Category Archives: World Cup 2014

The ends and the means

On the first day of this year’s Tour de France, cycling pundits expected Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish to win. For the first time in seven years the opening stages were to be held in England, and the first stage would loop through Yorkshire from Leeds to the finishing line in Harrogate. The latter town was where Cavendish’s mother was from, said excited ITV commentators, then, as the pack of riders jostled for position in the last few kilometres, the same commentators feverishly imagined him receiving the yellow jersey from William and Kate having won the stage. Boxed in, Cavendish attempted to elbow himself some room for the final sprint and fell to the tarmac, injuring himself and ending his participation in the competition.

While Cavendish has in the past shown himself more than capable of crashing in the last few metres without any larger narrative affecting his judgement, I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘Cavendish must win’ bandwagon had contributed to the rider’s fate.

A few days later, last year’s Tour winner, Chris Froome – who had been selected as Australian media mogul-owned Brit-pride provocateurs Team Sky’s lead rider at the expense of banter-friendly winner of the 2012 Tour Bradley Wiggins – crashed for the third time in two days and abandoned the race. Sky, by now experts in establishing bulletproof narratives at the drop of a rider, assured gathered journalists that things were fine.

The night before Froome dropped out, Brazil, who many believed favourites for the World Cup despite their relentlessly poor performances, were beaten 7-1 by Germany in the semi-finals. The cutaways to crying women and children in the crowd were a real-time record of the human effects of the collapse of an implausible narrative – and brought to mind those true-life success story connoisseurs who sued Captain America-emulating dope monster Lance Armstrong for lying in his autobiography.

Why do people tie themselves in knots about narrative in sport? Sometimes I think about what sport might be like without these overarching stories of achievement and struggle. Perhaps they’re a necessary part of making professional sport – which often consists of well-matched, well-paid precision engineered athletes enthusiastically swapping shirts at half-time – more exciting. Occasionally football spills into pantomime – with your Ronaldos and your van Bommels – but generally the dullness requires a lick of paint.

Arguably the joys of this World Cup have come from the unexpected successes: the well-drilled Costa Rica, the flair of Columbia, the excellence of Algeria – even the advancement of the usually crackpot France and Holland teams. The lack of expectation surrounding all of these teams has, arguably, allowed them the freedom to flourish.

It seems typical of this World Cup that the final will be contested by Germany and Argentina, two teams whose generally unremarkable performances in the group and knockout stages – although big winners against Brazil and ten-man Portugal, Germany were heavily criticised for their cautious performances in other games – left English commentators grasping for motivation, before settling on this one: Argentina haven’t won the World Cup since ’86 while Germany haven’t since ’90. This time the big story is there is no story.

Posted by Karl Whitney

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“Nice guys don’t win”, and other rhetoric

A fortnight on from the death throes of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, and the navel-gazing recriminations show no signs of abating. From the debilitating effects of Manaus, to the paucity of domestic talent in the Premier League (compared to the all-conquering set-up of, say, the Costa Rican or Chilean leagues) it has been the traditional quadquennial waft of hot air – achieving nothing bar further dissimulating Hodgson’s métier of cowardice repackaged as pragmatism. Yet amidst all this tired guff and hackneyed bluster, one cliché stood out as particularly egregious – Alan Shearer’s assertion that “we English are too honest.”

Of course, Shearer – less a talking head these days than a risible talking thumb – has form here, regularly championing the “diving is a foreign plague/not in our DNA” trope on Match of the Day. Yet, even if we selectively leave aside the dangerous pseudo-eugenics of this claptrap, the very notion that England’s increasingly habitual tournament failure is down to an innate superabundance of “honesty” is unambiguously ludicrous on two levels.

Primarily, empirically, theoretically, philosophically, whichever way you slice it, it is just not true. Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard, for example, have never shied away from the rough stuff. Raheem Sterling contains more strength in one buttock than your average post-Soviet weightlifting team, and is more than happy to put it to malicious use. Gary Cahill has undergone so comprehensive a process of Mourinhofication that he would happily boot a toddler up in the air if it secured an opportunity to head something clear at the near post. The idea that the England squad spend their days listening to Belle and Sebastian whilst thumbing through Paolo Coelho’s latest simperings is as ludicrous as it is erroneous.

Secondly, if we take accepted wisdom that the two best players in world football are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the “too nice” theory is further undermined. Messi, in particular, has played up to his take-home-to-meet-the-grandparents qualities throughout his career – all floppy hair and bouncing off tackles like an enthusiastic toddler crashing into furniture. Likewise, Ronaldo who, for all his risible preening, could hardly be described as a hatchet man.

If, then, we accept the notion of England, or indeed any team, being too nice for success as a facile and inaccurate one, then what are we to make of it? What does it tell us about English football – and England’s – view of itself. Certainly, it speaks of the type of post-colonial smugness that still drips from every corner of the establishment – sporting, and political. An absolute refusal to countenance inherent flaws without viewing them through the prism of a presupposed moral superiority. Rubbish at football? Must be we’re too nice. Terminally in hock to a fundamentally flawed economic model? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit – nation of shopkeepers, and all that. Housing crisis? That’s our entrepreneurial spirit TOO! Nation of buy-to-letters, and all that. Phone hacking? Natural inquisitiveness. Establishment cronyism? Looking after old school chums. A veneer of ‘British values’ routinely lacquered over systemic faults, a watered down version of that loveable rogue Churchill’s addled justification of militarised imperialism based on moral superiority.

There is a further, wider, problem with such thinking, and that is that the notion that “nice guys don’t win” has increasingly become a cause célèbre for a generation of furiously embittered man-children. Witness the widespread social media pant-wetting about the striking mugshot of Californian convict Jeremy Meeks – which was taken by some (i.e. those whose agenda it suited) to be incontrovertible proof of a female conspiracy against them. “Why can’t girls be attracted to lovely soldiers” came much of the wailing – an absurd, and insulting, supposition of universality on both sides of the table. This “nice guys never win” notion has joined “I’m sick of being in the ‘Friend Zone’” as a go-to point for a prevalent and increasingly rampant passive-aggressive misogyny, the “nice guys” in question never stopping to wonder if their self-entitled tirades about “sluts” following each knockback compromises their self-image of shining armour. The self-pitying delusionality to the “too nice” trope here occurring on an individual, as opposed to national, level.

To unpack the semantics of the phrase, one must also ask what the supposed counterpoint is for this apparent niceness. What level of nastiness should our sportspeople aspire to? Just how shitty should they be in order to achieve success? Perhaps an answer can be found in the long-held theoretical Luddism at the heart of English football – a relentless harking back to the supposed glory days between the end of the Second World War and England’s failure to qualify for the 1974 World Cup. Whilst the reasons for this period establishing itself in the popular consciousness as English football’s Golden Age are as obvious as they are reasonable – post-conflict escapism, England’s solitary international victory, the dynastic narratives of Busby and Shankly and the first flushes of success for British teams in Europe – it’s hard to shift the sense that there has long been, more so now than ever, a fetishisation of the acceptable nastiness of the football that prevailed at this time. This was, after all, before violence was transferred from pitch to terrace; an age of granite-hewn men routinely booting lumps out of one another under the forgiving eye of lenient referees. Three decades of earthy nastiness sandwiched between the mustachioed Corinthianism of codified football’s first half-century and the “too-nice”, gentrified post-premiership generation. Although on the surface, Shearer’s protestations about England’s damaging niceness are superficially drawn as comparison to those dastardly foreigners, perhaps he is – subconsciously, at least – engaging in some casual retrogressivism.

What really constitutes ‘too nice’? What constitutes ‘too nasty’? Does such lazy moral absolutism even have a place in football? Shearer is, after all, not exactly uniquely qualified to act as the game’s moral arbiter – as Neil Lennon would doubtless testify. Ultimately, the issue is obfuscatory. England did not fail so miserably in Brazil because they were ‘too nice’, just as the Leeds United of Don Revie – to pick one example – owed their success to many and more complex reasons than their fabled ‘nastiness’. Neither an aspirational model, nor (a)moral exemplar, folk demons such as Revie, Maradona or, more recently, Luis Suarez, instead provide a necessary force in English football’s narrative. Through reveling in their notoriety and widespread opprobrium – a populist unpopularity, if you will – we facilitate the permeation of the facile assertion that we’re too nice, too decent, too honest to win.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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Festival Football

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As the flames burst out of the Arcadia spider I am lost, turning to my friend Amie who has ducked away in excitement and momentary fear, we catch each other’s eyes and burst into huge, unaffected grins and carry on dancing to the pounding rhythm. With eleven o’clock approaching we start our short journey to the Park stage, jabbering away enthusiastically about the lights, the beats and plans to meet again when we’re back in the real world. We make it to the park. Mogwai appear shortly after, unaffected and humble Scotsmen with a truly impressive array of amplifying equipment in the background, coloured a cheery orange – I briefly wonder whether it is of political significance before dismissing the thought as unlikely, unworthy and irrelevant, concentrating instead on that delicious feeling of impending joy that I feel within me, but also being transmitted quite clearly from the smaller than deserved but undoubtedly dedicated and passionate people around me, the mud and the hill on the way here having separated the ones who know from the ones who dabble.

They begin, and I’m lost.

Time passes – not so long but nonetheless immeasurable – in unaffected delirium, mad smiles and pats on the back and Amie’s delight only a tiny bit dampened by her repeated, smiled, question of ‘Who are we watching again?’

‘Mogwai’, I reply, an unjustified and probably slightly patronising but ultimately unavoidable hint of paternalistic pride in my voice. They are ‘my’ band you see, in that I brought us to see them and they are astonishing, even though I’ve long realised that I don’t recognise any songs they’re playing tonight and that I’m not going to either. It’s better this way though, each building bit of blinding brilliance is a revelation in and of itself, lacerating its way into my subconscious with the anticipation already growing of the joy of rediscovery to come, the future listen that will channel back to this perfect space and time, right here, right now.

And in that blinding kaleidoscope of sound, vision and feeling I am already half-composing these words. I am already thinking about the article which Joe suggested might be about watching football at festivals. I’m already considering how to convey this experience into words and how to bring football into this epiphany when I realise it’s already there – the power of football can be demonstrated no more vividly than the fact that here I am, in a place of joy and togetherness far outside of football and right at the extremities of my own capacity for fleeting happiness – yet there is still space for me to think about football, still enough room left for the thought of writing about this to add just a little more happiness to that moment, a smile on my face anticipating the process of putting words to paper to come.

Football is emotion isn’t it? It’s an addiction. Like smoking, and like smoking the elation comes in large part from the small element of constant pain that football introduces into your life. A constant, nagging, emotional pain that is never far away. Like trauma, it resurfaces unbidden, triggered both by obvious connections and obscure ones. A flash of colour or a word and, there it is again, Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea (or pick your own of many millions of moments here) back in your mind again. Like smoking, you need the hit of football which you tell yourself you enjoy in order to forget that nagging pain for a while, but of course it will hit again, because that’s how football hooks you in and grabs you and doesn’t let you go. To the point where now that I am 33, and I am honestly a lot more detached about football than I used to be – 2005 in particular I invested a lot of emotion into Liverpool, fortunately for a considerable pay off with that Champion’s League win – I sometimes look back on that younger, more addicted self with a certain envy, not because I miss the elation but because I miss the investment, the way that constant, nagging pain was a rhythm every bit as enveloping and to which I moved every bit as naturally as anything coming from the spider or from Mogwai tonight.

And I’m lost again.

Mogwai build to their climax, as they do, then stop with no fanfare and no encore – they know how to elevate, and they know when they have finished. It’s as useful a skill as any. We meet my girlfriend Alex, and debate our next move in that ineffectual, post-bliss manner where I know that for me, personally, nothing else tonight is going to live up to this anyway. In the end we go to bed, which I am somewhat pleased about.

I wake up fairly early, before my shift, and before I even roll a cigarette I’m checking the results. Colombia 2 – 0 Uruguay, a James Rodriguez double and the lad’s already being compared to Maradona.

I roll my cigarette.

I’m smiling for the rest of the day.

 

Posted by Sebastian Crankshaw

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Angel di Maria’s failed rabona

Mark Lawrenson, unbelievably, spoke for us all when, about 60 minutes into the Argentina v Switzerland game, he let out a groan followed by a rant as Ángel di Maria (who the BBC were keen to tell us gave the ball away 51 times during the game) broke in behind the Swiss defence, only to attempt an ill-advised rabona and send a would-be pull back skewering off into the crowd. The rationale behind this odd decision, when most players would have simply used their right foot to cut the ball back to one of the three team-mates running into the penalty area, was, apparently, that di Maria didn’t trust his right foot enough to do that. This incident crystallises one of my pet hates about contemporary football: the significant number of players who are so absolutely, unapologetically, hopelessly, one-footed.

The king of one-footed players is Robin van Persie, whose weird shovelling body language is his unique way of getting the ball onto his left foot. He’s lucky he’s got a great shot on him when he does, finally, get it onto that left peg, because sometimes he looks like he’ll be turning in circles for hours before he gets a shot away. If van Persie’s one-footedness is conspicuous enough when he plays for his club side, a one-footed klaxon goes off when you watch the Netherlands because his partner up front is Arjen Robben, not only another one-footer but another left-footed-one-footer. How they ever manage to pass to each other is beyond me. There’s Gareth Bale too, and of course, a discussion of one-footers wouldn’t be complete without a mention of David Beckham, who made such a career of whipping in crosses and free-kicks with his right foot that it’s conceivable one could actually come full circle and claim that he’s actually a two-footed player because his standing (left) leg was so important to that relentless reliability of his right.

Why does this rile me up so much? Surely if your left foot is as good as either van Persie’s or Robben’s, or, for that matter, as di Maria’s, it makes sense to use it? Obviously that’s a fair point, but my gripes don’t come so much from them using their best foot – all players do that – but from their over-reliance on that foot. I react to it as a sort of insult to the profession: they’ve spent their whole life playing football (almost literally, given how early academies sign players these days) and yet they can’t work out how to kick the ball with their weaker foot. What’ve they been doing all that time? Yet, in a way, one-footedness is a kind of ultimate professionalism, a physical paean to the late-capitalist division of labour, just taken a step further and extended not only to defenders and attackers, but to the two feet of individual players. If there’s been a lot of talk recently about team selection, and in particular whether you should take lesser but more team oriented players, or better but more individualistic ones, might one-footedness hint toward an answer (of sorts) to that dilemma and be an argument for even more specialism, rather than less? To indulge in a bit of futurism, might we see new rules emerge to better account for this increased sub-division of tasks? Might FIFA take a leaf out of hockey’s book and allow players to be brought on just to take a corner or free-kick and then go off again? Why leave it there? Why not have time-outs every time a defender is about to play a long raking diagonal ball up to the forwards, in order to get your right-footer or left-footer on in time to take it down on their perfect one foot? Then they could stop the game again while they go off and your more all-purpose player comes on to finish off the move. After all, a World Cup is supposed to be an arena for the world’s best players to show off their skills. Aren’t we just depriving ourselves of more beautiful moments of the footballing art – the kill-it-dead left-footed trap, or a geometrically bedazzling right-footed free-kick – by asking the 11 players on the field to be able to use both of their feet? Is the trend of having one pink and one sort of luminous greeny-bluey-turquoisey boot actually a rather subtle campaign strategy on the part of one-footers?

Posted by Mark West

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Germany vs Algeria: the return of the counterfactual

I can’t have been the only one for whom last night’s game between Germany and Algeria ran alongside another, virtual game composed entirely of counterfactuals. Prior to the tournament, fellow SOtB-er Seb Crankshaw wrote articulately on that ‘what if where on one side exists desolation, the other delirium – the flip of a cosmic coin’ [my italics], and of how ‘football deals them out like crystal meth, and here we are, addicted.’ Germany’s narrow victory was full of such split-second cosmic ordinances, each made all the more tantalising – up until the second minute of extra time – by the increasingly unlikely nil-nil scoreline. You knew what was going to happen, even when it repeatedly failed to materialise – Germany would score and Algeria would capitulate – but the alternative, more fantastical scenario of a quarter-final showdown between coloniser and colonisee turned every surging Algeria counter-attack, every Manuel Neuer header (credit to les fennecs for forcing this German side to invent a wholly new position, which BBC have christened the sweeper keeper) into a gateway to the virtual. Over the course of the evening, somewhere in my consciousness of the game, Algeria scored many winning goals, each one more of a release than the last.

By the same token, André Schürrle’s improvised opening goal had been pre-played again and again over the course of the 90 minutes that had preceded it. Every fingertip save from Raïs M’Bolhi (one genuinely delightful by-product of the poor defenses that have characterised this tournament is the endless heroic goalkeeping displays) was somehow a counterfactual itself, and Thomas Müller’s trip during a training ground-style free-kick routine somewhere towards the end of normal time was a particularly perverse one. For an hour and half we found ourselves in a true phantasmagoria, as wave after wave of fantasy denied us access to the reality principle. Even having seen, for example, Wigan beat Manchester City with a last-minute header in 2013’s FA Cup final, the sum total of football matches viewed in a lifetime add up to a basis for induction as unshakeable as our belief in gravity. We knew what type of match this was going to be, we even knew that Germany would need until late in the game to impose their inescapable dominance, leaving plenty of time for Algerian hope spots.

Sure enough, about 30 seconds after making a start on this article, Schürrle scores. We leave the cinema and step out into the street. But then there’s the ending, that brace of late goals that turns the type of match that this is on its head: Algeria have put the ball in Neuer’s net, and fantasy is briefly restored, but it’s not enough to save the counterfactual, as if Manchester United had been three-nil down come injury time that night in Barcelona. Fantasy rages, rages against the dying of the light.

Posted by Luke Healey

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Algeria, France, Celebration and Identity

For the first time ever two African teams have qualified for the World Cup knockout stages and Algeria, who edged out Russia and South Korea in Group G, are one of them. Algerians at home and abroad celebrated les fennecs’ first time getting past the group stage but it is in France where the celebrations were most vocal, and disputed. Seventeen of Vahid Halilhodžić’s squad were born and raised in France, which is also home to the largest community of Algerian descent in the world. It is also Algeria’s former colonial power, which fought a bloody eight-year war against the FLN until Algeria finally secured its independence in 1963. Since then Algeria and Franco-Algerians have become a particular favourite whipping boy of the French far-right.

The nastier elements of French fascism had their eyes on Algerian fans from the off, spreading misinformation on Twitter after the Belgian game, misrepresenting a building in Algiers festooned in Algerian flags as being in Paris (and contrasting it to one in Hammersmith draped in England flags). They also posted photographs of upturned scooters and wheelie-bins that dated from last November. The far-right got what they wanted after the win over South Korea, when there were outbreaks of violence and vandalism in a few towns across France. The vast majority of Algerian fans celebrated festively and without breaking anything but there is often delinquency on the margins, something the far-right lap up. The jack-boot Bloc Identitaire, not so distant from the mainstream UMP, has made regular ‘patrouilles antiracailles’ (‘anti-scum patrols) on public transport across the country in recent months, dressing up in hi-vis jackets and explaining to puzzled commuters what it is they’re ‘protecting’ them from. Bloc Identitaire had planned another patrol in Lyon after the Algeria-Russia game “seeing as the police didn’t do their job on Sunday [after the South Korea match]” as one of them tweeted, but the police swiftly banned the planned action.

There were 74 arrests across France after the match, which is lower than you would have for Bastille Day or New Year’s Eve, but, as many people have reasonably pointed out, a lot for a football celebration, and no other team’s celebrations have degenerated in quite the same way. Still, it is a symptom of wider social problems and it’s hard to blame the majority of Franco-Algerians, much less the Algerian team, for it. For the far-right, of course, it is proof of the innate savagery of Algerians and of how much they hate France. This is the same far-right that hates the French national team and whose chief rag Minute had as its headline ‘voyou’ (thug) after Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi in 2006. Few people in France took so much pleasure in that defeat as the likes of the Front National, Bloc Identitaire and the far-right student organisation Uni.

A number of the French-born players on the Algerian team previously represented France at underage level but changed allegiance when the opportunities for the senior team became scarce. Algeria was one of the main associations to lobby for the change in FIFA rules to allow players to change countries after youth and under-21 level –– a sensible ruling, which has opened the field of international players up to many who might previously have had their paths blocked by an overabundance of talent (even a playmaker as brilliant as Johan Micoud had the misfortune to have his international career stunted by playing at the same time as Zidane). Much has been made of the September 2001 friendly between France and Algeria at the Stade de France, which was abandoned when Algerian fans invaded the pitch with France winning 4-1. It was notorious too for the shameful abuse of Zidane, the man whom most Franco-Algerians rightly revere. But that is half a generation ago at this point. True, there have been times since then, like friendlies at the Stade de France where the Marseillaise has been booed by French-born fans. It is something that has appalled most French people though the mostly teenage fans would say they did it just as a means of barracking the opposition. There is a gulf in understanding, something players such as Zidane and Lilian Thuram did their best to address in statements. This year, the tricouleur has also been conspicuous among jubilant Algerian fans, and most get behind France, and its Franco-Algerian talisman Karim Benzema, with equal gusto.

Often the gauche exuberance of youth can seem far more threatening than it is –– such as when a fairly non-malicious pitch invasion halted a pre-World Cup friendly against Romania in Geneva, prompting Halilhodžić to angrily call for the invasion to stop over the stadium PA (it did soon after). The convoys of beeping cars and scooters that drive through French towns and cities after Algerian successes can be a nuisance to some (particularly French people unused to loud exhibitions of joy) but it’s hard to begrudge those kids the kick they get from it (and Algerians or Maghrebins are far from the only communities to celebrate like that) especially when I know that Irish fans, both at home and in the diaspora, are just as boisterous in their celebrations. The look of joy in the face of friends, colleagues of Algerian origin and my building’s Algerian concierge also make the beeping horns at 3am all the easier to tolerate. While it’s unlikely to happen, if Algeria overcome Germany in the last 16 on Monday, it could set up a date with France in Rio the following Saturday. Should that happen, I don’t think I’ll be getting much sleep that night.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Can Dialectics Break Bricks?

In the reaction to England’s demise, a post-mortem that simultaneously went through the motions and was indulged with great joy (just listen to Chris Waddle’s almost gleeful “We will never, ever learn”), a general sense of proportion and perspective was missing. It is one we have a better chance of gaining now that the group stages are over and we can see in the cold reality of our wallcharts which teams have been successful and which haven’t.

Some, of course, were expected to do well, though it is notable how few of the fancied teams have had it all their own way. Germany, so impressive in the first game against Portugal, had to settle for a draw against Ghana. Only the Netherlands, Colombia, Argentina and Belgium have come through with 100% records, and of those the Netherlands were given a scare against Australia, Argentina needed a last-minute Messi wondergoal to beat Iran, while Belgium have not looked convincing in any of their games. Some of this might be the result of teams taking their foot off the gas for their final group game or making wholesale changes to the team – this was probably the case with France, who made six changes for their game against Ecuador. Of the fancied teams, Spain and Italy are out, Brazil have stumbled, Argentina have looked great because Messi is on form, but as the commentators in their match with Nigeria suggested, look “pretty ordinary” when he doesn’t play. Germany played a perfect game against Portugal and then slowed down a bit.

Allowing for the sparkle of the French and Dutch teams, perhaps the most impressive team thus far has been Colombia, who not only won all their games but have, at +7, the highest goal difference (equal with the Dutch). Their games finished 3-0, 2-1, 4-1. How have they been able to be this effective given they are missing Radamel Falcao, their best player? The answer, or at least part of it,  might be thought of in terms of dialectics. It’s worth roping in Chile here, who have been as remarkable as Colombia. Both of these nations have shown not only that they recognise the dialectical nature of a successful football team, but have been able to marshall the dialectic in different situations, of which Colombia’s loss of Falcao is the perfect example. Their ability to do this has been matched by England’s utter failure in the same regard.

Various reasons have been given for England’s failure: they’re not streetwise enough, they took too many young players, they were too attacking, they didn’t play Rooney in the right position, they couldn’t keep the ball properly, the central defence isn’t up to scratch, they didn’t do enough to entice John Terry back into the team, the Premier League isn’t allowing young English players to come through at the top clubs. All of these undoubtedly had some impact on the team’s showing, yet that very fact suggests that there’s something else, something larger, broader, more general, that they fit into. I think it’s England’s lack of dialectical understanding.

Not being streetwise enough is code for them not wasting time and disrupting the opposition’s rhythm by taking niggly fouls and slowing the game down. Yet this only works as a tactic if you have something positive to offer yourself in response. Being streetwise largely works to nullify an opponent, not give you the edge (unless you can con a referee into giving you a penalty). So while England clearly aren’t streetwise enough, for deeply embedded cultural reasons, they also weren’t brave enough. Some, though, said they were too brave, insofar as they went for an overly-attacking style that left their fragile defence too open. After the Uruguay game in particular, all the commentators seemed to have discovered that Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka weren’t the best centre-half partnership. Chris Waddle suggested that England responded to criticism of their defensive play at Euro 2012 with attacking play at this World Cup. This is the lack of dialectics in a nutshell: one or the other rather than two in a mutually constitutive relationship with one another. Rather, then, than realising that a team can incorporate a certain streetwisdom (someone wondered why England didn’t try to kick Suarez’s dodgy knee) while also playing the direct, exciting counterattacking football that saw them score what was a pretty good goal against Italy, England half-heartedly concocted a plan to nullify Pirlo while hoping that Raheem Sterling could pull something out of the bag. If Sterling’s club manager, Brendan Rodgers, has displayed an admirable flexibility in altering his favoured possession game to better accommodate the counter-attacking prowess of Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, then England’s attempt to, in the words of one of the Radio 5 commentators, “copy Liverpool” says everything you need to know about the national team: rather than arriving at a game-plan based on the players available, the opposition, and a dialectical conception of a team, they’ll just Ctrl-C Ctrl-V thank you very much.

The argument about Rooney in between the first two games was also an example of un-dialectical thinking. Rooney is a great player, went one strand, so he can play anywhere. Rooney is our only world-class player, went another, so he should play in his best position. No-one, anywhere, talked about the team, at least not until it was too late. Yes, Rooney is a great player, but football is a team sport. This is something both Chile and Colombia have realised. We might have said before the tournament that Chile have a couple of outstanding – though not world-class – players in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez; we would probably have said that because those are the two players we know from the Champions League. They have both been excellent, yet even if the Chileans themselves think of this pair in these terms, their game-plans suggest otherwise, or at least suggest that Vidal’s and Sanchez’s abilities can be best utilised – can, perhaps, only be utilised – as part of a coherent collective unit. Colombia offer an even more stark example: they lose their best player before the tournament, which you might think would force them to adopt a more team-minded approach, rather than just relying on Falcao, but what is most remarkable about them is that that team approach, which asks more of the collective in the absence of their main talent, has allowed for individual talent to emerge from it in the form of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. What made the Rooney debate such an infuriating one was its simultaneous proximity and distance to this kind of conception of team sport. Commentators talked incessantly of how Rooney should fit into the team but without a sense that the question involves not just what Rooney can bring to the team but also how the team can help Rooney. The debate is not about whether Rooney or Sterling is ‘better’ in the number 10 role, but how their respective individual-nesses and the collective relate to one another in service of the goal of winning the game.

Unfortunately for England, this lack of dialectical thinking is endemic and extends to the relationship between club and country and that between youth and age not just within the first team itself but between that first team, youth teams and youth development. You could argue it’s also present in patriotic politicians pulling funding for grassroots sports facilities while bidding for World Cups and Olympic Games. There’s a certain defensive rigidity that comes from constant failure and constant pressure, and I’m sure that has contributed to the failure of the national team at this tournament. Yet that pressure itself seems partly to exist to shore up the crumbling foundation of a national footballing identity. There has been quite a bit of talk about this in recent days, with references to the current Belgian team and other European sides who have decided on a way of playing and put that into practice at all levels of the game, from under-10s up to the adult first team. The problem, commentators say, with doing that in England is that those who would be tasked with doing so are incapable of settling on a way of playing. If we’ve finally accepted the antiquated nature of the old favourite 4-4-2, these commentators say, do we play 4-3-2-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or even three centre-backs? How can we answer that, they say, if we don’t know if we want to play a possession-based game or a counter-attacking game? And if we can’t answer that, they say, how do we put practical measures in place, like getting kids to play on smaller pitches to encourage their ball-skills and possession, or focusing on their first touch and movement for counter-attacking?

The attractiveness of those national set-ups where all levels of the game play the same way – Spain being the most obvious recent example – comes less from the methods themselves than the success they have engendered. I balk a little at asking someone at the FA to decide on how English national teams will play for evermore, and balk even more at then asking the same person to implement that plan across the country. I also suspect that the lack of loose, reflexive, dialectical thinking that I’ve been talking about here would be absent, and that a familiar rigidity would gain legitimisation with the addition of some sort of national blue-print; no matter how many times England lost in the group stages, there would be those pointing to the plan and advocating sticking to it. No, what English football needs to discover is a greater suppleness, something displayed the other night against Ivory Coast by none other than the Greeks, who have perfected the limited art of defending en masse and sneaking 1-0 wins since they one-nilled all the way to glory in Euro 2004. Not only do they play defensively, but they’ve been doing so for eight years! If ever there were an example of footballing rigidity, this would surely be it. What then, to make of the sight of Giorgos Karagounis smacking the bar with a thirty-yard pile-driver, or the attacking verve that led them to hit the woodwork in the first half, or the pressing that led to their first goal? I don’t know. It’s possible they’ll go back to their defensive ways in the next round against Costa Rica, and go home. But can you imagine a similar suppleness of mind and change of character in the England team?

Posted by Mark West

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

Football with the commentary off

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It seems that the art of football commentary in Britain has been slumping towards a nadir over the last few years, mired as it is in blandness, (Phil Neville, Michael Owen) gibbering inanity (Townsend), cynicism (Lawrenson) and a kind of unhelpful will-to-soundbites (Tyldesley). Perhaps this diagnosis has something to do with Twitter. The site can act as an echo chamber for negative opinions, like the ones Phil Neville was forced to confront after his stint in the BBC commentary box for England’s game against Italy; it remains the case that some lower-profile commentators, like the Beeb’s Simon Brotherton, Guy Mowbray and Kevin Kilbane, do a fine job. In a strange way, though, reading Twitter for digs at Townsend or Lawrenson – the single worst offender, in my book – can actually ameliorate the situation of having to listen to their summaries; without the lightness that Twitter can bring to bear on their verbal stuplimity the experience might merely be disappointing and draining.

Of course, watching the World Cup should never be disappointing and draining, so solutions are sought – baiting Lawro on Twitter might be one way of getting around this problem, and seeking out foreign streams online might be another. But the idea of simply watching the game on mute is oddly under-represented in the chatter around commentaries and commentators. And it’s a singularly effective solution: not only are the depressing quibbles about foreign cheats and the “in and around”s dispensed with, but a whole new awareness of what’s actually transpiring on the pitch can be acquired. There’s something quite counterintuitive about this: usually we turn to commentaries for help in comprehending the actions unfolding on our screens, to keep in track of who is playing the ball to whom, and perhaps for the odd gesture towards some back-story or real-life context for a victory or defeat. Obviously, this is all lost when the sound is turned down. But, to borrow an argument from Timothy Bewes’ book The Event of Postcolonial Shame, this all belongs in any case to the ‘subtractive conscious of a being who writes.’ Bewes is here drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, from whose perspective, ‘insofar as we speak, write, act, or paint, insofar as we express ourselves in any form whatsoever, we do not add to knowledge of the world but detract from it.’ Experiencing the game with the commentary removed might, by this line of argument, and somewhat paradoxically, be to experience it in its fuller aspect.

To experience the game minus the commentary is also to experience football’s communication by means of a visual and embodied, as opposed to verbal and conceptual, language. Early film theorist Béla Balázs has a useful line on this: writing in the moment before talkies became cinema’s norm, Balázs was effusive about the possibility that silent film might allow society to reconnect with what he considered the ‘true mother tongue of mankind.’ In his 1924 book Visible Man, Balázs remarked that,

the situation now is that once again our culture is being given a radically new direction – this time by film. Every evening many millions of people sit and experience human destinies, characters, feelings and moods of every kind with their eyes, and without the need for words. For the intertitles that films still have are insignificant; they are partly the ephemeral rudiments of as yet undeveloped forms and partly they bear a special meaning that does not set out to assist the visual expression. The whole of mankind is now busy relearning the long-forgotten language of gestures and facial expressions. This language is not the substitute for words characteristic of the sign language of the deaf and dumb, but the visual corollary of human souls immediately made flesh. Man will become visible once again.

There’s a weird vein of white suprematism to Balázs’ argument about what form this visibility would take, and the writer would have rejected the application of his ideas to football, given his conviction that ‘while sport can make the body healthy and beautiful, it cannot make it eloquent, since it strengthens only the animal qualities.’ But bracketing these concerns for the moment, we can align those positive qualities that Balázs identifies with silent film with those that emerge when watching World Cup games on mute, where the only language on display, and the only language required, is that produced by movements of the body. Away from the blanketing influence of the media narrative produced by commentators, drifts, slippages and tightenings of tactical formations become clearer, efforts and strainings become more acute, sharp sequences of passes sing brighter. As Jennifer Doyle’s recent piece on last weekend’s USA-Portugal game asserts, ‘Soccer is a dialogic sport’. Turning down the volume on your television reminds you that this has nothing to do with the back-and-forth of Clive Tyldesley and Andy Townsend.

Posted by Luke Healey

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

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Thrice Bitten: Suarez and Football’s Unspeakable Masochism

It’s almost a given nowadays that football fans indulge in a form of quiet masochism. Even supporting one of the behemoths of the club game offers more in disappointment than in satisfaction: a season like Manchester United’s Treble-winning campaign in 1998-1999 or Barcelona’s comparable feat in 2008-2009 constitutes nothing more than a rule-proving exception. Lower down, the situation is beyond parody. I’ve been watching Darlington for 24 years now, a ‘career’ of fandom that has seen two promotions and an admittedly astonishing last-minute FA Trophy win ‘balanced’ out by three relegations, three administrations, inane stadium moves, two play-off final defeats, countless plodding seasons in mid-table, injuries to star players, unimaginably disappointing signings, defeats in winnable cup-ties to opponents who then draw Premier League sides, corrupt owners, lying owners, deluded owners, a made-up sponsor and an attempt to solve drainage problems on the pitch by covering it with thousands of worms, all of whom died immediately to leave an un-drained playing surface decorated with an invertebrate version of Goya’s Desatres de la Guerra. I know, in other words, that I am going to be disappointed. This is the acceptable face of footballing jouissance.

However, in my efforts to find something to say about you-know-who doing you-know-what, it struck me that the masochism of disappointment is matched by something a little more disturbing. To begin with, watch (almost certainly ‘rewatch, come to think of it) the footage of Suarez’s bite of Giorgio Chiellini:

I watched this a number of times last night and this morning and, the more I did so, the less the bite seemed to possess an essential quality of, well, bitiness, if it ever did in the first place. A thought experiment here: which adjectives come to mind to describe the phenomenon of being bitten? ‘Sharp’? ‘Lacerating’? Both of these, for sure, but I’d also submit ‘acute’ to try and really get to the specifics of this form of pain (always bearing in mind Elaine Scarry’s argument that the semiotics of pain are necessarily lacking, that language stumbles at corporeality). Being bitten by, for example, a cat is an experience of strange acuity, a clarification or awakening to the fact of one’s own embodiment. Cod-psychology perhaps, but physical masochism is always, in one sense, a demand for visceral proof of the materiality of the world.

Every viewing of Suarez’s bite brings home its visual fuzziness, its lack of capacity to provide acuity. At no point have I found myself wincing in the way that staged violence in films provokes; I would say that this is actually quite standard for off-the-ball fouls in football. For all of the punches and headbutts and elbowings that occur, and must surely hurt substantially, few of them seem to be captured with any sense of tactility. To try and prove this to myself, I’ve been re-watching Duncan Ferguson’s headbutt on Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay, an offence deemed so far beyond acceptability that the Rangers striker was jailed for three months:

Now I’ve played enough football in my life – and spent enough time being a teenage boy in a British comprehensive school – to know just how much pain getting a head square in the face involves. It’s a lot, if you haven’t had the pleasure. And yet, once again, the video fails to convey any sense of violent pain’s immediacy. Compare Joe Pesci’s pen-stabbing scene in Casino to get an idea of how visual media can transmit the phenomenology of pain:

On one level, we watch the video of Suarez biting or Ferguson butting countless times because we want to try to position ourselves in the debate. However, I believe that this is not the whole story. After the first viewing fails to confirm physicality to us, we watch again and again and again, hoping for some of that acuity while paradoxically lessening the possibility of experiencing it thanks to desensitization. Eventually, the loop is just stuff happening banally on a screen, drained utterly of any guarantee of presence. It fails to provide what is ultimately the dark masochism of football, the desire to steal the pain from its on-pitch victim: perhaps the moral debate around Suarez is a way of sublimating the strange wish that it was us being bitten.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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

Notes on Fallout

So, despite my making the cavalier declaration that the combination of results needed for England to survive in the World Cup post-Uruguay did ‘not strike me as impossibly unlikely’, the inappropriately nicknamed Three Lions are mathematically out of the tournament. After a weekend of press coverage which was, at least in the broadsheets, largely sympathetic to Roy Hodgson and his players, the recriminations are beginning. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst of spite has been Harry Redknapp, a man incredibly popular with tabloid journalists because he’s a bit like Terry Venables in his bloke-selling-perfume-on-Dagenham-market charm and also because he tends to answer their calls. Redknapp’s take on the weird – both enervated and over-hasty – performances in Manaus and São Paulo was that perhaps some of the team didn’t want to be there, a notion he backed up by claiming that, during his tenure at Tottenham, a number of his English players asked their manager to withdraw them from the national squad. The consequent uproar has offered us yet another insight into the intersection of football’s small-p politics and ‘real’ political ideology.

To begin with, there’s the story of what is happening beneath the surface of Redknapp’s apparently ‘helpful’ disclosure. The relationship between the QPR boss and Roy Hodgson could not be more Shakespearean if it were staged on a balcony in Verona, written in iambic pentameter and grossly misunderstood by the National Curriculum. In one corner, you have the incumbent leader, a benign if occasionally gauche man who reads European literature in his spare time and cheers his young followers with legitimate space tales. In the other, you have the (alleged) popular choice, his route to the throne blocked by what he takes to be conspiracy, consumed by the rage of his embittered sense of entitlement. With Hodgson having his job guaranteed by the FA in the wake of the Uruguay game, it is hard not to suspect that Redknapp is attempting a Iagovian coup-by-insecurity.

Hodgson and Steven Gerrard have responded intelligently to what might well be an act of provocation. Gerrard in particular has found a skillful way of walking the line between humouring Redknapp and letting him know that, however annoying it is to have him pissing into the tent, he’s not going to be given an opportunity to micturate out of it. By asking for the names of those who attempted to avoid England ‘duty’, the captain is, I think, offering up the suggestion that the would-be deserters simply don’t exist other than as fabrications in a more pernicious agenda. I have it on pretty reliable authority that some players find playing for England in friendlies a bit of an inconvenience at times, but this in no way proves Redknapp’s allegations. Moreover, why shouldn’t players find international games – particularly the utterly meaningless trips to shit-at-football-but-very-wealthy countries that the FA send the squad to as part of their interminable branding campaign and the games scheduled for no reason other than to repay the cost of rebuilding Wembley – tedious?

The assumption that Redknapp’s stirring will live or die by is that all footballers are unquestioningly patriotic. I’d dispute this. When we see them belting out the national anthem or doing one of those ludicrous pride-and-passion pre-match space-fillers, I suspect that patriotism is something which is used as a focal point for team-mindedness, a node for professional success. One does find the occasional Siniša Mihajlović or Zvonimir Boban for whom nation-love is clearly a very real and visceral thing, but I’d hazard a guess that for the average international footballer patriotism is a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch share their blood-and-soil mentality: for the most part, footballers focus themselves out of any formal political identification (it’s rarely pointed out as it destroys the depiction of players as asininely nationalistic, but the Mihajlovićs are outliers on the right just as much as the Graeme le Sauxs and Pat Nevins are on the left). Presenting footballers as purely patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about the politics of the working class from which they are almost unanimously drawn, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the proles as borderline fascists (which would make socialism into an illegitimate bourgeois charade).

This links tellingly to the stories society tells itself about the army. While the majority who join are motivated by the route military service offers out of poverty – hence the similarities in geographical origin between infantry soldiers and international footballers – the narrative is that they do so for the patria. In one fell swoop, the shame of Britain’s socio-economic inequality is masked and its ridiculous, disastrous post-imperial wars touched up with affective ‘credibility’. The logic is that war can’t be a crime against the poor because the poor like going to war, as if patriotism in the Forces isn’t largely a case of having to locate some structure for coping (this is implicitly shown to be the case in various works by reporters embedded in the US military during the War on Terror, notably Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and Sebastian Junger’s War. Geoff Dyer’s recent account of time spent on an American aircraft carrier drops heavy hints in the same direction. Clearly, you don’t have to be a Marxist hardliner to believe expediency is the basis for a significant proportion of enlistments.)

And so, having drawn my own analogy between football and the military, it’s time to turn to the terminally nonsensical – and that’s putting it politely – Ian Wright. If there’s a league table of footballers making inappropriate interventions in affairs, Wright would vie at the top with Paul Gascogine turning up at a siege with a can of lager and a fishing rod for ‘Moaty’. The former Arsenal striker and present-day useful idiot declared in today’s Sun that players who tried to dodge an international call-up should be forced to ring the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to shirk. There’s plenty of grimly funny imaginings of this doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, so I’ll decline the opportunity to add my own and simply point to the fact that this is yet more evidence of how football is being used as one vector in the increasing militarisation of British society. Most recent tournaments (those that have supplied a victory) have found their UK TV coverage adorned with cutaways to Our Boys enjoying the game with non-alcoholic beers at Camp Bastion as a respite from ‘holding off the Taliban’, and then there’s the way that the FA Cup draw seems no longer the preserve of a monotone Graham Kelly but of serving Forces personnel. You’re more likely to find discounted tickets being offered to soldiers than to the unemployed nowadays, which is pretty instructive if you want to think about how the Tories have capitalised on Blair’s wars to cloak their vicious-as-fuck austerity drive in a miasma of nationalistic sentiment. Remember the poppies-on-shirts debate and the EDL’s protest on a Zurich rooftop? It’s all that all over again.

As I’ve said above, I think Gerrard and Hodgson have played pretty cutely so far. There does, however, need to be a louder voice asking why a player should be asked to feel a certain way about representative sport and what it means ideologically that they so frequently are. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with a player taking pride in turning out for their childhood team than with them pontificating about the moral obligation to want to play for one’s country. Last year, my team Darlington won the regional Northern League, the first step – I hope – on the road back to the Conference, from which bankruptcy had exiled them. Forced to rely on cheap local talent, the Quakers fielded a Darlo fan, Steve Johnson, in a crucial top-of-the-table away match against Spennymoor. After a 3-1 victory, Johnson headed to the travelling fans to reveal a t-shirt which read, in an homage to and bettering of Mario Balotelli’s, ‘Why Always Us?’ That‘s solidarity.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

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