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Ballet of Frost

Dramatic clouds

Someone wrote on Twitter yesterday that “Is Spain boring?” is the new “Will soccer ever make it in America?” And yes, it is, in the same way that it’s the new “Can Lampard and Gerrard play in the same midfield?” and possibly the new “Can Asians think?” It wants a word, nevertheless, if only because Spain-Germany was so divisive; and because this is the World Cup final, and a bubble of resentment against the pre-tournament favorites and anointed Best Team on Earth is one of the conditions in which history’s about to happen.

Fortunately, I’ve been understanding the “Spain is boring” contingent (let’s call them “Team Jacob”) a lot better since I realized I once made their case myself. After the first leg of the seminal 2009 Champions League semifinal between Barcelona and Chelsea, when Chelsea axed Barça down to the tune of a 0-0 draw at the Camp Nou, I started wondering whether a Barça team that had been sighed over by every fan on earth was really the historic manifestation of loveliness that everyone was saying. Here’s the meandering blockquote:

The contra case is this: That there are forms of beauty not represented on the team, and they are precisely the forms that are most capable of succeeding in the modern game. It’s not at all a stretch to view them as a team designed to annihilate Getafe but struggle against better competition. They break down weak teams like an enzyme, especially in the slow-paced Spanish league, but against strong teams they sometimes seem to play a crinkly, precious, finicky, miniature game, hoarding the ball jealously but surprisingly easy to stifle at the last moment. This isn’t quite the same criticism that’s been directed at Arsenal over the last few seasons, for instance via the charge that they want to “pass the ball into the back of the net.” For Arsenal, the problem was supposed to be that they were too committed to beauty, that they were so determined to achieve the ideal goal that they lost interest in the actual goal in front of them. For Barcelona, who don’t seem to epitomize “beauty” to themselves so much as “exhilarating success,” the problem is one of incapability, which could be described in style terms as a misplaced emphasis: they’re so committed to their patient midfield play and see it so fundamentally as the basis for their attack that when the goals don’t come they run the risk of imploding on themselves, collapsing into a sort of gentle six-yard pass between Xavi and Iniesta while the world races by around them.

Their build-up play can be absolutely wonderful to watch. The refinement of technique, the conception of complex space, the devastatingly subtle ball control utterly surpass any other team’s attainments in these areas. But then, it’s easy to be refined when you’re playing at walking pace, and La Liga is so slow that it in some ways it’s a marvel that they’re as far ahead as they are. It’s easy to be intricate if the referees always protect you, and if La Liga isn’t exactly delicate, Messi is amply rewarded for the beating that he takes. And the players clearly know that this is the case; no one seems to point this out, but in their league games Barça complain to the officials as much as any recent vintage of Chelsea.

What they lack, assuming that beauty in the modern game isn’t exclusively the province of wizened elves and saturnine exquisites, is the kind of fleet, powerful presence that Essien or Drogba usually provide (though not, oddly, against Barça) for Chelsea: the kind of player for whom the joy lies in flying rather than lockpicking, who can burn through the defense like a comet rather than undermining it with tiny jots of math. That is, for all the greatness in their lineup, there’s a dimension their game is missing, a sense of final speed and scale. Their representative player is not Yaya Touré, who’s almost capable of providing it, but Xavi, whom I love dearly, yet who seems to play the game at a constant temperature of about two degrees above zero. That’s obviously the source of his genius, but would you argue that his game represents every possibility for beauty in contemporary football?

And that’s basically the complaint about Spain—that they’re tiny jots of math, playing the game at two degrees above zero—which makes sense, since most of Barça’s first team is most of Spain’s first team and they roll out in similar tactics. (That sweet La Masia lull.) They’ve dominated games in this World Cup, attacked much more aggressively than they’ve gotten credit for doing, and blown up the stat sheet, but they’ve only scored seven in six and they’ve been precious and wasteful in the area. They’re lacking that fleet, smashing, Essien- or Drogba-like presence who could knock the back line out of shape and let the rest of the team feast on the goal.

Again, this isn’t my view—I watched Spain-Germany with my heart pounding at about 200mph, and I heard a thousand sopranos exploding when Puyol scored—but I think I can at least see where Team Jacob is coming from. I’m seeing two conclusions in the argument. First, Spain are really missing Fernando Torres. He’s never been a scoring animal for them, but at his best, he does that slicing, discombobulating stuff and makes life a lot easier for David Villa. Second, a lot of people are thinking of the Spain of this World Cup as a self-contained being that didn’t exist before June 11, or has changed fundamentally since then, where I’m seeing them as continuous with the Euro 2008 team that melted the table, won a bunch of games 4-0, and was called boring by no one in the world. (And had a healthy Torres, for what that’s worth.)

The bottom line, though, is that that post on Barcelona wasn’t about whether they were “boring,” it was about whether they were one of the greatest teams ever to lace up boots, and in the end, I think they were. And to me, the fact that we’re having the Spain debate about Aesthetic Step Zero rather than the last hoist before the mountaintop is a sign of how the World Cup messes with scale. Blackburn are “boring.” If a team that completes 80% of its passes, takes more shots than anyone else, boasts the tournament’s co-leading scorer, and runs farther with possession than any other team in the semifinals is boring, then we are doomed following this sport. Germany’s counterattacks have been very clean, I realize.

Spain aren’t a counterattacking team, at least not without Torres. They’re a slow crescendo. I don’t want to issue dry pronouncements about sophisticated palates and not everyone reading Ulysses, first because it’s a low move and second because it’s not true: Spain’s game is perfectly accessible, you just have to wait a second. It’s not a game for snobs (that would be Argentina), it’s an open treat for anyone who likes intelligence and technique, or people doing incredible things with a ball. “Slow” is misleading; at their best, if the moment arrives and you misstep, they will rip out your throat in a flurry. They haven’t been at their best in this tournament, so all we’ve gotten is lethally precise passing, probing runs, wicked pressing on defense, and a constant, relentless focus that knows the instant you’re off-balance and coldly slips the knife in at that spot. Yeah, their opponents, Chile excepted, have clogged their own area and not closed down at all. Since when was that the fault of the attacking team? If Spain were boring in the match against Germany, what did that make Germany? Exciting when they managed to get the ball into 40 yards of open space?

Xavi may play like he doesn’t have a pulse, but that’s the whole key to his excellence. He is cold like silk, and instead of blasting out the occasional moment of Ronaldo-like dazzle, he makes extraordinary play look like habit. Iniesta’s the same way, but with less flow and more syncopation. Sergio Ramos is quietly becoming the most dangerous non-Brazilian right back in the world. As Elliott said in a comment, I wish they’d set one of their holding midfielders free, but the build-up between Busquets, Alonso, and Xavi is like watching trigonometry solve itself.

Since 2008, Spain have lost twice. They’re the champions of Europe, and have a chance to be only the third team ever to hold both that title and the World Cup. Because Brazil (barely) won the Confederations Cup, you can’t quite say that they’ve been the top of the heap for all that time, but they’ve been one of the standards people have looked to. They’ve meant something for two years, and really meaning something is a pretty rare accomplishment in this game. (Of every other team in the world right now, Germany seem the most likely to get there, to me.) Some people who read my Slate piece got the impression that I don’t like Holland, or that I think they deserve to be punished. That’s not it at all; year by year, they’re one of my favorite teams in the world, and I can’t blame them for playing in a relatively unremarkable style and making the choices that win games. I hear Wesley Sneijder when the wind blows through the trees. But the World Cup is only going to validate one approach, and if my choice is between a Generic European 4-2-3-1 and one of the most original sides in the recent history of football, how is that a choice?

Well, I’m overstating the case, because I don’t really think who you cheer for, if even anyone, is a moral issue, or that it’s the most interesting question, most of the time. Almost everyone I know is rooting for Holland, and that’s fine. If they win, it will be a wonderful moment and a large part of me will be glad. But please, some respect for a team that’s earned it. David Villa is amazing. I love this branching, gliding, frictionless ballet of frost.

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Ballet of Frost

by Brian Phillips · July 10, 2010

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