Category Archives: Commentators

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

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

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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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