indifferent population. We're close to the proverbial tipping point, I think. And Landon Donovan, a man who was just 8 years old at the time of our 1990 return to the World Cup following decades of absence, is leading us there.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"pundits want the WC to be like the Nike adverts"

An interesting series of tweets from @digitalben, in the wake of Argentina's defeat of Greece tonight:

    Star players monopolise the dialogue. Messi was flat today. The panel talk for ages about him (and how great he'll be next round) anyway. They say 'the Greeks marked him out of the game' as if that was some kind of unsportsmanlike trick. Conclusion: pundits want the WC to be like the Nike adverts. Star men and faceless mooks. Not so much a sport as a skills exhibition.

Commentating for the BBC, the dour Mick McCarthy moaned that the game was boring - but it was only boring if you wanted to see a skills exhibition, not an enthralling tactical battle. McCarthy seemed to want the Greeks to suicidally attack, allowing Messi and Veron the space to destroy them. OK, it didn't work out for Greece, but they held Argentina for most of the match, and could easily have scored on the break. It's difficult to see what other tactics Greece could have adopted if they wanted to succeed.

English jouissance

Charles gets to the heart of English national jouissance - the way that we take pleasure (albeit a mean, miserable, grumbling sort of pleasure) in pain. We're back exactly where we want to be, with our backs against the wall, with just enough hope to make the pain exquisite. (I must confess to a certain measure of disappointment when England qualified from the group stage with ease in 2006 - where was the jouissance in that? Never mind - we still had the indifferent performances to moan at.) It's a classic case of finding satisfaction in the ostensible blocking of a desire. So far, the England team - like the policeman in The Wicker Man - have played their parts in this national carnival of defeatism perfectly, if, necessarily, unwittingly. The test now is whether they can disappoint us by starting to play well.
I'm pleased to hear that John Terry's challenge to Capello's authority has reputedly gone down badly with the rest of the England squad. The Times argued that Terry isn't as popular in the squad as he'd like to think he is - which says something for the rest of the players' judgement. Terry is tabloid thinking incarnate, and it's heartening that his attempt to curry populist favour didn't come off. The assertion of player power under Sven had predictably poor results; and I for one have more faith in Capello's tactical intelligence than that of England players who were consistently under-achieving at international level while Capello was winning championships with some of Europe's top clubs. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has enjoyed seeing the swaggering egos of England's players reined in by Don Fabio's disciplinarian regime.
The growing discontent with Capello - led by Andy Townsend on television - has taken a predictably xenophobic turn, although the thinking seems particularly confused, even by the standards of xenophobia. As ever, the xenophobic complaint seem to revolve around the issue of "passion". Now, it was easy for the pundits to complain about of lack of passion from Sven because this fitted the stereotypical image the English have of Swedes. But it's a problem trying to make such complaints marry with the stereotypical image of Italians, not to mention Capello's animation on the touchline. So now the complaint seems to be that only an Englishman can muster the requisite passion to manage the national side. As Townsend disgracefully remarked on ITV the other day, "Capello will be in Lake Garda in a few months, what does he care?" (Did being born in Maidstone, Kent and never living in Ireland prevent Townsend from being sufficiently passionate when he played for the Republic, I wonder?) And anyone who thinks that "passion" will cure England's malady need only remember the pathetic sight of Kevin Keegan making those puff-up-your-chest gestures on the touchline as a shambolic England were easily beaten by Germany at Wembley.
As Giovanni pointed out in the comments, England's problem is not a deficiency of passion or effort, much as it looks that way. There's an uncanny quality about England performances like the one against Algeria. The team have an underwater lethargy, almost as if they are subject to a higher gravity than the opposition, prematurely exhausting them. While the opponents skip about, easily finding passes, England lumber, the ball bobbling awkwardly off their feet, the options for the player with the ball narrowing every second until even a simple square pass becomes impossible. (For those who say England play to their level at the World Cup - can they remember a time when Lampard, Gerrard or Rooney played remotely as badly for their club?) A curious attitude of desperate hope and fatalistic despair takes hold of the team. The blustering attacks that the odd player manages to muster seem destined to fail, as if they run up against an invisible forcefield. You know that they won't score, but you can't stop hoping that they will. Other international teams play badly, but there's a particular quality about England's bad performances. England have put in performances like that under every manager for as long as I can remember. As I've remarked before, why this is the case poses all sort of interesting questions - about the nature of a psychology that is not only collective, but that repeats itself over time with completely different personnel. But it's confidence, not passion, that breaks England out of this fugue - will they be able to muster that confidence tomorrow? A quick goal, and we could see a repeat of England's demolition of Poland in the third game in 1986, but the longer the game goes on without a breakthrough, the greater the chance that The Fear will creep back in . . .

We Was Robbed

In New Zealand, the aftermath of the game between Italy and the All Whites was an interesting study in how sporting events come to be recycled into the mass-mediated folklore. The game was played at 2am, local time, and the country woke up to a sense of euphoria and footballing achievement. A gritty draw against the world champions! An unfancied, often openly ridiculed side, routinely labeled as the worst, less deserving team in the tournament, is unthinkably in the running to advance to the round of sixteen. Well done the boys in white! But you can only stretch a Cinderella story so far, and so around mid-morning came a sudden and most sullen change of narrative. Okay, we know that this draw was as good as a win, but how is it that we did not actually win win? Daniele De Rossi and Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres were the obvious choice as villains, and so faced with two available storylines - Gritty All Whites Defence holds off Italy and Referee duped by Italian theatrics - almost every single media outlet and local Internet forum decided to all but drop the former and enthusiastically run with the latter.

I have a couple of problems with this. The first one is factual: if you only had one shot on goal, and it was from an offside position, then you cannot rewrite the game into a victory if you are in fact a stickler for the rules. Writing for Fairfax, Tony Smith got out of that particular conundrum by claiming that whilst the offside ruling was a honest mistake, De Rossi's penalty was won by guile, therefore it's a moral failing, which makes the All Whites the moral winners. And that's where my second problem is: the All Whites were already the moral winners, by virtue of having drawn a game against the World Champions. Think about it: the team includes four amateurs and at least one player who's currently unemployed. Its total combined payroll doesn't reach Gianluigi Buffon's salary. Ricky Herbert earns EUR 25,000 a year to coach the national team, versus Lippi's 5.3 million. Surely there is enough there to suggest that Italy - by virtue of its superior training and all the material advantages that come from enjoying better employment conditions and consistently playing at a much higher level - had the closest thing you can get in sport to a moral obligation to win the game (the Italian press certainly saw it that way). But that clearly wasn't enough, which is a shame in itself: because much more deserved to be said and written about Herbert's coaching decisions - including some key selections that preceded the start of the tournament, let alone the game - and the heroics of the likes of Messrs Vicelich, Nelsen, Paston, Reid and Smeltz on the day.

Once the 'we was robbed' narrative took hold - and I think the reporting of Ryan Nelsen's press-conference comments might have been the tipping point - there was no going back, but it's interesting to observe how the Web contributed to its almost feverish spread. It was the social media at its best, as on The New Zealand Herald and elsewhere - including a string of very enthusiastic Australian outlets apparently still smarting from 2006 - the comments sections and a string of online polls helped to increase the tempo of the story, whilst relieving the journalists from having to do much actual writing. The single most notable moment of brilliance belongs to the Sydney Morning Herald (h/t Martin Lindberg), which asked its readers to democratically determine whether the New Zealand goal should have been ruled out for offside (for the record, 83% answered 'No').

Before the morning was out, people started exchanging stories of past Italian crimes, or using the stereotype as it had already entered the folklore as evidence for the transgression. It was like watching one of those appalling and borderline racist columns that Stephen Jones routinely writes about the All Blacks being crowdsourced to an army of pundits, but the irony in that went lamentably unnoticed.

Sunday, 20 June 2010


One of modern journalism's tenets since Watergate: follow the money. It's a phrase with more than one interpretation of course. Consider:

Henry Winter in the Telegraph on the vexed question of who should partner Rooney:
[Capello's] wide-open 4-4-2 tactics were inevitably exposed as was the folly of persisting with Emile Heskey rather than pairing Steven Gerrard with Wayne Rooney. [source]
Winter is, let us say, a big fan of Gerrard:
Only one English lion looked like he belonged in Africa. Only Steven Gerrard really rose to the occasion of an opening World Cup game, scoring for England and driving his team on but too many of his team-mates faltered on the highveldt last night. The captain led by example but sadly nobody followed. [source]
But another equally – cough – objective viewpoint is that Crouch should join Rooney in attack instead. Sam Wallace in the Independent: 'It is a fact that England are a better side when Crouch partners Rooney' [source] .... and furthermore 'England need to score at least one goal on Wednesday and the obvious answer is Crouch.' [source]

Now if you click through to see this item on Amazon and then this one, noting the author credits along the way, is it not fair to ask, perhaps in your best Derrida accent, who is writing who in the above? Who is speaking who?

Divided Loyalties

I've lived in New Zealand for nearly thirteen years now, so the game between the All Whites and Italy in a few hours is also going to be a test of where my loyalties lie. I'd say with the old country, still, but I won't know until some time after kick-off I suspect. The other day for instance I surprised myself jumping up from the sofa after the Winston Reid goal, a much more sanguine reaction than the one following De Rossi's equally vital effort against Paraguay earlier in the week. Rationally I might also be inclined to support the team that is likely to go further in the tournament, but again, picking sides is not always the result of calculation, and just as often it's the side that picks you.

It doesn't help that I find both teams quite likeable. This year's on paper is the least talented Italian squad since 1986, but Lippi didn't respond by bringing aged talismans or popular young bolters, nor by stacking the team with defenders. He brought players who can play, and asked them to play. Whilst never looking like scoring and being lucky to get away with a draw, Italy played entertaining football in the opener, and made Paraguay look the cynical team relying entirely on organization and worrying about not losing ahead of winning - that is, like the stereotypical Italian side. They also looked very much like a group of players looking out for each other, which may not save them against the more stacked sides later in the tournament but is, well, a likeable trait. Plus: no Materazzi!

For their part, New Zealand over the last few months have been a very pleasant surprise. I wasn't impressed this time last year by the unseemingly theatrical celebrations by the coaching staff after a 0-0 draw against Iraq in the Confederations Cup. They were cheering the first point by an All Whites side in an official FIFA game, I suppose, but it was still a 0-0 in a dead rubber - hardly the reason why you play the game. Later they qualified through a comparatively easy route, but I give them a lot of credit for sticking with the team that took it to Bahrain in the play-off, instead of switching to a more dour, speculative formation. So it looks like they'll be playing Italy the way they did the Slovaks: with three strikers and a more than capable winger in Leo Bertos in support. Look for Killen and Fallon to hurt the Italian defence in the air if they can get enough decent crosses, and don't be shocked if the unthinkable happens.

That said, my reason says Italy takes this one 3-1. Whether I'll actually be cheering for that outcome, only time will tell.

Father Merrin for England

When Fabio Capello announced his provisional 30-man squad on 11th May, I wrote at length about Joe Cole's image of a 'ghosting' footballer (the Italian's present toying with him is no surprise - he seems doomed to such treatment). ZoneStyx then ran with it, picking up my hint by actively describing this 'hauntological' player. In the ITV studio last night, Gareth Southgate adjudged the team 'haunted', and in today's Independent, James Lawton further illustrated the England team's unique state:

The house built by Fabio Capello, which at times has looked so sturdy, was haunted....the demon was the 44 years of failure he had promised to put right, and the bitter truth for so much of a desperate night was that his team looked more in need of an exorcist than a manager.

There is not too much one can say regarding the game, and indeed quite how any broadcaster contrived their respective highlights packages is a mystery. I think fans in the main can accept bad performances or poor results, or even a lack of ability. The sheer extent however of England's lack of impetus, drive, or even the faintest recognition of this being the World Cup, the very pinnacle of the game that we all love, is pretty unforgivable. There are millions of us who in absence of any technique would at least give it everything, would guarantee an aspiration to the stout desire that has become the myth of our game. Can those actually detailed to the task truly claim that they committed as much? Exertion to the point of sickness or collapse we know won't win us anything, but is it a confusion between this and outright accomplishment that so troubles the players? What precisely do they strive, if anything, for?

And luck? Well, we've just endured two utterly risible performances yet have still emerged unbeaten, Algeria and the USA being particularly poor sides. Never mind the coruscating skill of the Argentinians, or the power and flair of the German team: the basic application of the North Koreans would have steamrollered England.

The lack of industry could at least be compensated for by Capello (on whom Mark so succinctly says "the size of the task is starting to dawn") by exhausting every option. That means Cole on the pitch for something, anything more than the cursory 5 or 10 minutes that he's so used to. If only to prove us all wrong. There isn't really sufficient evidence to hand that this should change everything - the problems clearly run too deep - but:

a) he is capable of changing a game in a way that no other England player can
b) he is a proven big game international, unlike several others
c) he has always made it clear - both verbally and in performance - that he simply loves to play

This last point seems kind of daft: don't they all really want to play? Well, it didn't look so clear cut last night. Where were the qualities that many have so conspicuously ascribed to Cole, of the pure joy and unfettered enthusiasm of playing?

All that would then remain would be the question of how Capello might fit him into the team: where would he play? How would the current system accommodate him? The answers are simple - 1) fucking anywhere, and 2) bollocks to the system. The myth that a midfielder cannot operate at all when stationed 2 or 3 yards from his normal position is a joke (and incidentally, aren't the same people who were decrying Capello for playing Gerrard in the middle now saying that he's crazy for moving him to the left? Why the hell should it matter so much?). As for the tactics, well, in all honesty, what is there left to protect here? Is it working sufficiently well to keep Cole out of the side?

That Cole should prove a talisman might not have seemed so unrealistic all those years ago, when he was feted as the possible saviour of English football: that he does so as the emblem of this current side by simply not being there now seems somehow apposite. And whilst Rooney last night appeared to want so vehemently to avoid any responsibility, Capello, dumbfounded as he is, might at the very least claim something back for himself by making what for him would perhaps be a bold deviation from the great plan.

But it's not the money or the Premier League's congested fixture list that so bedevils England: every other nation would be toiling through the same ruinous fog if this were the case. What hurts us is somehow purely English, a parochial zombified grief for long lost pride. At what point do we reign in our investment?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

It's Our Party - And We'll Cry If We Want To

Does it get any better than this? I watched last night’s dismal match at a friend’s house, the atmosphere becoming more and more animated and excitable as the night wore on. At half time there was an audible buzz of failure in the air. By full time people we were indulging in a collective orgy of despair.

We were on our feet, shouting and gesticulating, competing with each other to articulate the bitterest piece of invective, or the best verbal skewering of Gerrard’s wastefulness, Heskey’s farcical ineptness and Rooney’s unfeasible collapse in form. Honestly, we were throwing the biggest pity party ever, a total festival of disappointment.

This morning I consumed the sports pages of every paper I could get hold of, desperate for every last drop of analysis about why England are so bloody hopeless at football. I couldn’t get enough. If anyone has anything to add on the subject of why Capello thought bringing on the hapless Shaun Wright Phillips to replace the hapless Aaron Lennon was a good idea then bring it on. I want to read it.

Yep, England have arrived at the world cup riding a tide of (largely) unjustifiable optimism and played like shit. And doesn't it feel great? It’s a national addiction, a cycle of self-harm that the team and fans are locked into like an abusive relationship. It’s almost as if we would be disappointed were they not to let us down.

After following some seven world cups now where England have competed I can honestly say it’s always been thus. Secretly, this is how we like it. We get off on this international, televised public humiliation. Maybe it somehow atones for our historical sins. Or maybe it simply allows us to seek refuge in one enormous, collective bout of self-pity every four years.

It’s an abysmal and utterly familiar routine in which we all assume standard roles, like a dysfunctional family meal at Christmas. The tabloids will accuse the players of lack of metal, a deficit of backbone that is an insult to our fine warmongering heritage while the broadsheets genuflect towards more technically sophisticated European rivals. Everyone has their slot in this national farce, including the players who attempt to appear contrite and genuinely humbled for a while before resuming the usual business of getting off with each others girlfriends and having fights in nightclubs.

Fabio Capello, though, isn’t so well acquainted and seems genuinely befuddled by the swift degeneration of his squad. Previous managers have accepted their role with good grace. Taylor, Hoddle, Keegan, McClaren (my god, there’s been so many of them) and even Erikson have slotted into the national mood perfectly, blaming slight injustices and random acts of misfortune on the teams lack of progress. Last night Capello came close to simply saying; “No idea why but they played like shit”.

What happens next? Most likely England will fail to impress against Slovenia but still make it out of the group stage, only to go out against the first decent team they encounter. They will, no doubt, raise their game sufficiently for us to feel that they could have done much better. This is important. There has to be some hope. Maybe too there will be a piece of outrageous bad luck – a disallowed goal, a penalty given against us or, most likely, a red card – thus adding the requisite element of cosmic injustice to our dismal lot. There is, of course, the slim chance that, as in 1990, we might turn it around, have a decent run and produce some good football along the way. At the moment the only person who looks like being able to help us do that is on the bench. Joe Cole has been cast in the ultimate role in this tragedy: the potential saviour. He walks amongst us, but he's yet to unzip his track suit.

I prefer to believe in the latter possibility, if only to raise the bar of disappointment a little higher and keep the delicious sense of exasperation going. Honestly, I haven’t felt this bad in years. It’s great.