Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The obligatory Joe Cole post

In my controversial "soccer puritan" post, I deliberately refrained from supplying a strict definition of the notion of "entertainment." I could, for example, watch the often defensively negative and relatively low-scoring Holland vs. Brazil 1974 World Cup match over and over and still find it the single most fascinating game in the history of football.  My view on entertaining football is similar to my opinion on the value of contemporary composition; I can accept viscerally unpleasant content, as long as there is an overarching sense of coherence in form. Some might prefer to use the term "aesthetic beauty," but to me that's a pretentious overreach into the "artistry" of football. It's a game, no?  

It was therefore interesting to read among the many negative comments just what sort of "entertainment" readers believed I was hinting at: the consumption based model of the Eee Pee El. Because of a Guardian main-page link, the quality of the comments was staggeringly good, but this one in particular stood out and I think it's worth re-posting in full:
It appears we are mostly going around in circles, so let’s be clear about what has changed since 1970: Why is it that nearly everyone agrees that what Brazil accomplished cannot be repeated? The biggest change is not that teams play more defensively or are more results oriented. Both Italy and Uruguay adopted extreme measures while advancing deep into that tournament. The biggest difference is that players are far more fit and that tactical systems are far more rigid. The two go hand and hand. Brazil’s players made tactical adjustments during matches, most notably in the semifinal against Uruguay when Chlodoaldo and Gerson switched roles because the latter was being man-marked so tightly. But they did not have a rigid system, which is why West Germany manager Helmut Schön claimed they were not the best team in Mexico, just “a marvelous collection of individuals.”

Schön’s comment still begs the question, however: Why is it that a collection of individuals could succeed forty years ago—overcoming the rigid systems used by the English, the Uruguayans, and the Italians—but would almost certainly fail today. The answer is the increased level of fitness. The average player ran five kilometers per match in the 1970 World Cup, but that number more than doubled within 20 years. Players also sprint far more often. To be more specific, according to ProZone, the average player ran 10.2 kilometers per match in the EPL in the 2004/5 season. And the number of times players on a team run ‘flat out’ increased by phenomenal 243 percent during a three-year period (through 2004/5), from 136 times per team to 331. The average player sprinted 7.36 km per match (I would be willing to bet workrate has continued to increase, but I have not seen any newer figures).

The dramatic difference in these numbers overstates the point slightly. The heat and altitude in Mexico is far more taxing than the conditions in England, or South Africa. But this large increase in fitness and stamina has helped contribute to a huge tactical revolution. Understandably, coaches have taken full advantage of the fact that players are bigger, stronger, faster, and have more stamina. There is more pressure and far less space. The upshot of this is that skillful players struggle to assert themselves when pitted against well organized, unrelenting athletic units. Gerson may be the best passer to ever grace a field, but he would struggle to find time today, especially since he reputedly smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

If this is correct, we should really be asking a different question: what kind of balance do we want to strike between skillful expression, on the one hand, and athletic assertion on the other. Teams are always going to play to win, but do we want a game where the Gersons and Chlodoaldos prosper in the center of midfield or one where the Gilberto Silvas and Melos do?

The answer seems obvious to me. This is not about European tradition versus North American consumer-oriented entertainment. The group you named the Puritans seems to be of the belief that the evolution of the sport should be left more or less unchecked by rule makers and that aesthetic concerns—which is not the same thing as entertainment—are entirely beside the point. Maybe I am missing something, but I would much rather watch Brazil of ’70 than the post-1986 vintages of the seleção.
This post leaves a huge question mark: what, if anything, should be changed in the modern game to accommodate the undeniable upsurge in fitness? It's hard to think about this question for more than five minutes without conjuring up one of Blatter's idiotic rule change proposals, but I don't think it is necessarily a question to cast aside completely. Still, if you were to press me, I would say a rule change is unnecessary; Spain and Barcelona have demonstrated a very pleasing compromise between the two, Inter and Switzerland's victories aside. Anyway, I don't want to tackle it today, but I do think it leads nicely into a brief discussion about the career of Joe Cole.

In many ways, the popular perception of Cole is of a player completely alien to the English mold. As Ronay wrote on his Cole post yesterday, "If Cole seemed sometimes more convincing in an England shirt than a Chelsea one, this adds to sense of what might have been. Perhaps the Premier League is to blame. How good would he be by now if that 17-year-old Cole had been transplanted to Spain, or even Germany?"

You can see where Ronay's coming from. In many ways, the Premier League is at the forefront of the faster, athletically-focused football model. Cole, with his cheeky runs, trickery on the wing, and patient creativity almost from a different world (or continent if you want to be obvious), was never going to quite fit in. Like Heskey, Cole's stop-start career might have been the result of rigid English typecasting. Perhaps that's part of the reason why Cole has generally performed for the English national team while England's other Premier League players have faltered. International football often favours the patient team in possession in search for a decisive pass, as opposed to the whipped-in-cross bonanza of a Premier League Saturday afternoon.   

Look at the room, the lack of pressure on Cole as he takes this alarming hit.  I think it was on Football Weekly ages ago when somebody mentioned how, in South American journalistic circles, Joe Cole was one of the most respected respected/feared players on the English national team. And there is reason to hope Cole's style of play might finally be respected at Liverpool. Read the comments of Pep Segura, former technical director at Barcelona's training academy, La Masia, and now at Liverpool: "...if you want to play the way Barcelona do, you cannot achieve it with lots of big, athletic players. You need small, technical ones, though with some balance in the side. You have to identify the profile of player you need and, from the very start, teach the players everything about that system.”

It's hard to see Hodgson as a Barca disciple, but he is an English manager with an open mind. Rafa's Spanish technical recruits will likely be a blessing for Roy, rather than a bauble. Hopefully Cole's capture was achieved in consultation with them, and hopefully Cole can once again inspire the renewed possibility that beauty might once again have a home in the English game outside of Arsenal's tragic loveliness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Heskey for MLS

Europeans—and yes UK, I'm chucking you in there as well—can be very stupid about all things North (sorry Sigi) American, especially when it comes to soccer. That's such a banal sentence to write that I'm almost embarrassed to open with it, but it boggles the mind that Lawrence Donegan can still win assignments to cover the "American" side of things in football, and that the Guardian still thinks it's pithy to ask its UK readers whether MLS is a retirement league.

But because I'm tired (read hungover), and also because Jason Davis and Tom Dunmore have already lent their excellent minds to the subject, I don't want to go off on the whole European coverage of the Henry to Red Bulls story. 

No, what I want to talk about is Emile Heskey's retirement from international football, and why I think he'd be a way better fit for MLS than Henry.

Bear with me a moment.

I remember listening to John Ashdown (I think it was him anyway) telling a story on the World Cup Football Daily on Heskey's initial development according to the "typical strong English centre forward" model while playing for Leicester City's youth team. Apparently when young he was a pacey attacker more in line—ridiculous as it may seem—with a Robin van Persie, but that just wouldn't do for English club football. You had to be strong on the ball, you had to get all up in central defenders faces and make your own space, not run into it. That was a job for midfielders. So they bulked him up, slowed him down, and while his amazing finishing would flash brilliantly over several years for Leicester and Liverpool, and sometimes Aston Villa, you did get the sense that Heskey was never quite comfortable in his own skin.

That's why Heskey's retirement seems more symbolic of the end of the England/Premier League/4-4-2 "pace, passion and pride" era than England's hopeless exposure against Germany in the round of 16. Coming on the heels of Jonathan Wilson's typically excellent half-obituary for the international relevance of 4-4-2, a formation for which players like Heskey were (literally, if you believe Ashdown) designed, the announcement feels like that of a lonely worker whose trade has been long-rendered irrelevant by "advances in the field."

Still, Heskey didn't succumb to frustration; he just knew that was that. He was clowned in an England shirt every time he put it on in later years, but out he went anyway, not barking at the TV cameras, not asking for support from "the fans," just sort of running out and doing what he was told. He reminds me in some ways of a less angry Danny Dichio, a classic English centre-forward who was cast aside as a relic overseas but found unlikely pride in a Toronto FC shirt. Preki doesn't coach that sort of club anymore, but Heskey seems like he'd take better advantage of an MLS berth than Henry, a player New Yorkers are going to have to get used to seeing standing outside the 18 yard box with hands on hips, staring at his midfielders like an impatient Parisian flaneur waiting for his bill at the cafe.

I know: why even talk about Heskey coming here, a player who has literally retired, and further the MLS "rest home" myth? Well, come on. Yes, MLS produces great young players, but DPs are often proven Euro stars slightly past their best-by dates. That's just a fact of life. The issue is whether MLS should just take them any way they can get them. No doubt Henry is still capable of brilliance, but his MLS stint, like Beckham's, will be a sideshow failure. Heskey on the other hand, probably more than Dichio, could easily win over an MLS city. Fans would be charmed by the quiet Englishman who doesn't move around as much any more but is still capable of finding his own space and scoring well-taken goals. Far removed from the brutal expectations of a feckless fanbase, he might return to the instincts of his youth and—who knows?—even start playing in his own skin again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Soccer puritanism and the sin of "entertainment"

There is a feeling in the air, a sort of sea change, following Sunday's final. You mostly find it on apologist message boards and blog comment sections, but some have written long form posts on it. It's the idea that "entertaining football" is a crass Americanization, a romantic revision born in Mexico 1970. Under this view, television cameras, wages and commercial sponsorships are merely incidental to the purity of twenty-two players playing a soccer game. It embraces the potentially devastating errors of referees and officials because, as Declan Hill once told me, the game played on the global stage should be a mere extrapolation from the game played by children in dusty back lots in Kinshasa.  It rejects the idea of fair play or positive tactics as inherently good qualities in the sport; those are the gripes of moralizing North American observers who just "don't understand" how soccer is viewed "in the wider world." And it describes soccer spectators not as paying consumers in search of some good goals and attacking play, but as participants in a mysterious foreign ritual, shielded from crude American eyes.  

The Globe and Mail's John Doyle, writing about the school inside River Plate stadium, sums it up:
The texture of the connection between the team and one part of Buenos Aires is just indescribably deep. In much of the world, soccer is like that – it’s not an entertainment enterprise. It is part of life itself. It’s not a TV show.
Not a TV show. Let's call this view "soccer puritanism." Sometimes it can be disguised as a particularly noxious form of Euro snobbery in North America, but it curries favour with soccer people pretty much everywhere.

And it is absolute guff.

As a more talented writer than I might argue, all Sport is a TV Show. Football is no different from the NFL, NHL, or all those commercialized league sports soccer adherents tend to describe as genetically inferior to the Simplest Game. Millions around the world tune don't tune in to watch/bet on the same four teams bang heads in the Premier League because "it's part of life." Suarez is not Che Guevara because he stuck his hand out to stop a goal, and Maradona isn't the sly devil spoken about in Argentine myth because he volleyballed in a goal against England in 1986, no matter what cheesy prose Jorge Valdano has in mind to convince us otherwise.

Just as Ian Plenderleith wrote in the last WSC that soccer is not going to save developing nations from poverty because everyone looks happy waving flags and singing songs in foreign languages while the games are on, neither is football somehow "above" the often crass demands of the television entertainment industry. Spectators don't pay thousands of pounds and Euros in season tickets and hundreds of pounds on cable subscriptions because of a "great global ritual." Footballers in Europe are usually classified as entertainment workers. World Cup advancing teams get player bonuses, paid not in glory but in Euros. Kick-off times are determined by TV networks, and the talented players who embody the aesthetic spirit of blah blah blah are bought and sold with money earned from television rights.

Soccer isn't "just" a game, and I don't mean in the Shankly sense. It has long since morphed into a global money-making juggernaut, and no, that isn't a mark of the market moving into the temple. Maybe (playing with fire here) it's not even a bad thing. It's easy to take the Galeano approach and say that because soccer has been increasingly commercialized, it has become inherently worse from an aesthetic perspective, as if Garrincha's poverty somehow made his skill all the more ingenious.  That too is false, as many a cracking, multi-million dollar Champions League semifinal will attest.

Soccer needs purity like a fish needs a bicycle. I'm a back-and-forth neutral on video replay, but I don't understand the absurd, pseudo-religious opposition to a technology that could in seconds rectify a simple wrong, like a big white ball crossing a big white line.  I also don't think Americans who thought Sunday's final was boring, cynically physical, unskilled, and yes, low-scoring, are vapid idiots addicted to the instant gratification of the American Sports Machine. I just think they have a pair of eyes. While Zonal Marking's after-the-fact summaries are consistently brilliant, they have the habit of limiting soccer's 'ought' to a dismal, tactically negative 'is,' and many of us will walk away, slightly confused, assuming that must have been a brilliant final after all.

I just wish sometimes we could do away with this canned romanticism that insists we should be grateful for whatever the game gives us. Soccer is entertainment. While fair, positive, attacking play can't and shouldn't be demanded a la Blatter's wacky rule changes, it should at least be firmly encouraged without fear the whole enterprise will go tumbling into a black hole of American schmaltz, or as Doyle put it, a series of "Hallmark moments."

I don't want Hallmark moments, I don't want "hugs or lessons." But I do want entertainment, and any football supporter who states otherwise is deluding themselves.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The World Cup is over

The first thing I read that inspired me to write about soccer was Brian Glanville's "Story of the World Cup." My brother picked it up for me at a garage sale and wrapped it for Christmas, but it stayed unread on my bookshelf for a long time. Who wanted to read through a yellowed compendium of fifty year-old match reports?

Except the story Glanville told of the World Cups of old—1954 and the Battle of Berne, the weird antics surrounding England in Mexico, 1970, and the revelation that the 1974 final was in fact awful, a poorly refereed mess (at least according to Brian)—was one I'd never read. Glanville's relentless suspicion about FIFA's intentions behind the Big Show kindled a sort of manic curiosity about football on my part, mostly because in the North American soccer dark age, writers would either wax embarrassingly poetic or attempt vaudeville-esque comic dismissals about the world's interest in soccer. Glanville's fierce defense of football from it's supposed bureacratic protagonists was completely new to me.

Ominously, the edition my brother managed to pick up ended in 1990. Glanville had this to say about the final: 
"It was probably the worst, most tedious, bad-tempered Final in the history of the World Cup. Diego Maradona was half-crippled; Claudio Caniggia, Argentina's dashing blond striker, was suspended—the result of a mere handball. The Germans, utterly uninspired, won through a penalty which should probably never have been given, but most neutral spectators were just glad to be done with the game. This time, the tournament did not escape the consequences of its elephantiasis."
You might say 2010 was marginally better, with Iniesta's goal after extra time, although in a sense it too should never have happened once Howard Webb failed to award the corner. But really, what's the difference? Maddeningly, it didn't have to end this way. 2010 had been an entertaining World Cup following 2006's cookie cutter affair. Germany rose above the ancient cliche's about efficiency and organization on the back of some wild-running youngsters, Uruguay dazzled even as they prickled the conscience, Holland never looked convincing but they at least looked game to do something, especially against Brazil.

Speaking of the Dutch, reading through WSC's World Cup preview on Holland this morning, I was bemused to see this: "The backline is seen as the main weakness. The attack, in contrast, is up there with the best of them—assuming guys like Arjen Robben and van Persie are fit." So what happened last night? Part of me think the Dutch bought into their own stylistic inferiority and, based on the susceptible superiority of World Cups past, were determined to wear it as a badge. Lost in all the nationalistic rumination about the two missed opportunities in 74 and 78 (and arguably a third in 98) was the idea that the Dutch were perhaps not that bad.

Indeed, with Van Bommel and De Jong kicking the shit out of Spain, Robben still managed to find space in the final Spanish third, usually on the counter attack in the second half. I'm no Zonal Marking, but I wonder what the Dutch might have accomplished had Kuyt and Robben were a little more adventurous on the wing earlier on, with van Persie and Sneijder doing something cute and old fashioned by running onto a solid through ball once in a while.

The Dutch didn't have a particularly deep back four, but the point seemed to cloud out the Spanish midfield and to stop Xavi and Iniesta and Alonso by essentially running into them. Was it absolutely necessary? Was it "right"? Again, it seemed the Dutch bought into tikki-takka and Spain's beauty, and believed themselves to be inferior but "pragmatic." It was as if they were determined not even to attempt to resemble a team confident in scoring, lest they dredge up old ghosts from the seventies.

Still, I can't help but think that if Holland trusted in their ability to exploit space, if Kuyt and Sneijder felt confident enough to get a bit farther forward, if van Bommel and De Jong believed in their own capacity for creativity and let the back four worry about defending for once, maybe it would have just come down to what football apparently used to be about: scoring more goals than the other team.

Terribly naive, I know. Mourinho would read and laugh. Anyway, the World Cup is over. It was over twenty-four years ago, and I don't think it's coming back. That ugly golden trophy is getting crushed under its own weight, the expectations are too high, the myths have been told and retold a few too often, the "feeling" we're supposed to feel for the "unifying power of football" more a mark of hope, an admission of absence, than fact. As we get farther and farther away from 1986, that tournament seems to loom ever larger over us. We get more and more tense watching World Cup games, worrying about goals-per-game averages, classics, the weight of the ball, the attendances, the atmosphere, the sum of parts that never quite add up to a whole. We wonder when it will be football again, when the World Cup will once more dip into the ineffable without it feeling forced.

And then we wait another four years and tell ourselves, this time, this time will be different.