Friday, May 8, 2009
Presence and Absence
"Football defeated anti-football" — Catalan press (uncredited)
"What is football?" — James Richardson on Football Weekly
First, a confession: I missed all the Champions League quarter and semi finals for the first time in five years because, like millions (well, hundreds of thousands) of other NAFFS, I was working a boring day job (incidentally, that's also the reason my post rate has fallen through the floor but you didn't come here to listen to me talk about my 'problems,' did you?).
This means I've had to rely on a) the press b) football blogs and c) various video highlight roundups to piece together the drama, and opinions varied to the extent I had to make my own choice: was Chelsea shit on a stick, or did they do what they had to do to win?
Everything after the Chelsea Barcelona second leg was nicely split in two for me. Attack or defense? Money or glory? Art or success? Football or anti-football? Presence or absence? Really, this all comes down to JR's question: what is football? The hysteria over Chelsea's performance over two legs put me in the knee-jerk, devil's advocate position of defending fubtol de resultados, because really, what else is there? Football would be nothing more than kemari if it was limited to a lovely showcase of tricks, nice passes and well-scored goals (basically Man United in the Premier League is the best present example I can think of). What about fluke results, the obstinate underdog digging in, destroying everything, pressing pressing pressing pressing in order to eke out a result? What about AVFC, like a seventeen year-old at the prom, grinding against Bayern in 1982 to win the European Cup, boring the hell out of the neutral while raining glory on Brum?
I say this because, yes, even though Chelsea has spent millions upon millions of pounds on player transfers and wages, they were the underdogs against Barcelona. Disgusting thing to say, isn't it? But if one takes the position that because Chelsea are a West London club with oodles of (borrowed) cash 'earned' by one of many Russian oligarchs who took advantage of a free market forced on Russia by right-wing American economists after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, they should automatically be a dominant side, then one believes price equals use value. That's an erroneous notion, and it leads people to do silly things like boo Ashley Cole in an England shirt at Wembley.
The fact is, Barcelona are so good, we're not able to process it yet. Did we all forget Real Madrid's 18 unbeaten run ended at the Santiago Bernabeu with six Barcelona goals? Or that Eto, Henry and Messi have more goals between them than the total goal tallies for the other La Liga clubs? Others will write about this later, especially if Barca win the European Cup.
Yet for some reason, only Hiddink seemed able to step back and grasp the reality of the situation: obfuscate or die. So, he told his players to press press press, hit Barcelona where they're weak, force them to take shots from outside the area. And because they're Chelsea, they absorbed the sort of vitriol saved up for moments when flash, top four clubs resort to tactics worthy of Bolton. "They didn't play by the rules, they are anti-football," said practically everyone not in Chelsea garb. But no one is admitting the obvious: Barcelona were miles ahead of Chelsea in quality, and had Chelsea tried to match them in attacking excellence, pass pass pass champagne football, they would have lost well before Iniesta's 93rd minute strike.
Chelsea waved away football for football's sake. They wanted to win. They rejected the notion of some sort of ontological impetus to entertain, to seek beauty in the play over the dead, ossified result. They chose absence over presence because there was no other way to win (please see Malcolm Gladwell's excellent piece on underdogs in the most recent New Yorker, to which I owe this article). Futbol del Arte has a venerable history in the sport, and Lord knows Don Revie was no entertainer, but are we ready for a sport where the absent, silent honour of winning is considered the mere by-product of the presence of splendid, gorgeous play?
Chelsea or Arsenal?