When I was a postgraduate student at Warwick, James Williams gave a paper on Spinoza and Henry Miller. I don't remember the main point of the paper, but an offhand remark Williams made has stuck with me ever since: Spinoza wouldn't like sport. Williams was referring to Spinoza's rejection of both hope and fear as irrational passions. Since, Williams reasoned, the enjoyment of sport depends upon hope and fear, then Spinoza would find little to commend sport. I actually think this is incorrect - a dispassionate enjoyment of sport is possible. Non-partisan spectators can and do enjoy the aesthetic features of a match when they watch it replayed, the outcome already known. However, if one solely pursues this aesthetic model, then some dimension of the sporting experience is lost, the very things, yes, that Spinoza wants to overcome: suffering, pain, jouissance.
What I'm leading up to is a response to Zone's pondering about why there's so little enthusiasm for Spain here. He has some of the answers himself - the "cognitive dissonance" of watching Spain limp and press their way through games while the media bill and coo over their "scintillating sublimity" (two words, astonishingly, used by Alan Hansen tonight - you see, the emperor is not only clothed, he is wearing the finest imaginable clothes!; the smugonaut connoisseurship (which I resent in part because these people of taste will feel no pain if/when Spain lose). Then there's the sense of inevitability that Ben has talked of - a sense of inevitablity that has grown the more that Spain have progressed through the tournament. Spain have been sold to us as the heirs of Brazil 1970, but they have more closely resembled Brazil 1994. It's as if they've learned in the space of the three and a half weeks of the tournament what it took Brazil twenty-four years to discover. Spain's identikit victories over Portugal, Paraguay and Germany - airless games, devoid of theatre and settled by late opportunistic goals - have recalled the implacable drabness of Liverpool's triumphs in the 80s. All of which is fine; Spain have been grimly effective, no mean feat for a team that has so often disappointed in the past, and, let's be clear: Spain's achievement in reaching the final is massive, especially when you remember that, since 1970, only six teams have managed to do this. What I object to is being required to sit up and revere their play. Raphael Honigstein imperiously declared on twitter that "if you find that boring, you don't understand football" - but the defensiveness tells its own story. For me, great football is about drama, and Spain's combination of well-drilled defenders, a packed midfield playing hyper-aestheticised keepball and late goals is a formula practically guaranteed to eliminate all drama from the game. Spain have been compared with Arsenal, but I actually think that's unfair on Arsenal - sure, Arsenal might be similarly reluctant to debase themselves by, like, actually scoring, but matches involving Arsenal are rarely boring, in part because they can lose. All of Spain's games in this World Cup have been dreary - except the Switzerland match, which was dramatic by virtue of the fact that, for once, the inevitable didn't happen. But it has happened ever since. The dreariness is not all Spain's fault - it's a consequence of their opponents trying to squeeze and press them. But a team as great, and as aesthetically fine, as Spain are supposed to be could surely have found a more enthralling or inventive way through.
Partisanship is the key. It isn't those who were "better educated" about football who found tonight's game engaging, it's those who wanted Spain to win. For them, Spain's passing was indeed sublime artistry. But for those of us who didn't want Spain to win, or who wanted something to happen, their possession game was tedious. Yes, it might be difficult to do, but so is olympic gymnastics. As with olympic gymnastics, I might admire it; just don't ask me to enjoy it.