Category Archives: players

The Tears of Brazil

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

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

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

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

Posted by Mark West

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

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‘The Last Game’: Nike’s simulated critique

I recall a comment made in a talk by Mark Fisher to the effect that if Capitalism doesn’t want to appropriate your cultural critique, it isn’t a critique worthy of the name. I was reminded of this line recently on seeing Nike’s World Cup-oriented promotional film ‘The Last Game’, produced by the communications company Wieden & Kennedy as part of a wider viral campaign. This 8-minute online animation, which features in the commercial breaks for World Cup broadcasts in truncated form – a trailer for an advert – contains and to some extent exorcises a prominent critique of modern football. Namely, that it is overly-reliant on an ideology of technological progression to the detriment of its fundamental accessibility and humanity, that its drive towards ever-increasing optimisation of elite performance is a betrayal of the game’s ludic spirit and critical proletarian open-endedness.

You’ll most likely have seen the clip by now, but just to recap: a Willem Defoe lookalike supervillain uses his presumably vast R&D budget to clone multiple copies of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, David Luiz and, more jarringly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribery and Tim Howard (saying nothing of Wayne Rooney’s persistent presence in these “world’s best” spots); the supposed superiority of these clones is based on a view of football which places undue privilege on analytics, like a hyperattenuated version of Billy Beane’s sabermetrics: real elite footballers take too many risks, so the reasoning goes, and need to be subjected to ruthless standardisation. Out go eccentricity, frailty and wilfulness and in come identikit pudding-bowl haircuts and grey bodysuits and a more economical rate of return. The result is a flat, drab, dystopian version of the ‘futuristic fantasy-land of zero-error gameplanning and cerebrative-calculationist techno-mastery’ that, for Ahmer Nadeem Anwer, represents one aspirational pole of football’s current historical situation. So Willem Dafoe goes on to reinscribe football in his boring image before, in a familiar deus ex machina scenario, the real Neymar, Rooney and so on are plucked from their new day jobs by “fat” Ronaldo and brought together for “one last game”, whose result will decide the fate of their sport.

It’s worth pausing a moment on the dystopian vision that the clip presents, and taking a brief detour into two works with which it is more-or-less comparable. A 1997 Reebok ad entitled Doppelganger: the true story of Ryan Giggs, hinges similarly on the idea of football’s future being stolen by cloning technology, only the aesthetics are markedly different. In an oddly prescient fantasy, Manchester City are controlled by a ruthless old moneybags with a knack for experimental financial doping (his cigar, top hat and name, Reginald Backhander, indicate that we’re dealing with a more tradition image of monopolisers here). Using spit from various legends of the game – George Best, Geoff Hurst, Lev Yashin – Backhander has produced a number of doppelgangers and signed them up to play in sky blue. In the ad’s syuzhet, Ryan Giggs has subsequently been captured and subjected to the same fate. What distinguishes this from the Nike spot is that the clones are monstrous idiots. When introduced to his original counterpart, the cloned Giggs stares gormlessly into space and farts. This sense of debasement is reflected in the animation’s lumpen clay textures. Biotechnology threatens football, but the stakes are construed quite differently.

There’s a similar sense of biotechnology’s capacity for, or perhaps tendency towards, grotesque results in Jon Bois’s two series of articles for SBNation, Breaking Madden and NBA Y2K. Here, the “edit” sections of popular American sports simulations – the Madden NFL and NBA Y2K series – provide a means for engineering freakish automata. In the finale of NBA Y2K, Bois constructs an oddly poignant scenario in which each successive annual draft from the 2013-14 NBA season onwards is peopled entirely with players whose stats and attributes are as low as the game will allow. The narrative that Bois constructs around the league’s subsequent dwindling fortunes over a twenty year period strikes a similar chord with The Last Game‘s depiction of football’s short, sharp slide into irrelevance, although it is much, much funnier.

Unlike Bois’s rather Beckettian piece, The Last Game ultimately has a happy ending, premised on Nike’s current strapline, “Risk Everything”. David Luiz’s risky goal-line clearance, Neymar’s dribble-with-selfie, Ronaldo’s rejection of a clear shot on goal with the quip ‘no, it’s too easy’: all these moments invite us to reflect on how football’s true appeal lies in its its lack of economy. Games are fundamentally wasteful, and the less terse the style of play, the closer football is to its roots. As Fat Ronaldo emotes to his charges, “you play like it’s a game; they play like it’s a job”. One could thus be forgiven for finding within this advert a critique of the game’s professionalisation (which critique would not – I say this as a fan of Rugby League – be unproblematic), before you take into account the spot’s central personages, its lingering glances at the latest Nike footwear, and this reading becomes less tenable. A critique which could serve to support interest in football’s grass-roots is instead mobilised as a means of reinvesting privileges in its moneyed stars. But it remains the case that The Last Game has assimilated or appropriated some of that sentiment which rails against excessive abstraction of football’s elements, against tactocracy, against the handling of football clubs as business ventures. And here Mark Fisher’s lines come into focus, alongside a passage from Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s 1999 opus The New Spirit of Capitalism which beautifully explicates Fisher’s notion. Against all my academic better judgement, I quote them here at length, without comment, and by way of conclusion:

A second effect of critique is that, in opposing the capitalist process, it compels its spokesmen to justify that process in terms of the common good. And the more violent and convincing the critique for a large number of people, the more the justifications advanced in response will have to be combined with reliable mechanisms that guarantee a positive improvement in terms of justice. If those who speak for social movements make do, in response to their demands, with superficial declarations that are not followed by concrete actions (empty words, as they say); if the expression of finer feelings suffices to calm indignation, then there is no reason for improving the mechanisms that are supposed to render capitalist accumulation more in keeping with the common good. And when capitalism is obliged to respond positively to the points raised by critique, to try to placate it and maintain the support of its troops, who are in danger of listening to the denunciations, by the same gesture it incorporates some of the values in whose name it was criticized. The dynamic impact of critique on the spirit of capitalism here takes the form of a strengthening of the justifications and associated mechanisms which, while it does not challenge the principle of accumulation itself, or the need for profits, partially satisfies the critique and integrates into capitalism constraints that correspond to the points of most concern to its detractors. The price paid by critique for being listened to, at least in part, is to see some of the values it had mobilized to oppose the form taken by the accumulation process being placed at the service of accumulation, in accordance with the process of cultural assimilation referred to above.

Posted by Luke Healey

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

The Admirable Drogba

Five matches in the tournament so far have seen teams lose a lead and ultimately lose. Like Uruguay earlier on Saturday, Japan experienced a full reversal in the space of a few minutes. And like Costa Rica, Ivory Coast were fully worth their recovery. It came via a shot in the arm provided by the man usually their captain –– Didier Drogba, relegated to the bench but sent on by Sabri Lamouchi after 62 minutes. Within seconds he had sown terror in the Japanese box with an elegant back-heel to produce a chance for Gervinho that was turned away by Kawashima. Two minutes later, a brilliant cross from the right by Serge Aurier was met equally well by Wilifried Bony for the equaliser. A minute further on, Gervinho had the ball in the net, again from an Aurier centre, and greatly helped by Kawashima’s poor handling. It gave Ivory Coast a 2-1 victory and made them the first African country to win matches at three different World Cups.

Many were surprised at Drogba’s benching but, with his stamina reduced at the age of 36 and Gervinho and Bony in form of late, it made far more sense to keep him in reserve. Watching Drogba encourage the Ivorian starting eleven in the tunnel before the game, I was reminded that a player many loved to hate in his Chelsea days (his foul-mouthed tirade to camera after the 2009 Champions League semi-final being the lowlight) is a thoroughly more admirable sort when wearing the orange of his native land. The way he almost dragged the Elephants to a draw in their first ever World Cup finals game against Argentina eight years ago showed how much playing for his country – still riven by sectarian and regional strife – meant to him. The frankness of his enthusiasm is unusual in a game where the personalities of players are normally refracted though the lens of flawless clockwork professionalism. Drogba will most likely start on the bench against Colombia, which will be a tougher match than Japan. He will most likely come on and make his mark when needed. And Drogba, by the looks of it, is perfectly OK with that. Because he knows what’s best for a team that desperately wants a good World Cup for once.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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The Meaning of…Bailey Wright

One question that might legitimately be asked of this series of articles is, “for whom?” Although its implied demythologising intent is probably best read with tongue at least partly in cheek, any attempt to excavate the “meaning” of some thing or figure is deserving of scrutiny. There’s a force to the the which is apt to put any keen dialectician on the defensive: where are the lines of truth and error being drawn here, how do they map onto some wider picture of those who know and those who don’t? Who is claiming the authority to speak on behalf of Diego Costa or Edin Dzeko, to what end, and on what basis?

My aim here is not to derail a series which has produced some precise and luminous analysis over the last couple of weeks: none of the writing so far has in any case been so vain or joyless as to suggest that it speaks from some position of unquestionable truth. However, briefly pausing over the matter of the way that pieces like those mentioned above frame their inquiry and interpretations is worthwhile, not least as a preamble to an alternative angle which haunts the wings of those pieces and which entered the stage in the Steven Gerrard and Ross Barkley articles: that of the fan. Plainly, we apply different interpretations to individuals and situations when they concern our team. All too often these interpretations are merely groundless: in my lower ebbs, I have a keen sense that Rotherham cheated Preston North End out of a spot in this year’s League One Playoff final through some nefarious combination of financial doping and anti-football. Of course, my own personal account of the meaning of the Millers’ 3-1 home victory in the tie’s second leg diverges somewhat from the more popular account, which prefers such signifiers as “meteoric rise” and “Ben Pringle”. Strip away the anguish and the paranoia and the latter account is almost self-evidently of greater, more focused and more judicious interpretative value. But this is a hysterical example, premised on the kind of hypertrophied and intensely-focused negative affect that we all know is liable to cloud our judgements. What about the “meanings” that are produced in a similarly partial way, but in tandem with delight rather than despair?

“Delight” is the word for it. Although Preston’s season ended with an all-too-familiar whimper, it was a marked improvement on the past few years of relegation struggle, financial gloom and fleeting, alienating managerial appointments. Furthermore, its meaning will forever be fixed for me as the season that I rejoined the fold after over half a decade living too far away from Deepdale, without sufficient disposable income. I attended away games for the first time – two raucous victories over Tranmere and Oldham. I was in the Town End when Joe Garner scored that goal. I was also present for the dismal pre-Christmas defeat to Brentford, a match which, after a wave of optimism in the Autumn, sent a clear signal that there were teams in this division a great deal better than us. Reconciliation with tribal loyalty might not seem the most progressive move, but I maintain that this experience – and I suspect I’m not alone in this outlook – amplified rather than blunted my faculties as far as understanding football is concerned. In the sheer arbitrariness of the view it casts, the experience of tribal supportership can, when experienced with a modicum of self-reflexivity, act in a similar way to Ed Ruscha’s photographic books, which relegate aesthetic concerns as secondary to some determining rule – photograph every building on the Sunset Strip, say, or twenty-six gasoline stations. Levels of contingency ungraspable by less automatic modes of world-picturing creep in, and suddenly the dominant narratives around football seem woefully limited (again, I realise I am preaching guilelessly to the converted here). There is a key difference between the “auto-maticity” of Ruscha’s work and that of the football partisan, however: while Ruscha’s work is characteristically LA cool, the “work” pursued by the dedicated supporter is invested with hot, syrupy feelings of longing, loyalty and filial affection.

Enter Bailey Wright. After Graham Westley almost completely remodelled the Preston squad in his image between 2012 and 2013, and after incumbent Simon Grayson later added his own list of charges, Wright’s was one of the first names I learned, owing to the fact that I initially got it wrong (I read the two names as a double-barrelled surname). Before a slightly shonky run towards the end of the season, Wright was more-or-less dependable at centre-back, and what he might have lacked in individual appeal he made up for by being a weekly fixture in one of the more committed and likeable North End squads of recent years. Only, dig a little deeper and individual appeal was there to be found: Wright had come over from Melbourne, where he had played youth football for Dandenong Thunder and the Victoria State team, at the age of 17, and Preston is his only club to date. Whatever machinations lie behind the scenes, there is something cheering about the idea of a young centre-back halfway across the world eventually fleeing AFL-crazed Victoria and landing in – of all places – Preston.

It feels strange to be warmed by a career move which probably offers further reflection on the status of the “global footballing precariat” described by Joe in his piece on Edin Dzeko, but then again Wright’s foothold in English league football is less precarious than some: with nearly five years under his belt at North End, Wright is almost a naturalised Prestonian. So, by virtue of the cognitive and affective gymnastics characteristic of football partisanship, his inclusion in Ange Postecoglou’s 27-man squad for Brazil feels – against all better judgement – like a friend or cousin being booked to play an early slot at a festival, or in support for some bigger band. There’s a humble sense of grace; nobody else will turn up to watch them play, but they’ll be part of the big bash nonetheless. As a supporter of a habitually sub-top-tier team, major international tournaments provide a very small window for club-oriented participation. Those few players that do make it at international level tend to play for teams too small to make it to the finals: North End’s other senior internationals are currently gaining caps for Jamaica and Gibraltar. David Nugent’s one goal for England, lest we forget, came in a failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, in a match against Andorra. Assuming he makes the final cut then, Wright will join that pantheon of rare and unlikely World Cup stars that also includes his compatriot Massimo Luongo (Swindon Town), Iran’s Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic) and the suspiciously Caucasian Port Vale veteran Chris Birchall, who represented Trinidad & Tobago back in 2006. Once in Brazil, Wright might not make it into a single starting eleven, and he might be powerless to hold back Diego Costa and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar if he does, but his name and affiliation have made it onto a World Cup squad list, and one shouldn’t underestimate the meaningfulness of this to a select few thousand, chosen by some random accident of geography.

Posted by Luke Healey

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

The Meaning of…Steven Gerrard

O Captain my captain!

I love him and I hate him, I sing his praises and berate him.

He’s one of my favourite players yet one of the most frustrating I’ve seen. He’s one of the most complete footballers ever. How many others could almost single-handedly drag an inferior team back into a European cup final from three nil down as an attacking midfielder…and then help batten down the hatches as a right back? How many other players have put in match winning performances from every possible position in midfield? His completeness has almost been his undoing – he’s the epitome of trying too hard, of aiming for the impossible when the simple would have done, of taking  upon his own shoulders what needs to be delegated. And those slips! This does not slip – and then another gift at the crucial moment.

Ultimately, he personifies my experience of watching football – the frustration and the fantasy, the glory and the gory, the humble and the hubris.

I’ll be glad when he isn’t Liverpool anymore, but there’s never going to be another one like him, and I’ll miss him when

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Next season though eh?

Seb Crankshaw

I find it difficult to conjure any particular memories of Steven Gerrard.

When I think of Gerrard I recall two generic, largely unspecific images, both of which, to my mind, date from the Benitez era. The first is Gerrard, symbolic of the kind of berserker attitude that won Liverpool the Champions League, thumping his chest, shouting at team mates – running the side. This is the Gerrard of the popular imagination, I’d venture – typifying the ‘passion’ for the club that only locals can supposedly bring. This vision of Gerrard goes along with commitment – Gerrard the one-club man, a whey-faced, ghostly apparition of the lost figure of the local hero.

The second is the Gerrard of the through-ball and the looping pass to feet, head down, visualising accuracy like an earnest golfer, with a still-potent Fernando Torres ahead of him.

These visions of Gerrard have persisted, but been slightly worn through overuse. Under Rodgers, they’ve been given a lick of paint, rehabilitated in a side whose attacking threat recalls the best of Benitez, but whose defensive frailty reminds me of the 4-4 Merseyside derby that saw Dalglish leave the manager’s job for the first time and signalled Liverpool’s slump into the shadow of Manchester United.

The emergence of Gerrard in the late 90s promised a better future for Liverpool. His 2013/14 season at the club recalls both the best and, in his title-deciding slip against Chelsea, the worst of Liverpool’s last twenty years. The World Cup could well enable him to cast off the gloom thrown by his last few league games upon his successful year.

Karl Whitney

Aristotle once wrote that “A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall”. Last season, Steven Gerrard became that “hero”. In finally identifying that he was no longer capable of playing the gung-ho, box-to-box, Roy of the Rovers position, Gerrard found a new lease of life in a deeper defensive role. That this proved so successful is no real surprise as part of his longstanding allure is in his vital contradiction of being the second best player in every position.
 
It is interesting that Roy Hodgson has placed so much faith in Gerrard, given their brief and turbulent time together at Liverpool. In a wonderfully cinematic moment, Gerrard took his club’s future into his own hands against Blackburn. Stepping up to take a penalty, Gerrard rubs the Liver bird on his chest, takes one bitter look towards the bench, before blazing the ball over. A revolutionary act, but the only way he could stop the collision course on which Hodgson was taking Liverpool.

Hugo Greenhalgh

Having only rarely watched him play, and only having a vague idea of the essence of the man, I can only look at Steven Gerrard in terms of what how he’s described tells us about the glorious City of Liverpool, where I spent some fantastic years at the end of the 1990s. Equally, since I have a somewhat blinkered frame of reference, presently looking up from the nameless relegation void between the EPL and the old second division, I’m going to conduct my analysis by means of the complex but narrow prism of what we can learn about Liverpool by watching Cardiff City, which offers two valuable source texts.

Text one is Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s centre half cousin. Signed for Cardiff by Dave Jones in 2009 and sold by St. Mackay in 2012. Ant quickly developed a ‘bants-tastic’ reputation, was ‘great’ to have around the club and was a real ‘character’. As a result, Tony swiftly became somewhat of a ‘fans favourite’, mostly because he was often photographed pulling an angry face, pumping his fist as a display of his ‘passion’ or being caught swearing on television cameras. This reached a zenith when, after being dropped to the bench by Mackay, he spent his half-time warm-ups at away games taking potshots at the mascots:

Things, however, quickly slid and we all began to realise that being a real ‘character’ can also mean being a first class knob head. Gerrard started calling out fans on the Twitterverse, and being outspoken (and not a little vulgar) in response to their (justified) criticisms of the team. Fans also slowly began to realise that he wasn’t very good. It was, then, with particular trepidation that we watched ‘our Ant’, reportedly a lifelong Reds’ fan, step up to take the Bluebirds’ final penalty in the 2012 Carling Cup Final, playing against his big cuz. Of course he pulled it laughably wide: we all knew he would. As a result of his miss, the cup went to Merseyside. We all know he didn’t do it on purpose, but the nagging suspicion is still there with many fans (‘cheating scouser’), and the speculation that he celebrated with ‘the scousers’ on the bus home effectively put an end to his Cardiff career there and then.

Text two for consideration is Craig Noone. Soon after the Bluebirds signed the nihilistically-named tricky winger, we learned that (as well as a penchant for #bants) he was, in fact, an ex-roofer who came into the game relatively late and once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof. Since then, this factoid has been repeated ad infinitum by all football correspondents and commentators whenever he has made the first team to an extent it has become evident that there is some legal obligation for the media to follow every mention of Craig by the affirmation that ‘he once worked on Steven Gerrard’s roof, y’know’.

So, what, then, do we learn about big Steve and the City of Liverpool by watching Cardiff City? Of course, Anthony and Craig’s repeated association with big Steve is as inevitable as it is lazy, due to his stature in the game. In many ways, though, Noone and the Gerrards (what an awful band name that would make) are made, in something approaching the social deterministic vision of Emile Zola, to propagate to at least some extent the myth of the ‘cheeky scouser’, loveable but none too bright, and possibly even violent, working classers for whom football offers the only chance of salvation from squalor. However, unlike Stephen, or so this logic goes, most Liverpudlians are doomed to never make it, destined instead to wallow, in resentment or spite, their ‘cheeky’ humour a vent for bitterness. In a similar way, Nooney represents the projected media ideal of the scouser ‘saved’ from his roofing hell by football but who ultimately cannot escape his destiny: he’ll never quite make it. Steven, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.

Maybe this myth is also played out on a macro level with Steven G. as a perennial, and flawed, nearly man. There is certainly, if not precisely or explicitly, an anti-Liverpool discourse here, one that revels in the city’s ‘nearly’ status and its perennial failure to emerge, in footballing and prestige terms, out of the shadow of Mancunia. How we loved it when Livepool threw away the title. Will Gerrard’s trend be continued in Brazil? For this correspondent at least, it’s a shame cousin Anthony won’t be getting on the plane.

Russell Williams

The above picture, a still from Sky Sports footage taken after Liverpool more or less relinquished their claim to the Premier League title after a zany 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, emblematises Steven Gerrard’s sixteen-year professional career for me. The image shows him consoling a distraught Luis Suarez, shooing away a television camera attempting to film the tears of the Uruguayan striker. It captures Gerrard’s essential double bind, by which he is at once an astounding captain, a leader and motivator par excellence with genuine concern for his charges, and a simulacrum of that thing. As I wrote in 2012, Gerrard – like John Terry and Wayne Rooney – wears the ‘mask of indomitability’ masterfully; we’re left wondering constantly if there is any real to his ‘passion’ or if it is a pure mediatisation of that emotion.

As Gerrard wards the camera off, it’s possible that he’s also soliciting it. Protecting Suarez from the intrusive glare of the media is clearly the responsible thing for a captain to do, and one’s immediate response here is to think that the act denotes Gerrard’s fundamental human decency. However, a suspicion also lingers that he is comprehensively aware of this denotation, and that he needs to be seen not wanting to be seen.

Gerrard’s career is almost coterminous with the political episteme constituted by the Blair-Brown-Cameron continuum. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in precise counterpoint to a more generalised waning of affect: being seen to ‘care’, or to share in spuriously ‘common’ desires which have replaced genuine collectivity, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for it. Simultaneously with this, the tenor of branding has shifted fundamentally, with the governing maxim no longer ‘this product is great’ but ‘this product is invested with passion’. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want not to care? The ubiquity of passion is not something one can objectively decry; rather, it is key to neoliberal, or more properly late-neoliberal, interpellation. It would be too easy to say, then, that Gerrard has agency in a simulation of emotional investment: it is more accurate to admit, after Flaubert, Steven Gerrard, c’est moi.

Joe Kennedy

Ask any Liverpool fan eighteen months ago what their thoughts were on Steven Gerrard, and their reply would most probably have been a heavy-hearted assertion that the club’s captain was a player out of time. Gerrard’s subsequent late-career renaissance may force us to re-examine the term, but it does retain validity, albeit with a shift of context.

If Gerrard does remain a player out of time, it is because he is an anachronism. Not in style, per se, as much as in the disparity of his talent when viewed within the prism of Liverpool’s ailing aspirations throughout the breadth of his career. Posing the question “what if Gerrard had played in the Liverpool teams of the 70s and 80s” is a seductive counterfactual, and not just for the beguiling image of Gerrard churning through the mud – all elbows and waist-high tackles – another in the contemporaneous lineage of alpha-footballers. Those decades look now, societally and sportingly, a more collective age. A time in which The Team outshone The Individual, before the post-Thatcher cult of personality that would proliferate and subsequently define the pre and postmillennial decades. A time to which Gerrard, it is fair to speculate, would have been far more suited.

Liverpool and England’s captain is often accused of rampant egoism; assigned the banter-tinged sobriquet “Stevie Me”, and cast as a committed self-mythologist flaying ‘Hollywood balls’ into touch. Yet this is a fallacy, and a lazy one at that. Despite the highlights showreels, Gerrard – his perma-crumpled brow so often giving the game away – seemingly derives little pleasure from his enforced totemism. A self-confessed worrier, bearing the expectational weight of an institution mired in habitual mediocrity has, rather than fuelling a Big-Fish ego, served only to undermine Gerrard’s game. “Give the ball to Stevie” has been a cry heard endlessly throughout the last decade and half at Anfield, Gerrard coerced into a path of relentless individualism by the lack of faith in the likes of Phillip Degen. It’s no coincidence that the two managers who bowed to this populist desire to make Gerrard the literal focal point of the team, Hodgson and Dalglish, secured the poorest return. Meanwhile, any attempts to lift this burden – most notably Rafael Benitez’s characteristically wilful iconoclasm in shifting Gerrard to the wing for a season and a half – have been met with hostility from a press and fanbase resolutely determined on lurching into Jungian archetype.

For all the spectacular moments throughout his career, it is this aspect of Gerrard that is perhaps the most intriguing. Whilst his playing style fits the modern Sky Sports paradigm of superstardom, Gerrard’s personality – burdened by introspection – resonates more closely with post-war existentialism than latter-day individualism. That this pressure manifests itself in both club and international is a particular cruelty. Had Gerrard been born in Leipzig or Livorno, for example, then the encumbering responsibility would at least have been restricted. As England captain, however, he is both symptom and exemplar of that deeply-ingrained trait within the national, as well as football, psyche: the steadfast refusal to trust the collective in a crisis. The scrambling, knee-jerk messianism that has consistently undermined the England national team for all but a brief window of its history.

Already destined to be remembered as one of the defining players of his generation, it is hard to fathom quite what Gerrard could have achieved if freed from the shackling weight of individual expectation. The late-career loss of mobility, and much vaunted work of Steve Peters (whose counter-intuitive work with Gerrard seems increasingly about psychological deprogramming) may have gone some way to precipitating a degree of enforced recalibration, but the performative Sisypheanism of an England World Cup campaign will doubtless rekindle old habits. Reluctant yet recursive, Gerrard may not be the perfect player – far from it – but he is, at least, the perfect embodiment of the travails of this England team.

Ron Hamilton

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The Meaning of…Diego Costa

Costa

Diego Costa seems a good bet to join fellow SotB profilees Edin Džeko and Olivier Giroud in the Premier League’s elite band of big strikers at big clubs. He has just played a prominent role as hipster fetish object and occasional football club Atlético Madrid claimed their first La Liga title since the halcyon days of Jesús Gil, a chairman who, for all his political shortcomings, remains the only one in world football to have had a song written about him by grouch-rock pacesetters Prolapse:

Sorry. That took absolutely no time at all to stop being a post about Diego Costa and start being a post about Jesús Gil and Prolapse. What I meant to say is that Costa looks set to become a familiar face in English football: José Mourinho seems determined to sign the Atléti target man, having apparently decided, for reasons I can’t fathom, but then I’m not a football manager, that Romelu Lukaku isn’t up to the task. As a result, the Brazil-born Spanish international will be one of the players who the English commentators will demand we ‘keep an eye on’ during the World Cup, and he will be one of those which the tournament’s not-quite-official spiel insists spectators must have an opinion about.

In any given international football competition, particular players are set up as receptacles for narrative that is still to come into being. Certain lines along which this narrative may develop are cultivated: while all players have a modicum of what one might call ‘legend’ for stumped commentators to fall back on, a select few are positioned as reservoirs of memory-to-come. They are not necessarily the anticipated stars of the tournament – it’s far more convenient in a para-literary sense if a star of the tournament is, in the manner of Schillachi or Platt in 1990, perceived as essentially ex nihilo – but those who will provide some image or event which will capture the grain of the competition.

Costa works in this sense on multiple levels. Firstly, there is the issue of his nationality. This is set to be the most – to alleviate a term slightly, but only slightly – deterritorialised World Cup of all time in that there will be more players representing nations other than the ones in which they were born than ever before. Nationality and naturalisation issues surrounding the likes of Adnan Januzaj have been one of the dominant footballing stories in the last few months, a factor which is indicative simultaneously of increased fluidity of movement and accelerated globalisation. The story is no longer that a player has been naturalised – as was the case with Italy’s Argentinians in the 1930s – but that they are representative of a general trend towards both naturalisation and other forms of extended eligibility. Costa’s prominence as the likely leader of Spain’s attack will give him the status of an avatar. To accentuate this, he will be playing in the country of his birth.

A second possible narrative path will centre on his playing style. Costa has already been pre-figured as something more than a ‘handful’, and carries with him a reputation for both aggressive and passive-aggressive unpleasantness. The moment of the 2010 tournament was arguably Luis Suarez’s handball, and the media myth-makers will be prepared, and eager, for something similar to happen this time around. A strangely wonderful video of Costa’s ongoing war with Sergio Ramos primes us for him to provide on this front (Costa’s spit-in-the-hand-and-throw-it-at-the-opponent move displays a Suarez-like level of baneful invention).

The point here is not that he will necessarily fulfil either of these roles, but that he embodies narrative potential in a purely formal sense. In the mass-media age, as Alfie pointed out with reference to Alain Badiou yesterday, tournaments are not simply driven but exist on the basis of this contentless possibility. Players have been commodities as long as the sport has been professional, but their commodification does not depend solely on their ability to play football or even their ability to, pace David Beckham or Dong Fangzhuo, ‘sell shirts’. That’s to say that they are not solely commodities for their parent clubs but, in a more general and abstract way, for a media which seeks to preconceive their competitive role. The player-about-whom-an-opinion-must-be-had is not simply a vector for sociable chat, but a ‘real life story’ masking or normalising the transformation of life into pure narrative possibility.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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The Meaning of…Edin Džeko

Dzeko

I have a thing, it would seem, for diacritics. I wrote my A-Level History dissertation, with possibly annoying precociousness, on nationalism in Tito’s Yugoslavia, and have produced a fair amount of prose on the work of Slovenian psychoanalyst-philosopher-provocateur Slavoj Žižek. Now, for the first WC2014 post on an individual player, I’m going to look at Bosnia and Herzegovina centre forward Edin Džeko. (As with Žižek, the caron turns the ‘z’ into a ‘j’, although to describe it in that way is not fully respectful to the fact that the Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian and Bosnian alphabets – not to mention the Latinised versions of the Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian ones! – treat ‘Ž’ as a unique character. Let this put paid to any suspicion that we don’t do our research.)

Philological points of concern aside, Džeko has just, in a rather unlikely fashion, won the English Premier League title for Manchester City. City spent a miniscule amount of the season in pole position, lingering in a minatory, yet obscure, way over the shoulders of Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal, before loping into the lead over the final few weeks. While the press during the earlier part of their campaign had focused on the success of the Hispanophone strike partnership of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, it was the big Bosnian – as the tabloids invariably call him – who scored the goals that pulled the oil-fuelled Mancunians over the line. In a manner which one could almost describe as ‘quiet’, he claimed 26 in all competitions, including an impressive 16 in the league, placing him just behind Aguero and Wayne Rooney in the top scorers’ chart.

On paper, Džeko comes across as a little atavistic in the age of strikerless systems and general tactocratic pretension. He’s one of the biggest centre forwards at the top end of the Premier League at 6’ 4”, and it would be fair to say that a considerable amount of his game relies on his imposing presence. However, he started playing as a midfielder, and demonstrates decent footwork under pressure and the imagination to create for teammates: he’s clearly not a Sarajevan Ian Ormondroyd, as this video of his goals from the 2012-2013 season proves.

The story of Džeko’s career looks, from some angles, like a romance. Beginning at hometown club Željezničar, he struggled to make an impression in Bosnia, but was signed out of the blue by Czech side FK Teplice, where he was reinvented as a striker. After a loan spell at Ústí nad Labem, he gradually hit form, making such an impression on the Czech league that he was signed by Wolfsburg in 2007. He contributed 26 goals to the Saxon side’s first ever Bundesliga title in 2009, and became one of those players who finds themselves the subject of constant speculation about a move to the Premier League. This came in 2011 – arguably, the Džeko rumours had been brewing so long that most in England had forgotten he existed by the time he arrived – when Roberto Mancini paid the best part of thirty million pounds for him. It has the contours of a classic rags-to-riches tale.

To treat it as such, though, would be to subject some of the realities of twenty-first century European football to a mystification. Džeko’s tale might be, in a rose-tinted version, heart-warming, but it shouldn’t be universalised and turned into a Central European sporting rewrite of The Ugly Duckling – lumbering midfielder is recognised as incipiently brilliant striker, goes on to succeed. No, the truth is that Džeko is the member of football’s postmodern precariat who actually has made it.

Now, there always has been a certain amount of precarity in football, regardless of what the common bêtise – in which all players make millions and drive fast cars – tells you. In the fifties, top flight players in England used to learn trades to see them through the summers; in the eighties, English players who weren’t making it at home would knock on doors in Ireland, Norway, Iceland and Australia looking for a game. But since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent opening up of the EU, there’s been far more fluidity of movement within Europe. This isn’t to say that the precariat is solely composed of European players: I was trying on boots in Peckham recently and the West African guy buying a more professional pair beside me was heading off for a trial in Poland the next day. It’s more that Europe’s relatively relaxed borders, concentration of geographically proximate league systems, and the comparative depth – in terms of levels at which you can make money by playing – of those systems creates a set-up conducive to the development of a large pool of precarious or reserve labour.

I wrote a review of The Nowhere Men, Michael Calvin’s excellent book on scouting, last summer, and one of the things Calvin captures really well is the extent to which this precariat has grown over the last decade or so. This would seem to match, with somewhat uncanny similarity, the casualisation that has afflicted many aspects of work in Europe since the beginning of the financial crisis. For every Edin Džeko, there are forty Bosnian or Albanian hopefuls wandering around the lower-league clubs of Cyprus or the Balearics, hoping to get a chance simply to make a living with their boots. These are the players who remind you that, for the most part, football is little more than a trade with an internal economy which works much like that of any other.

On these terms, Džeko is either a hero of the precariat or the success story who blinds the public to the plight of players who make similar attempts to spark their careers by looking internationally and get stuck on the breadline. If he scores for his nation in the coming tournament, it might be worth pausing for a moment to think about the pros for whom circumstance has made them desperate just to get a trial and, beyond that, the way that current ideology tends to disguise precarity behind one or two implausible triumphs.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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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

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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.

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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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