The ends and the means

On the first day of this year’s Tour de France, cycling pundits expected Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish to win. For the first time in seven years the opening stages were to be held in England, and the first stage would loop through Yorkshire from Leeds to the finishing line in Harrogate. The latter town was where Cavendish’s mother was from, said excited ITV commentators, then, as the pack of riders jostled for position in the last few kilometres, the same commentators feverishly imagined him receiving the yellow jersey from William and Kate having won the stage. Boxed in, Cavendish attempted to elbow himself some room for the final sprint and fell to the tarmac, injuring himself and ending his participation in the competition.

While Cavendish has in the past shown himself more than capable of crashing in the last few metres without any larger narrative affecting his judgement, I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘Cavendish must win’ bandwagon had contributed to the rider’s fate.

A few days later, last year’s Tour winner, Chris Froome – who had been selected as Australian media mogul-owned Brit-pride provocateurs Team Sky’s lead rider at the expense of banter-friendly winner of the 2012 Tour Bradley Wiggins – crashed for the third time in two days and abandoned the race. Sky, by now experts in establishing bulletproof narratives at the drop of a rider, assured gathered journalists that things were fine.

The night before Froome dropped out, Brazil, who many believed favourites for the World Cup despite their relentlessly poor performances, were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. The cutaways to crying women and children in the crowd were a real-time record of the human effects of the collapse of an implausible narrative – and brought to mind those true-life success story connoisseurs who sued Captain America-emulating dope monster Lance Armstrong for lying in his autobiography.

Why do people tie themselves in knots about narrative in sport? Sometimes I think about what sport might be like without these overarching stories of achievement and struggle. Perhaps they’re a necessary part of making professional sport – which often consists of well-matched, well-paid precision engineered athletes enthusiastically swapping shirts at half-time – more exciting. Occasionally football spills into pantomime – with your Ronaldos and your van Bommels – but generally the dullness requires a lick of paint.

Arguably the joys of this World Cup have come from the unexpected successes: the well-drilled Costa Rica, the flair of Columbia, the excellence of Algeria – even the advancement of the usually crackpot France and Holland teams. The lack of expectation surrounding all of these teams has, arguably, allowed them the freedom to flourish.

It seems typical of this World Cup that the final will be contested by Germany and Argentina, two teams whose generally unremarkable performances in the group and knockout stages – although big winners against Brazil and ten-man Portugal, Germany were heavily criticised for their cautious performances in other games – left English commentators grasping for motivation, before settling on this one: Argentina haven’t won the World Cup since ’86 while Germany haven’t since ’90. This time the big story is there is no story.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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The Tears of Brazil

If this is the greatest World Cup, it is, for a certain type of fan at least, also the cruellest.

Football is awash with sentiment, yet it simultaneously admires those who can discard it. In fact there are a collection of sayings, phrases and unspoken rules that refer to and govern football’s supposed disdain for it. Commentators will praise a team selection for an important game because the manager has left out the half-fit fan’s favourite: “It’s no time for sentiment,” they say. But while the increasing professionalism and athleticism of football means that matches are no longer just sporting contests and occasions for local pride but also events upon which millions and millions of cold hard cash rests, football also repeatedly, pleadingly, imploringly calls out for sentiment. If Roy of the Rovers was a childhood comic full of wish fulfilment and fantasy, those dreams are not lost with age. We still want our hometown boy to lead our team to the championship – witness the commendations flying Steven Gerrard’s way for staying at Liverpool all these years, and the nationwide push for the club at the end of last season, the #winitforstevie hashtag. We still want the underdog to win, and we want the ‘right’ narrative to triumph. There are those set in advance that we want subverted by a Costa Rica, a Colombia, a Chile, a Nigeria, a Mexico, an Algeria; and there are those whose establishment before the tournament only seems to give them extra persuasiveness – Brazil should win on home soil (more on this topic later).

Seeing James Rodriguez’s tears the other night against Brazil, I was prompted to think about the role of sentiment in football. I relied quite a lot on Twitter for that game, as my ITV feed repeatedly crashed, and at the end of the game it was packed with tweets and Vines of Rodriguez crying, and David Luiz first hugging him and then pointing to him and leading a standing ovation for him. The accompanying comments centred on his youthfulness, his openness of emotion, his perceived victimisation by brutish Brazilian midfielders, and the ‘what-if?’ possibility now snuffed out: this boy, this innocent, this wonderful player, ‘should have’ been allowed to go onward in the competition. He somehow deserved it. The professionals in the audience would’ve dryly remarked (as Barney Ronay did, actually, on Twitter) that Rodriguez had only been fouled six times in the match, or that teams tailor their approach to nullify the opposition, or that the pressure is so great on Brazil that it doesn’t matter how they win, just that they do. And they would be right. At least in a sense. They would have looked at the game and accurately reported certain things about it. What they would have neglected though, was the emotional and narrative element of our experience of the game. Outside of Brazil, support seemed pretty unanimously behind Colombia, and this wasn’t just because they were the underdog but because they had arrived at the quarterfinals playing wonderful, exquisite football. A narrative thus built up, one very much reliant on sentiment, on a feeling for the game in which fantasy is real, is possible. In a recent review of Eduardo Sacheri’s novel Papers in the Wind, Tim Benjamin recalled an interview in which “Sacheri related that, ‘Football is one of the few places where the poor can win — or at least that’s our illusion.’ Spectacle, prayer, illusion, faith: these are all synonyms.” While they might not be synonyms exactly, they are certainly interwoven; in football, it is hard to have one without the others. I think we can add sentiment to that list.

That Brazil v Colombia game looks slightly different now, in light of the hosts’ semi-final against Germany. Sentiment, though, is ever-present. Around the Brazil v Germany game also swirled stereotypes, ones we are familiar with to do with Brazil’s history of “flair” and Germany’s of “efficiency.” How far those narratives are or were ‘true’ is not really the point. What is is that they have been operative in various forms. It’s fairly clear to everyone now that they are no longer so. Brazil played awfully against Colombia and were viewed as playing a cynical game, physically targeting Rodriguez. Germany played wonderfully against Brazil and were somewhere between nasty and sublime. The game itself, viewed as a whole, provided the perfect example of football’s conflicted attitude to sentiment. Midway through the first half, television pictures showed us images of Brazilians crying (a young boy followed by a woman; that should be a topic of discussion on its own) at the sight of their team being destroyed. It’s no good saying, like those who don’t like or understand football, that they’re crying over nothing; no-one cries over nothing. While they were crying because their narrative had been upset, they were also crying because that is the only possible response to a spectacle of humiliation and defeat, which is what the game was. In so excessively showing us one group beating another – with all the connotations of violence that word comes with – the game displayed the complete disregard for human frailty that comes inbuilt to competition of this kind. Sentiment forgives human failure. The German team’s performance effected a total destruction of sentiment, of the possibility for sentiment, which football requires as much as the verve and skill they showed. When sentiment is destroyed, we are left with awe and admiration. We shouldn’t have been surprised, though. If the group stages were bacchanals of sentiment, the knock-out rounds have given us cool displays of professionalism. But you can’t view them separately. We love this game, and the power of that love means that the stakes become higher and higher, and because the stakes are so high professionalism is prized because it gets results, and because professionalism is prized, emotions become suspicious because they are unpredictable and risky. But they always rise to the surface: the Guardian‘s front page after Brazil’s defeat featured a picture of David Luiz, eyes red with tears. David Luiz, who spent the aftermath of Brazil’s victory over Colombia comforting a crying James Rodriguez.

Posted by Mark West

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Decisions, decisions: referees and the suspicion of match fixing

As ever, the refereeing at this World Cup has sparked the ire of fans and teams alike –– countries such as Croatia, Mexico, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Nigeria, Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay have all in their turn cried foul at refereeing errors. Though the one accusation of match-fixing in the tournament –– centred around Croatia’s 4-0 win over Cameroon –– did not involve the referee, there have been plenty of fans who remain convinced that the officiating was biased against them for whatever reason.

Many of the errors have been forgivable –– such as the two goals Giovani dos Santos had wrongly ruled out for offside in Mexico’s game against Cameroon –– or have been due to referees being overawed by the occasion. Yuichi Nishimura was mistakenly taken in by Fred’s dive in the opening game, but Brazil have themselves missed out on penalties, both rightly (when Marcelo dived against Mexico) and wrongly (the foul on Hulk that Howard Webb missed in the Chile game). Bosnian fans tried to petition FIFA when they saw a picture of New Zealand referee Peter O’Leary laughing with Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama at the final whistle of their win over the Balkan team, a game in which O’Leary had wrongly disallowed an Edin Džeko goal. I’m not sure what conspiracy would be afoot to ensure African sides benefit but it certainly was not working in Nigeria’s favour in their last-16 game versus France, when American referee Mark Geiger’s overly lenient officiating allowed the French to get away with fouling on a regular basis, culminating in a terrible challenge by Blaise Matuidi on Ogenyi Onazi that saw Onazi’s World Cup ended and which Geiger failed to award a red card for. In the absence of Nigeria’s playmaker the momentum switched in favour of the French and they ended up running out 2-0 winners. There seems to be a FIFA directive in place for referees to stave off on the cards (most cards in the tournament have been awarded in the second half of games) and the most notorious result of that was the Brazil-Colombia game last Friday where Brazil’s ugly cynicism effectively snuffed out James Rodríguez and contributed to an abrasive game where Camilo Zuñiga fouled Neymar and put him out of the tournament.

There have been plenty of cases of bent referees over the decades, though few seem to have been found out in World Cups. Byron Moreno, the Ecuadorean who refereed Italy’s defeat to hosts South Korea in 2002 certainly was later proven to be bent but there is little evidence to say he unduly influenced the result of a game that Italy had ample opportunity to win on their own steam. By and large though, football fans, however much they might whine, put a lot of faith in the man in the middle. The New York Times, upon discovering the concept of stoppage time following the United States’ late concession to Portugal, speculated that the referee’s having the sole responsibility for time-keeping left worrying scope for corruption, but people that know the game see nothing wrong with this.

The faith in referees is evident in Romanian director Corneliu Poromboiu’s film The Second Game, where he talks to his father Adrián, a former FIFA referee, about a Bucharest derby, between Dinamo and Steaua, that the latter refereed in December 1988. The match took place in a blizzard that continued all through the match. The snowbound pitch is a fortuitous metaphor for sport as played in the late Ceausescu era. There is a surreal quality to the match, played at an unusually high speed in difficult conditions, the yellow Azteca ball flying back and forth on a screen that looks like a Brueghel tableau. ‘The Eternal Derby’ as Romanians call it pits what was the secret police team (Dinamo) against the army team (Steaua), with the added twist that Steaua was also the favourite of the Ceausescu family. Adrián Poromboiu evoked the pressure that might be put on referees by either side but he said that he never capitulated (the films opens with his son’s voiceover recalling answering the phone as an eight-year-old and an unnamed voice telling him to tell his father he should never referee again or else he’ll end up in a coffin).

In this game, Poromboiu’s refereeing is irreproachable –– there are several times when he intelligently plays advantage, without, he notes, having the authority to retrospectively award a free kick, as a rule change a decade or so later would allow. The game ends 0-0, with Dinamo the better side but Steaua going closest to scoring, rattling the crossbar in the second half. Poromboiu Senior’s commentary points out the power dynamics of the time: Dinamo change from white to blue in the second half because they don’t have a second white kit – against the rules but Poromboiu suggests he wasn’t in a position to be too strict about it. He also says that the official match broadcast would cut to wide shots of the crowd whenever any bad behaviour broke out on the pitch –– if there was anything that totalitarian regimes hate, it is outbreaks of anger and uncivil actions. But you wonder if Poromboiu is as innocent and incorruptible as he says. There is an echo of his son’s first film 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which a local TV station in a small Romanian town holds a debate on the 16th anniversary of the 1989 revolution to ascertain whether the ‘rebellion’ in the town took place before or after Ceausescu’s abdication. Not surprisingly, there is much ex post facto pleading and claims of heroism in that film. Was Adrián Poromboiu a little man doing his job or the beneficiary (or lackey) of power?

Though the film downplays the significance of the match (Poromboiu Senior says it a long forgotten game and his son wryly compares it to his own films –– ‘a bit boring and nothing really happens’), it is fascinating as a historical document, not least because of the period from which it dates but also because it offers a glimpse of a footballing world that people my age (and Corentin Poromboiu’s) remember but which looks impossibly alien and ‘prehistoric’ (Adrián’s words) now. It is also a glimpse at the Golden Generation of Romanian football. Lining out are thirteen members of the Romanian side that would play eighteen months later at Italia 90 and blossom fully at USA 94. All the big names are there: Gheorghe Hagi, Marius Lacatus, Silviu Lung, Bogdan Stelea, Rodion Camataru, Miodrag Belodedici and a young Dan Petrescu. Steaua were at the height of their powers –– in the middle of a 104-game unbeaten run that stretched from just after their historic European Cup win in 1986 to a 3-0 home defeat to Dinamo in September 1989. They would also, later this same season, reach their second European Cup final, only to be destroyed 4-0 by Arrigo Sacchi’s rampant Milan. The spectre of history loomed though –– the following year Belodedici, an ethnic Serb, fled the Ceausescu regime and absconded across the Danube to Yugoslavia and he would later play with Red Star/Crvena Zvezda and become the first player to win the European Cup with two different clubs. Luck was on his side and he eventually played for Romania again, after Ceausescu was toppled almost exactly a year after this match.

After being a fixture at tournaments throughout the 90s, Romania more or less disappeared from the top level of international football once the talent dried up (with the exception of one cameo at Euro 2008). There are now few of their players at top European clubs (‘we don’t produce those sort of players anymore’ says Adrián at one point in his commentary). One of the sole survivors from the match is Dinamo coach Mircea Lucescu, who has had a successful career abroad, managing Inter, Galatasaray, Besiktas and, since 2004, Shakhtar Donetsk, winning them their first ever European trophy in 2009. It is said that Lucescu honed his brand of devil-may-care attacking football in Romania in the 1980s because he assumed matches were fixed anyway so there was nothing to lose in throwing caution to the wind. When his Dinamo side met Steaua in December 1988, Dinamo’s cross-town rivals were nearing the end of a string of five titles in a row. There’s no suggestion of a fix in The Second Game but the poor visibility during the game is a reminder of how murky the Romanian game was in those days.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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“Nice guys don’t win”, and other rhetoric

A fortnight on from the death throes of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, and the navel-gazing recriminations show no signs of abating. From the debilitating effects of Manaus, to the paucity of domestic talent in the Premier League (compared to the all-conquering set-up of, say, the Costa Rican or Chilean leagues) it has been the traditional quadquennial waft of hot air – achieving nothing bar further dissimulating Hodgson’s métier of cowardice repackaged as pragmatism. Yet amidst all this tired guff and hackneyed bluster, one cliché stood out as particularly egregious – Alan Shearer’s assertion that “we English are too honest.”

Of course, Shearer – less a talking head these days than a risible talking thumb – has form here, regularly championing the “diving is a foreign plague/not in our DNA” trope on Match of the Day. Yet, even if we selectively leave aside the dangerous pseudo-eugenics of this claptrap, the very notion that England’s increasingly habitual tournament failure is down to an innate superabundance of “honesty” is unambiguously ludicrous on two levels.

Primarily, empirically, theoretically, philosophically, whichever way you slice it, it is just not true. Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, for example, have never shied away from the rough stuff. Raheem Sterling contains more strength in one buttock than your average post-Soviet weightlifting team, and is more than happy to put it to malicious use. Gary Cahill has undergone so comprehensive a process of Mourinhofication that he would happily boot a toddler up in the air if it secured an opportunity to head something clear at the near post. The idea that the England squad spend their days listening to Belle and Sebastian whilst thumbing through Paolo Coelho’s latest simperings is as ludicrous as it is erroneous.

Secondly, if we take accepted wisdom that the two best players in world football are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the “too nice” theory is further undermined. Messi, in particular, has played up to his take-home-to-meet-the-grandparents qualities throughout his career – all floppy hair and bouncing off tackles like an enthusiastic toddler crashing into furniture. Likewise, Ronaldo who, for all his risible preening, could hardly be described as a hatchet man.

If, then, we accept the notion of England, or indeed any team, being too nice for success as a facile and inaccurate one, then what are we to make of it? What does it tell us about English football – and England’s – view of itself. Certainly, it speaks of the type of post-colonial smugness that still drips from every corner of the establishment – sporting, and political. An absolute refusal to countenance inherent flaws without viewing them through the prism of a presupposed moral superiority. Rubbish at football? Must be we’re too nice. Terminally in hock to a fundamentally flawed economic model? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit – nation of shopkeepers, and all that. Housing crisis? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit TOO! Nation of buy-to-letters, and all that. Phone hacking? Natural inquisitiveness. Establishment cronyism? Looking after old school chums. A veneer of ‘British values’ routinely lacquered over systemic faults, a watered down version of that loveable rogue Churchill’s addled justification of militarised imperialism based on moral superiority.

There is a further, wider, problem with such thinking, and that is that the notion that “nice guys don’t win” has increasingly become a cause célèbre for a generation of furiously embittered man-children. Witness the widespread social media pant-wetting about the striking mugshot of Californian convict Jeremy Meeks – which was taken by some (i.e. those whose agenda it suited) to be incontrovertible proof of a female conspiracy against them. “Why can’t girls be attracted to lovely soldiers” came much of the wailing – an absurd, and insulting, supposition of universality on both sides of the table. This “nice guys never win” notion has joined “I’m sick of being in the ‘Friend Zone’” as a go-to point for a prevalent and increasingly rampant passive-aggressive misogyny, the “nice guys” in question never stopping to wonder if their self-entitled tirades about “sluts” following each knockback compromises their self-image of shining armour. The self-pitying delusionality to the “too nice” trope here occurring on an individual, as opposed to national, level.

To unpack the semantics of the phrase, one must also ask what the supposed counterpoint is for this apparent niceness. What level of nastiness should our sportspeople aspire to? Just how shitty should they be in order to achieve success? Perhaps an answer can be found in the long-held theoretical Luddism at the heart of English football – a relentless harking back to the supposed glory days between the end of the Second World War and England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Whilst the reasons for this period establishing itself in the popular consciousness as English football’s Golden Age are as obvious as they are reasonable – post-conflict escapism, England’s solitary international victory, the dynastic narratives of Busby and Shankly and the first flushes of success for British teams in Europe – it’s hard to shift the sense that there has long been, more so now than ever, a fetishisation of the acceptable nastiness of the football that prevailed at this time. This was, after all, before violence was transferred from pitch to terrace; an age of granite-hewn men routinely booting lumps out of one another under the forgiving eye of lenient referees. Three decades of earthy nastiness sandwiched between the mustachioed Corinthianism of codified football’s first half-century and the “too-nice”, gentrified post-premiership generation. Although on the surface, Shearer’s protestations about England’s damaging niceness are superficially drawn as comparison to those dastardly foreigners, perhaps he is – subconsciously, at least – engaging in some casual retrogressivism.

What really constitutes ‘too nice’? What constitutes ‘too nasty’? Does such lazy moral absolutism even have a place in football? Shearer is, after all, not exactly uniquely qualified to act as the game’s moral arbiter – as Neil Lennon would doubtless testify. Ultimately, the issue is obfuscatory. England did not fail so miserably in Brazil because they were ‘too nice’, just as the Leeds United of Don Revie – to pick one example – owed their success to many and more complex reasons than their fabled ‘nastiness’. Neither an aspirational model, nor (a)moral exemplar, folk demons such as Revie, Maradona or, more recently, Luis Suarez, instead provide a necessary force in English football’s narrative. Through reveling in their notoriety and widespread opprobrium – a populist unpopularity, if you will – we facilitate the permeation of the facile assertion that we’re too nice, too decent, too honest to win.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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Festival Football

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As the flames burst out of the Arcadia spider I am lost, turning to my friend Amie who has ducked away in excitement and momentary fear, we catch each other’s eyes and burst into huge, unaffected grins and carry on dancing to the pounding rhythm. With eleven o’clock approaching we start our short journey to the Park stage, jabbering away enthusiastically about the lights, the beats and plans to meet again when we’re back in the real world. We make it to the park. Mogwai appear shortly after, unaffected and humble Scotsmen with a truly impressive array of amplifying equipment in the background, coloured a cheery orange – I briefly wonder whether it is of political significance before dismissing the thought as unlikely, unworthy and irrelevant, concentrating instead on that delicious feeling of impending joy that I feel within me, but also being transmitted quite clearly from the smaller than deserved but undoubtedly dedicated and passionate people around me, the mud and the hill on the way here having separated the ones who know from the ones who dabble.

They begin, and I’m lost.

Time passes – not so long but nonetheless immeasurable – in unaffected delirium, mad smiles and pats on the back and Amie’s delight only a tiny bit dampened by her repeated, smiled, question of ‘Who are we watching again?’

‘Mogwai’, I reply, an unjustified and probably slightly patronising but ultimately unavoidable hint of paternalistic pride in my voice. They are ‘my’ band you see, in that I brought us to see them and they are astonishing, even though I’ve long realised that I don’t recognise any songs they’re playing tonight and that I’m not going to either. It’s better this way though, each building bit of blinding brilliance is a revelation in and of itself, lacerating its way into my subconscious with the anticipation already growing of the joy of rediscovery to come, the future listen that will channel back to this perfect space and time, right here, right now.

And in that blinding kaleidoscope of sound, vision and feeling I am already half-composing these words. I am already thinking about the article which Joe suggested might be about watching football at festivals. I’m already considering how to convey this experience into words and how to bring football into this epiphany when I realise it’s already there – the power of football can be demonstrated no more vividly than the fact that here I am, in a place of joy and togetherness far outside of football and right at the extremities of my own capacity for fleeting happiness – yet there is still space for me to think about football, still enough room left for the thought of writing about this to add just a little more happiness to that moment, a smile on my face anticipating the process of putting words to paper to come.

Football is emotion isn’t it? It’s an addiction. Like smoking, and like smoking the elation comes in large part from the small element of constant pain that football introduces into your life. A constant, nagging, emotional pain that is never far away. Like trauma, it resurfaces unbidden, triggered both by obvious connections and obscure ones. A flash of colour or a word and, there it is again, Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea (or pick your own of many millions of moments here) back in your mind again. Like smoking, you need the hit of football which you tell yourself you enjoy in order to forget that nagging pain for a while, but of course it will hit again, because that’s how football hooks you in and grabs you and doesn’t let you go. To the point where now that I am 33, and I am honestly a lot more detached about football than I used to be – 2005 in particular I invested a lot of emotion into Liverpool, fortunately for a considerable pay off with that Champion’s League win – I sometimes look back on that younger, more addicted self with a certain envy, not because I miss the elation but because I miss the investment, the way that constant, nagging pain was a rhythm every bit as enveloping and to which I moved every bit as naturally as anything coming from the spider or from Mogwai tonight.

And I’m lost again.

Mogwai build to their climax, as they do, then stop with no fanfare and no encore – they know how to elevate, and they know when they have finished. It’s as useful a skill as any. We meet my girlfriend Alex, and debate our next move in that ineffectual, post-bliss manner where I know that for me, personally, nothing else tonight is going to live up to this anyway. In the end we go to bed, which I am somewhat pleased about.

I wake up fairly early, before my shift, and before I even roll a cigarette I’m checking the results. Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay, a James Rodriguez double and the lad’s already being compared to Maradona.

I roll my cigarette.

I’m smiling for the rest of the day.

 

Posted by Sebastian Crankshaw

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Angel di Maria’s failed rabona

Mark Lawrenson, unbelievably, spoke for us all when, about 60 minutes into the Argentina v Switzerland game, he let out a groan followed by a rant as Ángel di Maria (who the BBC were keen to tell us gave the ball away 51 times during the game) broke in behind the Swiss defence, only to attempt an ill-advised rabona and send a would-be pull back skewering off into the crowd. The rationale behind this odd decision, when most players would have simply used their right foot to cut the ball back to one of the three team-mates running into the penalty area, was, apparently, that di Maria didn’t trust his right foot enough to do that. This incident crystallises one of my pet hates about contemporary football: the significant number of players who are so absolutely, unapologetically, hopelessly, one-footed.

The king of one-footed players is Robin van Persie, whose weird shovelling body language is his unique way of getting the ball onto his left foot. He’s lucky he’s got a great shot on him when he does, finally, get it onto that left peg, because sometimes he looks like he’ll be turning in circles for hours before he gets a shot away. If van Persie’s one-footedness is conspicuous enough when he plays for his club side, a one-footed klaxon goes off when you watch the Netherlands because his partner up front is Arjen Robben, not only another one-footer but another left-footed-one-footer. How they ever manage to pass to each other is beyond me. There’s Gareth Bale too, and of course, a discussion of one-footers wouldn’t be complete without a mention of David Beckham, who made such a career of whipping in crosses and free-kicks with his right foot that it’s conceivable one could actually come full circle and claim that he’s actually a two-footed player because his standing (left) leg was so important to that relentless reliability of his right.

Why does this rile me up so much? Surely if your left foot is as good as either van Persie’s or Robben’s, or, for that matter, as di Maria’s, it makes sense to use it? Obviously that’s a fair point, but my gripes don’t come so much from them using their best foot – all players do that – but from their over-reliance on that foot. I react to it as a sort of insult to the profession: they’ve spent their whole life playing football (almost literally, given how early academies sign players these days) and yet they can’t work out how to kick the ball with their weaker foot. What’ve they been doing all that time? Yet, in a way, one-footedness is a kind of ultimate professionalism, a physical paean to the late-capitalist division of labour, just taken a step further and extended not only to defenders and attackers, but to the two feet of individual players. If there’s been a lot of talk recently about team selection, and in particular whether you should take lesser but more team oriented players, or better but more individualistic ones, might one-footedness hint toward an answer (of sorts) to that dilemma and be an argument for even more specialism, rather than less? To indulge in a bit of futurism, might we see new rules emerge to better account for this increased sub-division of tasks? Might FIFA take a leaf out of hockey’s book and allow players to be brought on just to take a corner or free-kick and then go off again? Why leave it there? Why not have time-outs every time a defender is about to play a long raking diagonal ball up to the forwards, in order to get your right-footer or left-footer on in time to take it down on their perfect one foot? Then they could stop the game again while they go off and your more all-purpose player comes on to finish off the move. After all, a World Cup is supposed to be an arena for the world’s best players to show off their skills. Aren’t we just depriving ourselves of more beautiful moments of the footballing art – the kill-it-dead left-footed trap, or a geometrically bedazzling right-footed free-kick – by asking the 11 players on the field to be able to use both of their feet? Is the trend of having one pink and one sort of luminous greeny-bluey-turquoisey boot actually a rather subtle campaign strategy on the part of one-footers?

Posted by Mark West

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Germany vs Algeria: the return of the counterfactual

I can’t have been the only one for whom last night’s game between Germany and Algeria ran alongside another, virtual game composed entirely of counterfactuals. Prior to the tournament, fellow SOtB-er Seb Crankshaw wrote articulately on that ‘what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin’ [my italics], and of how ‘football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.’ Germany’s narrow victory was full of such split-second cosmic ordinances, each made all the more tantalising – up until the second minute of extra time – by the increasingly unlikely nil-nil scoreline. You knew what was going to happen, even when it repeatedly failed to materialise – Germany would score and Algeria would capitulate – but the alternative, more fantastical scenario of a quarter-final showdown between coloniser and colonisee turned every surging Algeria counter-attack, every Manuel Neuer header (credit to les fennecs for forcing this German side to invent a wholly new position, which BBC have christened the sweeper keeper) into a gateway to the virtual. Over the course of the evening, somewhere in my consciousness of the game, Algeria scored many winning goals, each one more of a release than the last.

By the same token, André Schürrle’s improvised opening goal had been pre-played again and again over the course of the 90 minutes that had preceded it. Every fingertip save from Raïs M’Bolhi (one genuinely delightful by-product of the poor defenses that have characterised this tournament is the endless heroic goalkeeping displays) was somehow a counterfactual itself, and Thomas Müller’s trip during a training ground-style free-kick routine somewhere towards the end of normal time was a particularly perverse one. For an hour and half we found ourselves in a true phantasmagoria, as wave after wave of fantasy denied us access to the reality principle. Even having seen, for example, Wigan beat Manchester City with a last-minute header in 2013’s FA Cup final, the sum total of football matches viewed in a lifetime add up to a basis for induction as unshakeable as our belief in gravity. We knew what type of match this was going to be, we even knew that Germany would need until late in the game to impose their inescapable dominance, leaving plenty of time for Algerian hope spots.

Sure enough, about 30 seconds after making a start on this article, Schürrle scores. We leave the cinema and step out into the street. But then there’s the ending, that brace of late goals that turns the type of match that this is on its head: Algeria have put the ball in Neuer’s net, and fantasy is briefly restored, but it’s not enough to save the counterfactual, as if Manchester United had been three-nil down come injury time that night in Barcelona. Fantasy rages, rages against the dying of the light.

Posted by Luke Healey

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Algeria, France, Celebration and Identity

For the first time ever two African teams have qualified for the World Cup knockout stages and Algeria, who edged out Russia and South Korea in Group G, are one of them. Algerians at home and abroad celebrated les fennecs’ first time getting past the group stage but it is in France where the celebrations were most vocal, and disputed. Seventeen of Vahid Halilhodžić’s squad were born and raised in France, which is also home to the largest community of Algerian descent in the world. It is also Algeria’s former colonial power, which fought a bloody eight-year war against the FLN until Algeria finally secured its independence in 1963. Since then Algeria and Franco-Algerians have become a particular favourite whipping boy of the French far-right.

The nastier elements of French fascism had their eyes on Algerian fans from the off, spreading misinformation on Twitter after the Belgian game, misrepresenting a building in Algiers festooned in Algerian flags as being in Paris (and contrasting it to one in Hammersmith draped in England flags). They also posted photographs of upturned scooters and wheelie-bins that dated from last November. The far-right got what they wanted after the win over South Korea, when there were outbreaks of violence and vandalism in a few towns across France. The vast majority of Algerian fans celebrated festively and without breaking anything but there is often delinquency on the margins, something the far-right lap up. The jack-boot Bloc Identitaire, not so distant from the mainstream UMP, has made regular ‘patrouilles antiracailles’ (‘anti-scum patrols) on public transport across the country in recent months, dressing up in hi-vis jackets and explaining to puzzled commuters what it is they’re ‘protecting’ them from. Bloc Identitaire had planned another patrol in Lyon after the Algeria-Russia game “seeing as the police didn’t do their job on Sunday [after the South Korea match]” as one of them tweeted, but the police swiftly banned the planned action.

There were 74 arrests across France after the match, which is lower than you would have for Bastille Day or New Year’s Eve, but, as many people have reasonably pointed out, a lot for a football celebration, and no other team’s celebrations have degenerated in quite the same way. Still, it is a symptom of wider social problems and it’s hard to blame the majority of Franco-Algerians, much less the Algerian team, for it. For the far-right, of course, it is proof of the innate savagery of Algerians and of how much they hate France. This is the same far-right that hates the French national team and whose chief rag Minute had as its headline ‘voyou’ (thug) after Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in 2006. Few people in France took so much pleasure in that defeat as the likes of the Front National, Bloc Identitaire and the far-right student organisation Uni.

A number of the French-born players on the Algerian team previously represented France at underage level but changed allegiance when the opportunities for the senior team became scarce. Algeria was one of the main associations to lobby for the change in FIFA rules to allow players to change countries after youth and under-21 level –– a sensible ruling, which has opened the field of international players up to many who might previously have had their paths blocked by an overabundance of talent (even a playmaker as brilliant as Johan Micoud had the misfortune to have his international career stunted by playing at the same time as Zidane). Much has been made of the September 2001 friendly between France and Algeria at the Stade de France, which was abandoned when Algerian fans invaded the pitch with France winning 4-1. It was notorious too for the shameful abuse of Zidane, the man whom most Franco-Algerians rightly revere. But that is half a generation ago at this point. True, there have been times since then, like friendlies at the Stade de France where the Marseillaise has been booed by French-born fans. It is something that has appalled most French people though the mostly teenage fans would say they did it just as a means of barracking the opposition. There is a gulf in understanding, something players such as Zidane and Lilian Thuram did their best to address in statements. This year, the tricouleur has also been conspicuous among jubilant Algerian fans, and most get behind France, and its Franco-Algerian talisman Karim Benzema, with equal gusto.

Often the gauche exuberance of youth can seem far more threatening than it is –– such as when a fairly non-malicious pitch invasion halted a pre-World Cup friendly against Romania in Geneva, prompting Halilhodžić to angrily call for the invasion to stop over the stadium PA (it did soon after). The convoys of beeping cars and scooters that drive through French towns and cities after Algerian successes can be a nuisance to some (particularly French people unused to loud exhibitions of joy) but it’s hard to begrudge those kids the kick they get from it (and Algerians or Maghrebins are far from the only communities to celebrate like that) especially when I know that Irish fans, both at home and in the diaspora, are just as boisterous in their celebrations. The look of joy in the face of friends, colleagues of Algerian origin and my building’s Algerian concierge also make the beeping horns at 3am all the easier to tolerate. While it’s unlikely to happen, if Algeria overcome Germany in the last 16 on Monday, it could set up a date with France in Rio the following Saturday. Should that happen, I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep that night.

Posted by Oliver Farry

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

In the reaction to England’s demise, a post-mortem that simultaneously went through the motions and was indulged with great joy (just listen to Chris Waddle’s almost gleeful “We will never, ever learn”), a general sense of proportion and perspective was missing. It is one we have a better chance of gaining now that the group stages are over and we can see in the cold reality of our wallcharts which teams have been successful and which haven’t.

Some, of course, were expected to do well, though it is notable how few of the fancied teams have had it all their own way. Germany, so impressive in the first game against Portugal, had to settle for a draw against Ghana. Only the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium have come through with 100% records, and of those the Netherlands were given a scare against Australia, Argentina needed a last-minute Messi wondergoal to beat Iran, while Belgium have not looked convincing in any of their games. Some of this might be the result of teams taking their foot off the gas for their final group game or making wholesale changes to the team – this was probably the case with France, who made six changes for their game against Ecuador. Of the fancied teams, Spain and Italy are out, Brazil have stumbled, Argentina have looked great because Messi is on form, but as the commentators in their match with Nigeria suggested, look “pretty ordinary” when he doesn’t play. Germany played a perfect game against Portugal and then slowed down a bit.

Allowing for the sparkle of the French and Dutch teams, perhaps the most impressive team thus far has been Colombia, who not only won all their games but have, at +7, the highest goal difference (equal with the Dutch). Their games finished 3-0, 2-1, 4-1. How have they been able to be this effective given they are missing Radamel Falcao, their best player? The answer, or at least part of it,  might be thought of in terms of dialectics. It’s worth roping in Chile here, who have been as remarkable as Colombia. Both of these nations have shown not only that they recognise the dialectical nature of a successful football team, but have been able to marshall the dialectic in different situations, of which Colombia’s loss of Falcao is the perfect example. Their ability to do this has been matched by England’s utter failure in the same regard.

Various reasons have been given for England’s failure: they’re not streetwise enough, they took too many young players, they were too attacking, they didn’t play Rooney in the right position, they couldn’t keep the ball properly, the central defence isn’t up to scratch, they didn’t do enough to entice John Terry back into the team, the Premier League isn’t allowing young English players to come through at the top clubs. All of these undoubtedly had some impact on the team’s showing, yet that very fact suggests that there’s something else, something larger, broader, more general, that they fit into. I think it’s England’s lack of dialectical understanding.

Not being streetwise enough is code for them not wasting time and disrupting the opposition’s rhythm by taking niggly fouls and slowing the game down. Yet this only works as a tactic if you have something positive to offer yourself in response. Being streetwise largely works to nullify an opponent, not give you the edge (unless you can con a referee into giving you a penalty). So while England clearly aren’t streetwise enough, for deeply embedded cultural reasons, they also weren’t brave enough. Some, though, said they were too brave, insofar as they went for an overly-attacking style that left their fragile defence too open. After the Uruguay game in particular, all the commentators seemed to have discovered that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka weren’t the best centre-half partnership. Chris Waddle suggested that England responded to criticism of their defensive play at Euro 2012 with attacking play at this World Cup. This is the lack of dialectics in a nutshell: one or the other rather than two in a mutually constitutive relationship with one another. Rather, then, than realising that a team can incorporate a certain streetwisdom (someone wondered why England didn’t try to kick Suarez’s dodgy knee) while also playing the direct, exciting counterattacking football that saw them score what was a pretty good goal against Italy, England half-heartedly concocted a plan to nullify Pirlo while hoping that Raheem Sterling could pull something out of the bag. If Sterling’s club manager, Brendan Rodgers, has displayed an admirable flexibility in altering his favoured possession game to better accommodate the counter-attacking prowess of Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, then England’s attempt to, in the words of one of the Radio 5 commentators, “copy Liverpool” says everything you need to know about the national team: rather than arriving at a game-plan based on the players available, the opposition, and a dialectical conception of a team, they’ll just Ctrl-C Ctrl-V thank you very much.

The argument about Rooney in between the first two games was also an example of un-dialectical thinking. Rooney is a great player, went one strand, so he can play anywhere. Rooney is our only world-class player, went another, so he should play in his best position. No-one, anywhere, talked about the team, at least not until it was too late. Yes, Rooney is a great player, but football is a team sport. This is something both Chile and Colombia have realised. We might have said before the tournament that Chile have a couple of outstanding – though not world-class – players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez; we would probably have said that because those are the two players we know from the Champions League. They have both been excellent, yet even if the Chileans themselves think of this pair in these terms, their game-plans suggest otherwise, or at least suggest that Vidal’s and Sanchez’s abilities can be best utilised – can, perhaps, only be utilised – as part of a coherent collective unit. Colombia offer an even more stark example: they lose their best player before the tournament, which you might think would force them to adopt a more team-minded approach, rather than just relying on Falcao, but what is most remarkable about them is that that team approach, which asks more of the collective in the absence of their main talent, has allowed for individual talent to emerge from it in the form of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. What made the Rooney debate such an infuriating one was its simultaneous proximity and distance to this kind of conception of team sport. Commentators talked incessantly of how Rooney should fit into the team but without a sense that the question involves not just what Rooney can bring to the team but also how the team can help Rooney. The debate is not about whether Rooney or Sterling is ‘better’ in the number 10 role, but how their respective individual-nesses and the collective relate to one another in service of the goal of winning the game.

Unfortunately for England, this lack of dialectical thinking is endemic and extends to the relationship between club and country and that between youth and age not just within the first team itself but between that first team, youth teams and youth development. You could argue it’s also present in patriotic politicians pulling funding for grassroots sports facilities while bidding for World Cups and Olympic Games. There’s a certain defensive rigidity that comes from constant failure and constant pressure, and I’m sure that has contributed to the failure of the national team at this tournament. Yet that pressure itself seems partly to exist to shore up the crumbling foundation of a national footballing identity. There has been quite a bit of talk about this in recent days, with references to the current Belgian team and other European sides who have decided on a way of playing and put that into practice at all levels of the game, from under-10s up to the adult first team. The problem, commentators say, with doing that in England is that those who would be tasked with doing so are incapable of settling on a way of playing. If we’ve finally accepted the antiquated nature of the old favourite 4-4-2, these commentators say, do we play 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or even three centre-backs? How can we answer that, they say, if we don’t know if we want to play a possession-based game or a counter-attacking game? And if we can’t answer that, they say, how do we put practical measures in place, like getting kids to play on smaller pitches to encourage their ball-skills and possession, or focusing on their first touch and movement for counter-attacking?

The attractiveness of those national set-ups where all levels of the game play the same way – Spain being the most obvious recent example – comes less from the methods themselves than the success they have engendered. I balk a little at asking someone at the FA to decide on how English national teams will play for evermore, and balk even more at then asking the same person to implement that plan across the country. I also suspect that the lack of loose, reflexive, dialectical thinking that I’ve been talking about here would be absent, and that a familiar rigidity would gain legitimisation with the addition of some sort of national blue-print; no matter how many times England lost in the group stages, there would be those pointing to the plan and advocating sticking to it. No, what English football needs to discover is a greater suppleness, something displayed the other night against Ivory Coast by none other than the Greeks, who have perfected the limited art of defending en masse and sneaking 1-0 wins since they one-nilled all the way to glory in Euro 2004. Not only do they play defensively, but they’ve been doing so for eight years! If ever there were an example of footballing rigidity, this would surely be it. What then, to make of the sight of Giorgos Karagounis smacking the bar with a thirty-yard pile-driver, or the attacking verve that led them to hit the woodwork in the first half, or the pressing that led to their first goal? I don’t know. It’s possible they’ll go back to their defensive ways in the next round against Costa Rica, and go home. But can you imagine a similar suppleness of mind and change of character in the England team?

Posted by Mark West

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Football with the commentary off

lawrenson

It seems that the art of football commentary in Britain has been slumping towards a nadir over the last few years, mired as it is in blandness, (Phil Neville, Michael Owen) gibbering inanity (Townsend), cynicism (Lawrenson) and a kind of unhelpful will-to-soundbites (Tyldesley). Perhaps this diagnosis has something to do with Twitter. The site can act as an echo chamber for negative opinions, like the ones Phil Neville was forced to confront after his stint in the BBC commentary box for England’s game against Italy; it remains the case that some lower-profile commentators, like the Beeb’s Simon Brotherton, Guy Mowbray and Kevin Kilbane, do a fine job. In a strange way, though, reading Twitter for digs at Townsend or Lawrenson – the single worst offender, in my book – can actually ameliorate the situation of having to listen to their summaries; without the lightness that Twitter can bring to bear on their verbal stuplimity the experience might merely be disappointing and draining.

Of course, watching the World Cup should never be disappointing and draining, so solutions are sought – baiting Lawro on Twitter might be one way of getting around this problem, and seeking out foreign streams online might be another. But the idea of simply watching the game on mute is oddly under-represented in the chatter around commentaries and commentators. And it’s a singularly effective solution: not only are the depressing quibbles about foreign cheats and the “in and around”s dispensed with, but a whole new awareness of what’s actually transpiring on the pitch can be acquired. There’s something quite counterintuitive about this: usually we turn to commentaries for help in comprehending the actions unfolding on our screens, to keep in track of who is playing the ball to whom, and perhaps for the odd gesture towards some back-story or real-life context for a victory or defeat. Obviously, this is all lost when the sound is turned down. But, to borrow an argument from Timothy Bewes’ book The Event of Postcolonial Shame, this all belongs in any case to the ‘subtractive conscious of a being who writes.’ Bewes is here drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, from whose perspective, ‘insofar as we speak, write, act, or paint, insofar as we express ourselves in any form whatsoever, we do not add to knowledge of the world but detract from it.’ Experiencing the game with the commentary removed might, by this line of argument, and somewhat paradoxically, be to experience it in its fuller aspect.

To experience the game minus the commentary is also to experience football’s communication by means of a visual and embodied, as opposed to verbal and conceptual, language. Early film theorist Béla Balázs has a useful line on this: writing in the moment before talkies became cinema’s norm, Balázs was effusive about the possibility that silent film might allow society to reconnect with what he considered the ‘true mother tongue of mankind.’ In his 1924 book Visible Man, Balázs remarked that,

the situation now is that once again our culture is being given a radically new direction – this time by film. Every evening many millions of people sit and experience human destinies, characters, feelings and moods of every kind with their eyes, and without the need for words. For the intertitles that films still have are insignificant; they are partly the ephemeral rudiments of as yet undeveloped forms and partly they bear a special meaning that does not set out to assist the visual expression. The whole of mankind is now busy relearning the long-forgotten language of gestures and facial expressions. This language is not the substitute for words characteristic of the sign language of the deaf and dumb, but the visual corollary of human souls immediately made flesh. Man will become visible once again.

There’s a weird vein of white suprematism to Balázs’ argument about what form this visibility would take, and the writer would have rejected the application of his ideas to football, given his conviction that ‘while sport can make the body healthy and beautiful, it cannot make it eloquent, since it strengthens only the animal qualities.’ But bracketing these concerns for the moment, we can align those positive qualities that Balázs identifies with silent film with those that emerge when watching World Cup games on mute, where the only language on display, and the only language required, is that produced by movements of the body. Away from the blanketing influence of the media narrative produced by commentators, drifts, slippages and tightenings of tactical formations become clearer, efforts and strainings become more acute, sharp sequences of passes sing brighter. As Jennifer Doyle’s recent piece on last weekend’s USA-Portugal game asserts, ‘Soccer is a dialogic sport’. Turning down the volume on your television reminds you that this has nothing to do with the back-and-forth of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend.

Posted by Luke Healey

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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