Category Archives: Spain

Del Bosque, Der Zorn Gottes

After the Spanish conquest and sack of the Inca empire the Indians invented the legend of El Dorado, a land of gold, located in the swamps of the Amazon tributaries. A large expedition of Spanish adventurers, led by Pizzaro, set off from the Peruvian Sierra’s in late 1560. The only document to survive from this lost expedition is the diary of the monk Gasper De Carvajal…

El Dorado. Manõa. The legendary fabled “City of Lost Gold” that seduced Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century after the fall of the Inca empire. German filmmaker Werner Herzog chronicled this exploration in his landmark, fictionalised, 1972 account Aguirre, Wrath of God or Aguirre, De Zern Gottes, which paints a grim picture of one particular expedition fuelled by greed and the need to conquer, to spread the word of God to the ‘heathen’. This particular crusade ultimately led to horrific failure amidst utter chaos. It is a sad, sorry and pathetic sight.

Ever since Spain crumbled under the weight of expectation against a rejuvenated France in the last 16 of the World Cup in 2006, they have been spreading the tika-taka style all over the world via their dominance of international football and through Barcelona FC, all the while amassing a vast array of treasures. Yet their excursion into South America in 2014 has left them treasure-less this time. Of course, they never played in the searing heat of the Amazon: their capitulations versus the Netherlands and Chile occurred in Salvador’s Arena Fonte Nova and Rio’s Maracanã. They would not have played in the Amazon had they progressed. Such is the unforgiving climate, Manaus will host no matches in the knock-out stages. Nevertheless, the metaphor begins with Spain’s ambition to conquer South America looking for gold, and ends with them leaving, like the conquistadors, with little more than a sense of nihility. This squad, conquerors of modern international football since 2008, have floundered in their attempt to bring home the gold they craved, which in this case is very definitely real. Their hegemony is over. They’ve possessed it before but will have to relinquish the crown. In the week Spain witnessed the coronation of a new King, they’ve had to realise that there will be no Spanish coronation at the Maracanã on July 12th.

It’s perhaps not quite the end, as France proved by dusting themselves off from the recriminations of 2002 and 2004’s mediocrity to reach a second final in 2006. Powered by a Zinedine Zidane rolling back the years magnificently, France achieved what many doubted. However, it is unlikely that one half of the Xaviesta axis, so brilliantly joined at the allegorical hip in recent years, will survive another major tournament. Xavi Hernandez’ days are surely numbered. Perhaps the Spanish demise of 2014 doesn’t quite symbolise the end of a footballing empire, but at the very least the tika-taka ideology has been shattered. Xabi Alonso, for so long the passer extraordinaire of the Spanish team, has retired. No doubt others will follow. Do Spain have a new breed of players who can carry on the same philosophy, or will they embrace the reimagined counterattacking style that saw them plundered versus the Netherlands? That will be decided by Vicente Del Bosque or his successor if his offer to leave is accepted. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod in the final game as it will very likely represent the future of Spanish football’s direction.

Spain performed like Aguirre, plugging away forlornly in desperate hope of achieving what last year’s performance against Brazil in the Confederations Cup suggested they could not. They obviously could not muster the spirit displayed by Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, the character (based on events of Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald) at the centre of Herzog’s equally majestic Fitzcarraldo. When faced with extreme adversity, aided by indigenous people, he managed to physically pull his three-storey, 320-ton steamer over the muddy 40° hillside portage, from one river to the next in order to overcome the harshness of the Amazonian environment with the intention of accessing a rich rubber territory. That endeavour ended in glorious failure. Spain exit the world cup with a whimper. Spain had no man with the single-minded determination to achieve such an epic performance. Unlike Peruvian rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald, who made untold riches, Spain’s final group game versus a tough, highly spirited Australia will merely be a dead rubber.

Posted by Grant Holdsworth

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

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A Historiography of Decline

A mere five days have passed since The Netherland’s riotous victory over a Spain side displaying all the acute symptoms of a team on the edge of implosion, yet the result has already taken on a sense of era-definition. Following years of astonishing consistency and success, Spain’s seemingly unshakeable occupation of the pedestal at the elite end of the game suddenly looks precarious. If indeed this is to be the end of the Spanish dynasty, the historical reverberations will be on a par with the breaking up of the Aranycsapat following the Hungarian Revolution, or the dismantling of a Brazilian team that secured successive World Cups in 1958 and 1962. Such epoch-defining events inevitably lead a scramble for the history books to try and make sense of what is unfolding. Should Friday’s result represent the genesis of a superpower’s terminal diminution, there is one that tells us everything we could need to know.

Ideologically problematic and historiographically flawed, Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire nevertheless remains the exemplary text for the crumbling of any dynasty. Just short of two and a half centuries have passed since its publication, yet Gibbon’s attempt to rationalize the unavoidable cyclicality of history retains an extraordinary resonance. When attempting to untangle the dwindling of anything from global superpowers to corporate juggernauts, there is no better staring point.

Gibbon’s central thesis was that the decline of the Roman Empire – and thus, the archetypal factor behind the fall of any great dynasty – was a steady erosion of the moral character of the populace. Even leaving aside the failures of monocausality or Gibbon’s strained desire for an all-encompassing moral answer that fitted Enlightenment thinking, it would be tendentious to draw any links here with Spain. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso et al could hardly be said to have turned up for the tournament in the same shabby condition that England found themselves in at South Africa, after all. Nor has there been any collective eschewal of the necessary labour of sporting pre-eminence for the shambling hedonism of, say, 2006-vintage Ronaldinho.

Equally, whilst semi-spurious links can be drawn between the factors Gibbon cites as secondary to Rome’s decline and Spain’s current malaise – emergent enclaves of intrigue within military and political elites creating the kind of climate of self-serving perma-hostility that looks likely to define Spain’s fracturing along Real-Barcelona lines, for example, or the increasing reliance on foreign mercenaries sapping cohesion and morale (hello, Diego Costa) – history’s instructiveness is here structural rather than directly causational.

Structurally, Spain’s defeat felt at once brutally sudden and, paradoxically, incremental – as if an entire cycle of decline had been crammed into ninety minutes. From the moment of Van Persie’s equalizer, a Battle of Adrianople that, by virtue of its brutal simplicity, wrought realization about Spain’s vulnerability, the sense that history was starting to outrun Spain was palpable. With each Dutch goal, another notch along the path of decline was carved – beginning with a collective loss of Spanish nerve; division; self-immolative recrimination; and finally an abdication of responsibility. Throughout the final ten minutes, players wandered in a traumatized daze, unable to comprehend what had happened. The lackadaisical tragicomedy of Fernando Torres’ late miss set the seal on this incomprehension, Torres trying to impose an affectatious nonchalance on events that had long overtaken him. A ‘business as usual’ hubris that bore the airs of denial – a well-heeled senator strolling to the Forum, willfully oblivious to the Vandals at the Gate. (Holland, for their part, made for excellent Barbarians. The savagery of their early tactics hinting at a repeat of the 2010 final, before this gave way to a ferocious incisiveness staggering in its brutality as it exposed the dispirited flabbiness of Spain’s rearguard.)

Of course, the manner in which Spain’s defeat feels definitive is at odds with the ostensibly provisional nature of their cycle of decline. This was, after all, a first defeat in a year. And yet, with the sense of decline around a Barcelona that forms the ideological kernel of Del Bosque’s side, there has been a burgeoning end-of-empire feel around what might be casually called ‘the Spanish method’ throughout the season. A creeping sense of stylistic obsolescence, magnified by the success of the Madrid clubs and their ruthlessly-efficient, high-octane melding of the Bundesliga and high-functioning football autism of Jose Mourinho.

As in structure, so in tone. Coverage of Spain’s abject showing echoed the morose air that permeates Gibbons’ writing. As each Dutch goal was rattled in, the BBC’s commentary team frantically emphasized the historicity of what was unfolding; a totem crumbling before our eyes. Passing initially through pathos and on to disbelief, by the last five minutes Steve Wilson and Mark Lawrenson were giddy with jouissance at La Roja’s conformance to their own narrative conceit. Wilson and Lawrenson may lack the historiographical gravitas of Gibbon – though the latter’s 2006 observation that, “eeh, Paul Robinson looks like a big banana running at you”, comes a close second – but they certainly understood the emotional cachet of seeing a superpower hobbled. By the end, initial schadenfreude had given way to the type of unashamed emotionality that Gibbon had himself lifted from the great historical writers of the Ancient World. “It’s the end of the world as we know it” emoted Wilson, as slo-mo montages of Iker Casillas’ tear-stained eyes and Vicente Del Bosque fidgeting uncomfortably on the bench looped on the screen.

Playing up to the emotional aspect of such a result is as understandable as it is ubiquitous. From King Lear to The Sopranos, Oedipus Rex to Citizen Kane, the theme of personal decline and fall has been a well-worn narrative construct throughout history. Superimpose this on to a collective entity – be it politico-military monolith or generation-defining sporting colossus – and the effect is increased exponentially. The narrative of supremacy is unavoidable, and so the narrative of decline inescapably seductive, the fall of dominant entities providing a vicarious mirror to the inevitability of our own mortality – the most personal type of decline and fall.

Spain may recover sufficiently to obtain a result against Chile. They may – however improbable it may seem right now – even progress beyond what seems a likely (should they progress at all) Second Round clash with Brazil. Regardless, Friday night’s systematic dismantling of their aura cannot be undone. Every end must have a beginning. This was Spain’s.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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

Preview 29 – Spain

Spain prepares for the World Cup at something of a moment – the king has decided to abdicate. King Juan Carlos: Franco’s king, the transitional king, democracy’s king, the consummate modern monarch, a living Borbón. Can any politically minded footballer pick up the baton from the huge Tercera Republica rallies in over 100 cities last week, and flash a bit of Republican purple when he scores?
 
As Joe suggested in his Sketches of Sketches Spain post, tracking the ‘politico-emotional logic of Iberian football’ is no easy task for the amateur. Clubs and the cities or regions they represent have played a considerable role in Spanish 20th century political developments – Real Madrid for example is never likely to be able to ward off the twin shitty-sticks of ‘el equipo del gobierno, la vergüenza del país’ with which rivals wield at them. Franco, said to be initially a fan of Bilbao’s more muscular approach, wised up to the potential prestige and reputational boost of backing the Merengues’ all-conquering 50s team. At the Nou Camp for City earlier this year, by far the most rousing chant in a generally drab atmosphere in the home ends was for Catalonian ‘independencia’.
The same cannot be said of the players currently at these clubs. It would then be easy to make cheap presumptions and claims about the squad, that the team’s Real players are either all clandestine Falange, with a false nostalgia for the Movimiento and the caudillo their dads have told them about, while Barcelona’s are all hardcore Catalonian separatists to a man, maybe even with a hankering for the anarchist days of ’36. Maybe the players from more impoverished backgrounds or regions are backing the Indignados and Podemos movements.
 
We can pick apart the cliques – the Real and Barca boys you all know, the Atlético Madrid crowd (Koke, Juanfran and Costa, as well as alumni De Gea and Torres), Valencia’s veterans (Silva, Villa, Mata, Alba, Albiol), and the Basque exiles (Martinez, Alonso and Azpilicueta) and find little, on the English-language web at least, to enlighten us on a player’s politics. [Although props to Alonso for taking part in the #DefiendeAlEibar campaign against the threat to rescind their promotion). Are they all too busy ignoring the real problem of racism in the Spanish game to give thought to their political allegiances? Maybe the chronic unemployment will be brushed away with a noble sweep of Sergio Ramos’ bullfighting cape?
These are all top-level players in the world’s top league, often more familiar to British fans than their local lower league or non-league strivers, and it would seem most dutifully play their role of performers of the spectacle, nothing more (except a pretty young wag), nothing less. Thus Spain, Spanish teams and Spanish footballing culture have made maximalist use of the ‘all about the football’ axiom to have a moment too, a 10-year glorious, luxurious bathe in the sun.
 
With the Primera Liga long taken over from Italy’s Serie A as the Brit’s continental’s league of choice, Spanish football’s hegemony has taken in: the World Cup in 2010 and European Championships in 2008 and 2012 for the national team; Barcelona’s European Cups in 2006, 2009 (including Spain’s first ‘continental treble’) and 2010; UEFA Cups for Valencia 2004, Sevilla in 2006, 2007 and 2014 and Atléti in 2010 and 2012; and now Real’s feted La Decima. Some even said La Roja’s 2010 triumph provided the moment when regional divisions evaporated into a benign plurinationalism, just like France’s victory eased racial tensions in 1998 (they’d be wrong on both counts, of course).
 
As with all hegemonies questions are being asked. Admiration for Atléti’s temporary break-up of the stifling Real-Barca duopoly comes with ongoing concerns over their tax affairs, mirroring scrutiny over Barca’s transfer practices, Real’s land deals, etc. There is a sense that they all have benefited from soft treatment at national and European level (echoes of Franco-esque backing for prestige-value here). On the field, there is ennui at Barcelona and the national team’s tiki-taka style.
 
Could Brasil 2014 crystallise a moment when British boredom with their pet football object syncs in with the relative waning of Xavi/Iniesta and the team’s desire to take on a more expansive style, leading Spain to the type of ignominious early exit we used to? Symbolic bloody noses like Luis Enrique’s actual smash-up are unlikely. If you have ever played with Spanish lads generally their desire is to pass you off the pitch as the bulldogs wheeze around trying to keep up. Tiki-taka, such as it is, is merely an intensification of that (Real’s different style was largely the work of Mourinho and the need to accommodate a true individual in Ronaldo). Besides, talk of tiki-taka can be a false flag – Del Bosque insists he is not a ‘Taliban’ as wedded to the style as people might think.
 
And the current golden generation is likely to give way to the next batch of international galácticos. As Jimmy Burns told Time a few years ago: ‘Training has something to do with it … there’s a very kind of ethical dimension to it, particularly with young kids. You don’t necessarily tell them that what’s important in life is to win. What’s important is team spirit, your creativity, to do things well and to do things nobly.’
That leaves us with hopes of one of these ‘noble’ players using the opportunity to make a political statement, maybe backing the grassroots social justice organisations, the calls for a republic in the wake of the big game hunter’s abdication or the Catalonian independence movement. But the evidence is these players don’t expose their flawless football careers to external faultlines, so, like expectations of an early upset or an eventual end to Spain’s prominence, don’t bet on it.
Posted by Murray W
You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

Sketches of Sketches of Spain

So, it’s the European Cup final tonight. I bought my Guardian and went down the cafe this morning, turning to the sport first in the way I do, clinging to my childhood. Obviously, I expected there to be a fair amount on the encounter between the Madrid teams in Lisbon, but not half as much as there turned out to be: the idea that an ECF between two non-British teams would have used this much ink in a UK broadsheet would have seemed pretty absurd even ten years ago, when Beckham was at Real and McManaman had just left, and completely implausible in the 1990s. The depth of coverage was also noteworthy: five or six hundred words on Diego Simeone, more than a thousand on Cristiano Ronaldo and, most eyebrow-raisingly, smatterings of untranslated Spanish football slang.

This, of course, is the year that Real Madrid hope to claim their tenth European Cup, La mythical Décima. Interestingly, the conservative papers with, one might expect, less football-hip readerships feel the need to provide context for this term, explaining why Real are so hypnotised by the prospect of a tenth title. The Guardian, however, which has spearheaded the boom in Spanish football analysis with the writing of arch-connoisseur Sid Lowe, seems to expect that its readers are fully conversant with the politico-emotional logic of Iberian football, presumably because they subscribe to The Blizzard and have Zonal Marking bookmarked and all that kind of thing. 

Anyway, the point here isn’t to cut down footballing Hispanophilia, so I’ll try and rein it in somewhat. I do happen to find the casual tossing of a lingo clearly designed to produce an ‘in’ group into football conversations irksome – and I say this as someone who used the word Gedankenexperiment in a post on here recently – but I’m also intrigued as to what exactly occasioned the ‘Spanish turn’ of the last six or seven years. Two explanations are typically tendered for this. The first of these, David Beckham’s journey to La Liga, seems banal and, in any case, inaccurate. It’s anachronistic, for a start, but it also overlooks the fact that the kind of people who will be rooting for El Atléti tonight in Dalston and Didsbury are also the kind of people who could write a mean tacto-dossier on why Beckham wasn’t really very good. The second explanation is the sensational, arguably revolutionary, football of Guardiola’s Barcelona, a beautiful style for a city whose edgy élan is hymned endlessly in this country, maintained by players who seemed in the main like people you’d enjoy going for a pint with – well, maybe this is just Xavi, but the point stands.

I don’t think the Barcelona explanation stands up alone, though, and I think the ‘beautiful style for a beautiful city’ component is the giveaway here. It seems to me that Guardiola’s tiki-taka and the general elegance of his team simply confirmed something that British people were starting to feel about Spain in general, and I make no apologies for labelling Barcelona as a ‘Spanish’ team here as, for all of our so-called knowledge of ‘Catalunya’, that’s essentially how they are perceived in the UK. I’m just going to try and sketch a couple of notes, then, about how the ‘Spanish turn’ in football mirrors a more general one.

Spain is caught up in a complex relation of othering with England. The two countries became inextricably linked in their early modern history and, ever since, Spain has served a peculiar role in its one-time adversary’s cultural imagination. Spain for England is, on one hand, brutality – Goya’s Disasters of War, the hilltop bombing scene in For Whom the Bell Tolls – and uninhibited eroticism. It seems to knot violence, tragedy, sexuality and aesthetics in a way which exceeds even France’s potential for doing this – and this knotting was, I’d contend, as much as a pull as the formally political one during the Spanish Civil war. Remember Auden’s orientalising lines?

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot
Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;
On that tableland scored by rivers,
Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive.

There was a period, probably from the late sixties through to as recently as the late nineties, when middle-class Britain turned its nose up at Spain for the most part. Spain was Torremolinos and Magaluf; the Sagrada Familia and the Prado were exceptions that proved the rule. If you were going to Southern Europe, you went and faffed about in Provence or sampled Italy’s celebrated pavement culture so as to return to Britain and wonder why it wasn’t like that in Louth or Clitheroe. Something began to change, perhaps, as the Blair years wore on and people began to see Italy as a bourgeois cliche, a nice enough place to visit but one in which pleasure was a bit too forecastable. Come to think of it, I’ve been to Italy enough times to know that it can be strangely predictable so long as you’re sticking to the big cities – only Naples seems to carry with it the energetically uncanny feel of Barcelona, Bilbao or San Sebastian. Italy, in other words, lost its edge.

In the nineties, Spain also underwent an economic boom of sorts, and its regions – probably for some Europe Union-related reason I have no time to look up – acquired funding which allowed cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian, in synchronicity with fellow provincial ports Newcastle and Hamburg, to undergo culture-led regeneration programmes. Why would you want to go to some dusty old museum in Florence, full of antiquated statues of naked saints that provoke little but a deep anxiety of engagement, when you could go to a shimmering new gallery by Frank Gehry or Rafael Moneo with some gardening by Jeff Koons outside? Why would you want to eat pizza when you eat a fifteen-course tasting menu representing the zenith of Ferran Adrià’s gastroscience or the nouvelle cuisine basque? Fuck Chianti, mine’s a Garnacha.

 In other words, the Spanish Turn in football is an outgrowth of a broader fetishisation of Spain which has been taking place in Britain ever since people decided Benicassim was a bigger event than Glastonbury. I love Spain – I’ve only been there a couple of times, but it ticks the boxes of the less contrarian part of me – but it does seem useful to speculate as to why its football has been treated in such a particular way of late.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

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

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

It’s Human Nature


I think anybody who saw France’s capitulation to Spain can agree that Florent Malouda, a footballer who is to footballing what Adam Mars-Jones and Philip Hensher are to novel-writing, should have made at least some effort to pick up Xabi Alonso as he burst forward to get on the end of Jordi Alba’s cross and score the first goal of the evening. ITV’s Jamie Carragher took very little time to highlight Malouda’s utter disinterest in shoring up his side’s flimsy defence during the half-time punditry, and – had I been born in Dijon rather than Darlington – I’d be pretty adamant that the Chelsea something-or-other should never pull on the bleu ever again. That said, I was astounded by Roy Keane’s contribution to the analysis. He began in typically Keanian spirit, saying somthing along the lines that any professional should have internalised the idea that tracking back when one’s team is in trouble is a fundamental part of the game. However, this swiftly turned into generalisation. ‘It’s human nature,’ he blurted, in his (arguably reasonable) concern to make sure that Adrian Chiles knew what he was talking about.

Is it ‘human nature’? There’s a Marxian approach to Darwin that says the wrong elements of Origin of Species were emphasised in Victorian Britain, as ‘competition’ was elevated above ‘mutual aid’ in an effort to naturalise certain basic principles of industrial capitalism. Certainly, evolutionary science might do well to play up the theory that we’re hard-wired to help each other out rather than to snipe, undermine, and generally look after our own ends. It might serve as a corrective to lunk-headed Mail blog commentary about ‘common sense’, at least, and we might begin to put to bed timewasting hair-splitters such as ‘altruism is really just another form of selfishness’. However, Keane – who I’m normally a big fan of – got under my skin tonight. The implication wasn’t that providing assistance to those in need of it is an inherent human trait, I think – it was that football-mindedness is something we’re all secretly given to. It was a claim for the game’s universality based in its alleged similarity to lived experience which, to me, demeans football’s particularity, cutting away the aspects that make it different from other team sports.

The claim that football is somehow a pure analogue of human experience in general doesn’t work for me. It might serve as a pathway into broader concerns, but its inital spark lies in its difference rather than in its similarity. By that, I mean that it produces a skewed image of what-we-do-the-rest-of-the-time which serves as a vantage point onto the everyday: that’s to say that modernist poetry or painting offer more valid points of comparison than realist fiction or drama. Every attempt to make football into a simile for day-to-day life falls short somehow, and I’d be willing to bet that we’d turn our backs on it pretty fast if a point-for-point metaphorical exchange was possible. Of course, social factors are huge influences on how football is played in a given location, but these are the starting points of tactical trajectories rather than objects of unimpeded mimesis.

By Joe Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Oliver Farry

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

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Spain Retrieve their Spear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Seb Crankshaw

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

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“You’ll Never Beat the Irish” and Other Strange Things You Believe as an Irish Football Fan

As a football fan you swallow all manner of unpalatable truths. The first is often the fact that your team plays awful football. If the results are good, it’s easier to weather the discomfort. That said, during the Charlton years, when I was still fairly young, I found myself disenchanted with the team’s style of play even while cheering their success. The results were ground out with minimal flair and it was always embarrassing to me how we reached a World Cup quarter-final with four draws and that we scored no more than four goals in two tournaments. For that reason, the team’s “mutinies” remain dearest to my memory. These include the match against the USSR in Hanover in 1988 when a fantastically talented Irish side outplayed one of the greatest teams of that era. The 1-0 win over Italy in Giants Stadium six years later is also a particularly fond memory, mainly because it was built on attacking flair as well as excellent defending (I’ll always remember Paolo Maldini’s resounding tribute to Paul McGrath in a post-match interview). That Italy match was the apex of the Charlton era, a win against one of the best teams in the world achieved stylishly which also showcased three of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic talents of Irish football: McGrath, a young Roy Keane and John Sheridan. The only way the match could have been bettered would have been if Sheridan’s deft chip mid-way through the second half had landed a few inches further below the crossbar instead of bouncing off the top of it. When Charlton bowed out after the 2-0 play-off defeat to the Netherlands in 1995, I was hopeful for better things. And to be fair, the less pragmatic Mick McCarthy did some fine things with Ireland, even if his team had a tendency to drop points far too often against weak opposition. Under Giovanni Trapattoni’s management, Ireland fans have had to reconcile themselves to a restored confidence and results of a sort while all the time admitting we are being forced to watch some unsightly football.

Trap’s method is also far from ingenious; Ireland are still as prone as ever to mess up winnable games — even Stephen Staunton’s team could take four points off Slovakia — and a coach less beholden to antediluvian tactics and possessed of a greater confidence in the players at hand would have been able to second-guess Croatia in the opening match of this tournament.

As you can tell, I’m not really a fan of Trap, regardless of whether he has got us back into a finals tournament or not. Getting to a finals should be expected as far as I’m concerned; we have reached the play-offs so often, Ireland fans are entitled to expect tournament football more often than we enjoy. Trap has to be commended for the level of organisation he has instilled in the Irish team but that wouldn’t be hard after the calamity of the Staunton era. The worst thing about his management though is the complete lack of faith he has in his players. As the godfather of Italian football pragmatism Nereo Rocco put it, catenaccio is the right of the weakest. The problem though is that Ireland’s players, for all their limitations, aren’t that weak. You sense that Trap is approaching the Ireland set-up with all the unfounded caution of a Frenchman dining abroad. It’s not even a question of undoing his defensive system — there’s a lot to be said for good, defensive football — but you just wish it were more adaptable than it is. The fact that Trap is still unsure of how to effectively counter three-man midfields reflects far more on him than on the players at his disposal.

Despite the horror of Sunday night’s performance — and let’s not cod ourselves we were unlucky to concede a goal just before half-time — and despite my and many other Irish fans’ disillusion with Trap’s style, I’m not completely despondent before tonight’s match. Spain are a type of team Trapattoni is far more adept at stifling than Croatia were. They will pass us off the park but they do find it difficult to penetrate parsimonious defences. They are also very dodgy at the back, even more so in the absence of Carles Puyol and lack the muscularity of Croatia, who were able to effortlessly weather Ireland’s jostling. A scoreless draw is really the best we can hope for but were we to nick a 1-0 win thanks to a set-piece goal I wouldn’t be too surprised either.

In Gdańsk, as in Poznań, the Poles appear to be all supporting Ireland. Ireland fans have returned the favour in mass, and it is especially easy to get behind a country that has been such a fantastically welcoming host and whose team plays attractive attacking football. I have to admit though I’d gladly trade in the ‘most loveable fans in the world’ tag for a team and a footballing culture everyone takes seriously. In France the words ‘fighting spirit’ (in English) are used to a wearying extent to describe Irish sporting performances. It’s not a bad attribute to be renowned for but there’s a resonant condescension in the tribute. Small countries like Denmark and Croatia have shown it’s possible to be regularly successful while playing good football. I don’t think it’s beyond Ireland’s ability either.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Dispatch from Poznań — A More Panoramic view than Panorama

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There was no sign of any trouble in Poznan on our first night here. Far from it — the town square was packed with Poles, Irish and Croatians mingling and singing long through the night. I was told that riot police moved in on Friday night, nervous at the first sign of mixing of fans but they quickly stepped back. The Poles have been great hosts, entering into the party spirit with gusto and seizing on a great opportunity to showcase their country. Most visiting fans have most likely adopted Poland as their second team and the crucial match against Russia on Tuesday should be a cracker.

The football so far has been excellent, with the hosts and the Greeks giving great battle in the opening match. The Poles will be disappointed they didn’t make more of their first-half possession but it all could have been much worse if Przemyslaw Tyton didn’t save a penalty with his first touch of the ball. The performance of the tournament so far was the Russians, a brilliantly fluid and sophisticated display with Dzagoev and Arshavin in particular excellent. How good they are is hard to gauge, as the Czechs were quite poor but it will cause Dick Advocaat some alarm that the Russians surrendered the initiative for 15 minutes early in the second half to a reshaped Czech formation. Poland and Greece will have taken comfort from that.

The group of death has just got even deathlier. The Netherlands are now in a precarious position having to beat both Germany and Portugal to be sure of going through. They actually played quite well against Denmark although their defensive shortcomings were badly exposed on several occasions, including when Michael Krohn-Delhi cut inside Gregory van der Viel far too easily for the goal. The Dutch will also be aggrieved that they weren’t awarded a penalty at the end for handball but you have to doff your cap to the Danes, who turned in a superb defensive performance. Going forward, they were much less confident and the final ball was often found wanting. Three points on the board is more than anyone expected of them after the first game but getting out of the group will still be a huge task, as four points will quite likely not be enough.

Germany were as we have come to expect — solid in attack, much less so in defence where Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng bailing out Badstuber and Hummels more than once. The winner was courtesy of a splendid Mario Gomez header, the first time he’s ever looked the part in a tournament match. It’s a bad start for the Portuguese but they’ll probably be thankful the second game is against the Danes and not the Dutch, even if Denmark did defeat them 2-1 in qualifying in Copenhagen last October.

Today is Ireland’s big day and the green army are feeling confident. I don’t expect to see a very expansive game even though Slaven Bilić is threatening an attacking approach to get points in the bag first off. It could well be the tournament’s first scoreless draw but I am keeping my fingers crossed for an Irish win by the narrowest of margins. The other match could be the one that gives an insight into Spain’s chances of completing that elusive three tournaments in a row. I don’t think they’ll beat Italy and they may even be on the back foot by eight o’clock local time tonight.

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