Wednesday, 7 July 2010

It's just like watching Brazil

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.


  1. Yes, it was a dreadfully boring game. But the way Spain killed the ball had an intensity that was almost captivating. Neither side was gripped by the terror of success - unlike, say, Brazil and Italy in the final of 94. So it was in a sense a good game of football. It also had something of a plot: Germany came in as favourites, with superior strength and enthusiasm and speed, with greater confidence in their tactics, seemingly more in control. And Spain responded not with cynical ploys or by playing for a draw, eleven men behind the ball style, but by forcing the pace that suited them best. It was a game with a story, and in that sense I think it was fascinating. Even its lack of things happening became part of its very odd charm. It's a game that I'll remember for its content, not just for its scoreline.

    And I agree with you that Germany were a far more entertaining team than Spain throughout the tournament. But both to me have been more entertaining than the Netherlands, who always provide plenty of drama but never seem able to control a game. I pick Spain to dispose of them with ease on current form.

  2. (I guess, to refine that point: I want to see drama and attacking play and skill, but also good football. The Netherlands - Uruguay game had goals and drama and skills aplenty but it wasn't a particularly good game of football. The Spain - Germany game had good football, and none of the other things. To enjoy myself I need both.)

  3. Just out of interest, Mark, which teams have you enjoyed watching over years ....Brazil in the early 80's? the 74 Dutch team? any other team you'd care to nominate?

  4. Hello everyone, a very short introduction I'm the guy behind Seizoen on the links bar and in the lucky position as Spanianard/Dutchman that I will not lose the final this Sunday. :)

    Anyway, "these people of taste will feel no pain if/when Spain lose" this is of course true but this tournament hasn't been too easy for Spaniards themselves. Up till yesterday's match Spain, I think, were playing against themselves (I'll leave all the mirror phase analysis to you fine gentlemen ;), the ghosts of the past were creeping back again, there has been an intense debate if the 'doble pivote' of Busquets/Alonso was doing the work Senna did by himself in Euro2008 and the style of "little teams" (I thought so but yesterday vindicated Del Bosque as both men basically killed Germany's midfield), "Torres is crap"/"Torres should always play", Aragon├ęs as commentator at Al-Jazera was critical of the Spain's performances which sparked intense debate and the performances had been lacking.

    Even so, yesterday Spain finally did play like they should play. It's interesting to read this comparison to Brazil 1994 because the team Spain remind me most of, if they play well, is France 1982-1984, still my favorite team with Ajax of the 70s. France of course were tragic (along Hungary, Holland denied by a relatively lesser German team) and this gives these joyful teams a certain romantic beauty. Strange though, I don't see this Spanish team gain anything by losing it in a tragic way (probably because Holland are the opponent.) In that sense they should just win the final Brazil '70 style, just because they're the best.

  5. But France 82 couldn't defend a 3-1 lead in extra time against West Germany! This Spanish team would never do that.

    I think it's an interesting debate, and with regard to Mark's last paragraph I must say I'm not sure it can be reduced to partisanship. This tweeter for instance doesn't strike me as a Spain supporter, but he writes:

    Seriously? People are bored by SPAIN in this game? So we've hit the point where counterattacking is the only exciting style of play, then?

    and nods to @freedarko who in turn wonders

    I thought appreciating build-up was what made for a real soccer fan.

    I would respond that I appreciate the slow build up as much as the next fellow, but I'd rather it built up to something, which might be what was missing from the game last night. But it's an argument, and I don't know that it's necessarily a partisan one.

    He further muses:

    Is that a function of YouTube, do you think? Build-up play is tedious, but a 30-second breakaway is digestible, and therefore thrilling?

    The question of whether we apprehend the game already in highlights-package form is a valid one I think. What Spain did in the game was to build up pressure in an excquisitely slow fashion, one that you couldn't condense at all.

  6. "But France 82 couldn't defend a 3-1 lead in extra time against West Germany! This Spanish team would never do that."

    True. As Platini said later: "we wanted to keep on playing". They did change a bit of course for Euro '84 with Fernandez entering in midfield. But esp. in 1978 France famously got knocked out of the first round playing brilliantly but dazzling themselves and running into old-style Spanish bad luck (Tresor's silly handball.)

    "The question of whether we apprehend the game already in highlights-package form is a valid one I think."

    Indeed. Strange how the game yesterday seemed to be played in slow-motion (did remind me of Van Hanegem's dictum: "speed does not exist".) But I have a feeling this is as a result of the absence of "heroic" rushes (also the lack of "emotion" surrounding yellow/red cards, referee's making mistakes seems to freak people out.)

  7. The common thread just seems to be inevitability = boredom, regardless of style. So Chelsea under Mourinho = boring (made up for by M's behaviour), Arsenal when actually successful = boring, Barcelona/Spain (are these really even two seperate teams any more?) being extremely good = boring. There is nothing Spain can do to appease you here.

    Personally I find it hard to be too interested in Spain as I can't invest myself in their narrative. Similarly I wonder what their fans do at the games. The speed at which they play removes the possibility of any "give on...shoot' type interaction so they must just end up like the rest of us passively *spectating*. The problem for me of football played 'just like ballet' is that it's just like watching ballet.

  8. Mark, you've given me new data in my search for the fundamental source of our differences. You obviously haven't watched enough Svetlana Khorkina in your life ...

  9. "The problem for me of football played 'just like ballet' is that it's just like watching ballet."
    Exactly - that's what I was trying to say. Except that I'd far rather watch ballet than watch Spain last night. (Not a sarcastic remark - I actully do like ballet.)
    It isn't about quick counter-attacking play, it's simply about drama, which can come in many forms.
    Ari asks which teams I've liked to watch, and people may be surprised if I list among them Italy. Italy's typical defensive style (often coupled with a certain amount of edginess) can make for drama - nowhere more so than in 82. But partly why I tend to find Italy games gripping is partisanship - I want them to win.
    As for others - USSR 86, France 82 and 98 spring to mind. But even West Germany weren't as boring as Spain have been in this tournament - in fact, in many ways, they weren't boring at all. The outcome may have been boring for those who didn't want them to win, but the games were often dramatic (coming back from being behind to win, their Terminator refusal to countenance defeat until the last possible second).

  10. As Giovanni says, you can't really call it 'slow build-up play' if it doesn't build up to anything. Spain constructed, what, three-four goalmouth attacks from open play? If they were probing for weaknesses then they obviously didn't find many.

    The containment-passing game is supposed to tire the chasing team out and goad them into making mistakes. But Germany last night were wasting possession and making unforced errors from minute one - they just seemed off-touch. I don't know how much credit Del Bosque & Spain can take for that.

    The comparison with 80s Liverpool is in they way they sit on the game for 75 minutes in the blithe confidence that they'll go on to score a decisive late goal. Sure, it takes supreme skill and confidence, but I find that attitude fiendishly hard to admire.

    Two years ago, Spain seemed to have so much more ambition about them than this.

  11. To clarify the inevitability thing:

    Merely winning, or becoming champions, isn't what brings about the sense of inevitability - it's when you win in the same way each time, when the particular match and the identity of your opponents seems a superfluous detail, when every game seems a foregone conclusion from the start...

  12. But isn't that what made Spain admirable, and the game riveting?

    Germany had dispatched England and Argentina with identical results, playing identical games. Spain could have tried to force the issue on attack the way Argentina did, and would likely have been creamed at the back. So they played much more cautiously, but without giving up the ball. Faced with an opponent that had adjusted to them, Germany was unable to respond.

    Even though I realy liked Germany and they certainly played the best football of the tournament, I also wanted them to be challenged the way they were yesterday, rather than always winning in style the same kind of game, and becoming themselves inevitable.

    Challenged they were, and they lost. Although I detect in the post-match commentary a little ad-hocness: in fact the game could have gone either way. Spain's tactics were still impressive because they gave themselves the best chance to win - that's just how strong Germany was.

  13. OMC
    I'm just not seeing this sudden improvement in Spain. The last three games were all practically the same and so predictable that I called the last two on Twitter. It seemed in the Para and Portugal games that Spain were being stifled by their opponents; last night, it was clear that Spain were doing the stifling. I'm sure that for Spain's supporters - i.e. those who do feel pain when they lose - this WC has been anything but comfortable, and it's great for them after so many years of suffering. Would that England could win games by killing drama (I thought that's what they were doing under Fabio, funnily enough, until - well, you know) My problem is of course not with those Spain supporters, but with the kind of above-it-all aesthete stance so promiment in British media. If England had performed exactly like Spain have done, these same pundits would be griping at the performances - but suddenly, when it's Spain, they are purring and cooing.

  14. "Similarly I wonder what their fans do at the games."

    Battling ghosts for the most part (although strange enough Spain always play a good game against Germany, there's no interference like with almost all other European teams.) Euro 2008 exorcised them but during the Switzerland game they returned (which, in a way, may have been a blessing in disguise.) Winning on Sunday should do the final job. ;)

  15. Two years ago, Spain seemed to have so much more ambition about them than this.

    I think they were stronger, they peaked in 08. Whereas Germany was much stronger this year. Of course we'll never know if it was Germany that had an off game as you say or if it was Spain's tactics that did it.

  16. ...all other European teams when they play Germany.

    I understand Mark, but I still have to get used to the idea that Spain have taken the spot Brazil used to hold in punditland (Motson almost in tears after every Brazil defeat, etc.)

    What did happen in the last three games though is that all three opponents were basically left groggy after an hour of play and then somehow you felt a goal will inevitably be scored. I quite like this. :)

  17. I'm not sure that the lack of 'quick counter-attacking play' is unimportant Mark. Fast breakaway goals such as those United scored at Arsenal in recent times and obv those scored by Germany against England are almost instinctively exhilirating to me. I think this comes from the delight of a sort of confirmed anticipation as you watch the action play out just as you *know*(Koeman's 'he's gonna flick one now').

    With Spain's relentless passing style there is no room for us to insert ourselves, and all that useful football knowledge we've accumulated, into the proceedings, so no drama. There's no anticpitation for me, I can rarely tell when Spain will score, almost all their attacks look identical. Perhaps this is due to footballing differences on this side of Europe but it is more than a coincidence surely that yesterday's match, which seems to be universally considered Spain's best so far, was decided by the kind of thumping header we can all relate to.

  18. Yes, a team acquiring an air of inevitability can be thrilling. It's just that the dull/awful kind of inevitability seems to be far more common.

    'If England had performed exactly like Spain have done, these same pundits would be griping at the performances - but suddenly, when it's Spain, they are purring and cooing.'

    Heh. Slight tangent, but - I remember a point at an England game a couple of years ago (early Capello) where we started some kind of slow passing build-up move, stroking it patiently around the midfield. After a minute or so, the crowd actually started booing...

    I really never thought I'd sympathise with those f*ckwits, but last night's game is drawing up all kinds of unexpected dividing lines.

  19. On the question of inevitability/similarity of style from match to match, what I've thoroughly enjoyed about watching the German team this tournament is that though their wins against England and Argentina were underpinned by the same tactical logic, they play an open enough game that the goals never feel inevitable *even when* they're already winning. By which I mean, the drama they create on the field has to do with the fact that they can score from just about anywhere, and are willing to try it: they can create the sudden something-out-of-nothing which, for me, gives soccer its spectator thrill. As Conor said above, when it comes to Spain the attacks look identical with each match.

    Maybe the spectator thrill of seeing dramatic goals and rapid rushes has something to do with a 'highlights package' mentality, but I'd be willing to argue it has more to do with the fundamental rhythm of soccer as a sport. On twitter yesterday I compared the prospect of a Spain-Netherlands final to watching test cricket, which is partly fatuous but also not. The tactical premise of test cricket is that scoring runs and getting wickets is inevitable because all the incremental bits of 'business' add up to something, eventually. You grind away for five days knocking the ball back and forth, and the numbers eventually add up. Bar the occasional freak drama though, test cricket is not a game that promises any kind of narrative rupture, the moment where the whole thing turns, the something-out-of-nothing. Unfortunately, I feel the same way about this World Cup final. I like test cricket, but not on a soccer pitch.

  20. So many points to pick up on but just to start with Anwyn's:

    Germany were excellent, but it's very misleading to compare them to Spain in that way.

    Modern football has almost perfected the art of the massed defence: two banks of four moving in tandem in front of the 18yd box. And it's a much more high pressure environment than the good old days: the financial stakes are higher in the club game, as in the international game (at which point the deranged intenity of domestic tabloid hype kicks in as well). So you can have a club like Internazionale - a club with real history and an excellent squad, a club 3-1 up on Barca after a European Cup semi - go to the Camp Nou for the second leg and do *nothing* but defend for 90mins.

    As favourites, Spain have had to face that tactic in almost every game, apart from vs Chile with their suicidal/dazzling commitment to pressing high up the pitch with just 3 at the back.

    Germany have not. They gladly accepted their role as underdog against both England and Argentina, then exploited the space they were afforded by two over-committed teams. That's not to take away from what they achieved, their counter-attacks after regaining possession were positively surgical in their precision. But if Germany were presented with a team set up to sit and defend and sneak a goal, they would look very different. They might still win, but it would be a Klose goal bundled home scrappily from a set-piece, or an Oezil free-kick standing out as one moment of class in an attritional mire.

    Conversely, if Spain had faced the Argentina or England performances Germany did, carnage would have resulted.


    And I really don't see their possession play like Anwyn, Mark or Ben, as 'grinding'... How can anything so elegantly performed, involving such exquisite technique, unexpected angles, feints, switches, flicks etc be a grind?

    You're all completely mad. I can only assume that your instinctive leftism leads you to loathe the imperialist hegemony of the Favourite, of the Establishment, all the bad faith spilling out of the corporate media lackeys, and instead support the plucky proletarian image of the Underdog. But check the narrative: count Germany's World Cups, count Spain's. Look at Germany's last decade: WC finalists 02, WC semifinalists 06, Euro finalists 08, WC semifinalists 10. Look again at Spain. Failures until 08. Who is the Evil Empire here?

  21. A few more thoughts from comments above: the line that Spain are avoiding risk... in a post-Mourinho footballing era in which even giants like Man U are primarily defensively organized counter-attacking sides, it takes real bravery from Spain to adopt the mantle of favourite, to trust in their own ability to retain possession almost indefinitely and look to score the kind of goal they can - rather than the kind they can't w/out Torres or Llorente, i.e. percentage balls in from the wings (no more throughballs into space - no-one leaves them any and only Torres is quick enough to latch onto them). The psychological pressure involved in that persistence as well as in overcoming the fate which a history of failure seemed to have pre-ordained for them... Give them some credit!

    I think it's smothering media spiel that's the real source of the resentment above, as Mark pretty much notes.

    But further to that, surely the whole smugonaut argument re Spain is collapsing in on itself - since the England game, the smugonaut team of choice has clearly been Germany - how better to demonstrate a lofty post-nationalism! a cosmopolitan, disinterested aestheticism! a new narrative of technocratic national rebirth to replace the Spanish canteras that were so necessary in 08!

  22. I do give Spain credit, really. Almost no other team has the technique and composure to get away with playing like that. I can only imagine what a lifetime of training and conditioning that takes. And I appreciate the historical burdens they've overcome.

    Maybe 'grinding' is too physical a word, but it's an attritional style, isn't it?

    You arguments about how hard it is for teams to break down two-banks-of-four - all true, but they're points pleaded in mitigation, not actual rebuttals of the criticism of Spain.

    You're right about our smugonauts drifting toward Germany's rainbow nation - but they never truly left Spain's corner. Disinterested aestheticism & technocracy? Why, that's Espana all the way.

  23. Hey, I'm Australian, you needn't accuse me of "lofty post-nationalism" when it comes to supporting Germany, more like (as I've put it before) post-colonial Schadenfreude after they trounced the English. Unless supporting a German team who whacked an Australian team I have no emotional investment in counts as willfully smug disinterestedness.

    No one here is mad, or denying Spain's ability, as far as I can see. Of course they're very bloody good at what they do. But it's so... so... sorry, I feel asleep trying to think of the right adjective.

  24. Yes, I am sure I am being overly critical towards Spain at this point and there is *much* I do admire about them.

    Funnily, in relation to what Ben says above about the England players getting booed, Holland performed a similar pattern of play to wind down the game effectively against Uruguay and while watching I wondered 'could England do that?' A quite straightforward cushion on the instep, turn and pass immediately that *surely* the English team have the technical capability to perform (I thought tbh I could do it). But then I remembered that often when Man Utd try this one of the British players, usually Carrick or Fletcher, mess up (Fletcher is particularly bad at this and has a horrific version of the Cruyff turn he likes to perform, often leading to a needless foul or a backheel into an opponent's path). The suggestion that this style of play is not tolerated, rather than achievable, in Britain is very interesting and reminds me of a Guardian comment in response to Beckenbauer that 'we play kick and rush because we *like* kick and rush'.

    When watching Spain the next night there was not a chance in hell I could envisage England performing like Spain. It really is technically exceptional and, like Ben, I presume it's something that if not learned by say age 10(?), can never be acquired. I don't know much about the Barca set up/academy but presumably there is a geographical radius of 50kms that can now be credited with hugley impacting football on a global level, an achievement to rival the Busby Babes and Celtic's 1967 win in terms of romance. And all done seemingly in direct contrast to prevailing thought - do they discard players over 5'8"? This, along with the fact that it unites a strangely divided nation (and a testimonial I saw recently where the opposing team was 300 children!) all make me predisposed to wanting Spain to excel, and they may be a team I will get nostalgic about in the future, but so far, with perhaps the exception of last night, it is themselves who have failed to perform. Tbh I see this changing now and would not be surprised by a 4-0 win in the final.

    But yes, the media spiel is grating and should be resisted. I can't see *how* Holland can win. If they manage to beat Spain it will only be welcomed on the back of a Spain meltdown/unfair play display. Holland don't even have the characteristics of the ruthless efficiency of 1970s Germany to fall back on but rather the vagaries of a kind draw (Brazil excepted). Perhaps this is the problem of the inevitability of Spain's success. It's not about them winning, it's them being the *best*. As Inter learnt putting out Barcelona, even if you beat them, they're still *better* apparently (Holland failing to have a charismatic focus point/'genius' like Mourinho to take up the narative slack will obv infuriate).

    I get the impression Germany would have been treated better by the narrative writers had they succumbed to a thorough defeat that could have been charmingly explained away as 'youthful inexperience...naivety' et al. rather than a close (in score at least) encounter.

    But, yes, this is obv a side issue and something which Spain themselves don't seem to overly collude in manufacturing.

  25. High quality comments by all, I must say ...

    The underdog thing - thing is, part of the reason that Spain are so unloveable, as Loki put it, is that there's a bullying quality to how they play. I can't help being reminded of older (but not bigger) kids keeping the ball away from youngsters. Of course, the fact that they make their peers seem like youngsters in comparison with them is testament to how superior they are ... but it doesn't make me love them any more. Another analogy is keeping the ball in the corner - isn't this what Spain do, just using the whole width of the pitch? Or, to go back to the 80s Liverpool analogy, isn't it like Hansen and Lawrenson rolling the ball back and forth between themselves and Grobelaar for seventy minutes until John Barnes fell over in the penalty area and George Courtney awarded the mandatory penality? Yeah, it's much more sophisticated, it's faster, it's more demanding, but it has the same drama-killing effect. I know these analogies are ludicrous, but they go some way towards getting across how it feels - to me - to watch Spain on last night's form.
    As for the general issues of drama - I really don't think this is just about breakaway goals, or goals at all. I always used to find Jimmy Hill's obsession with goals tiresome - goals don't in and of themselves produce drama, as we saw with the Uruguay-Holland game: 5 goals didn't make that dramatic. It's perfectly possible to have a dramatic 0-0. What you need is a sense that something can happen. I never had that sense last night.

    (As for goals - haven't practically all Spain's goals been from breakaways or set pieces? Has there been one memorable goal?)

    It seems that, over the next few years, international and Champions League football will be a struggle between three different models:

    Spain/ Barca high posssesion game

    Mourinho - low possession, breakaway

    Anglo-Germanic model - like the Mourinho model, but exciting.

    I know which one I hope wins out.

  26. Anwyn - no, not calling you a smugonaut don't worry - that bit referred to the likes of say Jason Cowley (see Mark's smugonaut watch post)

    Mark - the boys v men thing definitely - I was thinking of the stock idea of the cat toying with a mouse, except it's the mouse toying with cat, Iniesta v Khedira, Villa v Mertesacker etc

    re goals, weren't these memorable? I guess not if you don't remember them, sigh, I give up

    Villa vs Honduras

    Villa vs Chile

  27. Plus, ok, it was a set piece, but Puyol's goal was a cracker.