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.
Of all the Guardian’s football writers, Barney Ronay is my favorite. His writing is raffish and superbly intimate. His is the voice of an older brother come home from college to tell you glib and exaggerated tales of the secret lives of girls, why Coldplay is insufferable, and why your parents are all too bourgeois. Like a protagonist in a Nick Hornby novel, Ronay chooses his words carefully even when he makes a mess of things. I feel the same way about reading Christopher Hitchens, whose endlessly quotable and cutting prose is substantiated by trenchant observations about the crassness of some seemingly unassailable public figure. For Hitchens even Mother Teresa is fair game.
Ronay’s Mother Teresa is FC Barcelona. His first go at them—“Why are Barcelona so annoying?”—blends intentional attempts at humor (“it is easy to feel irritated by the manager Pep Guardiola, who is clearly bright and even nice but spoils this by looking like a swanky graphic designer, someone who might own a coffee table made out of barbed wire”) with genuine ire (“Above all I dislike their non contact tippy-tappy style of play, often deemed, like Barcelona themselves, to be intrinsically ‘good.’ I have a theory the popularity of this style owes a lot to the fact that it looks good on TV: a televisual style, suited to the armchair rhythms of possession-foul-replay-pundit-blather”).
For Ronay, Barcelona are corporate bullies whose actions are far more insidious than those of the amoral billionaires at Manchester City and Chelsea, because they wrap themselves in UNICEF and tell the world they are “more than a club.” It follows that even Barcelona’s public campaigns to entice players to the Nou Camp are framed as “more than a tap up.” Courted players are supposed to say it is their dream to play for Barcelona, while their clubs ought to shrug and say “thank you.” But surely, to paraphrase Ronay, a campaign to “free Cesc” isn’t equivalent to “free Mumia.”
Ronay’s crusade against Barcelona reappeared this weekend in an article about two forthcoming matches of wholly contrasting styles. First, the Arsenal-Barcelona Champions League clash, which Ronay notes will almost certainly be the “soft-shoe fixture of the season,” a veritable orgy of balletic shadow boxing that will lead to a veritable orgy of plaudits from football pundits enraptured by the “moral” superiority of possession football. And, second, Birmingham-Stoke, which is notable for both teams’ brutishly direct style, spearheaded by their two battering-ram center forwards Nikola Zigic and John Carew.
Why, Ronay asks with some frustration, must we accept that Arsenal-Barcelona is intrinsically “better?” Why should Britons in particular accept the moral blackmail presented by fixtures like Arsenal-Barcelona and shrink from reveling in the crash, bang, wallop of Birmingham-Stoke? On this point I empathize. Even though I harbor an emotional attachment to the current Barcelona squad, a little part of me dies when one of the club’s personnel castigates a stubborn opponent for “not playing football.” One may have a preference for pass and move, but to pretend that punt and run is a negation of the sport itself is not to state a fact but rather to invalidate diversity.
For Ronay, throwback matches like Birmingham-Stoke are a connection to a British tradition and ideology rooted in Charles Hughes’s vision of winning football, and in the glory of Nat Lofthouse’s heroics on muddy pitches. While I suspect Ronay’s professed love for muscular football replete with long balls hoofed to the sloped brows of “proper center forwards” is sincere, I can’t help but view his nostalgia as something akin to a mustachioed hipster’s insistence that he really does prefer Pabst Blue Ribbon to the latest, slickest microbrew. It smacks of desperate contrarianism, as if he is trying to out-Guardian the Guardian. Ronay comes close to tipping his hand when he attacks one-touch technical football by suggesting that its popularity is linked to the fact that it looks good on TV, that it’s been sanitized for the weekend “post-fan” nibbling tofu on his IKEA couch far away from the grizzled authenticity of the terrace. And in so doing, he may have gone too far.
The thing is, Ronay hasn’t consistently applauded muscle and hustle. His two smartest articles of the past year are tributes to Joe Cole and Jack Wilshere, perhaps England’s most naturally creative footballers. In Cole’s case, Ronay writes hopefully that his move to Liverpool would give him a chance to revive his career, and reminds fans why everyone fell in love with him when he was performing rather un-British technical feats in midfield for West Ham. In a telling paragraph, Ronay argues that British football itself is to be blamed for disciplining the fantasy out of Cole’s game.
In many ways Cole’s career has been a constant flight from the player he was as a 17-year-old, a battle to prove he is not what he once was. So much so that, at 28, it is hard to remember that he was meant to be a driving, expressive, utterly confident creative force. Here is a player who seems to have spent a decade forgetting himself, assiduously sanding away his own unique strengths.
Ronay’s article on Wilshere, deliciously called “Why we must savour the rare English delicacy that is Jack Wilshere,” is Ronay at his finest. He expresses whimsical admiration for Wilshere’s precocious talents and pre-emptive regret that these talents might be smothered precisely because Wilshere is English. Here Cole is treated as a cautionary tale—a player, like Glenn Hoddle before him, made to play as if embarrassed by his natural gifts by virtue of his Englishness. Ronay’s message is that we cannot let this happen to Wilshere.
Indeed, one reason England turns in mediocre performances in international tournaments is their lack of imagination when it comes to player development beyond nurturing speed and size. Ronay clearly understands this dilemma and is far more generous in these articles to the kind of player he dismisses as “Velcro-touch midfield gnomes” when he’s writing about Barcelona. But why is this the case? One might view this as more hipster posturing from Ronay, who simply finds players like Cole and Wilshere more palatable precisely because their talents are iconoclastic vis-à-vis their countrymen, while skillful Spanish midfielders are considered mass-produced commodities churned out by la Masia’s assembly line, and as such terribly uncool. Or perhaps when it comes to England Ronay is far more forward looking, suggesting he is in fact more than a hipster.
Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.
by Sam Fayyaz · February 16, 2011