Category Archives: Expectations

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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Festival Football

zidane31

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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Forgotten Goals and the Slippage of Memory

Though I have a few memories of España 82 –– and even a brief ticker tape-strewn flicker of Argentina 78 is lodged in my unconscious –– Mexico 86 was my first ‘real’ World Cup. An unwritten rule generally dictates that one’s first World Cup is the standard all future ones are measured against (and all will inevitably fall short of –– for this reason I pity anyone, even Irish people, whose earliest memories are of the wretched Italia 90), and Mexico 86 was a stormer of a tournament. Maradona’s single-handed yanking of an average Argentina side to win their second World Cup; the greatest, most brazen act of cheating in footballing history (Thierry Henry is but a petit tricheur next to Diego); all the matches involving the USSR (including the body blow from which Hungarian football has never recovered), Denmark and Belgium; France v Brazil; Josimar’s insouciant missile of a shot that sailed over poor Pat Jenning’s outstretched hand; Morocco’s destruction of a highly-fancied but squabbling Portugal; and one of the best finals ever. I am fully aware of the dross in that tournament, of course –– Morocco v England, Morocco v West Germany (this is probably why the Moroccans are not remembered as well as they might otherwise be), Uruguay v Scotland and Joël Quiniou’s dismissal of José Batista, the fastest sending-off in World Cup history, and the drab semi-final between the French and the Germans, which so cruelly failed to live up to the same game four years earlier. But Mexico 86 was a great tournament. I know this because I remember everything in it. I can remember almost all the goals. Maybe this is because I just paid more attention as a ten year old or because I was just unconsciously absorbing so much more in unfamiliar surroundings, like how a toddler sponges up the complexities of language.

All the more remarkable is the fact I didn’t see the final. A storm the night before put the whole village’s illegal TV deflector service out of whack and attempts to restore it in time for kick-off were in vain. I was forced to follow it on radio instead, which, in pre-Premiership, pre-Champions League days, was not so rare an occurrence. I did see the same later, and saw the five goals enough times for them to be burned onto my retina like the outline of an image on a poorly maintained computer screen. And such is the case for many goals, in the World Cup and elsewhere –– these are the goals that are inescapable, the ones that journalists call ‘iconic’. The movements –– the feints, the jinks, the turns –– are so familiar that you can recognise them even when stripped of their physical surrounding, like in Richard Swarbrick’s beautiful animations. These goals will be with you till your dying day.

 

 

But there are other goals that are harder to recall, or, if you do recall them, your mind has distorted and refracted them for some unknown reason –– re-watching the other day Joe Cole’s superb volley against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup, I was struck by how I remembered seeing it at a different angle. I also seemed to have some recollection of the pitch in Cologne being slightly muddy, like a mid-season Football League pitch in the late 1980s. It was, of course, a vibrant green sward, but my mind had seen it differently.

Since Mexico 86, my capacity for forgetting goals, sometimes even whole matches, has grown steadily. Most of the goals scored by France on the way to winning on home soil in 1998 are hazy in my mind (though not those in the semi-finals or final) –– all I seem to be able to remember is Stéphane Guivarc’h stumbling when trying to hold the ball up for Petit and Zidane. I can remember Roberto Baggio’s equaliser against Nigeria in 1994 but not his two goals against Bulgaria in the semi-final. I can remember Saeed al-Owarain’s full-length run to score against Belgium that year but I can remember practically nothing else Saudi Arabia have done in their subsequent three World Cups. Such slippage is inevitable of course when you gorge yourself on more football in the space of four weeks than you would normally watch in half a season. There are also the circumstances –– some games I watched in snatches from behind a bar when I was serving pints, some in the side bar at wedding receptions, others you don’t see at all: they might be the ‘other’ match in the third round of group games, played simultaneously, your exposure to which is limited to the half-time and full-time round-ups.

 

 

 

Thus some games disappear down the rabbit hole of your conscious. Sometimes even whole teams’ participations vanish –– China in 2002, Poland the same year and in 2006 too, the UAE in 1990, Austria in 1998, Angola in 2006, Denmark in South Africa four years ago, all of which I can barely remember. I watch the hour-long compilations of all the goals from past tournaments that you can find on YouTube and occasionally I get an arresting jab –– goals, teams, players I had forgotten about. Even players I already knew of and who I was looking out for throughout the tournament. This chasm of memory is a product of the parallax view we have of the World Cup. It looks so big from the outside, so long, so bloated and rich. But for most teams –– 50% of them –– it’s over as soon as it begins. They are on their way home after ten days. Since the tournament was expanded to 32 teams, it is only in the knock-out stages when it really takes off, when your mind is supple and you register things. By then, three-quarters of the games have been played. The cliche has it that the World Cup is a feast of football but beneath the excitement and the munificence, there is the dullness of mundane consumption and trying to summon up the memory of some of the goals you see is like trying to remember what you had for lunch the same day.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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

World Cup 2014 kick-off – SotB Writers’ Expectations

So, here we are. Thirty-two previews down, and only the World Cup itself to go. As kick-off approaches, here are the anticipations and expectations of some SotB writers:

 

1 – Who are you following?

As Ireland are nowhere near the World Cup, and as I can’t agree with President Michael D Higgins’s suggestion that Irish fans follow England, I expect I’ll watch France and Belgium closely. On further reflection: teams come and go, but the banter remains a constant.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

The usual meaningless shit on the field. The occasional amazing goal. Debate about whether the aerodynamics of the World Cup ball are different this year. Once the World Cup kicks off, I expect a lot of the pre-tournament media coverage of protest movements will be forgotten – unless something‘dogs on the pitch’ extraordinary happens.

3 – Who will win?

Probably Brazil.

4 – Any surprises?

Chile will be very entertaining, based on their ludicrously cavalier friendly performance against England recently. Barkley will be either hero or scapegoat for England – but this is less surprising.

Karl Whitney

 

1 – Who are you following?

I’m glad you didn’t say “supporting” because that would have been a much more involved answer (shortish-form: I, like many of my peers in the current climate, am conflicted about the idea of unreflectively swearing national alliegances, but at the same time I’m deeply sceptical of the idea that “support” can be carried out at a remote distance, and with nothing social at stake). In 2010 I really bought into Ghana’s underdog story: I had begun investing in them around the time of that year’s Africa Cup of Nations, shortly after reading about the team’s history in Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon, and had bought a Black Stars shirt by the time the World Cup rolled around (2010 was a good year for Puma). The Suarez handball in the dying seconds of the quarter-final was a sucker-punch the likes of which I hadn’t felt since…I’m struggling. Preston’s playoff failure at the end of the season just passed scarcely felt more like genuine grief. Weirdly though, I’ve been unable to marshall much sympathy for Ghana in successive tournaments, which says something about how teams can acquire tournament-specific auras which fade when new underdogs (Zambia, Burkina Faso, post-revolution Egypt) emerge. As touched on in my preview, I’ll be curious to see what interest can be sustained in Ghana this time round, and where the story of African participation in the World Cup will go more broadly.

More obviously, I’ll also be following England. In spite of my excitement about what looks like a youthful, talented squad, I’ll be doing so with caution. The reports coming out of Manaus about the quality of the pitch – I have visions of Nelspruit in 2013 – as well as the precedent set by the quarter-final meeting at Euro 2012 suggest that Saturday night could witness the spectre of England 0-0 Algeria rearing its head once more.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

I can’t wait to see what this year’s big transgression is. I suppose Rivaldo’s theatrics against Turkey in 2002 qualify, but this is a precedent that has really been set in the last two tournaments: first Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 final and then that Suarez handball in 2010. Both events really took us to those hinterlands where football intertwines with, or is forced into contact with, the world at large. Zidane’s headbutt is much more an event in the cultural history of postwar France than it was a professional foul. And Suarez’s handball showed that all the rules in the game are, given the right situation, ultimately powerless to prevent injustice. It would be a shock if we weren’t presented with a hat-trick at this tournament, particularly so given the sentiments that are currently being mobilised in Brazil against FIFA and its golden showpony.

3 – Who will win?

I have a vision of a final between two favourites, with at least one of these teams overcoming a dark horse (Chile? Croatia?) in the semi-final. I fancy Spain to get knocked out early, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. As much as home team success is a vital spur for tournaments, I take pleasure in imagining Brazil beaten in the semis or earlier: there has to be at least one really good tragic narrative in this tournament. In one sense I fancy Argentina, but for some reason I just can’t imagine them winning it. I don’t know, Germany?

4 – Any surprises?

‘I don’t know, there could be a surprise here, someone could come out of nowhere and play well, so that’s a tough one.’ – Andrew Cole

Luke Healey

 

Profundity itself.

1 – Who are you following?

I will still follow England, although more out of habit than anything else. I find I’m less and less interested in the national team, partly because of the way it conjures up a sense of Englishness which is entirely alien to me, but also for more directly footballing reasons: they are infuriatingly slow and plodding, and the players seem to lose all awareness of modern football the minute they leave their clubs behind. Managers aren’t much better; in fact they’re even worse, because they dangle in front of you the possibility that they’ve realised that 4-4-2 is over – usually in friendlies – before reverting to type when it actually matters. Only this week, with everyone raving about how exciting Raheem Sterling is, and off the back of an amazing season, we are being told to expect Danny Welbeck to start, despite the fact that he only scored 10 goals last season and hardly started.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

It’s not an expectation, more a hope, but what I’d really like to see is a team playing exciting, fast, direct attacking football. I will watch England’s plodding, and will maybe be able to conjure some connoisseurial admiration of tiki-taka (whoever’s playing that way now), but what I really love as a football fan is the kind of recklessness you hardly ever see. As a Liverpool fan, I was spoiled last season, but I’d love to see a national team playing like that. People talk about Brazil, but they’re always a bit too fancy, and being on home soil it’ll be all about the pressure for them.

3 – Who will win?
I haven’t given much thought to who might actually win the thing, but I suppose it’s hard to think past a small group of teams. Brazil will be given a boost (as well as more pressure) by playing at home, Spain are still good, but if pushed I’d say Germany are favourites.

4 – Any surprises?

Chile might surprise a few people; they seemed assured when they played England last year, and have a couple of decent players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez. Belgium could surprise for any number of reasons – they could be much better than people think, much worse, or their “New Golden Generation” might actually perform pretty averagely given Belgium’s tournament history.

Mark West

 

1 – Who are you following?

I’m following France. I find it tough to say I actually support les Bleus, but I’ve lived here for a few years and I just can’t bring myself to support the Welsh team, which since I’m from Cardiff I probably should do. I’ll also be watching Chile and making subsequent broad-brushed vulgarisations about South American politics for Straight off The Beach as well as keeping a close eye on South Korea too. These last two since Gary Medel and Kim-bo Kyeung were features of our relegation squad and I’m eager to see if they are actually any good, after all.

I’ll also be watching all the England games, hoping they fail, natch. I perversely want them to stay in the competition as long as possible, though, so their inevitable failure will be as spectacular and humiliating as can be.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

I think it can only be good and that any political or administrative discontent will be drowned out by the happy-clapping samba rhythms of World Football™. I also predict Vincent Tan will arrive by helicopter and land on the pitch at the end of the opening ceremony, cracking his leather-gloved knuckles and ruining everything for everyone yet again.

3 – Who will win?

Vincent Tan, or Brazil.

4 – Any surprises?

I’ve been impressed with the team mentality that Deschamps has, unlike Blanc and Domenech, managed to build. I think getting rid of Ribéry from the squad was a bold move that will pay dividends. Semi finals for the French? If only to wind up Nasri.

Russell Williams

 

1 – Who are you following?

Ireland not having qualified, I don’t have a raw emotional attachment to any of the sides but there are a few I will be watching closely – Portugal, for mainly non-footballing reasons, Belgium, because I want to believe the hype and Chile, who I think are Latin America’s greatest candidates for quixotic magic. My heart is mainly with Bosnia and Herzegovina though – a fine, technical side, a country with a sad history, a rich footballing past and the team is one of the few things that brings Bosniaks and Serbs together.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

On the field, I expect a tournament that is less tactically attritional than the last (though I was one of the few who thought that was a good World Cup). If two South American teams meet in the final, it has the potential to be one of the great ones but only Brazil and Argentina look as if they will get that far.
Off the field, the protests will continue and will not, for a change, be ignored by the media. They seem to have sympathy to go with their momentum so, whatever about their effectiveness in securing change within in Brazil, they will cast ever more light on the way FIFA does operations during World Cups, which can only be a good thing.

3 – Who will win?

Argentina. Ignoring the fact that they have as poor a defence as Germany (the reason I think this German generation will never win anything), the fact that even on home soil in the Copa América three years ago they were repeatedly hapless, I think Argentina can do it. They have the hunger, the class, and most importantly, the attacking power to win it outright. They are also high on confidence at the moment and will benefit from the inevitable jitters Brazil experience.

4 – Any surprises?

I think players such as William Carvalho of Portugal, Antoine Griezmann of France and Axel Witsel of Belgium will shine even if none of them can be really said to be unknown or surprising. As far as teams go, I think Algeria are best poised to cause an upset. Effectively a French B-team, they have a lot of talent at their disposal, are playing very cohesively since they qualified, have a good manager in Vahid Halilhodžić and will be ready to swoop if either Belgium or Russia have an off-day.

Oliver Farry

Algeria’s coach caught unexpectedly attempting to defy expectations.

1 – Who are you following?

Uruguay, out of a mixture of misguided childhood obsession and a genuine belief that they have the potential to go a long way. I want to get behind England on the basis of what – with Sterling, Barkley and Sturridge – they could be, but know that this will inevitably be Hodgsoned out of me by the second game.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

On-location journalists will spend the first fortnight furiously griping on Twitter about complications in getting their stadium accreditation before eventually realising not a single human being cares about their plight. This will be the limit of the much-trailed logistical meltdown, leading to the few hundred doomsaying ‘proper’ journalists being called home in a huff by the end of the group stages. At home, David Cameron will make an absolute show of himself, again, presumably by appearing next to Boris Johnson in a Union Jack bowler hat and plastic breasts, chuntering about how it’s important all of Britain gets behind ‘our’ brave boys – thus securing Scottish independence months ahead of schedule.

On the pitch, I have a sneaking inkling that Spain and Brazil will be hit by the weight of expectation and underwhelm. England will scrape through the group on goal difference before an inane Second Round defeat to Colombia. Jack Wilshere will be sent home for glassing a waiter with a Smirnoff Ice bottle before becoming a lifetime ambassador for Help For Heroes after it’s discovered the waiter was an Argentinian Falklands veteran. Algeria and Russia will progress from Group H, leading to a mass discrediting of those who use the phrase “perennial dark horses” on a regular basis. Switzerland and Greece will produce performances so spectacularly dreary I’ll spend all of their matches cartographing imaginary states (also making up a full book of imaginary statute should they make it through to the knock-out stages). Finally – a bold one, this – it will be the best tournament since France 98.

3 – Who will win?

France. There, I said it.

4 – Any surprises?

Croatia’s Frankenstein’s monster of a team – a purring, high-calibre front end welded to a juddering, incongruous back 5 – will click, seeing them top Group A (they’ll take a point off Brazil tonight) before imploding spectacularly in the Round of 16. Algeria will surprise everyone and top Group H on their way to the Quarter Finals. Colombia will make the Semis, even without Falcao.

Ron Hamilton

 

1 – Who are you following?

I’m undergoing my usual agon with England already. They have players I like, generally for personal rather than footballing reasons, and there’s an ideal version of the country – a socialist, republican, completely imaginary version – that I could hypothetically really get behind. I’m also not mad about the ‘lazy players’ narrative that emerges this time every two years, usually accompanied by some braying twat telling the whole pub that the England rugby team would never look so disinterested (the same England rugby team who spent their last World Cup getting completely plastered and jumping off ferries before a whimpering second-round exit). When the Crispins pipe up with that one I realise that one aspect of disinvestment in the national team is, arguably, class-based and taps into a broader anti-football discourse which is really about the consolidation of wealth and power.

But: England are also the God Save the Queen-ing, ‘Gotcha’-ing, friendly at Lansdowne Road-ruining, TFI Friday-ing, you-can-spot-a-real-fan-by-their-knowledge-of-the-offside-rule-ing, fridge full of Carling-ing embodiment of nearly everything I actually do absolutely fucking despise about football once they get to a big tournament, the weirdly loved-up vibe of Italia ’90 aside. ‘Wey-hey LADs, we’ve got a telly in our office so we can watch the quarter-final because real fans watch all the England games AND I’M WORRIED PEOPLE WILL THINK I DON’T HAVE A PENIS IF I DON’T AS WELL!’ I deliberately ignored the Germany and Algeria games at the last World Cup because, you know, fuck it. I’ve been stung by nettles retrieving the ball at an Eastern Counties League game, so I’m not going to have my fandom scrutinised by Richard from Accounts and that ‘pink pass’ he’s been going on about all day. That’s it: England somehow serve as an avatar for everything that frustrates me about the game, even beyond the blindly nationalistic elements.

Beyond wrangling with that one until England do get knocked out, probably in the quarter-finals, I’ll be interested in Bosnia, Croatia, Algeria. Turkey are my usual fall-back team at tournaments but they seem to have regressed of late and won’t be there. I’ll always have weak spots for France and Italy too, and I find Argentina hard to muster any antagonism towards.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

Football-wise, the usual. Some brilliant matches, usually the ones you watched by mistake, maybe one or two memorable classics that will be the subject of the 2170 Jonathan Wilson Memorial Lecture, a lot of so-so stuff. A few players to set off transfer kerfuffles amongst the mid-ranked Premier League teams. At least one hilarious bit of cheating.

Off the pitch, ideology, ideology, ideology. I’m thinking of putting 10p in a box every time a commentator or pundit marginalises the protests because ‘football unites’ or ‘all Brazilians care about football’. Chances are I’d be able to afford a yacht by the end of it all. If the protests do become intrusive as far as the matches themselves are concerned, I’d expect the likes of Cameron to have a script for it. Stop spoiling everyone’s fun and so on. It’s not an expectation so much as a very dimly-lit hope, but what I’d love to see happen would be for football’s full dialectical power to be revealed: for the protests to intervene in the football (which is their necessary precondition) to the extent that everyone everywhere realised that the global kleptocracy can be challenged, interrupted, even cornered. Can Brazil afford to use the full extent of its hard power with the world watching? This is why I think the Guardianistas sharing pictures of anti-football street art in Brazil kind of miss the point: the land-grabbing, evicting part of the process has been done now, and the World Cup arguably makes the consolidation of those neoliberal gains problematic as their mechanics are being exposed. If everyone had just gone ‘oh, sod it, let’s not do the World Cup there, let’s go to Germany’ back in autumn the opportunity for forcing the issue would have been lost.

3 – Who will win?

Assuming that my hypothetical scenario doesn’t occur, I think Argentina this time. I’ve also been susceptible to the funny feeling around France that has been building over the last few weeks, but this feeling seems to exist only because not much has been said about France up to this point.

4 – Any surprises?

I hope so. And I hope they’re good ones.

Joe Kennedy

1 – Who are you following?

England, though I think if I flick through anymore pages of the free England-themed copy of The Sun that came through my letterbox I might instead kill myself. ‘This Is Our England’ proclaims the sub-Sgt. Pepper front page. If so, you’re welcome to it you malicious faux-working class establishment-propping hate criminals. Transpontine Not English sounds ever more tempting. I’d gladly welcome the ensuing Paris Commune style slaughter that Lefebvre warns of.

Shout out for Nigeria and, of course, the Brazilian protest movements. Is this the biggest mobilisation against a megaevent yet? Certainly puts contemporary London to shame. Solidarity with them. Makes me wonder how radical urbanism’s disparate global strands could unify.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

Cagey, highly tactical football that makes the Isthmian League look like free-form free-love debauchery in comparison. Ever-repeated advertisements that make me want to take a screwdriver to my own eyes. A fair garnishing of leftover “Africa is a country” type horseshit. Plenty of chat about football’s unifying powers, quite possibly dribbled out by co-commentators who needed a police escort to get out of their hotel. At least one prominent tactics blogger flatlining halfway through a live webchat. And, last but not least, my indulgent pondering whether the pretentious johnny-come-latelies or the Dawkins-level-smug antifootballistas are more irritating.

3 – Who will win?

The team with the best attacking full backs, as has been the case for the last two decades (apparently). There you go, I’ve sneaked some tactics on here, for a laugh.

4 – Any surprises?

A zeppelin full of just-defrosted Hitler clones will land on the centre circle of the Maracanã at half-time in the final. “We were expecting the Boys from Brazil,” exclaims John Motson, “But this really is something else!” After a tense, nightmarish, epoch-straddling 15 minute stand-off the second half kicks off and the magical unifying power of football makes everything alright. So, no actual surprise then. Did I mention there’s also SS zombies with machine guns? Football!!

Robert Molloy-Vaughan

1 – Who are you following?

In those honeymoon first weeks of three games a day – everyone of course, even dear ol’ This Is Our Englund (ffs). But more specifically the West African bloc, the Islamic world teams (Iran, Algeria), a smattering of old Europe (usually Spain and Portugal hold my attention the most, and Bosnia this time), then quite a few of the Americas’ crowd like Mexico, Chile and the big two. Obviously anyone who’s either played for or is still playing for City. Luis Suarez is someone I’ll be following, in terms of focusing on his play. My purist, nay puritanical, ire is raised with this wrong’un and I reject the idea that I ‘have’ to like him just because he’s good, indeed having quite a heated argument about his merits a few weeks ago. These heated bantz were with people who conduct their football experience 95% through Sky tv and the papers and to them it’s all about performance, the endgame, the stat-attack, leaving little room for passion, bias, avidity, vaulting arguments. Still, Uruguayan progress to the quarters or beyond again will mean he’ll have actually unlocked some decent defences so I’ll be watching with interest, swearing at the TV as he goes. But the leniency showed to Neymar after his elbow last night suggested a desire to protect the tournament’s blockbuster names.

2 – What are your expectations for the tournament?

Football behind the barricades, tourists, the middle classes and the corporate set sheltered from the masses. Clearly we are approaching a point where disgust with Fifa’s colonising and corrupt ways, knowledge of top-level football’s use in the capitalist spectacle and the specific situation in Brazil could catalyse and precipitate major, sustained unrest. Protester deaths are likely. Someone has tried to rearrange Adrian Chiles’ face through pelted rocks already. But don’t be too surprised if this still fails to deliver major change – whether that’s things such as Sao Paulo sorting out its displaced citizens or making public transport affordable or ripping up and starting Fifa again. As the wider neoliberal consolidation that has been taking place for decades has shown, there is a depressing capacity for the system to ignore all reasonable demands, absorb all of the criticism and get on with it, business as usual (what’s bourgeois Brazilian-Portuguese for Keep Calm and Carry On?), maximising the displacement, terror, the loss of rights etc.

Football-wise, hopes of an African breakthrough (what, all of Africa, all at one time?) beyond the quarters look optimistic, but seeing someone like Chile or Belgium or even a relative minnow like Switzerland really perform and progress would be good. Hodgson is likely to only truly ‘have a go’ at teams when it is too late, but I’d like to be corrected and see Barkley, Sterling and Lallana (rather than Wazza, Welbz and Wilshere) all get substantial game time in a system that works for them.

3 – Who will win?

I want Argentina to win and ferry the trophy to a ceremony on the Malvinas but suspect they’ll bottle a late-stage knockout game. I register other SoTB writers’ doffing of the casquette to France, but suspect they don’t have enough quality to last. Brazil or Spain, probably.

4 – Any surprises?

Tabloids and broadsheets to pay more than lip service to the myriad geopolitical, racial, cultural factors underpinning performances and incidents? Don’t be silly. With so many of every country’s cream plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues, at times there may be a wearying familiarity to the Greatest Show on Earth. Standard tropes like Dutch wrangling and love for Germany despite its frequent failure are too embedded now. All this will require the standout moment of intensity, like Zidane’s headbutt or Schumacher’s assault, to take on a new level of unpredictability; the current situation may dictate that regarding any on-pitch moment as key to Brasil2014 rather than an off-field event like Blatter being lynched will look like escapism.

Murray W

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Preview 20 – Iran

The Carlos Quieroz-managed Iran take their place in a group that includes Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The ostensible difficulty of this group seems to make it impossible for Iran to progress beyond the group stage, which is a shame because they’ve been excellent in qualification, beating South Korea twice and finishing at the top of the qualification group.

Iran’s past history at the World Cup suggests that they’ll fall at the first hurdle, as they did in 1978, 1998 and 2006. Nevertheless, the Iranian national side provide a window into what appears to be a thriving football culture in the country (unless you’re a woman, in which case you’re banned from the grounds for games involving the male sides).

The so-called ‘football revolution’, when, after Iran defeated Australia and Iranians gathered on the streets to celebrate, against the wishes of the government, led to women mingling with men and is seen as a precursor of the secularising push against Islamic fundamentalism in the country. In April and May 2006 the ban on women entering stadia was lifted then quickly reinstated.

This association between football as a mass event and a push for political reform could be seen again when several national players wore green armbands during a World Cup qualifier in Seoul to signify support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition challenger in the 2009 Iranian election, which he had lost amid accusations of vote rigging. Outside the ground, some Iranians unfurled banners critical of the Ahmadinejad regime. This symbolic protest reportedly led to many of the players involved being banned from the national team, although some are back for this World Cup.

The huge scale of Iranian football (and, if you’re of a mind to speculate a little about internal Iranian politics, its revolutionary potential) is apparent in the sheer size of the crowds it draws. The national side play in the Azadi stadium, which has a capacity of 84,000 (although its record attendance is over 128,000 for a World Cup qualifier against Australia in 1998). One of the country’s largest clubs, Persepolis, also play at the ground.

My vague interest in Iranian football can be traced to Persepolis, the club for which between 2011 and 2013 the Tunisian-Irish striker (who now plays international football for Libya) Éamon Zayed played. I had watched Zayed lift the League of Ireland Premier Division trophy at United Park, Drogheda in 2007 – Drogheda United’s first league championship. That season, Zayed had scored thirteen in all competitions for the Drogs and been a dangerous, physical presence all year.

Subsequently, Zayed had gone off my radar a little, playing for Sporting Fingal for a couple of seasons before having an incredible season with Derry City in 2011, scoring 22 goals in 36 league games. This led to his transfer to Persepolis – not a standard trajectory for a League of Ireland player. The first thing I knew about his move was when I saw him score a hat-trick in the last ten minutes of the 2012 Tehran derby against Esteghal, which saw Persepolis come from 2-0 down to win. Aside from the obvious interest for fans of the League of Ireland, the video gives some idea of the kind of atmosphere the Azadi stadium can generate, and the barely contained potential of football crowds who are triggered by those perfect, unrepeatable moments where everything can change.

Posted by Karl Whitney

 

Klaxons out…

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember when banter – that noxious, klaxon horn-tooting, date rape-espousing, puke stained day-glo nightmare – became so prevalent in contemporary culture.

I’m serious. No I’m not. Yes I am. No I’m not. I’ll fucking kill you. Only joking. Banter.

Banter

The other day, I passed a display of St George’s Cross flip flops in Primark and regarded it as natural as the sight of the first swallow of spring, but as unwelcome as a tidal wave of sewage lapping at my front door. The World Cup must be soon, I thought to myself, then went to look at some socks.

I don’t even know what banter is anymore: it seems to have come to encompass practically everything, from smart phones, which provide a medium for effective banter transmission, to pint glasses, which are both an essential banter fuelling device and a useful weapon when the inevitable physical banter kicks off. As with gas, banter has expanded to fill available space.

The term ‘banter’ has essentially replaced ‘having a laugh’ and has possibly even replaced ‘talking’. It lends a sense of adventure to the most banal of everyday transactions, such as sexism and ridiculing badly-paid service staff. In time I expect it to replace ‘living’. Gravestones could be adjusted: Charles Dickens bantered from 1812 to 1870. Commemorative plaques too: James Joyce bantered here.

As I browsed the racks of Primark (parp!)I thought to myself that I really must get into banter, as it will be inescapable in the future and, if the UKIP are to be believed, it’s a language that’ll be more useful to me than French or German. But where to start? Perhaps football.

Recently ejected Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood put it best when he said ‘football isn’t just a bit of banter, mate – it’s more than that.’ I think he may have been alluding to the sport’s socio-political contexts, but on the other hand he could have just been having a laugh, yeah? So that could have been banter too.

So yeah: football. Although I’ve been a football fan for a long time, I’m thinking of quitting and watching cricket or some other sport that I have less interest in than football. Because football is an obsession, and basically it’s fucking stupid.

Looking forward to the World Cup, though.

Do you think England will do it this time, mate?

WHAT DO YOU MEAN ‘NO?!?!?!

Alright, calm down. Just a bit of banter, mate.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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

SotB: World Cup 2014

Has football changed in the two years since we were last here? It seems that much of what we achieved during the Euro 2012 session of Straight off the Beach was diagnostic: we tried to make tangible the way that the modern game occupies an ideological interstice between conservatism (remember Trappatoni?) and the W.H. Smiths Smart Thinking section. We pointed to the hypocrisy that permeates the discussion of racism and nationalism in football, we argued that the implementation of video technology would produce a depletion of sporting affect, we interrogated the seductive force of Tiki-Taka and Guardiola-ism. It feels as if a lot of what we were spotting has been borne out by subsequent events, not least the current period of what one might call Peak Tactocracy.

The 2014 World Cup takes place against a global backdrop in which the stakes have, almost unthinkably, risen since 2012. Slavoj Žižek called 2011 ‘the year of dreaming dangerously’; 2014 is the year in which the political realities of dangerous dreams seem to be emerging. One could clearly see in the protests which surrounded the tournament’s stadiums-to-be during last year’s Confederations Cup that the Brazilian World Cup bristled with oneiric edge, but one acid test for the country’s anti-corruption and anti-poverty movements will be whether similar events will occur during the real thing. Previous tournaments – 1982, 1998 – have witnessed sporadic outbreaks of off-the-field chaos, and others, such as 1938 and 1978, have had dark political overtones. However, it has never been the case that political disorder has truly impinged upon the scheduling or completion of the matches themselves.

Image

It is one of SotB’s main convictions that the notion of ‘the match itself’ is, as Roland Barthes might have it, ‘mythological’, a concept which naturalises the idea that sport can somehow be made separate and distinct from politics. The ideological extension of this is that there exists such a thing as the ‘non-political’, a space beyond thought and critique which ‘goes without saying’. While there will be a great deal of variety in what goes up here over the next couple of months, there will be no space for the argument that it’s just football, mate. It isn’t.

Inevitably, football has as many meanings as there are football fans or, indeed, footballphobes. One interesting development over the last couple of years, however, has been the rise of a sentiment which declares itself ‘against modern football’. There has been much to be admired – and, it has to be said, a fair bit not to be admired – about AMF, but we have to be cautious about declaring any vision or version of football to be ‘authentic’. Those kids in Jakarta or Manila forming Manchester United/ Liverpool/ Chelsea ultra groups on Twitter are as empirically ‘real’ – if not more so – than the crumbling terraces and cowsheds that are photographed and uploaded under the #AMF hashtag. It’s too easy to get trapped in nostalgia and not really think through the phenomena of globalised football in detail, probably because those phenomena provoke deep unease about the future of the game. One has a responsibility to ask, though, what is really happening – and what is facilitating – the decimating entropy of the game. We don’t think narratives of individual greed, of psychopathically avaricious chairmen and graspingly disloyal players, really do any good in helping us understand the systemic causes of What’s Wrong With Football.

Anyway, welcome back to SotB. Hopefully we’ll avoid the heat-death we experienced in 2012. As ever, we really appreciate all (sensible) comment and debate BTL.

Joe Kennedy/ Karl Whitney

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No Sisyphean Masochism for Roy

Rio Ferdinand has been left behind for footballing reasons: it’s just those footballing reasons go beyond the media’s overly simplistic understanding of the term. As Real Madrid’s failed Galacticos proved, the best team is not necessarily made by having superstars in every position. Moreover, as any amateur footballer will know, even getting into a first XI is a heady mix of ability, friendship, politics and power. Who gets a lift with who, who drinks with who, who shows up for training all impact team selection: all these factors help determine the distribution of the shirt numbers. Yes, we are talking about the national team here, but it’s foolish to think that the consideration of team spirit does not run through selection policy.

For the sake of esprit de corps you can’t take Rio and John. The reasons behind that are well documented and have nothing to do with football, it is true. However, I would argue that one of the two is left behind because Hodgson is thinking about his “good tourists” and his back four, and not because he believes he needs to show his support for either the defence or prosecution at JT’s upcoming court date.

Anyone can see that a squad that contains both players is unlikely to produce the cohesive unit necessary to triumph during the peculiar jolly that is an international football tournament. JT is accused of racially abusing Rio’s brother and Ferdinand has never been shy of expressing his opinions whether just, or indeed pathetic. You would almost be forgiven for thinking less of the Manchester United man if he didn’t address the matter with Terry during the drawn out days in Krakow, even if he had to do it in 140 characters or less.

Fabio Capello’s unhappy South African adventure was rumoured to be helped to its calamitous end by divisions within the squad – as JT’s display of modesty at that Cape Town press conference suggested. Post-USA ’94 and Hodgson’s delivering of Switzerland to the World Cup, he admitted he had got his squad selection wrong by being too focused on covering every position rather than generating a happy camp. Given his own mistakes and England’s more recent travails, it is easy to see Roy exercising his tournament experience in not packing a timebomb along with his flip flops and Martin Amis novels.

So you can only pick one. This is the real debate. Who is more valuable to England’s defensive cause?

The stats from last season suggest the real reason that Rio is right to feel a sense of righteous indignation. He has played more games, both in the league and in total, this season than any year since 2007/2008. As of April, his Opta stats were impressive enough to earn him a place above Terry in the number cruncher’s England side. Hodgson is reportedly a lover of such analysis. Rio is also on the right side of the divide when it comes to divisiveness. He is the protagonist for “merks” rather than “mutinies” and, lest we forget, isn’t weighed down by captaincy scandals or a court case.

Terry meanwhile, renowned for playing through the pain barrier, begins the slow march to all manner of pain-killing injection-inspired later-life grief. He has made fewer appearances for Chelsea this year than at any time since 2008/2009 – and that in a season when the Blues made their way to two cup finals. He clearly continues to hold ideas above his station too – as his post substitution Squadron Leader performance against Napoli proved. He seems like a dangerous element, especially as he has form for undermining England’s leader of last resort Gerrard, not so captain fantastic two years ago. If life were more like an episode of Homeland, you’d be bugging Terry’s hotel room from the get go.

But…

Sir Alex Ferguson recently told MUTV that Rio’s creaking frame simply isn’t up to the intensity of a game every four days. John Terry, despite a recent hamstring scare, can be relied upon to meet the demands of Euro 2012 even if he has to speed his inexorable flight to chronic joint pain. As Capello found to his cost with Ledley King, picking a centre-half so clearly not ‘fit-for-purpose’ can only end up making the coach look like George Osborne writing a budget, Theresa May reading a calender, or Jeremy Hunt choosing his friends. With his refusal to take a player known not to be up to the rigours of the tournament, Roy is smartly avoiding the sisyphean masochism of his recent predecessors.

More subjectively, for all his apparent personal faults off it, JT is a leader on the pitch and isn’t particularly prone to mistakes on it. Despite Rio having the better stats, Terry only made an error every 780 mins last season, compared to Rio’s 706 mins per gaffe. Until Gary Cahill’s need for emergency dentistry it had seemed clear that Hodgson was planning for an all-Chelsea centre-back pairing, one that had impressed against Barcelona until Terry’s red card for kneeing Alexis Sanchez – an event that was at once totally in keeping with his alleged character and at the same time a complete aberration from his playing persona. For me the Chelsea connection would probably clinch what is a close call between Terry and Ferdinand: Hodgson was just unfortunate that Cahill’s jaw wasn’t up to Joe Hart’s chest.

Terry, hate him or loathe him, is an inspiring defender. Hodgson, like him or can’t-quite-bring-yourself-to-hate him, has made a difficult decision and stuck to it, despite Rio being the only stick the press could find to beat him with in the three weeks they have had together. Let’s judge Roy on football results and let a jury judge JT. If “legal reasons” see that he is convicted of racial abuse post Euro 2012, then let Roy never consider him again.

Posted by Gregg Morgan

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Football as Drama – Mad Men and Euro 2012

With the great Alan Latchley’s inspirational Dare to Fail philosophy ringing in my ears, I spent part of this week considering the similarities between top-level international football and television dramas. We are constantly being told that we are living through the latter’s golden age, and, if the quality of today’s opening games is anything to go by, the former is also in pretty fine fettle. In order to progress my deliberations, I began to imagine the main contenders for Euro 2012 as characters in one of the shows that illustrates television’s current cultural hegemony, AMC’s Mad Men. The show is feted for many things, including its style, the quality and diversity of its characters, and its general ability to arouse in the viewer an empathy for people they might possibly dislike (or even despise) in real life. In many ways, these are qualities we seek from an international football tournament. To bravely, and stupidly, contradict Latchley, football is nothing unless it is about something, and what it is about is ensemble drama.

Watching Russia last night, I was reminded of Roger Sterling, the WASP-ish co-founder of Sterling Cooper, the company where the bulk of the action in the show takes place. Sterling, like the Russia of recent vintage, is characterised by a sense of swashbuckling adventure that borders on self-destruction. Russia were brilliant last night, but it’s hard to imagine any other Euro 2012 contender continuing to play in such an attacking manner while two goals to the good.  They were lucky that their Czech opponents could not convert potential opportunities into goals, just as Roger is so fortuitous to have been born with such wealth and affable charm. Also, based on the bizarre – and occasionally hilarious – posts on his website, it’s not hard to imagine Andrey Arshavin enjoying an LSD trip with his wife.

For many, the star of Mad Men is Peggy Olson, whose rise through the ranks of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce reflected the changing nature of American society in the early sixties. Her transformation is not unlike that of Joachim Low’s Germany. Despite sustained success at the highest level, (West) Germany were always respected rather than loved. Like Peggy, they initially got by on their organisational skills and sheer determination. In recent times, however (arguably since their successful hosting of the 2006 World Cup), the functional nature of their national team began to give way, as a new generation of technically brilliant young players emerged. Mesut Ozil’s eminent displays at the heart of the German team mirror Peggy’s development into a uniquely imaginative, more rounded contributor to the firm’s creative output. Like Germany, she now thrives on ingenuity as well as mental strength.

Pete Campbell, on the other hand, sees a different route to the top of the advertising world. While he is not lacking in creativity or technique, he prefers to rely on craft, guile and an almost ruthless will to win. In this, he resembles Italy. Euro 2008 is now remembered for the technical brilliance of the ultimate victors, Spain. However, if their semi-final penalty shoot-out had gone differently, we might have found ourselves speaking of champions who seemed almost as content to prevent others having fun as to have it themselves. Five minutes watching Campbell in action, and the similarities are impossible to escape.

Don Draper Wiki.jpg

‘We are playin’ Four, Four, F**kin’ Two!’

And what of Don Draper? One of modern television’s behemoths, the magnitude of his creative genius is often overwhelming. His character overpowers even the most self-assured of his colleagues and opponents. So he’s Spain, obviously. However, Don has a past littered with mistakes and personal disappointments, which often come back to haunt him at the worst possible junctures. Only six years ago, Spain started their World Cup campaign so brightly and brilliantly that a friend from Granada refused to listen to any counsel that did not foresee ultimate victory. Alas, their efforts were sabotaged by flaws that were all too recognisable. Will they continue to dominate the international scene, or will the mistakes of their past come back to haunt them?

There are many other parallels. Dutch football has had more than its fair share of creative yet outspoken individuals who have clashed, often publicly, with their colleagues. Stan Rizzo has a lot of that about him.  Harry Crane must see himself in Ireland’s performances under Trapattoni; uninspired, lacking in imagination or genuine quality, but cute and organised enough to make a little go a long way. The decline of Portugal and Czech Republic, great teams from the past often more likely to embarrass themselves as they are to regain the love of the neutral with their swashbuckling performances, calls to mind the lowest point in Freddy Rumsen’s professional career.

However, beyond the teams and characters, there is another important connection to be made. Mad Men is known for the slick exteriors and  stylish presentation. It is so fashionable that Don Draper’s silhouetted pose during the opening credits has inspired a pop-culture movement. However, the show is not great because of its style. It is great in spite of it. Beneath all the sharp suits, sexy skirts and uber-cool offices and apartments are the real strengths of the show; the great characters, the brilliant dialogue, and the constant surprises. On the surface, football has become so slick, so packaged and so bloated. Its commercialisation is not without its unpleasant aspects. However, no matter how many seats are sacrificed for bigger pitchside hoardings selling us stuff we don’t even really want, the hidden depths will never go away. Ultimately, football will continue to be all about people doing things you never expected them to do.

Posted by Flann MacGowan

End of the Tiki-Taka Weltanschauung: Why it’s Germany’s to Lose

Never, it is said about this time every couple of years, write off the Germans.

Of course, nobody ever does. The unflinching muscularity of the three-times world champions has been burned into the English subconscious with such intensity that any insistence that we can overcome our old bogey team now comes with all the strength of conviction of an Owen Hargreaves promotional video. Indeed, were anybody to dare to Write Off The Germans again, they could be pointed in the direction of the 2010 World Cup, when a squad light on recognised stars were shrugged off as unlikely challengers for the top honours. So when a new generation of young, driven, creative players emerged in the group stages, exhibiting the purposeful, direct style of play for which English supporters yearn, it laid to rest any risk that anyone would Write Off The Germans again.

This year, nobody’s taking the chance. Germany are second favourites, with bookies offering odds as low as 4/1 for them to come out on top, longer only than Spain’s 15/4. There has been an accepted wisdom within European football in recent times that everybody is already playing for second place. Tiki-taka will overcome all challengers, such wisdom insists. Spain’s triumph will not – can not – be contested. In South Africa, that may have been true. No team was truly equipped to match the reigning European champions in midfield, as was excrutiatingly evident in Holland’s cack-handed attempts to stifle the Spaniards with brute force in the final.

The elegant perfectionism of Barcelona-style one-touch football has been exposed this season, though. Barca were found wanting a plan B against the blue wall of Chelsea defenders in Europe, and they were undone by, well, by Jose Mourinho in La Liga. If Spain falter too, this may well be the year that the gentle creep of tiki-taka across the face of football is stopped in its tracks.

When Madrid finally delivered the killer blow, in a horrible week for the Catalonians in April, they did so with Sami Khedira playing just in front of their defence. The 25-year-old is one of a number of younger players who stepped into the limelight in South Africa – securing himself a big money move to Madrid in the process – and who is now older and wiser for two years playing at a higher level. A classy, sitting midfielder of the type all teams should crave, the ex-Stuttgart man is at once ruthless, clean and simple as a defensive player, while simultaneously excellent at starting attacks with his energy, forward momentum and canny passing. Don’t expect him to get on the end of many crosses into the six-yard box, but notice that he’s always there in the corner of your screen, always available, always dropping off into space at the perfect moment to either start the next attack, or stifle the opponent’s.

In their final qualifier, a 3-1 victory over Belgium, Khedira was deployed as the midfield anchor in a 4-1-4-1 formation, allowing an attacking quartet of Thomas Müller, Tony Kroos, Mesut Özil and the lesser known Andre Schürrle to buzz around Mario Gomez. It is a telling display of Germany’s riches going into this tournament that such a formidable line-up – keep an eye on Schürrle to emerge at this tournament, just as Özil did at the last – didn’t include Bastian Schweinsteiger or Mario Götze. Neither did it contain either Miroslav Klose – the second-top World Cup goalscorer of all time, lest we forget – or Arsenal’s new-boy Lukas Podolski. The highlights of that match are worth watching – unless you want to cling on to the hope that England can possibly win Euro 2012.


Just look at Germany’s brutal second goal, scored on the counter-attack at breakneck speed. At 1 minute 39 you’ll notice Eden Hazard taking a corner. Yet at 1.54, just 15 seconds later, Schürrle is wheeling away as his exquisitely executed chip rolls into the net at the other end of the pitch. This video has not been altered in any way, everything you see here is real, no animals were harmed in the making of this film, etc. It’s a phenomenal piece of counter-attacking football. You may need to watch it twice, though, lest you are still reeling after watching Özil’s thunderbolt for the opening strike. Gomez also shows his attacking form to complete the scoring, and demonstrate why he was among the top scorers in Europe this season. Try not to think too hard about England’s own labouring performance against the same team last week.

There is quite a difference between beating Belgium and ousting Spain from the top spot in World football, of course, and even getting the opportunity to try comes at the end of a long road. In Portugal, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Germany could not have asked for many tougher group stage opponents. But if we work on the broad assumption, for now, that both top their groups, Germany and Spain couldn’t then meet until the final. Now let’s imagine that they do just that, coming head-to-head in that climactic game, the two favourites matching expectations and steamrollering through the tournament to set up a rerun of the last final. Not for this year the humbling of 2008, when Spain’s 1-0 win was flattering only for their defeated opponents, as the promise of a generation finally flourished after decades of underachievement. This time, Germany are ready.

The big issue in stopping Spain lies in quelling the flow of the midfield. Busquets, Iniesta, Xavi, Fabregas and Silva need little introduction. Yet they are qualities that, on the whole, Khedira has encountered before. He was on the side that effectively sealed the Spanish league title at the Nou Camp in April, getting on the scoresheet and helping keep a lid on Busquets, Iniesta and Xavi from his usual position in front of the back four. Looking back at the goals Germany have conceded this year, a disproportionate number came from crosses into the box which the defence struggled to clear, rather than by breaking down the defence. Khedira is reinventing the Makalele role with attacking bite. Spain may just need a plan B.

Of course, Spain still have their own fragility to worry about. While Fernando Llorente is attracting admiring glances from a number of clubs after a fine season, the absence through injury of David Villa deprives Spain of their top scorer from qualifying. Fernando Torres’ continuing struggles at Chelsea have led to discontent, a lack of confidence, and even a spell of absence from the national team, and there’s no guarantee that he would even be the man to step into Villa’s shoes. At the other end, the team’s mainstay defender Carlos Puyol is also missing from the squad, leading to speculation that Sergio Ramos could step into an unfamiliar centre half position to fill the gap in defence. Waiting for him in the centre would, most likely, be the erratic Barcelona defender Gerard Pique. With so much emphasis on the full backs to attack, how would Spain cope with the attacking fluidity of Germany’s front five?

It is more incumbent than ever on Spain’s midfield to provide the quality that justifies their top billing, to keep possession to protect the defence, while working their own openings for want of an established international striker. But after the undoing of Barcelona this season, the spell has been broken; the virus has been planted in the mothership – Send out the message: We know how to beat them. So, take it as read that nobody will be Writing Off The Germans this summer. Instead, it’s probably best to get on board with their fluid attacking style now – forget where you are for a moment, and you’ll probably enjoy it. It would be a brave man who bets against them taking home the trophy.

Posted by Thom Kennedy

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