The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
I’ve been thinking about Barcelona-Chelsea for the last two days, including during most of the time when I was ostensibly watching the Man Utd-Arsenal match. That second game played out like an afterthought to the first game in any case, not just because it felt less vital as it was happening but because of the way it seemed to present the principles of Barça-Chelsea in a compromised and depreciated form, as if Arsenal were what happened when the mind that first imagined Barcelona had a moment to think “Oh, but…” In any case, here are a few thoughts to go with the post on Barça I wrote in the minutes after the Chelsea game.
The touchstone for this is a brilliant comment left by reader joao on that post; it’s long, but I’m quoting the whole thing, because it gets at the tension between utility and virtue in football that underlies my own feeling about this game.
You alluded to it on your post, but i think that FC Barcelona is trapped in its on rethoric of moral cause.
As such, FC Barcelona will take the scoreline of this game and accept it for what it is. A moral injustice that has a chance to be corrected in London. Such is their origin and destiny.
If you take the obligation to play the game in the “right” (i.e., attacking, flowing, intricate, “beautiful”) way as an extension of the sense of moral cause that attaches to Barcelona (and I think you can, since, as joao points out, Barça teams “are designed to be a demonstration of their philosophical motivations”) then the conflict between virtue and effectiveness that he describes here is also the key to understanding the Barça-Chelsea match. Chelsea were playing to achieve a certain result, they devised a plan that they believed would effectively achieve it, and then they executed that plan (successfully, as it turned out). Barça—though winning the game was surely uppermost in the minds of the players—were playing in a style that was haunted by an ideal, and they weren’t prepared to surrender the ideal even if it might have meant winning the match. Like a few other teams blessed with extraordinary technical ability, especially Wenger’s Arsenal, they seem to train with the assumption that if they realize the ideal, the wins will come. But implicitly, maybe even unconsciously in Barcelona’s case, it’s the ideal, and not the wins, that they’re primarily striving for.
So how important is winning, and how does it relate to the aesthetic appreciation of football? I sympathize with the frustration of joao and some of the other commenters with the abstruseness of the “moral cause” approach to style. After all, the competitive aspect is the principle around which the entire game is organized; it’s what makes it a game, what creates the conflict that in turn creates its capacity for drama, and treating it as a matter of no importance always seems, to me at least, to miss the point. I’ve been accused of “wanking off to Messi” more than most people, I think, but even for me, there are times when the cultivated appreciation of style (think of the air of superiority to the scoreline that generally accompanies the repetition of that Danny Blanchflower quote) threatens to become absurd.
Yes, it matters that the players are trying to win, and to say that it doesn’t is actually to take away a great deal of the depth and intensity available to the watcher of football: the thrill of seeing Scotland’s courage when, in their utterly unlovely way, they beat France in Paris, the pain of seeing Croatia and then Turkey lose in Euro 2008, the joy of seeing a late, improbable goal. As great as a span of deft passing or a balletic goal can be in a vacuum, that larger competitive narrative still decides much, maybe most, of our emotional response to the game. For a team to complicate that state of things with a primary commitment to style, rather than allowing style to emerge naturally out of competitive conflict, can seem almost decadent, and the simplicity of the “do what will work” approach exemplified by Chelsea can feel more fundamental and more honest. You play the game as it exists, you don’t enforce some morally pure revision of it that only exists in your mind.
Or don’t you? A few months ago I wrote a pair of posts exploring the term “the beautiful game” and explaining my understand of it. In the first, I argued that football’s capacity for beauty was an extension of its capacity for ugliness, that it was because the game was so frequently incoherent that its moments of sudden coherence were so arresting. In the second, I argued that what ultimately made football beautiful was that the rules—that is, the form of the game—were willing to let in so much of that confusion and arbitrariness when most sports seemed designed to keep them out. It made football a better analogue for life that tragedy and absurdity had their place on the pitch, and the fact that, on the pitch, those forces could occasionally be overcome meant that passages of play could become eloquently, and almost astonishingly, meaningful. That, in turn, led to the sense that there are right ways and wrong ways to play the game:
It’s clear, for instance, that football is unique among major sports in the extent to which its fans believe that there are good and bad ways to play it. Certain styles of play in every sport accumulate a vague air of moral authority, but these are usually based in some idea of efficacy or tactical soundness; the overwhelming consensus in favor of attacking football, on the other hand, has nothing to do with winning and even causes footballers and football fans to disavow the importance of winning with an astonishing regularity. Danny Blanchflower is its conscience, not Vince Lombardi. What positive, attacking football has in its favor is not that it works more effectively than defensive football but that it sets itself sharply against dullness and randomness and creates opportunities for players to impose a perceptible shape on the game. Defensive, “negative” football, by contrast, tends to work in concert with the natural entropy of the game and to lend itself to long stretches of uncertainty and stalemate.
The rules of football could be changed in such a way that those forces would have less purchase on the game—even something as simple as restarting the clock at regular intervals would probably have this effect. But to do so would be to reduce the joy that accompanies football’s moments of beauty and also to change the meaning of those moments.
You don’t have to agree with the specific terminology here to see the argument that, because the game is so precariously situated between creative and entropic states of being, the players are always, in a sense, playing against the game as well as against each other; they’re required to lift it up to the plane on which it makes sense. I think you could say that this is a large part of the special genius of the sport: that unlike, say, tennis, which is simply a beautifully constructed game and always possesses a kind of sculptural logic, soccer is only a great game for the spectator when the players make a great game out of it. Their task includes a creative obligation that’s only partly fulfilled by their participation in the competitive form of the game. A great player in the NFL—even someone like Barry Sanders, who regularly did things I’ve never seen another human being even try—is essentially great because he performs his specific function better than anyone else and gives his team a better chance to win. A great soccer player—Zidane, say—is great because, in addition to that accomplishment, he lifts a new understanding out of the flow of play and says “football can be like this.”
But again, all this has to happen within a competitive framework that can’t simply be dismissed in favor of intellectual beauties. The two words in the term “beautiful game” are always struggling against each other in some ways, but they have to coexist. That’s why, for me, the necessary dream is to find a team that resolves the tension, that plays beautifully and coherently and defeats both the chaos of the game and all the studs-up, 10-men-behind-the-ball bullies who try to stop it. Every so often a team like that comes along—recently, Spain at Euro 2008, Arsenal at their peak under Wenger—but most teams that have that potential wind up in the Holland ’74 category: inspired sides who thrilled everyone that saw them but couldn’t quite take the crown. Those failures, for all that there’s often something wonderful even in the manner of their failure, are ultimately fuel for the belief that playing attractive football is a quixotic task—in other words, that reality is cynical.
After the first clasico this year, when Barça managed to score those late goals despite the assault on Messi that Real had waged all game—for me, maybe the best moment in football all year—I thought they were the rare team that could actually achieve that marriage of style and effectiveness, that could prove that grace and joy can knock four goals past thuggishness. After the Chelsea game, I thought that maybe they weren’t. I knew that everyone would rush to their defense and blame Chelsea. But Chelsea is just a fact of the world. Barça are the team that have the chance to be something really special, and if they’re going to be it, they’ll have to accomplish that destiny in the world as it actually exists. Virtue in football is a choice, and it’s not up to Chelsea to clear a path for them, and it’s not up to us to protect them. If they can’t do it, if they partly or wholly fall short of the ideal, then in my opinion we ought to say where they fell short as well as where they didn’t. Barcelona matters; there are things that matter more.
Anyway, that’s why I was in the mood to be hard on them after the Chelsea match, and that’s what I think is at stake at Stamford Bridge. For all sorts of reasons that transcend this season, it’s the biggest match of this season so far.
by Brian Phillips · April 30, 2009