Friday, 25 June 2010

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.


  1. La Gazzetta dello Sport is running a poll on whether this was the worst Italian team ever. Currently the ayes have it by over 70 percentage points, with 31,000 votes cast.

  2. Nice piece. Sadly this hindsight-driven crap is how managers are judged. If England hadn't progressed, Capello would have been blamed forever and a day for not playing Gerrard in the middle and not selecting Joe Cole, despite the fact that these were both bad ideas.

    '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 rise above.'

    Ha! True.

    I hadn't realised that Lippi didn't shake Weiss's hand - was it a deliberate, pointed refusal a la Domenech?

  3. No, he just sprinted to the dressing room as soon the whistle went. Which is better than Domenech, I suppose (who isn't?), but I just cannot excuse. You must be there to congratulate your counterpart and console your players.

  4. According to journo Marcotti, Slovak manager Weiss said that Lippi wished him the 'best of luck' after the game - not sure if that was on the pitch or after the game, so it certainly is not the same as Domenech, and if Lippi is to be judged on it, maybe he quickly made amends.

  5. He didn't do it on the pitch, my feed cut straight to the two benches after the whistle went. I'd be happy to hear that he made amends afterwards, but you need to do it then and there really - because sportsmanship needs to be on display, and there is such a thing as the crunch moment in being gracious as well.

  6. What I dislike about this hindsight punditry is the way that it transforms contingencies into iron Necessities. Yes, Lippi made mistakes but if things had fallen his way, things could easily have been very different. Yesterday was about the finest of fine margins, and if Italy had gone through I see no reason why that squad couldn't have gone as far as the semi-finals at least. They did look a much better side with Quagliarella and
    Pirlo on the pitch for sure.

  7. So Mark, basically he needed a shot of Machiavellian fortuna?

  8. if Italy had gone through I see no reason why that squad couldn't have gone as far as the semi-finals at least.

    It is, of course, pointless to speculate, but I see no reason to believe that they would have had any more chances to make the semifinal than Slovakia does. In fact, less if anything. This is worse than the team that lost to the Netherlands 3-0 in pool play two years ago, and more or less on a par with the one that lost to Brazil 3-0 and struggled to beat New Zealand 4-3 one year ago. I wouldn't pick them to last twenty minutes against the Dutch. And not because of the anxieties that plague some of the top teams either. They're simply not good enough. They can't defend, they can't attack. They could never eke out a dour 0-0 like we did against Spain in Euro 2008. There is no way they would have made the semis. In fact the scoreline flattered them yesterday, as it did in the opening game against Paraguay.

    None of this made me support the team any less, in fact as I wrote last week I found them quite a likeable bunch. And I still object to the idea that we should consider their inability to be as good as previous Italian teams as a moral failure. But they just weren't up to it, and they couldn't do a lot more to prove it than being eliminated from what looked for all money like a very easy group.

    (Want more proof? Sit down and try to make a Top 11 from group F. You'd struggle to find room for many Italian players in there, and not just based on their supposedly poor form.)