For the undecided, uninitiated fan, world football can seem like an overwhelming array of options. The biggest teams on the planet have distinct histories, often colliding with world politics. Did you know that SS Lazio, in Rome, was Mussolini’s team? That Real Madrid was Francisco Franco’s team?
The point I’m trying to make here is that good and evil really do exist on the football field. Nowadays, that doesn’t always mean that a dictator is your squad’s key supporter; aspects of the game itself, like style of play, also inform whether a team is playing good football or evil football.
To understand this dichotomy, let’s start with defining “good” football. Morally just football is, for lack of a better way to put it, beautiful. Think the Tika-taka of Barcelona, Spain’s national team 2008-12, and, most importantly, the Total Football of Ajax and that Dutch national team of the 70’s under Rinus Michels. In addition to Johan Cruyff and Michels, perhaps the most iconic evangelist of beautiful football was former Argentinian World Cup-winning national coach Cesar Luis Menotti, known as “El Flaco” (“The Skinny One,” or as I like to translate, “The Thin Man”).
Menotti was as much coach as political philosopher. The iconic image is of Menotti with a cigarette in hand, expounding on the core values of football and politics, and the intertwined nature of the two:
“There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football. Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method … obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players.”
The present-day inheritor of the progressive world football mantle is Pep Guardiola, the progenitor of Barcelona’s Tika-Taka revolution and current Manchester City Coach. Considered one of the finest minds in coaching, Guardiola has won the Champions League, the Bundesliga and Spanish championships, and defined a generation of fluid, attacking football. With Lionel Messi, arguably the game’s greatest-ever player, flanked by some of the greatest-ever passers in Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Barcelona under Guardiola played some of the most beautiful and controlled football the globe has ever seen.
On the other end of the spectrum is fascist football. This distinguishes itself from teams who were or are actually supported by fascists. Fascist football is a style that priorities the win by any means necessary. Often referred to as anti-football, goals come at the highest premium in favor of drilled, staunch defending. The figurehead for anti-football is legendary manager Helenio Herrera, another Argentinian who believed, with a fervor similar to El Flaco, in the primacy of the team. Herrera, however, coached the legendary Inter Milan teams (as well as Barca, later) using a now-outdated Catenaccio (meaning “chain”) formation that featured a sweeper and four defenders, relying on a rapid counter-attack.
Here, too, the modern game has a clear inheritor: Jose Mourinho. Jose’s track record might be viewed as the greatest of all time: Championships in four different leagues (a feat matched only by three other managers) and European championships with three different clubs. Yet the means by which Jose has achieved this inviolate brilliance has been, quite literally, an evocation of Herrera’s methodically controlled, anti-football spirit. Mourinho’s by-any-means tactics, oft-uninspiring one-goal wins, and psychological subterfuge aimed at players, staff, fans, and media alike, indicate that, unlike Herrera, Mourinho’s heart beats darkly, pumping venom through the veins of his system.
Far be it from me to over-analyze the political heart of a soccer coach, but here I go anyway: Jose Mourinho’s family has historical ties to the Fascist Estado Novo regime in Portugal. Mourinho’s political views “are believed to be strongly right wing,” and his mother was taken in by an uncle who was “a sardine cannery boss who grew rich under the far-right regime of dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, [Jose’s mother] grew up in a mansion surrounded by servants and political intrigue.” Is it possible his desire to crush the very essence of human spirit stems from these hinted-at fascist leanings? Okay, perhaps that’s a bit much, but I bet if you asked Eva Carneiro she’d have a thing or two to say about Jose’s leadership style.
For those in search of meaning amid the tumult of club football season, just take a look at the pitch and see what’s going on. Are players making runs, crafting multilayered attacks, keeping possession, and trying to do cool stuff? Or are they just slowing the game down and booting it, spring-loading a harried counterattack, parking the bus behind the ball otherwise, and waiting for the other team to make a mistake?
Each of these strategies can win games, leagues, and championships. But in the words of El Flaco:
“I want to win the match. But I don’t give in to tactical reasoning as the only way to win, rather I believe that efficacy is not divorced from beauty.”
O jogo bonito, as they say.