Good vs. Evil: World Football’s Beautiful Struggle

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Published on : August 30, 2016

 

 

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

 

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.

 

 


Barclays Premier League: Christmas Carousel

Written by :
Published on : December 30, 2015

 

 

For anyone interested in watching footy in America, the Christmas season is unparalleled. Many teams in Barclays Premier League play an absurd three matches in a week, eschewing all reasonable expectations for the human body to maintain itself. Luckily, teams like Arsenal have already gone through their yearly pandemic of injuries, so hopefully the Gunners are now in the clear, especially after persevering to a relatively successful holiday slate.

 

The highlight of this Christmas season was Tuesday’s match between Premiership contenders Leceister City and Manchester City, in second and third place, respectively. It was a fascinating, albeit scoreless contest, as English football’s pre-eminent economic powerhouse, Manchester City, battled the upstart Leceister City. Leceister rode in on an unlikely wave of brilliance from a trio of unheralded players in Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and N’Golo Kante. The teams were surprisingly even, as City’s big guns couldn’t find any fluid combinations. Their best chances came by way of Raheem Sterling and his highly-overrated jet boosters; on the other side, each of the aforementioned troika had various opportunities borne of Leceister’s high pressure.

 

Yet the most buzzy match was clearly Monday’s supposed clash of titans, Manchester United and Chelsea. Each team has experienced its own brand of turmoil of late, with both managers being raked over the coals by the petulant English media. Whereas Jose Mourinho was the architect of his own demise as Chelsea’s season collapsed, Louis Van Gaal has had to navigate a morass of impulsive criticism about a fairly bad, but not disastrous run of form.

 

 Van Gaal

 

Van Gaal’s problem has stemmed from the appearance that his team is bereft of creativity; similarly, many of the transfers under Van Gaal have not panned out fully (Darmian, Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin) or fizzled out terribly (Depay, Di Maria). It was clear, however, that on Monday, Manchester United was a team that simply was having hard luck. Absurdly inconsistent officiating, two shots off the woodwork, and near-misses all contributed to an ineffectual afternoon. But the performance was dominant in possession and they generated far more chances than did Chelsea. Anthony Martial, arguably Van Gaal’s best signing, continues to look like the next Thierry Henry; the 19 year-old may not be there yet, but he’s special. Juan Mata similarly buzzed around the pitch. Even Ander Herrera, another holdover from the David Moyes era of acquisitions, looked like a heady contributor.

 

On the opposite side, Chelsea looked like a team that was utterly psychologically broken. Their play was so disjointed that it seemed more a collection of talented athletes who may or may not have had any experience at all playing soccer. This is the indelible mark of Jose Mourinho, the Special One, the coach with a personality (disorder) that is inexorably stamped on all of his teams. The lovely problem Jose brings to bear is that his team has been so stamped with his personality that they are now flattened into oblivion. It’s almost as if, with every basic pass misfired, every buffoonish first touch, the voice of Jose remains in the heads of these players, undermining and second-guessing every decision.

 

 Mourinho

 

Last year the Telegraph published an article about sports psychology in football, describing “positive self-talk,” a key strategy used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. The idea is that the more positive things you tell yourself, the more positive influence that has on neuro-psychological functioning:

“Negativity and criticism is associated with the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces the ability of the frontal lobe to function effectively. Positive, energized language releases dopamine, which is linked to certainty and confidence, as well as noradrenaline and DHEA which enable your prefrontal lobe to fire more effectively.”

 

Jose’s lingering ghost serves an opposite function; after all, he’s the manager whose work is “betrayed” by players. A manager who berates team doctors. Jose has a flair for maddening opponents with the perfect cutting remark. Imagine the cumulative effect this type of personality has on the players; no wonder Jose flames out of every job after a few years.

 

 

This is why Monday’s listless, scoreless draw in which Manchester dominated and Chelsea looked a disaster was such pleasurable schadenfreude. The rumor mill churns, and the folks at Old Trafford are considering bringing old Jose on to replace the venerable Van Gaal, as if no manager is ever afforded the benefit of the doubt amid a run of bad luck. It’s a dangerous game to look past the picket fence and long for greener grass; there is little guarantee that anything will improve. Even with one of football’s most accomplished managers in Mourinho, the coaching carousel can be a treacherous ride. Judging from Monday’s Chelsea performance, Manchester United’s faithful may want to consider staying on their current horse for the time being.

 

 


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