Category Archives: Euro 2012

England’s Inquest is a Generation Too Late

It’s finally happened. English football finally seems to have grasped the value of technique in possession of the football. Hodgson’s said it, the tabloids said it, even educated Guardianistas are saying it: Let’s do it. Let’s pass the ball. It’s a valuable insight, and one that could make a huge difference to the way very young English players are coached. Smaller pitches. One and two touch play. Value the ball. We’re waking up to a magnificent piece of criticism based on Peter Kay’s wonderful ‘Ave it!’ advert that simultaneously served as the definitive statement of English football’s value system. The criticism was this: “I don’t get it. He’s a footballer. Why doesn’t he love the ball?”

Jamie Carragher wrote a phenomenal and absolutely accurate piece in the Telegraph about this, a stinging condemnation of English coaching and English footballing attitudes, as well as Hodgson himself. The irony here is that Carragher was hugely welcoming of Hodgson, was rumoured to be a big factor in Benitez’ removal, and is himself the ultimate ‘Ave It!’ footballer, yet as a student of the game his views echo almost exactly Benitez own brilliant article on the subject of English coaching.

However, as welcoming as this awakening is, it sadly still misses the point. The value of possession is not a new lesson. It’s the lesson that the rest of the footballing world learned, digested, implemented and has now moved on from and revolutionised over the last 30 years. It’s a movement that Benitez was a pioneer of with his work at Valencia and Liverpool, and it’s his overall philosophy that has gained such momentum this generation. You see, what the rest of the world has realised, just as we’re learning to value the ball, is that it’s what happens off the ball that now separates the best from the rest.

Already comfortable on the ball, the high-end coaching in the top footballing nations is now focussing on an old revolution that modern fitness training has only now allowed to become ubiquitous, that of pressing. Pressing has become systematic, team-based and highly organised. The revolutionary impact of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan system, a phenomenal style of play that ultimately destroyed his players physically, has been modified so that the best pressing teams now do it in waves. High intensity and high lines, but for shorter bursts, followed by retreat if the ball is not won back quickly and decisively. This maximises the number of dangerous attacking situations – teams are at their most vulnerable just after a turn-over in possession. In turn this has led to possession becoming a way of regaining energy. Teams run off the ball and rest on it – defending has become the new way of attacking, and attacking the new way of defending. It’s transforming the way the world plays football and I find it incredible to watch, not least seeing the interesting ways different nations are interpreting it, and the new (and indeed old) weapons teams are finding to combat these new approaches.

Take a look at Greece, for example. Lacking the players to compete with this new paradigm, they have found real success by going forward to the past. A return to that most maligned of footballing systems – the Catenaccio of Inter in the 60’s. Unable to get or keep the ball, the Greeks have looked to play almost without the ball at all. This has even succeeded at the very highest levels – Mourinho’s Inter in particular perfected this art of playing without the football, saving their concentration for maintaining team shape and denying space, while saving their energy for set-pieces and devastating bursts when rare counter-attacking opportunities present themselves.
Meanwhile England are realising that players who can pass and receive the ball are fundamental to any success, but are also utterly ignoring the developments following on from that simple truth. Now that the better countries have quality players, they are all focussed on pressing, and how to make it work with the players at their disposal. In the meantime, England are focussing only on what happens when a team actually has the ball, and do not seem to realise that in order to have the ball, you have to have some idea of how to actually get the ball. Stopping our habitual surrendering of possession is only half the problem – that is not the only reason why Hodgson’s England registered such pathetic possession statistics.

Hodgson’s England have no plan to regain the ball. Hodgson himself does not even understand that pressing is a system, let alone how to implement that system with the players at his disposal. He thinks of pressing as no more than closing-down the nearest man, within a system of pure retreat, which is in turn no more than a product of players working hard. Even worse, Hodgson does not even understand how reliant his team’s possession is on having a genuine target man – implementing his own ‘Ave It’ brand of defending and then attempting to build from the hold-up play and knock downs of, err, Danny Welbeck, leaving Carroll on the bench – much as he tried to employ Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Yet this is the man to whom we have entrusted the first core of young English players I can remember who actually understand the fundamentals of possession and who, under someone like Benitez, could be moulded into a genuine force off the ball as well as on it.

Instead, while the rest of the world is finessing it’s pressing we, depressingly, have a coach – who doesn’t understand his single tactical approach of almost 40 years use – explaining that ‘we must do better’ at keeping the ball, as if it were the players fault that long clearances to a front line containing no players with genuine heading or holding-up ability will struggle to get or maintain possession. Meanwhile English football in general is, I think, going to start going in the direction of Arsenal. We will, eventually, get a better coaching and start implementing those kinds of attitudes on the ball, but as with the coverage of Arsenal and Wenger we will claim this is as a kind of English version of Barcelona’s ideas while ignoring the fact that Guardiola’s revolution had relatively little to do with what his players do with the ball. The two approaches could scarcely be more different – Wenger, as a coach, is even more clueless off the ball than Hodgson is, and his teams do not really press at all, let alone systematically. All this means that we are shaping up to produce a generation who can actually finally play possession football, only to find every other nation is either able to aggressively press and take that possession from us as easily as candy from a baby, or meet underdogs like Greece who will frustrate us with organisation and denial of space, with our own team relying on opposition mistakes to regain possession, lacking as we do not only a plan to get the ball, but even the knowledge that getting the ball back actually requires a plan.

The irony is that England has, as already mentioned, an unemployed and phenomenal manager who pioneered the current footballing revolution in the goateed form of Rafael Benitez, who would doubtless be hugely interested in an England project of genuine scope and ambition. This man has the vision and knowledge to implement the kind of structures and the kind of coaching that make Spain, Brazil and Germany the phenomenal teams they are.

If you want to weep for the sickening anti-intellectualism and backward thinking of our country on the whole and how this is destroying our national game – a game in which we must never forget that, in terms of number of children taking up the sport, we are blessed with potential natural resources that only Brazil and Argentina could really rival in terms of raw numbers – look no further than media attitudes towards that manager. While the media laud the virtues of the 4-2-3-1, they still mock the man they vilified for playing that ‘negative’ formation in England. While they gasp at Spain’s aggressive pressing, they still don’t understand that under Benitez Liverpool were playing that way off the ball before Spain had even won a major tournament. While they wonder at the fitness and flexibility of nations and teams employing ruthless rotation systems, they still denigrate the ‘Fat Spanish Waiter’ for his implementation of that system. He, or someone like him, with this new generation, could build something England haven’t had since 1966 – a team at the very cutting edge of modern tactics.

Instead, he will not even be mentioned in the clamour for a new approach that will follow our almost inevitable dismal failure in Brazil (on the large assumption that we even qualify). If there is hope for England I would put my money (not much of it though) on Brendan Rogers, a man who, unlike Liverpool’s two previous managers, is steeped in the modern approach, and might just have the tactical insight and understanding to rebuild based on the strong foundations and promising academy Benitez left there, and may then be in a position to transfer that vision to the national team.

Balotelli and a Bold New Italy

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t loved watching Italy in this tournament? They’ve combined a tournament’s worth of interesting backdrops and subtexts into one team, while also playing some of the most thrilling and enterprising football ever seen from the Azzuri.

The classic Italian footballing virtue of pragmatism hasn’t been abandoned by any means, the team is built on the core of Conte’s Juventus side, with a no-nonsense shaven-headed back four that could have just stepped out of an audition for a new series of Prison Break. Their team spirit is clearly impressive and Prandelli has even managed to get potential mavericks like Cassano and Balotelli focussed and working hard for the greater good. So far, so Italy.

What is new is their aggressive pressing and the speed of thought and quick interplay they exhibit going forward. In my memory, Italian teams have tended towards the patient and conservative, winning the ball back through great organisation but also passivity, sitting back and making themselves impossible to play through, and relying on a few very talented individuals to make the breakthroughs in attack.

This Italy, however, is no longer content to sit and wait. They hunt for the ball, they hunt in packs, and when they get the ball they pass it quickly and incisively within those packs – the flicks, one-twos, clever movement and sheer exhilaration they exhibited was, in that most hoary of footballing clichés, ‘just like watching Brazil’. Watching a 33 year old Pirlo and his telepathic understanding of position nicking the ball from a perspiring German toe before executing yet another inch perfect outside- footed mid-range pass into the path of a scurrying and determined Italian attacker will live on as the enduring image of this tournament, and him the player of the tournament, in a way that recalls Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama at his absolute best.

The interest doesn’t end there. Once more, an Italian team has honed itself into a lethal weapon against the backdrop of a domestic corruption scandal, with Juventus again implicated. This does not strike me as coincidence. Italy are perennial contenders at any major tournament, but with that comes an incredible pressure of domestic expectation. England’s limp quarter-final exit would see an Italian coach sacked, regardless of the quality of the opposition or the personnel available to him. Anything less than a semi-final is a failure and prompts a national inquest from a passionate but intrusive press.

This time, though, the nation again has bigger footballing issues on its mind. It is impossible to expect the best of players given such apparently unfavourable conditions, yet, paradoxically, those conditions force the team into a ‘bond or bust’ mentality, while simultaneously removing that often crippling pressure of expectation. The team has no choice but to stand together against outsiders, knowing also that, just for once, they will not come home as poster-boys for failure if they don’t impress in the latter stages. Like in the 2006 World Cup, the scandal has enabled a group of very talented players with a strong team ethic to concentrate on the primary aim of winning football matches, an aim they have striven for very impressively so far.

My favourite subplot, though, is also my favourite player in this team: Mario Balotelli. Already the man of the tournament in terms of column inches devoted to faux-moralising, he is on the verge of becoming the one thing these Euros have lacked so far – a game changing striker consistently hitting the back of the net. That he does hit the net should not generate the mock surprise it does from those who love to hate him for being a one-man generator of the kind of tedious non-troversy that dominates far too much football coverage these days. Despite the image of him as a brainless hot-head, forever one temper tantrum away from self and team destruction, Balotelli on the ball is the epitome of cool.

Look at his second goal. One of the very best striker’s finishes I’ve seen anywhere this season. Taken early, instinctively, only one touch to bring it under control before powering it into the net. Maybe questions can be asked of the German keeper – but only watching a replay in slow motion. In real time the ball was in the back of the net before it even seemed in a position to be hit. It’s the kind of finish that can only achieved by a confident striker who, whatever his other strengths and weaknesses, needs only the ball and goal to be in reasonable proximity before his one-track mind takes over and his foot, head or miscellaneous body part do the rest.

It’s great to see, and not just for footballing reasons. The spectre of racism has hung over this tournament as it was always going to. The response from football’s governing bodies has, as ever, been morally reprehensible, hypocritical and plain old pathetic. Even in support of Balotelli the Italian press subjected him to a highly objectionable King-Kong cartoon. By scoring that second goal, and then later doing that most Italian of things – hugging his beloved mama – Balotelli has probably done more good in Italy’s fight against racism than FIFA, UEFA or the Italian government have managed in a generation.

That’s not to downplay the importance of politics or structural changes in combating racism- in fact it’s the lack of those kind of real initiatives which make the footballing authorities such an unbridled disgrace on this issue – more to point out that, just as in England, the impact of quality footballers playing quality football can have a genuine and lasting impact on both the perception of and discourse around race. In that sense, it’s even more fortunate that the player in question is Mario Balotelli because, again despite his image, he is an interesting and articulate young man.

All that said, I must take a moment to acknowledge that he does, quite clearly, also have a crazy side. I need to acknowledge it because that’s what I absolutely love about him. He reminds me hugely of Bulgaria’s greatest and possibly moodiest talent – Hristo Stoitchkov. Balotelli is undoubtedly prone to the odd tantrum and some inappropriate reactions, but like Stoitchkov he’s also capable of channelling that fire into performances of devastating brilliance, hard work and real focus.

The celebration for that second goal really showcased this. Yes, it was arguably a stupid yellow card. On the other hand a look at Balotelli’s eyes at that moment ought to strike a little fear into the hearts of Spanish defenders. This was a young man revelling in the brightness of the spotlight he’s had forced upon him ever since his talent became apparent. This was a young man taking the light shone on him, often unjustly, and turning it into a new light coming from within him. He seemed to be signalling to the world: “I am Balotelli, I am here, I am ready and I am dangerous. I can deal with it – can you?”

Even better was his reaction to the win. Commentators have already moaned about it (and laughably so, having been castigated for his emotional over-reactions he is now being accused of excessive coldness – as is often the case with Balotelli it’s become criticism for criticism’s sake rather than anything based on a real transgression) but where some saw a lack of emotion or engagement with his team mates I got a sense of maturity and focus. It’s not that Balotelli was unconcerned or unhappy – it’s that he was already mentally moving on to Spain. He was seeing his surroundings, feeling like he belonged, and already turning to the far more important next step of actually winning rather than just getting there.

Maybe this is all just hyperbole, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that Balotelli is still just 21. He would not be the first young man to forge a better focus out of the furnace of youthful controversy. In this sense, the unpleasant treatment he’s received may actually help him in the long run. That’s not to justify it, more to point out that those with strength of mind can turn the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune into a real core of strength. Compare this to Wayne Rooney whose tantrums and tears have continually been excused and indulged, and we have on the one hand an incredible talent whose focus seems increasingly to be drifting away, a man who no longer seems to have the mentality to fulfil the genius he exhibited in his teenage years. On the other we have a player baptised in hardship, subject to abuse, racist and otherwise, and all sorts of speculation and attack from friends as much as enemies, but who now looks increasingly ready to channel both his talent and his temper into football’s ultimate difference maker: scoring goals.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

Tagged

Irish Fans, Disenchantment with Trap and Why Roy Keane Has A Point (Sort of)

I came back home from Poland this week after a tournament that was both an unforgettable social experience and a thoroughly miserable one from a footballing point of view for an Irish fan. Right now I am desirous only of watching the rest of the tournament from the comfort of my couch. One thing I was surprised at on returning was the extent of the impression we — the Irish fans — made on people; it was palpable in Poland all right, where the hosts and the Irish engaged in an almost embarrassing, if endearing, level of mutual admiration, but the number of YouTube videos documenting the now famous looping rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ was something I was not prepared for. It also got me thinking again of something I have asked myself before — most recently after the 4-0 defeat by Spain: would I trade in this universal admiration for Irish fans for a stronger, more formidable team and footballing culture?

In a way, there need not have to be a choice. Roy Keane was pilloried for attacking the fans in the midst of the Spain game, having woefully misread the singing as placid acceptance of a terrible performance. If anything, it was a mournfully defiant plaint that marked the inevitable passing of the Ireland team out of the tournament — and I would suggest, subconsciously, the passing of Irish football into the wilderness, if the rot is not soon stopped. There was an underlying sense among the fans that this might be the last chance we get for some time for Irish football to appear on the highest stage. Keane thought we were there for the sing-song and presumably wanted us to voice more discontent at what was an insultingly abject performance. He would have a point in suggesting that Ireland fans should be more vocal in expressing their disappointment but the timing and the manner of his outburst indicates that he just doesn’t get fans. That’s hardly surprising, given the man who once criticised some Manchester United fans as there for the prawn sandwiches has probably not stood on a terrace in over two decades.

Keane’s comments are in line with his anger over squandering a two-goal lead away to the Netherlands in September 2000 to draw a 2-2 and his disgust at Ireland’s poor preparation at Saipan ahead of the World Cup two years later. His timing in all three of these cases though has been questionable. Roy doesn’t do diplomacy, it is true, but you sense that had he chosen his battles better, he might have won the war. Many Irish fans — even those that stood by Mick McCarthy ten years ago — supported Keane’s stance against the FAI, but now that he has attacked them, the bridges are irredeemably burnt. Turning on the fans was a step too far.

Before the tournament, I voiced a little scepticism over whether Ireland fans were actually the ‘best in the world’. I still hold to that, mainly because I think it’s a sterile argument. Even within the same club and the same national team’s support, there are divergences in style, attitude and intensity. Ireland’s reputation derives in the main from the fact that the fans like to party and do so in a good-humoured, friendly and often hilariously surreal way. With a few exceptions, the culture of supporting a country these days is a far gentler one than in the club game; when teams convene for a tournament like the Euros, carnival is the prevailing tone and atmosphere. In Poland at least — the geographical division meant two separate tournaments were effectively being held — Ireland fans were probably the most visible and impressive in this respect, though the hosts came a close second. That said, we had a lot to learn from the way Croatian ultras lit up the stadium in Poznan with illegally smuggled flares and the Spanish outsang us for stretches of the match in Gdansk too (though that was easily done when their team were walloping us so). Both groups of supporters — with the exception of the small minority of Croats who racially abused Mario Balotelli — were similarly good-humoured and friendly. The Italians likewise, even if their fans lacked the charisma and the verve of the other three countries in the group — you get the sense Italians who follow the national team are more genteel and more casual than those who follow the clubs.

In a piece for the Sunday Independent last week, Dion Fanning cast aspersions on the Irish fans’ ‘festival of eejitry’. While Fanning was trying to make some valid points targeting both the Irish media and FAI CEO John Delaney, he caught the fans in some muddled, pious crossfire. Not least his decrying the abundant drinking that was going on — Ireland’s binge-drinking culture is definitely a worrying phenomenon but choosing as exemplary a tournament where fans of all sixteen countries were overindulging is just weird. But his point about the self-professed best fans in the world being an embodiment of Irish self-regard was spot on. It might seem churlish to say so but this self-regard has a corrosive flipside, one which results in Irish people sacrificing necessary social friction for the sake of maintaing an amiable front. Irish people want to be loved by people — including each other — and this has resulted in generations of cosy consensus that has paralysed the country in a self-prophesying conservatism. We saw it with the re-election of Fianna Fáil to government at the 2007 election, just at the moment when it was increasingly clear Bertie Ahern and the party were mired in endemic corruption; we have since seen it with the way austerity has failed to spark any mass indignation of note. It would be a stretch to say that Roy Keane is indicative of a counter-current against this consensus but more of his dissenting is probably needed. What isn’t needed is his indelicacy of expressing it, because the Irish don’t like indelicacy much.

Like Keane, I have long thought Irish football should be held to higher standards, even at a moment like the present when we clearly don’t have the personnel we had in the past. Expecting to qualify for a major tournament is not an outlandish demand, especially as we have reached play-offs for six out the last nine, qualifying for two. If we can go so far so often, why not expect us to go just a little further? During the Italy match, the fan’s ire was directed at Keane and there were no audible murmurings of anti-Trapattoni dissent. I don’t think that will ever come either, however unhappy the fans might be. Irish fans — and people in general — would recoil from subjecting a 73-year-old man to public vilification, however increasingly Lear-like he becomes in his dismissals of all suggestions of his footballing mortality. Many Irish people were repelled by the way the hapless Stephen Staunton was pilloried by the tabloid media; Stan was probably the worst manager ever an Irish team had to labour under but he should never have been put in the position he was.

The wave of dissent against Trapattoni is instead likely to be expressed by abstention. The FAI has already had difficulty filling the Aviva Stadium for competitive and friendly matches alike, creating a few financial jitters along the way as it hopes to recoup its part of the investment in the new stadium. Admittedly, the cause wasn’t helped by a relatively unglamorous Euro 2012 qualifying group, where Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra were the visitors. But the dreariness of watching Trapattoni’s Ireland play compounds things too and you expect the crowds to thin out as the performances and the results inevitably worsen in the qualifiers for World Cup 2014. Ireland play Germany in Dublin in October and there is little in our most recent performances to suggest we will avoid a humiliation on home soil. Personally, I have resolved not to spend another penny supporting Ireland, either home or away — the fact I live in Paris means both demand travelling — while Trapattoni is in charge. There are probably many like me. It is a shame because there are some very attractive away weekends and home matches in that group — trips to Germany, Sweden and Austria among them. The prospect of abject performances and possible heavy defeats though makes you loth to go. It’s a tough group even for a team in the right frame of mind but an Ireland without Trap could give it a decent go. As it stands though Ireland look doomed. Germany look set to be their usual rampant self in qualifiers and Sweden are also shaping up to be the country’s best side in decades, having shown some fleeting glimpses of brilliance in Ukraine. Ireland have been generally comfortable against Scandinavian teams over the past two decades but Sweden also have the ineffable ability to hoover up points against medium and weak opposition — something Ireland, even under Trapattoni’s pragmatism have rarely been able to perfect.

Ireland fans reconciled themselves to Trapattoni’s unsightly, outdated football for as long as there was a possibility of some glory in return. After Poland, that possibility has now been exhausted. The argument that Ireland simply don’t have the players is one as bankrupt as Trapattoni’s tactics — he leaves more talented players like Darron Gibson, Shane Long and James McClean on the bench while refusing to call up others such as Ciarán Clarke, Séamus Coleman and Wes Holohan. Trapattoni’s lack of trust in Irish footballers has stifled any possible creativity in the team — Brian Kerr and Mick McCarthy got Irish teams not much more talented playing some good football, with results into the bag too. The current crop can definitely punch above their weight in a way unimaginable to their veteran manager. Irish fans now find themselves in the invidious position familiar to fans of Blackburn and Aston Villa over the past season — saddled with a manager bringing the team up a dead-end, they nonetheless don’t want to see them lose. The prospect of a tough group and progressively low attendances will sooner or later result in Trapattoni’s departure. By then, it will probably be too late to salvage the fight for a trip to Brazil. That may have been sitting at the back of Ireland fans’ minds when they sang that rousing rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ in Gdansk.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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

Tagged , , , , , ,

Football – Better than the real world

In Season Four of Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the main story arcs involves Larry’s ham-fisted attempts to sleep with another woman (something his beleaguered wife promised him he could do if they remained married for ten years). After a number of disastrous, ultimately futile encounters, Larry ends up in the dressing room of an enamoured co-star (he’s starring in a production of, erm, The Producers – long story). As they get down to business, Larry notices a photo of George W. Bush on the table behind them. Dejected, he realises that he cannot go through with the affair.

You’ve got a picture of Pulis in your dressing room?

Things like this rarely happen in football. Like the wider world in which it exists, football plays host to innumerate competing ideologies, on as well as off the pitch. Yet, while it can often be difficult for people to overcome their differences in this regard in the real world, compromises are made in football all the time. Many of us fret about the corporatist nature of the modern game and the machinations involved at the highest level. UEFA’s decision to fine Nicklas Bendtner €100,000 for his Paddy Power Underpants Charleston does not seem in and of itself excessive. When placed in the context of the €20,000 fine handed to Porto last April for the racist conduct of their fans in a Europa League game against Man City, it tells you all you need to know about what really matters to the fellows in charge. We still tune in for all the games though. If a political party carried on in such a manner, we’d roll our eyes and allow ourselves a pat on the back for having distanced ourselves from such a shower of charlatans in the first place. Things become a little more complicated when the foot soldier is Zlatan Ibrahimovic rattling in an utterly sensational volley rather than a defiant Tory councillor fleeing the area to which she was elected for gentler bourgeois pastures.

However, it’s really only when you cast a glance at the pitch itself that you really see the differences between football and the real world. As we trundle through an era where the only question seems to be who can best guide our harried consumer souls through more and more state-supported capitalism, it’s nice sometimes to sit back and watch something unexpected happen. Like Greece advancing at the expense of much-favoured (and far more powerful) Russia. Furthermore, it’s possible to admire their competing ideologies in equal measure; Greece’s dogged attempts to prevent the fan having anything like a meaningful aesthetic experience, Russia’s firm, unending commitment to tactical anarchy. In the real world, where it can often seem, as Karl has pointed out, that nothing ever changes, these surprises can sustain us. The underdog can triumph in football in a way that  looks increasingly unlikely to occur in modern politics.

There is a danger, in putting forward this argument, of falling into dangerous territory. Living in Ireland, I’ve grown tired of the phrase ‘this great (insert sport here) achievement has helped us forget all the doom and the gloom’. It is frightening how often it is employed. I’m not suggesting for a second that football, or any other sport, be used to mask the depressing nature of what passes for political and societal discourse in the modern world. I simply think it’s interesting how we act so differently in these different spheres. If you disagree with, or dislike, someone’s political perspective, you will do your best to explain why in a calm, rational fashion. If you dislike a pundit, a manager, or especially a footballer, you shout ‘WANKER’ and other assorted niceties at the television screen. In football, you can square your antipathy towards asset-stripping oligarchs and your love of Didier Drogba in a way that can never happen in the real world. But most importantly of all, in football, sometimes the good guys win.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

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

Euro 2012 – Some Reflections So Far

The knockout rounds begin tomorrow night in Warsaw as the Czech Republic, who looked extremely unlikely to make it out of the groups after a wretched opening against Russia, take on a Portugal side whose progression has likewise been fraught with difficulty. UEFA have given us a night off: although SotB’s writers have avoided anything like programmatic analysis of the competition – sorry, Group A – it seems a good time to take stock of what’s happened so far. Obviously, these thoughts reflect my impressions alone…

Without a single goalless match or a genuine dead-rubber encounter, it’s fair to say that Euro 2012 has exceeded expectations up to this point. Yet a few factors typical of major tournaments have been missing. A particularly glaring absence is that of a player coming out of nowhere to catch the eye and provoke transfer speculation. Mario Gomez’s elegant finishing has caught the vast majority of the English audience unawares, and a number of defenders (particularly Theodor Gebre Selassie, Mathieu Debuchy and Joleon Lescott) have attracted admiration from press and fans alike. However, no individual has really impressed themselves on the collective imagination with the force of ’96-vintage Karel Poborsky. Robert Lewandowski looked the part for Poland against Greece but couldn’t lift the co-hosts to a performance that would see them out of Group A, and – despite scoring three goals – the hotly-tipped Alan Dzagoev will have no opportunity to test himself against stronger opposition. Danny Welbeck’s goal against Sweden won’t be forgotten in a hurry by English supporters, but he laboured in Donetsk last night and might well make way for Andy Carroll against Italy on Sunday.

Some might point out that this situation reflects an increasing emphasis on teamwork resulting from the attempts of various coaches to either emulate or find ways of countering Spain’s almost mechanical keep-ball. It’s beyond doubt that England have benefited significantly from Roy Hodgson’s prioritisation of the collective over the individual, even though many – including several SotB writers – have found the end product slightly unappealing. While blessed with emerging talent, Germany have also been more impressive as a unit than as a showcase of flamboyant individualism, an approach which turned out to be especially rewarding against the Netherlands. As cliched as it may sound, the latter’s atrocious collapse came about due to Bert van Marwijk’s inability to reign in the egotism of his team’s most gifted players: the Dutch exit made their lame showing in Euro ’96 look like a textbook case of group communication and self-sacrifice. For different reasons, and in spite of Giovanni Trappatoni’s supposed insistence on graft and discipline, Ireland also lacked coherence. Gaps yawned between their defence and midfield and their midfield and attack, and a priority for their World Cup qualification campaign must be the discovery of a way of efficiently linking play without becoming overreliant on a generically ‘creative’ midfielder.

Another absence, and one which harks back rather pleasingly to the old eight-team European Championships, has been that of a true underdog. Even Greece, on paper the weakest team remaining in the competition, are seen as having a reasonable chance of giving Germany a run for their money when the teams meet in Gdansk on Friday night. This idea is carried by a number of narratives, from the prosaic (as football fans, we’re oddly given to believing that a particular tactical approach is an inherent national characteristic, and we all remember what happened in Portugal in 2004) to the political (Greece will want to demonstrate to Germany that Angela Merkel has no sway over what happens on the pitch). Meanwhile, English fans are playing the underdog card in a moderately annoying case of reverse psychology, even though the team contains several players who were considered – and not only in England – potential world champions in 2006 and 2010. It’s genuinely hard to call any of the quarter-finals with any certainty, and the fact that only Ireland and Sweden kicked off their final group games with no hope of advancing is representative of the general evenness of the competition.

At this stage, Spain remain the team to fear. I didn’t see their game against Croatia, but a friend’s Facebook status the following day – ‘Spain are so good at football they’re rubbish at football’ – is suggestive of how they throttled Slaven Bilic’s impressive side. However, there have been cracks – Vicente del Bosque’s decision to start with no strikers at all against Italy hardly came off, and hinted at a complacency regarding the efficiency of tiki-taka. No stratagem lasts forever no matter how brilliant its functionaries, and many of the survivors of the group stages  – particularly Germany and an England under fire for being technically-bereft – will feel they have a point to make against them. Their quarter-final opponents, France, have had an inconsistent tournament so far, but possess both the firepower to trouble Iker Cassilas and the kind of midfield aggression that may force Xavi and Iniesta into one of their occasional off-days.

To sum up, it’s been a slightly strange affair so far, but there’s been more than enough to talk about. Democratic and difficult to predict, Poland – Ukraine 2012 offers plenty as the stakes are upped and the shoot-out orders decided upon.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

England’s stage-managed humility

England’s last two tournament appearances have, so the story goes, come to be defined as much by glittering off-field hubris as by their dismal exits on it. The enduring image of 2006 remains the circus at Baden-Baden– redolent as it was with the broadsheet-friendly narrative of nouveau vulgarians overrunning a seat of the Grand Tour. The 2010 South African campaign, meanwhile, became defined by the austere hermitude of Bafokeng, with its own internal symbolism of fretful colonialists cosseting themselves away – cowering fearfully from the locals behind wire fences and consignments of Heinz Beans. Even Portugal 2004, an uncommonly enjoyable experience for team and fans alike, is remembered by many for the pseudo-motivational aggrandisement that saw the training base festooned with off-the-shelf waffle. “If not you, who? If not now, when?” boomed the murals – the FA’s logistics team presumably having run out of paint before the answers: “any number of  superior teams” and “when you stop relying on players preoccupied with their own Jungian Hero Complex” could be added.

No more. The England team which has made quietly effective progress at Euro 2012 has become an emblem for The New Humility; an overblown meekness that could  only be more ostentatious if the players eschewed their tracksuits for sackcloth and ash. Throughout their stay in Poland, every effort has been made to recalibrate the public perception from a gang of gilded ne’er-do-wells to model tourists, a bunch of ordinary Joes humbled and happy to be there.

Firstly, there’s the location. A £300-a-night boutique hotel might seem a curious way to demonstrate a newfound common touch, yet thanks to its position in the centre of Krakow the Hotel Stary represents a significant shift in emphasis. No longer squirreled off in a cavernous training complex, the subtext is clear: “by being amongst the people, we are at one with the people.”  Perhaps worried the point was too subtle, the players have been required to retain a visibility throughout with open training sessions and public walkabouts – contractually-obliged meet-and-greets at which the carefully-orchestrated message of togetherness is somewhat undermined by the phalanx of antsy-looking heavies employed to keep the rabble at bay. Players and coaching staff have diligently tried to downplay expectations, with John Terry tellingly kept at least 20 yards away from a microphone at all times. Instead, the message passed down from on high has been the chiding instructions for players to “remember that you are part of the wider world” as they’re despatched for another round of baby-kissing.

It’s all deeply cynical stuff, of course. The FA are acutely aware that the public mood surrounding Team England is at a decade-long low, with the open dissent in Cape Town – not to mention Wayne Rooney’s tart riposte to camera – still fresh in the mind of anxious bean-counters reliant on the continuing popularity, if not prosperity, of the national side for the viability of the Associations gleaming albatross, Wembley Stadium. Indeed, as a ploy to, forgive me, “detoxify the brand”, England’s glad-handing comes across as a piece of PR fluff every bit as disingenuous as David Cameron forcing down a sausage roll to prove his man-of-the-people credentials. No harm in that, perhaps. After all, what other million-pound organisations are free from the dissembling touch of media management?

Yet whilst the FA’s charm offensive certainly seems to be having the desired effect, with the ersatz earthiness lapped by the self-loathing sections of the national press who wax loquacious about “realistic expectations” and “greater modesty” – in the process divesting themselves of responsibility for elevating hopes to absurd levels or spending previous tournaments gleefully chasing the players’ retinue for a sight of waggish thigh – behind the positive editorials the underlying mood of the coverage is altogether more unpalatable. Take, for example, the visit to Auschwitz. During this, the FA media machine was clearly in full back-covering swing, with the micro-managing of the agenda extending to briefings that players had worn tracksuits on medical advice and thus pre-empting any faux-outraged Mail editorials that could be laid at the Association’s door. Without such an open goal, the focus of the coverage was instead heavy with cynical, sneering declarations of hope that the trip would offer the players “some perspective” – their extravagant lives offered up as sacrificial lambs to be cast egregiously as counterpoints to the most profound example of human suffering.

Likewise, it’s increasingly hard to ignore the fact that large swathes of the coverage of this new-look humble England seems based on the view that in being thrown to the mob in Krakow’s Main Square the players are being publicly emasculated – carrying out acts of compulsory penitence for the apparent hubris of their predecessors. That such “punishment” has played so well back home is the inevitable consequence of the Bushtucker Trial mindset that blends fascination and revulsion with fame and wealth; an aspirational resentment that lies behind the frequent calls for such upstarts to be “taken down a peg or two”. By playing up to such ingrained prejudice with such gusto the FA appear keen to restate their role as masters and reduce the status of the players to forelock-tugging serfs, rebalancing a relationship that has swung dramatically in the players’ favour in the last 25 years. Where previously the balancing of power between the players and the stuffed shirts of the FA was seen as a positive, now the reapplication of the yoke has been lauded. It’s here, arguably, we reach the nub of the matter – that the recasting of the England team mirrors an alarming shift in mood that has taken hold in austerity Britain, a cap-doffing deference to supposed superiors nowhere more depressingly manifested than during the show of grinning servitude that was the Jubilee celebrations. This, the message runs, is Know Your PlaceBritain, where a return to the Golden Age – be it fiscal or football – can only be achieved by the re-establishment of the Old Order.

All things considered, I’d rather have Baden Baden.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

Tagged , , ,

He’s thick but he’s struck it rich…

England’s victory last night has provoked a very predictable tapestry of reactions. For some, coming from behind to beat Sweden was a triumph of Three-Lionsism, of ‘grit’, ‘perseverance’ and ‘steel’. For others, the win was achieved thanks to Roy Hodgson’s team being marginally less mediocre than the Swedes; moreover, this account holds, England have fallen back on dinosaur tactics – hit it at the big man, etc – which will be exposed by the subtleties of the Spanish or Croatian midfielders likely to be encountered in the first knock-out round.

Neither of these analyses ring particularly true. The last English performance with any ‘grit’ of note at the finals of an international tournament was, to my recollection, the 1-0 defeat of Argentina in Sapporo ten years ago: Stevie G, John Terry and Wayne Rooney are all remarkably good at wearing the mask of indominability, and have found this attribute in themselves regularly at club level, but have rarely imposed their famed determination when the national team have found themselves in the soup. When they fall behind, there’s a fine line between panic and resolve, and England tend to fall on the wrong side of it. Last night, though, their response to Sweden’s second goal was admirably unflapped, and was helped along by Hodgson’s decision to remove James Milner – one of those English players who does a great job of looking incredibly involved while contributing the square root of nothing – for the supposedly fairweather Theo Walcott. Walcott’s equaliser and assist for Danny Welbeck’s beautifully-improvised winner both represented a calm, almost casual attitude to adversity which, if it can be maintained, may well come to be one of the most likeable aspects of the new-look team.

The contrasting narrative – that luck and hoofball won England the game – is similarly flawed. I don’t think I’ve been so impressed by an English performance since the 4-1 victory in Zagreb late in 2008, and it was the combination of physical presence and artisanal intelligence that made this the case. There was nothing aimless about the aerial balls to the excellent Andy Carroll last night, while if Xavi or Andrea Pirlo had played the cross Steven Gerrard did for Carroll’s opener there would be widespread lamenting at the inability of English football to produce accurate mid-range passes. In turn, the Geordie – who reminds me, oddly, of Christian Vieri at times – and Welbeck are both smart players who know how to use their respective forms of awkwardness (while not particularly robust, the Manchester United stiker’s long limbs and flexibility make him an extremely frustrating player to tackle) to infuriate defenders into making mistakes. A team of any philosophy playing properly to its strengths (even the Wimbledon side of the late eighties) are a real joy to watch, and the notion that reasonably direct football with good link play from proper forwards is less pleasurable for the spectator than false-nined tiki-taka or Brazilian/ Nikian Joga Bonito is at best a canard.

England, as the clip up top suggests, were The Fall last night, making an implicit case for recognising that everyday folk knowledge is full of its own instances of flair while simultaneously dismissing the romanticisation of those styles we supposedly ‘can’t do’ as a bit Hampstead. As my brother once put it, watching a Stoke winger bursting into space on the end of a flick-on is a far better experience – as far as sheer excitement goes – than watching Wenger’s Arsenal when they’re off-colour and over-technical. Roy Hodgson might not be Pep Guardiola, but he certainly has the intelligence to recognise that throwing the baby out with the tactical bathwater is probably the worst thing an England manager could do at this moment in time.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

Tagged , , ,

Spain Retrieve their Spear

For all Spain’s intricate passing, dominance of zones and aggressive defending what destroyed Irish hope was a simple spear thrust – a Fernando Torres straight through the heart. Despite the romantic image of the nation, Spain play football like the Borg would if they ever assimilated the game. There is something devastatingly robotic, and hypnotic, about their play. They keep the ball tentatively out of your reach. They rock you from side to side like a babe-in arms. They lull you into a kind of dazed weariness and then suddenly pounce with either a precision pass to the feet of a man between the lines or a through-ball of the kind Torres put such a superb finish on for the 3rd goal.

It’s telling that the Spanish nail in Ireland’s expertly-laid coffin wasn’t hammered in until the 49th minute. Spain are in no hurry to finish you off. They’d rather wear you down and let you finish yourself off. Like a boxer with the longer reach already ahead on points they’ll shield themselves from your flurries and simply wait for the opponent to force their guard down, in this case an opponent attempting to painstakingly form a small, green rectangle every time Spain stepped forward. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso all personify this approach, players who value possession like a philatelist does a penny black, artful yet full of repetition, low scoring yet absolutely devastating.

Then there’s the Spanish defence. I can already hear a generic British pundit scoffing about their ‘get-at-ability’ but the fact is that their back four isn’t intended to defend as other nations do. The Spanish philosophy is ironclad within its supposed flexibility: they will not compromise on pressing, on possession, on defending with a high-line – and why should they? They are the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having unified all the belts. Seen in this light Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique and Alba all fit like gloves. All have recovery pace. All keep possession with monotonous reliability. Three are genuine threats in attack, Arbeloa the slouch in merely being decent, consistent and occasionally dangerous. Even then, he’s a phenomenal defender by any standards, new or old, with a solidity and level of concentration few can match. How many can claim to have kept a Messi, even if a 90% fit one, in their pockets?

Torres is the black sheep of this family. In a Borg football team, he’s a man with a spear in the final stages of a hunt for dangerous prey. When he hesitates, he fails. He must act with absolute faith in his instincts, and when he does we all know why he is such a born killer: because when he is in that zone, his instincts almost never fail him. But even instincts must be honed. In this, Torres has Rafa Benitez and Xavi Valero to thank for the intellectual honing of his finishing at Liverpool. His first goal spoke not only of the power of instinct, but also of Valero’s dossier of goalkeeping weaknesses. Given was exposed at the near post, caught flat on his feet. A static keeper of the old school outdone by the early shot.

The dilemma for Spain is that the thrust in their system usually comes from the ‘3’ in the ‘4-2-3-1’, and this tends to work better when the front man is also a player who hoards possession when it comes into feet. It sucks the defenders towards him when the ‘1’ drops off the line, creating space for the ‘3’ to run into. With Torres up front they often struggle to find their rhythm. Torres is playing his own, ancient, deadly game but the regularity with which he gives it away is a problem. Very often his best contribution comes by not touching the ball at all –moving constantly to provide the ever-present shadow of a threat in behind.

What perhaps made the key difference today was the way Spain interpreted their 4-3-3 formation, with Iniesta, Silva and Torres almost forming a diamond shape with Xavi playing more, but not quite, like a No. 10. With the solidity of Alonso and Busquets in front of the CBs Arbeloa and Alba were to all intents and purposes playing as traditional wingers but for one crucial difference – a favouring of possession over crossing, which is a very low-percentage pass.

Time after time, Ireland punted it forward vaguely towards Keane only to have a Spanish head or foot intercept it around the half-way line, and send it neatly on its way to another Spanish foot. If you’re going to play this way, and against Barҫa it’s surely as good a bet as any, then you need to go all out for it. Look at Stoke. They barely have a player who doesn’t look like a body double for a Rocky training montage, and only a handful less than six feet tall. They ignore midfield, the players there almost becoming auxiliary centre-backs.

They have pace on the wings, consistent crossing, a big tall guy who can keep it and a big tall fast guy who can smack it one. It’s brutal football, but like a club to the head it isn’t pleasant to be on the end of. Ireland never had any kind of chance by in any way trying to meet the Spanish on their terms. This Spain team, and the players at club level, face an Ireland pretty much every single time they play. They’ve gotten very, very good at opening one up, letting it twitch for a bit and then stabbing the bit that makes it all work.

Jack Charlton and Niall Quinn would most likely still have lost, but at the very least Spain would have been wary of giving away set-pieces, and on the stereotypical rainy night, with a weak, lenient and underdog-friendly ref, Charltonian tactics could have worked. Keane up front alone was never going to score without a player of surgical precision behind him. The only player I can think of for the Irish who matches that bill is Stephen Ireland, and his mentality has gone on vacation to the extent that he didn’t even make it into a very skill-deficient Irish squad.

As it was, the Irish huffed and puffed a bit, showed enough resilience in the earlier stages to retain their dignity, but ultimately went out as everyone, themselves likely included, expected. Meanwhile Spain look a dead certainty to reach the final again, quite possibly to meet Germany in a reprise of 2008 .

Meanwhile Spain still have their primitively artful enigma to consider. When they’re in synch, Torres and Spainp rovide a combination of astounding lethality, the dark magic of deadly instinct courting the hideous efficiency of a machine-mind. Today’s formation might make the relationship a wedding, and if that happens both Chelsea and Spain will remain teams to be feared.

It is heartening to see Torres back, though. As a Liverpool fan I should theoretically be feeling some sort of betrayal or hatred towards him but, seriously, he plays football like the kid inside you wants to play football. Same as Ronaldo or Messi. If the part of your soul that still loves the game like you did as a child doesn’t rejoice to see Torres’ little skip to get it onto his right foot for his sublime 2nd then it must surely have died long ago, and if that’s the case, why continue to torture yourself with a sport devoid of all joy? Spain play football like an old-grand master plays chess, and yes, they will always be more deadly, but a lot of their deadliness lies in their ability to wield those human spears. To put those kinds of players in positions where their instinct can’t help but take-over. To weld the primitive to the futuristic and create a hybrid of the kind that lives through the ages.

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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

Tagged , ,

The Lost Art of (Defensive) Midfielding

Yesterday, while watching an entertaining collection of mostly off-the-ball incidents involving Danish former Everton and Real Madrid midfielder Thomas Gravesen, I began to consider the importance of controlled aggression in football. It became clear to me that Gravesen, in his both his physical and ‘banteresque’ exchanges with other players, was involved in a strategy of shadow throwing and exaggeration that one is more familiar with in wrestling or pantomime than in modern football. That evening, the Netherlands struggled against Germany, but failed to reach the violent nadir of their performances in World Cup 2010 – especially the final when the inarguably talented but weirdly boring Spain team ground out a win in a game reminiscent of some Christians trying to play keepie-uppie against a team of extremely hungry and irate lions with a penchant for self-loathing.One persuasive narrative to emerge from that night: the Netherlands were seen as anti-footballing villains while Spain were conquering heroes.

There’s little doubt that a rare strain of ultraviolence was embodied by that Holland team, but was that final really the night when, symbolically at least, a non-contact, packed-midfield brand of tiki-taka football was crowned? And, if so, where does this leave the defensively-minded midfielder who’s motivated not only by a desire to turn defence into attack by breaking play up through tackling and distribution, but also – see Gravesen – to turn the course of a game through psychological jostling, cumulative pressure and, yes, the occasional physical attack?

The growing aestheticisation of football, fed by a speed-reading of Barcelona’s fluidity crossed with fantasies of a Harlem Globetrotters-like touch of anti-gravity showiness (Krusty the Klown: ‘they were using a freaking ladder for gods’ sakes’) has perhaps blinded many to the successes of teams more fundamentally grounded in supposedly traditional footballing strategy: put a big lad up front, get it out to the wings and kick anyone who goes towards your goal. For some reason, Real Madrid and Stoke City spring to mind. Barçelona’s efforts to experiment with these ‘sorts of players’ haven’t been hugely successful: Ibrahimovic was a notable failure while Mascherano came in an aggressive, hard-tackling midfield mentalcase but is now someone who slots into defence when one or other of the favoured centre-backs is crocked. The logic of Barça under Guardiola dictated that the target man and the hard-man defensive midfielder must be tamed and domesticated in order to play within the system.

Where’s a defensively-minded midfielder (with a penchant for controlled aggression) to go, though? Strange that such a player, who offers a bulwark for defence, a certain kind of gonzo leadership and, at his best, a hub from which the spokes of successful counterattacking play can project, now finds himself unfashionable and unloved. But, then again, these players are always the least praised, and frequently demonised for their excesses: Roy Keane for his career-ending tackle on Alf-Inge Haaland, Gennaro Gattuso for his headbutt on Joe Jordan – Lee Cattermole for, well, practically everything he does whenever he gets on the pitch. (And then there’s obviously Van Bommel, whose reputation precedes him to the degree that when he fails to hack someone down, he resembles Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, nervously picking around the laboratory in fear of turning into the enormous green anger monster.) To jump away from strictly defensive midfield for a moment, such vilification puts one in mind of another midfielder, though admittedly in a different galaxy from everyone else – both in terms of the quality of the player and the near-operatic tragedy of the excessive event – Zinédine Zidane’s ‘chestbutt’ on Marco Matterrazi in the 2006 World Cup final.

One of the disappointments of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parenno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was its relative silence – Zinédine barely spoke apart from (according to my recollection) telling the ref to go fuck himself at one point. If that film presents the art of midfielding as one of quiet contemplation occasionally punctuated by success, failure and inexplicable violence, the Youtube footage of Gravesen (mostly from his time with Real Madrid and set to broad parpy comedy music) shows the industry with which one goes about creating the sort of legend that leads others – both on and off the field – to refer to a footballer as ‘that psycho’.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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

Tagged , , , ,

Violence, Misery and the the Paradox of the Netherlands

It became visible, arguably, in the 2006 World Cup and that mad match with Portugal, and it seemed to have reached its greatest intensity in the modus operandi employed by the Netherlands to counter tiki-taka four years later in Johannesburg. Last night against Germany, however, the Dutch national side offered the greatest example to date of how their tradition of fluid, disinhibited football isn’t so much contradicted by an occasional resort to spoiling tactics and backroom squabbling as it is, conversely, sustained by those things according to a logic that’s weirdly similar to that of Slavoj Žižek’s notion of ‘objective violence’. That’s to say that Total Football is like so many other apparently progressive formulations of the sixties and seventies: the promise of openness, the vaunted dissolution of rigid positionalism into a semiotic free market of identifications, in fact opened the door to a different kind of deregulation premised surreptitiously on division and depression.

When there’s a spanner in the works with the Netherlands – when, for whatever reason, the fluency is arrested – a ‘true’ nature beyond the pseudoliberated football of Cruyff and Gullit is revealed. People talk about the Dutch tendency to ‘self-destruct’ as if it’s a mystery, but there’s also a good argument for saying that this occurs with such regularity precisely because of the pressure exerted upon them to be free and easy, to perform as hedonists. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner points out that the flair the great Netherlands sides are recalled for was actually always enforced – there’s a Jaap Stam behind every Dennis Bergkamp – but doesn’t, in his celebratory talk of the relationship between Total Football and postmodernist architecture, arrive at the realisation that there’s an absolute correlation between the giddy rush of decenteredness and the maintenance of hegemony.

In 2010, there was an element of self-loathing in the violence the Netherlands exerted in their efforts to claim the World Cup. This could be thought of as similar to the ethical ‘dilemma’ of the rebooted Bond movies with Daniel Craig: the kicking and shirt-pulling, the nudging and bodychecking, was all a means to achieve victory on behalf of the ‘better’ aesthetic of Total Football, just as Craig’s tormented Bond tortures and murders in the service of the conceptually-associated virtues of love and neoliberal ‘freedom’. It isn’t really them, but the content of that them can only be delivered through recourse to its opposite.

Last night, as in the dreadful perfomances they delivered in England in 1996, the other component of the occult part of the Netherlands’ footballing identity could be seen. Although Mark van Bommel and Jetro Willems both tried to invoke the niggling spirit of Johannesburg, the defeat to the Germans was more indicative of the incoherence – with its consequences of isolation and depression – that can emerge when an ideology is so heavily based around the release of the individual from restrictive systems. Wesley Sneijder’s pre-game statements of intent regarding bringing malcontent colleagues into line were rather undermined by the fact that, as is so often the case, he played much of the match in a Gerrard-like mindset dominated by the anticipation of reliving personal achievements. Every crack at goal seemed to be motivated by a desire to be able to spend a future looking back on heroics, rather than ability to provide for the team in the present of the match. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, played with his usual brand of troubled careerist aestheticism: once again, his talent seemed to be compromised by an overwhelming desire for its recognition.

In all likelihood, the Netherlands will go home at the end of the group stage. They face Portugal, a nation with a reasonably similar footballing identity, in a game they must win while hoping that Germany ease up against Denmark. Even if that does happen, they’ll need a swing in goal difference too, something which the resignation on Dutch faces come the final whistle last like suggests is unlikely. Once again, it feels like a contradiction, but their probably failure in the Ukraine is of exactly the same substance as many of their most admired triumphs.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

Tagged , , , ,