Thursday, 15 July 2010

Folding up the Wallcharts




When Mark and I decided to set up a football blog it was only going to be for the duration of South Africa 2010... and here we are.

I've never attempted to blog in time with an event, and one thing I hadn't anticipated was the degree to which each day was a deadline. So the moment for my post reading Chile's formation in the light of Sir Thomas Browne's essay on the quincunx had passed within minutes it seemed of their knockout. A post on World Cup typefaces like this or this went by the way, as did a Stepford Footballers post, positing that one problem people have with the Spain midfield is that they're all physical and tactical clones of each other. I never linked properly to Robin Carmody's spectacular conspiracy theories regarding the CIA and the US team's progress, nor this post at Cold Calling. There was never a proper response to Laurie Penny's anti-World Cup diatribe, nor to the Orwell essay from which (with some ambivalence) we took the title of this blog. Mark did take Terry Eagleton to task at least over at k-punk.

On the other hand, it didn't matter: interesting pieces streamed in daily from the UK, New Zealand, Egypt and Holland. Ninety-five posts in thirty days?! Giovanni has already written about how enjoyable it's been to work collectively, which I absolutely second.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect though has been the quality and quantity of the comments. No trolling; not a mention of the Nazis. The comments were articulate, informed and interesting, and ended up producing not just new posts (DigitalBen and Dan) but new blogs. It's enough to make you think optimistically again about Web 2.0 potential. So, a massive thank you to all who commented.

And thanks also to everyone who linked: hopefully most are noted on the Return Pass sidebar – apologies to anyone whose link I missed.


Just two years until Poland/Ukraine 2012. See you then.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

missed narratives

Normally commentators and pundits are desperate to stitch together any kind of narrative they can from the frequently random events of football history. A player only has to return to a former club for the first time for someone like Clive Tyldesley or Martin Tyler to near-hyperventilate at the prospect of him scoring a revenge goal. Up will go the cry of 'What a story!', as if a new set-piece has been added to some kind of Homeric epic.

To my surprise, a few went relatively unnoticed on Sunday night. Arjen Robben for example ended up on the losing side of club football's biggest game as well as international football's within a matter of weeks. Vicente Del Bosque must now be one of the most successful managers, year-for-year, in the history of the game. In four years at Real Madrid he won two leagues and two European Cups. In two years with Spain he's won the World Cup.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is Gerard Pique's run of success since the 2007/08 season.

2007/08: with Man Utd – Premier League, Champions League
2008/09: with Barca – Copa del Rey, La Liga, Champions League
2009/10: with Barca – UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, La Liga
with Spain – World Cup

Few players have ever enjoyed such a run – Bixente Lizarazu was, I think a simultaneous Bundesliga, German Cup, European and World champion in 2001 – but at 23, Pique must be among the youngest.

Collapsing The Field

‘The intense immersion and heightened dissipate instantly once the tension of competition is over. As a World Cup watcher, I usually start to feel this looming anti-climax once the semi-finals come around - by then, the sense that anything can still happen as hardened into a few determinate possibilities, and the glow of festival time starts to give way to the bleak twilight of everyday routine again.’

What’s thrilling about the World Cup is the temporary suspension of the order of things. For four weeks, the international rankings, the routine of qualifying, the familiar sights and locations of football are gone, and a huge space of possibility is opened up. Could North Korea beat Portugal? What would happen if South Africa won their group while Argentina dropped points and didn’t win theirs? Poring over a blank wallchart gives us a brief, demarcated glimpse of infinity - pure potential.


It doesn’t last. Over the tournament, the lines of possibility wink out one by one. Japan/Korea 2002 was full of drama, easily the most unpredictable, ‘world turned upside down’ of a tournament in recent history, but by the time we reached the semi-finals we saw routine 1-0 wins for Brazil and Germany. This year, we had the flat, energy-conserving progress of Holland and Spain. Sooner or later, probability reasserts itself. Like some three-week-delayed version of quantum wave function collapse: once the dizzying snowstorm of possibilities has been observed, the image coalesces into something clear and (all too) familiar. The kaleidoscope stops turning - the new order is revealed.



Whichever final outcome emerges from the chaos is bound to disappoint. When Switzerland beat Spain, we revel in the improbability of it all, and the apparent suspension of the known patterns of football matches. Their victory was a triumph for neutrals insofar as it muddied the waters, made group outcomes harder to predict, and delayed the moment of resolution. Had Switzerland actually advanced in the competition (as they did in 2006) we would have found ourselves bored senseless by their negativity. When unfancied teams progress, we usually hear talk of fairytales - but wishes granted in fairytales generally turn out badly. Any upset, any strange event, will always find a way to let us down - this is because the uncertainty itself is what we find so delicious.




Once the tournament is over, we can turn to various methods to try and relive the glorious weeks and ignore the drab Restoration that has taken place - most notably, recreating the whole tournament in video game form. Turn the kaleidoscope over and over again, in the comfort of your own home - but somehow it never quite satisfies. Repetition after careful repetition may eventually unlock the most desired combination (your country winning the final 3-0 in immaculate style, perhaps), but the joy is short-lived. Maybe because we know how little patterns of data on a memory card are really worth - more likely because resolution never lives up to promise.

We’ve had our four-week holiday in the liminal state. Time to fold up the wallcharts.

Remediations


I was born in the age of the instant replay, but only just - if it was in fact in 1970 that they started using it, as I seem to recall having heard once. I wasn’t able to confirm that, and still wonder if Hurst’s goal of 1966 was available to the television audience for immediate review, however grainily. I know for a fact the games were broadcast in black and white back then, and that it was only cinemagoers who got to see the highlight packages in colour. At any rate, the first World Cup in my actual memory is the one of 1978 and at that stage you could watch the games live - still only in black and white in our household - and the replays of the goals during the games themselves, but that was it. No possibility to record the game, no Internet to get on to watch the highlights. You had to wait patiently for the news to watch some of the action again. And then the next day you bought the newspaper, in which the game would be described in words. Do journalists even bother to do that these days? Written play-by-play reportage - at least in the Italian papers - has shrunk considerably over the years, due in all likelihood to the saturation of video images, and the assumption that the readers would have seen the action for themselves many times over by then.

There was another thing in some of the papers when I was a child: artists’ renditions of key plays. I was fond in particular of Paolo Samarelli, the artist for La Repubblica, and I recall very vividly his drawing of a Bettega goal against England in the World Cup qualifier of 1976 that I was delighted to find on the Internet.


It’s with equal delight that I discovered that Samarelli still works for La Repubblica. Here’s his panel on the drawn game between Italy and New Zealand.


I say I’m delighted, but I also wonder who would bother with that. I mean you can just get on-line and watch the goals, right? They’re right there on the same Internet where that panel was posted. More puzzlingly, I see that La Gazzetta dello Sport ran a ‘3D theatre’ of all the goals of the tournament, whereby by clicking on each link you would get a stupid and categorically non-3D moving vignette with computer-generated figurines and nothing of Samarelli’s artistry, all for the same effort and the same bandwidth-sapping effect of going to YouTube or the Fifa website and watching the regular game highlights. So I ask myself what the fascination is with all the reinvention and the reinterpretation. And I go chasing for more of these remediations, and find the tournament played at Subbuteo by middle aged men, but also stop-start Lego animations of the games’ highlights, painstaking, near-obsessive labours of love and futility which yet produced one of my images of the World Cup, the despair of Robert Green captured in plastic brick form.




But remediations - as Bolter and Grusin tell us - go both ways. So for instance whilst you get e-books that replicate the aspect and pagination of print books, you also get books that mimic the form of the devices that are supposed to be replacing them. And so, true to their predictions, we find that the Fifa television coverage, the one that is supposed to pursue maximum transparency and transport you there, to the stadium, in the thick of it, does many other things besides. Most notably, it remediates football videogames

A scene from the classic arcade Kick-Off

Look, Mum, I control Kaka!

RPGs


And… religious iconography?

David Villa is the King of Kings

To name but three things. And so it seems to me that the name of the media game is not innovation - for none of the old means of representation, including Samarelli’s drawings, have been abandoned - but rather multiplication, resulting in a hyper-saturation of imagery and images. We saw so much of this World Cup.

This was the first tournament since the widespread adoption of high definition outside of North America. The next one will likely be in actual 3D, at least in some households. (We’re still low-def. Heck, I still use a VCR, although I doubt it will be there in four years’ time.) The super slow-motion will be even slower. And we’ll still be discussing the quality of the football as if it existed outside of all these wrappings, as if it was an objective reality that takes place out there, on the field with the grass, where things happen unmediated.


Monday, 12 July 2010

Tension, shocks, but not much drama




Sporting events always end with a feeling of anti-climax, even when you've won them. The intense immersion and heightened dissipate instantly once the tension of competition is over. As a World Cup watcher, I usually start to feel this looming anti-climax once the semi-finals come around - by then, the sense that anything can still happen as hardened into a few determinate possibilities, and the glow of festival time starts to give way to the bleak twilight of everyday routine again. The sense of anti-climax is reinforced for the World Cup watcher by the fact that finals haven't often tended to be classics. Last night's game, to say the least, didn't break the pattern - it was a case of the unpalatable in pursuit of the unloveable. The BBC pundits were frantically building the narrative - "Spain were a joy to watch", "it was a victory for football" - and, yes, even my hard heart was glad for Iniesta, less one point of the moveable tiki-taka triangle last night than a tireless force: the will to win personified, the perfect mixture of urgency and patience. Certainly, Spain's win was a triumph over anti-football, but I'm not sure as that is the same as a victory for football. This tournament has made it clear that a certain kind of aficionado-discourse dominates the discussion of football, and nowhere more so than amontst English pundits, who habitually use World Cups to indulge in cultivating the inferiority complex which is the other side of insular arrogance. Admire these passing foreigners, just don't do what's required to be like them. Shearer's censuring of the Dutch really did take some swallowing.

Both Spain and the Netherlands excorcised some of their ghosts last night - Spain by finally winning the World Cup, and Holland by kicking the shit out of theirs. This is the fourth tournament in succession in which the Netherlands have been the team which has committed the most fouls, but the high-profile nature of their spoiling tactics last night and the fact that it is no longer possible to sustain the fantasy that "there is more to come from Holland" might mean that, at last, Netherlands'' image as the team of "total football" falls away. Spain not only vanquished their own spectres of defeat, they also overcame some of their continent's (now Europeans can win outside Europe), and the tournament's (now, it's possible to lose your first game and go on to win the tournament). Two statistics from Opta tell the story of Spain's victory, and indeed of this World Cup: "Spain become the lowest scoring side to win the World Cup with just eight goals to their name". "Spain have now made more successful passes in a World Cup than any team since 1966, surpassing Brazil from 94 (3547)". These statistics bear out what I've argued in comments here: it's hard to see Spain as an attacking side, even if they weren't a counter-attacking or defensive team. We've been confronted with the apparent paradox of this being a low-scoring tournament, in which, at the same time, there were no outstanding defences or goalkeeper. But the paradox is nothing of the sort - defence starts far upfield now. It's a game dominated by midfield.

The midfield quagmire has contributed to a World Cup in which there were shocks - the defeats and early exits of France and Italy; the scale of Germany's wins over England and Argentina - but precious little drama. The Italy-Slovakia and the Ghana-Uruguay matches provided rare moments of theatre, but, for the most part, there was tension without drama. The team that took the lead tended to win. There were no daring fightbacks, or none that were successful. Even in the high-scoring games, many goals went in when the contest was effectively over.

Still, the dominance of midfielders can't fully account for the failure of strikers, which verged on the uncanny. It wasn't just that the forwards weren't getting chances - Torres and Messi had plenty, Rooney more than enough. And, in some respects, the game last night was really decided by two clear-cut misses by Robben. Fine margins ... Spain's success throughout the tournament depended on the opposition fluffing chances at crucial moments. As Ben has pointed out, it is only from a post-hoc perspective that their tactics can be conceived of as some sort of surefire masterplan. When the plan went wrong against Switzerland, Spain were unable to adjust. The biggest what-if of the tournament turned out to be: what would happen to Spain if they went behind again? But this question was destined never to be answered. Even so, the precarious of Spain's wins never dispelled the sense of inevitablity that became increasingly evident as Spain's performances in the knock-out games went to a script that barely deviated. 1-0. 1-0. 1-0. 1-0 (after extra time). All of the goals scored late. Spain's admirers might blame the defensiveness of their opponents, or - last night especially - their fouling, but all great teams have faced these difficulties. Last night's fouling would have been standard at many tournaments in the past. (However, in a tournament when referees were scarcely reluctant to caution or dismiss players, Mark van Bommel's not being sent off was some sort of a miracle. Klose was sent off; van Bommel wasn't. There's a parable about the officiating in this tournament there, surely.) Yet, in many of Spain's games, it wasn't clear whether they were being stifled, or if they were doing the stifling.

Football styles are the same as any other styles - they change. There's already a feeling that Spain are past the peak that they reached in the 2008 Euopean championships. As any of the regular readers here will by now be well aware, I for one look forward to a different kind of style becoming dominant in international football soon.

It’s Not Over: The World Cup Dromenon





Philosopher Robert Pfaller suggested that the anxiety displayed by onlookers of a football match (agitated, aggressive, mumbling, shouting commands as if ‘“they” can hear him etc.) is due to an interpassive phenomenon. He refers to the term "dromenon" as used by the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga in his ‘proeve’ of 1938. Dromenon connotates an action, ‘something that is being done’ or more succinctly the ‘thing-done’ and is used by Huizinga to explain the gamic or ludic element within rituals or rites, in particular their ‘seriousness’, what Huizinga calls ‘sacred seriousness’. What differentiates a rite from a common everyday action is that when we perform a rite we are not simply mimetically copying some remotely enacted action. Instead, according to Huizinga, we are ‘helping-out’ the action by performing the rite. ‘They do no know it, but they are doing it’, wrote Marx and the same goes for our football watcher. By partaking in the ritual, the dromenon, the participant finds a way to enter into the action; a way to ‘help’ out. Or so he believes.

In any case, in our contemporary society of the spectacle the substitution of course has become foregrounded. In the original Spring Dromenon or Festival of Ancient Greece, a recurring ritualistic event, there were no spectators. Everyone participated in the "orkestra" (i.e a dancing-place). When the festival moved from the orchestra towards the theatre the ‘thing-done’ becomes drama; i.e. it is still something-done but not by you as participant, it is something-done by something or someone else. However the basic need to participate remains. Just like that other element of the Dionysian rite, what Pfaller calls Selbstvergessenheit. The dromenon takes care of the action for us, it is a medium/device (a television, screen, prayer wheel etc) through which we, the onlookers, can forget that we are enacting an ‘identification compensatrice’ (Huizinga’s term), that is, that we are compensating our lack of real participation by fetishistically identifying with the dromenon. This is what Selbstvergessenheit means: to forget one’s self by temporarily replacing it, in this case by the dromenon.

Last night we witnessed the Mother of All Anxiety Generating Dromena: the final battle between Spain and the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, Museumplein was transformed into an Ancient Greek theatre of some sort. Thousands of people gathered. In order for all of them to be shielded from the true source of their anxiety, the dromenon supplied must be huge. And for sure, the screens in Amsterdam and Madrid, gathering onto them the collective anxiety of at least two generations of football supporters - one half traumatized by Munich 1974, the other by Madrid 1982 - certainly were massive.

Whichever side we take, either the side of those who believe the above is a fetishistic disavowal or those who believe we are dealing with a methectic participation (i.e. affective-somatically and kinetically helping the action out) as Huizinga did, the real battle did not take place in Soccer City. That battle took place in the streets of Madrid and Amsterdam. Those who were able to attach themselves in the most fluent way to the dromenon, those who became the most ‘dromonautic’, won. Only they were able to properly work through the trauma, to forget their selves most adequately. Fortunately (or not), a dromenon and thus the Worldcup is a recurring event, and in this way a "perpetuum mobile": the Dutch will have their chance again. For now though, the best fetishist won. Kudos Spain, well done.

The Golden Balls Of Diego



Well, after a comment here and now that Forlan has (deservedly, I think) won the Golden Ball, I'd better make my position clear...

When I said: "If he'd scored a few for Man U he'd be a real star now, I think."

I meant this not as a part of my "Bloody typical English delusion" (though I do have plenty of typical English delusions and I'm trying my best to deal with them - the English Optimists Support Group are still awaiting my adoption of a power animal so that my membership can be complete) but as a comment on the devastating capital power of the Premiership. Forlan was a good player at Manchester United, very unlucky (I seem to remember he hit the woodwork a lot) and would no doubt eventually have done really well... if those shots had gone in (the striker really must score goals) he'd have been seamlessly assimilated into the Man U megadeath narrative and would have thus become a Global star. He'd be on the Nike adverts. As it is, even despite crushing English club hopes in Europe and generally slamming in goals all through the last two or three seasons, he was still regarded as somehow below the top tier, as a club player, as an almost star.

The notional status of star, of Golden Balls, is only marginally related to actual ability and it's the margins that work wonders. It's not just scoring that counts but when and how and where and who against. Goals in the 'big three' leagues are more than goals; they are immense cultural artefacts and thus expert pitches to advertisers. And goals in the Premiership are arguably the biggest pitches of all.

There are no stars in the other leagues? Well, perhaps. Certainly, we never notice how individually brilliant some of the Bundesliga playing Germans are until they turn up at the World Cup and then we look surprised that they're doing so well. Idiotic perhaps, but a consequence of the star system that we need to shake.

And yes, Anon, you're right: the Premiership has been largely irrelevant during this World Cup and this is it's real narrative arc - the stars have gone out, the team has prospered. Even Spain's collection of stars are arguably more about the way the team play than the players per se. This has proved mesmerising to the TV pundits - "they keep making substitutes and you can't tell..."

Somewhere, not far into the future, the Premiership is shuddering; could the days of the star be numbered? Is it even appropriate to try and build a team of individuals, rather than focus on the collective whole? Let Man City decide.

For that reason, Forlan is a worthy winner. He was bigger than his team, played bigger but still remained a part of Uruguay's team-spirit. Every look was a stare into the abyss. He could see the stars collapsing and he knew his team's place in that collapse. Forlan was elemental at times but grounded. You can see him on a mountain top in a Caspar David Friedrich Painting, apart from and immersed into the Uruguayan Nature. And he was playing his heart out on the most difficult stage of all.



The only other individual performer in the running (but not in the running) would have been perhaps Muller who showed his worth by his presence (and more importantly by his absence) in a Germany team that was perhaps only bettered by Spain at the level of substitutes. I'm glad he got the Golden Boot. He's also not a star. He was much better than that.

A final thought on where all the stars went:

The World Cup has it's critics. They argue that the Champions League is where the true class football resides. Hiding inside the moneypits, where it's really difficult for the stars to get dwarfed before the knockout stage. But The World Cup is an especially pressurised (and thus dificult to win) tournament - it's football upscaled, as near as we're ever going to get to a universal fixture, a match that everyone watches. The pressure of your fans' expectations must be immense (it's killing Liverpool, for example ) but it's less than the pressure of the Nation's expectations, or even in Ghana's case, the Continent's.

It's in this (occasionally literal) furnace that stars falter and new ones are born. Has there ever been a World Cup where this has been more apparent?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A Complicated Game Simplified By Fools

Mark's recent post on technique raises lots of interesting questions, not least why the England team's is so poor. Is England's 'problem' then an inability to conceive of the game as anything other than essentially simple, not an absence of technique so much as too narrow a definition of what it involves?

England's basic inability to keep possession is routinely cited, for sure, (not least by the players themselves) as is limited time spent training together and therefore their lack of mutual tactical understanding. But the analysis of their technical deficiencies is still conducted within the confined tactical space of the English game, with no sense of the more complex spatial, tactical, geometric movements of players, of bodies in space, and how this relates to the ineffable qualities that make a great football team.

Does an overiding sense of pragmatism, of wanting to call a spade a spade, drive the team to conflate technique into a simplistic idea of 'skill', of being able to play keep ball, or that bending a free kick is the very height of technical sophistication?

Friday, 9 July 2010

Fine Margins



When I said that Frank Lampard's disallowed goal against Germany was irrelevant, I didn't mean that it wouldn't have changed the game. I think that there's little doubt that it would have fundamentally altered the dynamics of the match. I said it was an irrelevance because England's subsequent performance was so poor that it retrospectively invalidated this perfectly plausible alternative reality. (Contrast this with something like Chris Waddle hitting the post against West Germany in 1990 - the alternate reality is all the more painfully palpable because, unlike against Germany this year, England deserved something from that game.)

Now Lampard already seems like a figure from a long-ago age. As an England footballer at least; I've not doubt that he'll be as cold-eyed ruthless as ever for Chelsea next season. But as an Enland footballer he will always be the man who went to a series of tournaments and didn't score. (Even though, against Germany he did.) That's what is so dramatic about these moments -the finest margin becomes a chasm that separates contingency from necessity.(With Lampard's shot, of course, the shock was that the margin wasn't that fine). Other examples of these cusp moments in this tournament are Italy's disallowed goal against Slovakia, Gyan's penalty miss against Uruguay, and perhaps Puyol's foul on Oezil last night. But after (what turned out to be) these pivotal moments, we no longer know how much was happenstance and how much could only ever have ended that way. This is why the post-hoc "wisdom" that Giovanni has referred to always has a bogus quality to it - who knows whether the factors that it isolates as decisive actually were? By the end of the Germany game, England's flaws were frozen into a narrative that was always going to end in defeat and humiliation. By the end of the Italy-Slovakia game, Italy were definitively "too old". By the end of the Spain-Germany final, Germany could only win well against teams that defended recklessly. But did any of these things have to be true?

Golden Balls: Lionel Messi - really?

The sinister FIFA Technical Study Group (sounds like something out of one of CS Lewis's alien paranoia novels) has come up with the Golden Ball nominees for this World Cup (we must therefore assume that the best player will not emerge because of the final).

All attacking players.

Let's see:

Diego Forlan - Got to be in with a shout if just for the steely blue eyed (thousand yard) stares. If he'd scored a few for Man U he'd be a real star now, I think.

Asamoah Gyan - Work rate, flashes of skill, a face like a beautiful Battersea Dog.

Andres Iniesta - heartbeat, indistinguishable from the even more metronomic Xavi, also nominated. Hobbits with attitude.

Lionel Messi - er, really? Only if you've been watching the adverts and not the games.

Mesut Oezil - played in odd, lost spaces; found passes, scored a cracker. Best player until the Semi, I think.

Arjen Robben - giving it to someone with only one foot seems like positive discrimination; falls over air.

Bastian Schweinsteiger - the heartbeat of Germany; passed like a Spaniard.

Wesley Sneijder - a good final and he's in with a shout; seems like a lucky player and luck is the best skill you can have.

David Villa - fox in (and out) of the box. Spain would still be passing it, if he didn't occasionally swing a leg.

I guess this hasn't been a World Cup for individuals; teams have made all the brilliant displays, shared the joy and the burden. I guess this also explains why there are no defenders here; the good defenders have defended as a unit, only occasionally leaked. A triumph of organisation.

Still, Lionel Messi - really?

Technique

Long, long ago in the tournament - when England were still in, that long ago - Giovanni and I had a little disagreement about "technique". I was arguing that the problem with the England team is not technique - that the issues are "psychological" in some sense. Partly my evidence for this would be that England players seem perfectly capable of trapping and passing a ball when they play for their clubs, but these basic competences desert them when they play for the national team. (As we saw most spectacularly with Rooney in this World Cup.) But, to ask an apparently naive question, is technique as straightforward a concept as it appears to be? After all, conceived of as a purely physical act (is that what technique means?), then passing isn't that difficult. Surely any international footballer has the "skill" necessary to play short passes to team-mates (and my impression is that there hasn't been much long passing in this tournament - Gerrard apart, but you can hardly class his wild punts as "passes" really). Don't misunderstand me. I'm not seeing keeping possession is easy - one thing I can unequivocally agree with Zone about is that the way Spain play is intensely difficult and demanding. What I'm saying is that the difficulties are more to do with the speed of thought, anticipation and awareness of team-mates' and opponents' positioning that a passing game entails - which is why Zone rightly invokes precognition when writing about Spain's passing. Is this still technique or is it something else?

Thank God for Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson's tactical survey of the World Cup focusses on Spain, while also reassuring me over my own sanity:

There are those who protest at [Spain's] lack of goals (no side has reached the final scoring fewer) but they are a classic example of a team that prefers to control the game than to become obsessed by creating chances. Perhaps they at times become mesmerised by their passing, perhaps there is even something attritional about it, wearing opponents down until they make the mistake, but it is beautiful attrition. Those who have protested at the modern Holland, and their supposed betrayal of the heritage of Total Football, which is being painted as the ne plus ultra of attacking football, should perhaps look back at the European Cup finals of 1971-73 when Ajax expressed their mastery by holding the ball for long periods. Frankly, if they ever faced a side who took them on rather than sitting eight men behind the ball, we may see a more overtly attacking Spain.

Which brings us to Germany. They too play a 4-2-3-1 and, although Philipp Lahm breaks forward occasionally, theirs is essentially a defensive set-up. Here again goals are the great betrayers; it was bewildering how much praise was heaped on their supposedly fresh, open approach just because they scored four goals in three games. This Germany was superb on the counter-attack, and the interaction of the front four of Miroslav Klose, Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil was at times breathtaking. But this was reactive football.

In three games, Germany scored an early first goal – against Argentina and England, it was essentially handed to them – and in those games they ruthlessly took advantage of the space opponents left behind them as they chased an equaliser. England, Argentina and Australia all defended idiotically against them, and were severely punished. In the other three games, teams defended decently against them and the early goal didn't arrive surrounded by watercress on a silver salver. In those games Germany managed one goal, and that a wonder-strike from Ozil. Against Spain their poverty of ideas was such they ended up sending the lumbering centre-back Per Mertesacker forward as an auxiliary striker, an idea so bereft of subtlety that the only time I remember it working was when Dennis Smith once sent Gary Bennett forward for Sunderland against Oxford in 1990.

Although incredibly, Wilson's famously encyclopaedic brain has forgotten that putting a centreback upfront almost saw Barcelona through to the European Cup final this year:

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Myths Of The Near Past

I’m loathe to mention him here, particularly in a vaguely positive light, but Nick Hornby once said something interesting about football. It was in Fever Pitch, if I remember rightly, and it was to do with the way that supporters tend to use players as a mirror of their own values. So, a certain kind of middle class, thinking man’s fan will praise players for their intelligence and their artistry, particularly ones with a “cultured left foot”.

This language is highly revealing, more a checklist of cultural aspiration than an observation of footballing aptitude. It’s the reason that Arsene Wenger remains the darling of Arsenal, even if they don’t win anything. At least they lose in the right way. Similarly, tabloid sports pages typically praise workrate, commitment, bravery and strength in players and have no time for left feet, cultured or otherwise.

In English domestic football, there is clearly a class basis to these differences. Oddly, this only becomes more accentuated in international competition where a whole ragbag of other prejudices are brought into play including post-colonial guilt, cultural genuflection and recent geo-politics.

Of course, tedious national stereotypes count for a lot. It is impossible, for instance, for Brazil to play a game without the camera trawling the stands for beautiful ladeez while Clive Tyldesley makes endless references to Samba football. The interesting thing – and I’m far from alone in pointing this out here – is that Brazil could turn up and kick seven shades of shit out of the opposition whilst eaking out a nil-nil draw and they would still come away with their reputation intact.

National football reputations tend to be forged in some primordial sludge, out of which teams emerge fully formed, ready to fill out their pre-determined destiny. Nothing that actually happens to them during the course of the tournament will disrupt assumptions about the essential quality and character of their football.

Take Holland, for example, the perennial darlings of the more aesthetically inclined football fan. Every World Cup the same epithets are wheeled out. They are the aristocrats of Europe, solitary exponents of Total Football and, officially, the Best Team Never To Win A World Cup. Well, all that was true in 1974 (and ’78 although they were already by then without the talismanic Johan Cruyff) but since then they have, by and large, done little to justify the hype.

There is, as Zone Styx has pointed out, a sort of cognitive dissonance at work when people watch football. Regardless of what is actually happening on the pitch, they use the game to reinforce basic prejudices. A poor performance will merely elicit a series of questions as to why the team, say Holland, have not fulfilled their potential, or suggestions that they will really turn it on in the next game.

Like most forms of irrational belief, footballing prejudice is a self-fulfilling prophecy. All events reinforce the basic underlying assumption, however illogical. For some people, there are no German flair players, simply because they refuse to recognise them when they appear. As the current generation’s players are written off as workmanlike and predictable, so the myth is perpetuated. This is how Germany play, and this is how they will always play. Bastian Schweinsteiger, as sophisticated and subtle a player as you're ever likely to watch, was always battling against such popular misconceptions.

Spain have a similar but opposite affect, evoking weak-kneed wonder at their every move, even if it doesn’t get them anywhere or is boring to watch. They are poised forever before a moment of magic. Spain are a form of endlessly deferred wish-fulfillment, carriers of the flame for fans of sophisticated European culture (and a great nightlife) everywhere.

The fact that they have won most of their games one nil (with the goal, as Mark has pointed out, usually scored in the last 15 minutes of play after the opposition has become exhausted) never seems to puncture the myth. Last night’s match was a case in point, a game where Germany looked increasingly shagged out, not so much outplayed as outlasted. OK, so that’s unfair. Spain won because they kept possession superbly and (eventually) scored. But the goal, when it came, was not a thing of beauty, more the exception to their style of play rather than the rule.

Having said all that, a Holland versus Spain final is still a pretty fine outcome. A guaranteed new name on the cup is intrinsically a good thing. It could also put paid to some of the more irritatingly clichés of the international game. If Holland win, they will no longer be The Best Team Never To Win The World Cup. And, whatever happens, Spain can no longer be described as the perennial under-achievers of Europe. Two myths can be buried in one afternoon. Result.

Ghana's Double-Bind


Haven't been able to comment on the various ghost posts below because I can't figure out how to do it on my phone but here's a few thoughts:

Undeniably Brazil and the Netherlands are haunted by those (losing) teams of the past: 82, 74, 78. It's a burden that forced terrible changes to their formations and attitudes and now makes me sort of hate watching them. Spain are one of the only teams in the World Cup that don't seem haunted (and that's annoying too, isn't it?); they've kept on with their previously losing strategies and absolutely not caved in to the Hoodoo.

And then there's Ghana. Ghana seemed haunted by a combination of the beautifully erratic and brilliantly watchable African failures of the past, the kind that made Pele say what he said, the kind that we all wanted to see come good. Nigeria circa Jay Jay Okocha, Cameroon, even the much patronised Zaire, forever abbreviated to that guy kicking away the ball at the free kick.

The commentators were obsessed with Ghana's organisation and patience, as if such a thing from an African side was almost impossible to imagine. I vaguely remember a comment on TV saying something like: "It must be their European coaches..." Hardly racism but indicative of a creeping nostalgia for the old Africans, the ones you might find in old Geography textbooks, the ones with no size constancy scaling, who weren't tricked by the Muller Lyer Illusion, the ones who didn't play like we play, who had real freedom...

I guess this effect has been amplified by South Africa itself. The country and the team. It's a burden I think many of the African teams felt. To be African and not be African. A terrible double-bind. Laing and Girard and Bateson would be proud.

Hakim Bey: We've learned to distrust the verb to be, the word is...

Brazil certainly want/don't want to be Samba. England want/don't want to be Plucky Losers. The Dutch want/don't want to play Total Football. Ghana want/don't want to be Africa's Only Representatives in a relentlessly organised, eurocentric world.

What If Muller Was Suspended?


Only just watched the Spain/Germany Quarter Final, the highlights anyway. Must have been a difficult match to edit. Ought to be some kind of exemplar.

I heard bits of it on the night as I was eating in a hotel restaurant with all my colleagues; saw odd glimpses here and there on iPhones and, as it got darker, the occasional reflection in the windows. These parts signified the whole I thought; hypnotic (maybe boring), a very untense intensity.

I think someone on Twitter evoked Satriani as the guitar equivalent of Spain's technical, virtuous/virtuoso style of football and this reminded me of discussing Hendrix years ago when a friend turned off Electric Ladyland and said: "I can't listen to this. All the notes are in the right place. No flaws; it's not music anymore." And as we talked about this, it turned out that both of us liked only the bits of Hendrix that sounded a bit wrong, a little duff and that, in fact, this wasn't our unique indie-boy spin on Hendrix but these were the bits that most people liked.

Xavi, Iniesta et al are unlovable because of their virtuosity, that kind of thing is often annoying unless you happen to like Clapton. It's why the Sex Pistols sacked Glen Matlock and brought in Sid Vicious. It's why Usain Bolt has to try hard to develop a couldn't care less appearance. It's why we liked it that Socrates of Brazil and Johan Cruyff (even Gazza) smoked fifty thousand cigarettes a day.

It might be why we hate some of our colleagues. Why people find Martin Amis difficult. Why we need Mozart and Beethoven to be a bit mental. Why Jonathan Meades gets up people's noses with all his technically proficient, brilliantly conceived artistic smut.

Spain's game is unlovable because it's not a risky game to play but it's a difficult game to play. And exhausting; the pace (of the ball) might be missing but they need a massive physical effort to force those tight triangles. The style of play makes it essential that their players are in the right places at the right times (and that others are in equally dangerous but unused positions). I'd be interested to know what the distance travelled stats for Spain are: I'd imagine most of them cover a lot of ground before the passes are made.

And therein lies the problem. If people knew they were running hard, us English would like them more I think. We like a plucky trier. We like people to look like they're putting the effort in; it's why bankers have to stay in the office 'til 8 even though they're not doing anything. The Spanish make it look easy and that's not fair.

I heard that Spain had scored via a Spanish colleague dancing a mini-flamenco while a German colleague rolled her eyes. Everyone went dead. There was a brief longeur as everyone stopped eating and expected the old spectre: "Yeah but you can't ever rule out the Germans."

But no one said anything. It was a weird moment. No one believed that Germany would draw level. We hadn't discussed this but we didn't need to: it didn't seem possible.

A bit later, I thought about this, trying to figure out why people were reacting to the German team in such a way. This was the Germans, after all. And then it hit me: no one believes that Germany will pull one back because no one really believes that this is Germany. This German team seemed altogether less methodical and efficient (despite those terms still being applied by plenty of the TV Commentary teams), playing faster and looser and with various associated flaws. England and Argentina weren't comprehensively outplayed by Germany; they were sucker punched and then awe-struck. The Germans looked vulnerable at the back and suffered a lack of quality, game-changing, substitutes. In this way, the Germans were like England and Argentina; very beatable, only potentially wondrous. What if a team does stop Ozil? What if Schweinsteiger can't control the game? What if Muller was suspended? Well, you see where I'm going with this.

The Germans are an interestingly, excitingly flawed team; the team we love to love. The plucky (skillful) triers. This German team is part of a reinvention of German football that began, I think, at the last World Cup, where a less skillful team of plucky triers did well in spite of (because of?) their lack of star talent. Maybe they've always been plucky triers and we've only just noticed. Some awful collective amnesia has only made us think they were ever this ruthless, mechanised Will to win because... well, you know, I shouldn't have to spell it out... because of the...

In other words, could the Samba ever not have come from Brazil?

Anyway, it's these imperfections that we love and hate, in equal measure. Germans kick and rush, Mr Beckenbauer. All the teams we like do, a little. The rush bit is essential to our positive feelings. If only we could look at Spain and see the rush... But we can't. We're following the ball. And it seems to be moving so slowly...

The tick tock of Spain's passing, the grinding boot of The Netherlands +5% style are coming at us, taking over... Mark is right when he said on Twitter that the final, "looks so boring on paper that it might turn out to be a good match..."

Delayed Twitter Coverage of Spain v. Germany - Now in Blogvision


So I didn’t get up this morning for the Spain v. Germany semifinal. A series of very late nights at work counselled against getting up even at the relatively late time of 6.30am, New Zealand time. I just couldn’t do it. And so I recorded the game, and had to watch it sitting at my computer so I could monitor my email and work.

(Yeah, I know: poor dear.)

I wrote already about the dissonance of the delayed coverage, the having to go off the grid because information is everywhere, it’s in the very air we breathe. But try to follow in that manner a game in which nothing happens. It turned out to be a saving grace that this time, half to wallow further in the dissonance, half in preparation of something I might write next week about the World Cup and remediation, I decided to record my impressions of the game on Twitter.

I was surprised to discover after the game was over that this redundant coverage had found an audience, including some of my colleagues here at Minus the Shooting. And so it’s not solely (but let’s face it: mostly) in the spirit of extreme self-indulgence that I reproduce it below.

(At one point of the proceedings, Mark wrote: “reading @gtiso's delayed tweeting on the #ger -#esp game reminds me of the famous quote about Waiting for Godot: nothing happens twice”. Make it three times then.)


Stand by for delayed livetweeting of the Germany v. Spain game

One of the children paired up with the Germans at the anthem towers over Trochowski.

2 min The commentator just revealed the score of the other semifinal. What happened to spoilers?

(The Netherlands won, by the way. Apparently.)

8 min Spain appear to want to do it by walking. Saving themselves for late night post game fun run?

10 min Like watching paint dry so far. Winner meets Pearl Lusta in the final.

15 min Spain brought the ball and they're not letting the German children play. That's bad sharing.

(Also, wait until Adidas hears about this.)

22 min "It's one for the purists here tonight". Translation: the game blows.

30 min Spain shows how you play against Germany. They're young, susceptible to being bored to death.

34 min Boy, they left Villa open with a lifestyle block's worth of space there, pass nowhere near him.

45 min "Gradually, the game began to be something rather more than a mosaic of ill will and sullen fouling." Somebody wrote this about Germany v. Italy of 1982

45 min Gradually, this game is doing no such thing. End of first half. If we had video technology, they'd ask them to replay it.

Spain had never been to a semifinal before. They decided to stick with tradition and not be in one this time either.

Tragic news: the guy who was supposed to put together the first half highlights killed himself. Our thoughts are with his family.

47 min The second half has started. Allegedly.

50 min Xabi Alonso takes a shot and is booked.

51 min "Capdevila always makes himself available". Yeah, not unlike his sister. This game is so boring it's making me sexist.

55 min Commentator guy claims Germany is succeeding in stifling Spain. I would have thought it's the opposite and that Germany came in as heavy favourites

Then again, what the hell do I know?

58 min Oh my God. An actual chance! Villa doesn't connect by a gnat's crotchet. Okay, on replay, maybe two.

63 min What the hell was Podolski doing marking Sergio Ramos? He was lucky not to concede a penalty there.

66 min And we're back to walking. The pace suits Puyol, who's having his portrait painted by a Renaissance master at the back.

69 min Podolski! That was close, the Spanish defence had got its coverage all wrong.

71 min I think I just spotted Samuel Beckett in the crowd.

73 min And just like that Puyol scores! The ball didn't hit his skull at all, just the hair.

75 min I'm going to bore myself just writing it, but Spain has played a game of supreme tactical intelligence so far.

80 min Del Bosque so confident he reckons he can do it with ten men. Torres comes on.

82 min Pedro heard me! He tried to walk it in rather than passing to the wide open Torres. Harsh.

84 min Pedro is taken off and, I must assume, whacked with a ruler by Del Bosque. That was a howler before.

89 min One minute to go. Time added on by my reckoning should be about 80 minutes.

90 min The ref signals just three because he has someplace else to be. I see no other explanation.

93 min Spain has done it! Germany made to look very average. Take a bow, Del Bosque. Take notes, Maradona and Capello. Superb possession football.

Don't get me wrong, still very boring, eh? Tapes of the game to be used as a natural alternative to induce anaesthesia before surgery. But.

Podolski still on the field looking like he's discussing with his mates what just happened. Quite an endearing scene. They'll be back.



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.

linking play

While the links have been quietly accumulating in the sidebar, I'd like to mention one site in particular, whose unflashy name, Must Read Soccer, belies how interesting it is. Essentially a clearing house for anything written on football that catches its author's eye, even a cursory check throws up:

Andrew Guest's On the Invention of Tradition - referencing Terence Ranger and suggesting an alternative motivation for Sepp Blatter's defence of the vuvuzela (although it also suggested to me a possible counter-narrative in which the vuvuzela is a kind of sod-casting, a Deleuzian territorialization of the space of the stadium and the space of fandom).

Jonathan Wilson on Uruguay's garra

Tim Vickery on the emotional immaturity of Maradona and (less predictably) Dunga

...and the World Cup read through Moby Dick

Spain is dead, long live Spain

I've been surprised to find so little support for Spain among the rest of the Minus contributors and other friends.

Partly this comes down to them being, as Mark put it, one of the smugonauts' choices – one of those teams that a certain kind of post-Hornby football fan will rave about as part of a leverage system to put them above the drudgery of supporting England. And as with Messi, as with Cristiano Ronaldo, as with Kaka and the entire Brazil squad, Spain have ended up introducing a kind of cognitive dissonance into the experience of watching the tournament. Whatever the evidence before them to the contrary might be, commentators and pundits simply cannot conceive of departing from the logic which sees the World Cup as the culmination of the season, and the inevitable stage for the reiteration of Messi, Ronaldo and Brazil as incantations of the Footballing Sublime – they know their appointed roles as cheerleaders and hype-merchants too well. Like Messi and Kaka, Spain have never quite clicked. They've still not shaken off that defeat to Switzerland. Torres is a shadow of himself. It's also true that at times they occasionally betray a sense of entitlement: Xavi, say, seems a little too convinced of the aesthetic and thus *moral* superiority of Spain's football.

But why wouldn't they? Contrary to M. Toledo, the commenter here who wonders if nostalgia has got stuck, unable to move beyond the 70s, I think this Spain team will be remembered as a highpoint in football history to file alongside Brazil 70 and Holland 74. It may only be when they're retired that we fully appreciate again the practically precognitive short passing of this Spain midfield. Why precognitive? Because the spectator may be able to see the pass a player should make, but they lack the skill to execute it. Good players can see it and execute it. At their best, such is the speed of Spain's one-touch passing that they're creating and exploiting situations before the average viewer can even take them in.



And I say this regardless of the outcome tonight. Because if Spain win, and then beat Holland, they will have confirmed their greatness in terms of the historical record: reigning World and European champions. This would tear up some of the seemingly immutable narratives discussed by DigitalBen here. But even if they lose, their unshakeable commitment to constant short-passing will only come to be seen as quixotic failure, exactly like Holland 74, and there is surely a windmill/Cervantes connection in there which only proves its profound cosmic rightness.

Maybe after the last few years of press gushing and international dominance many would love to see Spain toppled, but I remember the years and years of unsuccessfully tipping Spain as dark horses (not to mention the Czech Republic). This was a team as morbidly resigned to failure as any England team. Before Euro 08 they had only Euro 64 (on home soil) in the trophy cabinet. Spain should be cherished by anyone with even a glimmer of hope that England can overcome its own footballing fatalism.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hoodoo Death

When I've talked to people about the World Cup, they often object to is the idea that the repeating patterns in the tournament mean anything. So what, for instance, if there haven't been any new winners who weren't hosts since 1958? Yet even if this sequence is ended on Sunday - and after today's result there's now a two in three chance that it will be - it doesn't invalidate the remarkable consistency up until now, over thirteen tournaments and 52 years. (One pattern has definitely been ended this World Cup: for the first time there will be a European winner outside Europe.) Even now, in a comparatively anomalous World Cup - which, however, could still be won by Germany of course - the semi-finalists included two former winners and one two-time finalist. If Spain make the final, they will be the first new non-host finalist since Holland first made it in 1974.

We've talked here a great deal about the importance of "belief". But the kind of "belief" that must be involved is of an uncanny type; it isn't a question of individual psychology, nor even of collective psychology in any simple way - we're not dealing with something like crowd behaviour, after all, where spatial and temporal proximity can account for influence. No: what we have to account for are persistences over long periods of time, in conditions where the causal mechanisms are obscure.

Tabloid-vernacular discussion of football will often invoke "ghosts", "hoodoos" and "bogey teams". Now, commonsense might want to dismiss such phenomena as mere happenstance (it just so happens that, year in, year out, Team X loses to Team Y), yet - as is often the case with commonsense - such a dismissal risks being far more absurd than trying to explain how they have happened.

One dimension here must be self-fulfilling prophecy, which Ben has discussed most recently in terms of Brazil. In his crucial 1942 essay "Voodoo Death", Walter Cannon showed how self-fulfilling beliefs can literally kill. Cannon studied victims of shock and of voodoo sorcery, discovering that, in both cases, the victims were caused to panic themselves to death. One of the values of Cannon's work is that, far from being some vacuous New Age nonsense about the "power of the mind", it goes into precise detail about the physiology of belief, the way beliefs are instantiated in the autonomic nervous system. At the same time, these self-destructive states cannot be triggered unless the individual in question already has certain background beliefs - it is only someone who believes in the power of sorcery who will die when a sorcerer points a bone at them, for instance. But it's not possible not to "believe" in Brazil's success ; it's a matter of brute factual record. And this history of success is not some neutral record which can be consigned into the past once the match starts - it forms part of the "psychological" texture of the match itself.

If it's a final between Spain and Holland then there are ghosts on both sides. But Spain might feel that, having gone two rounds further than they've previously managed, they've already laid the ghosts of their past failings, and now all bets are off. Holland's spectres, meanwhile, can only be confronted in the final. Holland's grinding progress through the tournament recalls that of Brazil in 94. As Loki pointed out on twitter, that Brazil team was "haunted by ghosts of a brillliantly skillful, but ultimately failed past", the 82 side, just as this Dutch side is stalked by the spectres of 1974. Will the Dutch exorcise that ghost even if they win the tournament?(One thing that occurred to me tonight: is football nostalgia like music nostalgia, forever stalled in the 60s and 70s? Beyond their own team's fans, there doesn't seem to be much nostalgia for any of the World Cup winners of the 80s or 90s, and except, perhaps, for the France of 98, it's hard to imagine such nostalgia developing in the future.)

Relevant and Irrelevant Histories

An interesting thought as we approach the end of this World Cup: although Uruguay have won World Cups in the past, and Spain and the Netherlands have not, Uruguay winning this year would be a 'newer' thing - more of an Event.

Spain finally lifting the trophy is a narrative that already carries a sense of inevitability - it's a triumph that has already been written, and held back from general release for two years. Now that Brazil have no longer already won the tournament, there's a case for saying that Spain have already won it. The same narrative can be quickly adapted and refitted for the Dutch - 'the long wait is finally over'. There is no comparably comfortable frame in which to fit a Uruguayan victory.


Granted, Uruguay's glories were a long time ago. But when has that ever been relevant to the expectations placed on football teams? Brazilian players are still being feted for what their team did forty years ago; England are judged (and judge themselves) every four years by the standards of 1966; African teams are still labelled as naive and impetuous based on the performance of Zaire in 1970. German teams and Spanish teams are just about still viewed in the context of their past representatives as villainous mecha-men and talented bottlers respectively, although these two seem to be finally losing their grip this summer. In the group stages, the BBC wheeled out an excruciating montage showing clips of past German triumphs interspersed with footage of pistons and machinery - but even they have since realised that this German team represents something different. These three-time World Cup winners would be fresher faces on the podium than the Spanish or Dutch.

Putting aside the two unfolding exceptions above - and progress on these fronts will be immediately undone if either team reverts back to historical type for even one game - these images seem impervious to the passage of time, and are held to remain true no matter how much contradictory evidence amasses. The fact that Uruguay have underachieved since 1950 doesn't explain the strange discrepancy about them; they are the only World Cup winners whose achievements have been definitively consigned to the history books, and deemed not relevant to modern analysis. You can never write off the Germans because of their past wins - but I don't believe I've ever heard a pundit say 'Well, I'll tell you what... I think Uruguay might be dark horses to win back their title this year. End the sixty years of hurt.'

In this country, the cutoff point for the relevance of sporting historical precedent is 1966. To us, tournaments before that period are quaint, sepia-tinted, and faintly comical. Two reasons - firstly because the World Cup only became a serious matter after we validated the tournament by going out and winning it. Secondly, the images teams made for themselves in the sixties and seventies have endured because those were the formative years of the people who have run, broadcasted, and commented on football in this country, certainly since the late eighties. Their ideas have bled into the minds of the population through sheer unchallenged repetition (and, lately, nostalgic replaying of said repetition - twice removed from new thought). Uruguay themselves are represented by a construction of this period - as temperamental foulers and cynics - and this seems to have replaced their earlier status as heroic two-time champions, leaving no trace of the older idea behind.

The relevant half-life of historical events must vary between countries. Uruguayan players surely don't go to tournaments still feeling burdened by the achievements of their predecessors, but Brazilian football fans still believe in a Uruguay hoodoo that dates back to 1950. Speaking to a Bosnian friend recently, I tried to draw out his opinion of the Stojkovic-inspired Yugoslavia team of 1990, but he was far more keen on regaling me with his admiration for the overachieving all-Serbian team at the first World Cup in 1930...



...who, it turns out, have been the subject of a recent film.

I doubt that a hypothetical English team sent upriver in 1930 would be the subject of such strong, enduring identification.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

'Underdogs don't play'

I wrote this piece before Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in a generally similar manner to a bunch of staggering, indignant drunks being thrown out of a pub at closing time.

There wasn't exactly a World Cup Final in 1950, but the final pool game between Brazil and Uruguay effectively amounted to one. Uruguay only needed a draw - Brazil had to win the match to finish top. Waiting in the dressing room underneath the Maracanã, hearing the noise made by some 200,000 Brazil supporters, Uruguay manager Juan López Fontana called his team together and gave a speech along the lines of "Okay, lads, we're the underdogs here, we're playing away, so let's keep it tight and try to hold on for a draw." After Fontana had left, captain Obdulio Varela addressed his team-mates in a rather different tone: "Underdogs? Pfah. Underdogs don't play. Let's put on a show."



I've taken liberties with the wording and the whole story may be apocryphal - but as with all good stories, being fictitious wouldn't make it any less true. Varela was more right than he could have realised. The record of World Cups since that day in 1950 has shown that underdogs don't play - at least, not against Brazil. They seem to have the unique ability to intimidate smaller teams into all but eliminating themselves.

Brazil - great teams, average teams, desperately dull teams, it doesn't seem to matter - have finished top of their first round group in every World Cup since 1982. In six of those eight groups, they kept a perfect three-wins record. The only times they dropped points were in drawing with Sweden in 1994 and losing to Norway (thanks to a last minute penalty) in 1998. Even that isolated defeat didn't seem to break their stride: they still won the group and strolled past Chile in a routine second round game.

The list of teams who've actually knocked Brazil out of World Cups contains Hungary in 1954, Portugal in 1966, Italy in 1982, Holland and Argentina at various times, and France in two recent tournaments. There are no less illustrious names. For Brazil, there is no equivalent of Senegal-France, Croatia-Germany, USA-England. Or even Slovakia-Italy.
Looking past the calamitous defeats, the other major footballing nations have all struggled to beat theoretically weaker teams in difficult campaigns. Brazil seem uniquely able to cruise through World Cups without breaking sweat . A banana-skin exit at the hands of lesser opposition would be as unthinkable to them as failing to qualify.

What these statistics cannot convey is just how perfunctory the Brazilians' runouts against less illustrious opponents appear to the viewer. Mark has written about this before: it's almost as if, at some point after the playing of the national anthems, the opposition collectively realise that they cannot win, they're only playing for pride, and that the best they can hope for is an honourably narrow defeat with perhaps a consolation goal. The actual relative quality of the two teams becomes an irrelevance. The underdogs huff and puff, but believe that the game is over. And the mass hypnosis that affects the players seeps through to the broadcast team, who present the match in the same terms. "Chile almost deserve a goal, for their pluck," commented Clive Tyldeseley in the closing stages of Monday's game - at least he didn't call it "their World Cup final".

Recent victims of this self-fulfilling acceptance of defeat include Belgium (and arguably England) in 2002, Ghana in 2006, Chile in 1998 and 2010, the US on their own turf in 1994... many of these were talented teams, examined in isolation, and stood a decent chance in theory - but that was of no relevance once the Brazil-determinism of the knockout stages swung into effect.

Mark ended his Brazil post by asking who could possibly stop them this time round. Well - the one team who seem to unsettle Brazil, and who are able to turn the historical record against them, are Uruguay. They may not be among the tournament favourites, but it would be nicely fitting if they held on to their fortitude and turned the psychological pressure on the seleção.




With hindsight, I'd add that the bewildered way Brazil reacted to being behind and under pressure against the Dutch showed just how much even they rely on this 'self-fulfilling defeatism'. When the script doesn't go as expected, Brazil don't seem to have any additional sources of mental strength - they simply fold. For the amateur-hour defending and petulant tantrums in the second half against Holland, read the dazed performance by the whole team against France in 1998.

I agree with various contributors here that the power of belief in football is a subject that deserves to be explored in more depth.