Saturday, 3 July 2010

The rearview mirror, the big Other, and the persistence of the past

When will Lionel Messi have had a mediocre tournament? One of the most irritating things about commentariat "common sense" is the way that judgements that are presented as universally accepted are silently reversed. All of Messi's touches have been greated with expectant rhapsodies of awe, even though he has never exploded into anything like the form of which is he is capable. And in the last couple of games, especially today, he has for large parts of the match been a flickering shadow; not as bad as Rooney, for sure, but certainly no better than Lampard against Germany, who did at least hit a shot across the line. Note: I am not, ludicrously, saying that Messi is overrated. But, with its usual bout of self-loathing sado-masochism, English media have been very quick to conclude that Rooney's desperately poor showing here means that he is overrated, often comparing him unflatteringly to Messi. Messi had the advantage of playing in a side that - until today - was winning easily; Rooney was playing in a team that was labouring. Note also: I am not saying either that Rooney is as good a player as Messi, only that Messi has been given the benefit of the doubt far more than Rooney was.

Partly, what I'm describing is due to what McLuhan called rearview mirror thinking. Commentators and pundits filter what they are seeing according to models rooted in the past, bending their perception to fit their expectations rather than adjusting their expectations in line with the facts. This syndrome used to be screamingly evident in the treatment of Brazil, and, twenty years after they converted to dour pragmatism augmented by occasional flair and predatory goalscoring, their reputation for playing Samba football remains astonishingly resilient - even if only the most selective of viewers could eulogise their organisation, backfiring backheels and packed defence this tournament.

Partly, it's a matter of what the big Other is held to acknowledge. With Brazil, the big Other was only supposed to notice their flicks and flamboyance. With Messi this tournament, the commentariat have been like courtiers trying to conceal shoddy workmanship from a monarch, as they sought desperately to keep Messi''s many patches of indifferent and ineffective play from the big Other's gaze. But the defeats of Brazil and Argentina over the last couple of days have been shock moments which have a retrospective impact, shattering the official narrative, and allowing what was always in fact the case to be recognised as such. When I suggested that "Brazil have already won the World Cup" I wasn't saying that they would win it, rather that if they did win, the victory would have been inevitable. Nothing would have happened. The officially constituted (and Nike sponsored) reality would have confirmed itself. But as soon as they hadn't already won it, they couldn't do enough to earn the win.

This brings us back to the role of belief and expectations. Germany started today's game with the evident conviction could beat Argentina, which already sapped the Argentines of much of their power. The same thing happened in the second half of the Netherlands-Brazil game, when Brazil's invincibility crumbled like Ceau┼čescu's tyranny; there was no gradual transition from inevitability of victory to defeat, just a sudden and total disintegration. But Ghana yesterday and Paraguay today palpably lacked that belief; like many of the less fancied teams, their strikers came up against what was in effect an invisible forcefield when they closed in on the opponents' goal, shooting wildly over the bar or uselessly into the keeper's body. It's no accident that both Paraguay and Ghana went out because they failed to convert penalties. In the penalty shoot-out against Japan, the Paraguay players looked like they could have scored penalties all night - but today Cardoso, like Gyan last night, seemed so paralysed by nerves that it was impossible to imagine him scoring. They had come up against the belief barrier.

Argentina's defeat today was comprehensive by any standards. They probed lislessly without really pressing, and, besides the clearly and indisputably offside goal, they created far fewer clear goalscoring opportunities against Germany than England did. Must we now conclude that there is a "gulf in class" between Argentina and Germany? The one thing that this World Cup has definitively proven is that this "gulf in class" does not exist; there are not South American and Spanish Deities on another technical plane to other teams. What Germany had over England and Argentina was not a technical advantage, but a manifest superiority in pace and discipline. As Zone argued, Germany's destruction of England was a consequence of Germany literally beating England at their own game - and that "English-style" football requires a pace and energy that was physically and mentally far beyond the England players, who, in a horrible vicious circle, tried to compensate for indiscipline and disorganisation with the very bluster that produced the organisational collapse in the first place. Argentina, meanwhile, found it impossible to run the game at their tempo, and, like Brazil, they were unable to adjust to being behind in a game. Spain have survived this far in the competition not because of their vaunted passing game, which has sparked only sporadically in the last couple of games, but because of their tenacity and Villa's opportunism. I'm not sneering at these things - they are exactly the qualities Spain needed to develop in order to face down the very daunting ghosts of their past under-achievement. Ominously for Germany - who by any metric are far and away the most exciting team this tournament - Spain are now playing badly enough to win the World Cup. However, Spain still have massive hauntological obstacles to overcome - not least the fact that Germany have never gone more than twenty years between World Cup wins since they first won in 1954. As I've already pointed out, Spain would be the first new winner of the World Cup who wasn't the host since 1958; they would be the first reigning European Champions to win the competition since West Germany's victory on home soil in 1974 (which was in fact the only occasion so far on which the winners of the European championships have gone on to win the World Cup); and they would be the only team ever to lose their first game and end up winning the tournament (this last fact makes them more closely resemble Argentina in 1990 - who lost to Cameroon in their opening game - and West Germany in 1982, who lost to Algeria in their first game: what do these teams have in common? They ended up losing in the final. Remember also that Holland in 1978 might not have lost their opening game, but they did suffer a shock defeat in the first round - to Scotland - and they too ended up losing in the final.) Spain would also be the first European team to win outside Europe. The Netherlands run up against many of the same precedents, these eerily repeating patterns. As for Uruguay - well, even though they seem to be the underdog of the four remaining teams, they are not similarly ill-starred. And, unlike Spain and Holland, they have won the World Cup before, twice in fact.


  1. I have nothing to add except that this is a first-rate piece of analysis. Well done indeed.

  2. Outstanding article. Maybe i could add something to this. Concerning the mental barriers, that is. For example, why Holland always looses with Portugal, why Portugal always looses with France, why France always looses with Germany, why Chile can't beat Brazil, why Brazil is always in fear when they play Uruguay, and so on.

    But no, i can't add anything. Fantastic blog

  3. You could more or less write a book about Brazil and belief.

    Brazil seem to have the unique ability to intimidate underdogs into failure. You've written perceptively in the past about Ghana's complete failure of belief against Brazil in 2006, and that was hardly unique. Chile this year (and in '98), Belgium and arguably England in 2002 all fit the same pattern. The other team think 'oh, hang on, this is *Brazil*' and almost visibly wilt...

    But at times it seems that Brazil themselves rely on this 'Brazil hypnosis'. When the other team don't participate as expected, Brazil don't seem to have anything else in the tank. When *their* belief fails, Brazil collapse almost instantaneously - see the suddenly hopeless teams against France in '98 and against Holland this year.

  4. Great stuff. Absolutely, the "belief barrier" - there's something more to this idea than all the talk of confidence, arrogance, fear, solidarity, pressure, technical ability, etc, etc.

    Closer to home of course the exemplary figure is Ferguson - surely his greatest strength over the years has been just this ability to instil almost unwavering belief in his players, casting a spell not just over the opposition but referees' watches too. That sense of power over time, imperviousness to history and its ghosts, God is on our side. (how else do you explain the remarkably successful career of someone like gary neville?! although i have friends who would take serious issue with that...) Perhaps the various high-profile players who failed at Utd lacked the necessary "musicality" when it came to Fergie's brand of self-righteous, pseudo-socialist "religion" (the main apostles, off the top of my head, Bruce, Keane, Neville, Scholes, Rooney: as I think of them now, their faces blur into an uncannily similar rictus of grim invincibility. mind you, that image does highlight how hard earned this power tends to be)..?

    That said, something has certainly seemed to give in the last couple of seasons - an increasing number of occasions when, against all expectations, Utd haven't turned a game around in the dying minutes. And one or two clubs who've seemed more capable of resisting the spell (eg Liverpool, Barcelona). Still, they managed to come so close again last season on the vapours of that belief alone it seemed (Rooney is the only one of the new guard who seems able to embody it fully). Comparisons with Wenger are instructive: there are tried and tested methods for inducing anxiety throughout the Arsenal team. Just not true of Fergie's.

  5. Certainly have been converted to the belief points you have so eloquantly made, but should add some dull and practical concerns.

    Has this perception of Brazil in recent years as retaining joga bonito not just been kept alive by having 1 incredibly skillful 'flair' player in each generation? Add to that incredibly effective attacking fullbacks (before it was en vogue - it always was an eye catching and imposing image as Cafu popped up next to the opposition box alongside a striker) and usually one outstanding + ruthless striker/poacher (Romario, Ronaldo etc). Basically the flair could be packaged and sold (those Nike brazil adverts) reinforcing the belief and perception that crushed the underdogs.

    Its easy to forget how bloody good, exciting, and mischevious Ronaldinho and Rivaldo were in their pomp and I would argue they alone kept the samba perception alive. They would allow you to ignore the holding midfielders, imposing centre backs and various utility players. What really let Brazil down was that the inheritors of this position, Kaka and Robinho, were neither as inventive or as effective.

    On top of that there were the Branco-Cafu, Carlos-Cafu partnerships (they best player this tournament was probably Maicon) which helped back up the belief, by actually being very forward thinking in terms of how the game has gone.

    In this tournament Brazil were remodelled for the first time with the flair lobatamised - the ruthless striker was gone (as much a feature of Brazil as any flair player), one of their fullbacks was a limited winger (who Robben tore to pieces) and the flair players failed (how important was Elano in the end?).

    The result, dull but effective football and they knew it, so that when they were questioned they duly crumbled . . .

    I watched the Ivory Coast match in a Brazilian bar and was delighted to discover the pre-match loop on the TV screens was not famous victories but the Roberto Carlos generation dancing and playing musical instruments in various situations and the players doing skills on the training ground. The team may have forgotton about the ideal but the fans haven't.