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.

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The Loser

The encounter between Pepe and Dani Alves is the dark heart of things. It appears that for Pepe the ball’s an unwelcome intruder, interposing itself, to his frustration, between his studs and Alves’s shin. Tremendous headlong dives from enormous heightsThose studs give the ball the merest glance as they pass and continue their rise towards Alves’s outstretched leg. But Alves’s reflexes must astonish the observer: only a great athlete could possibly have gotten his shin out of Pepe’s flight path—and yet, with the opponent’s onrushing boot just a few centimeters from his outstretched leg, Alves pulls that leg violently to the right, twisting his whole body into a spin. A very well-paid strongmanPepe—and this is almost as remarkable—sees the leg escaping from his boot and adjusts his path as best he can, turning his leg and his body towards the (suddenly, inexplicably) elusive prey. But his extreme momentum carries him past Alves, and the shin remains miraculously unscathed.

It all happens in milliseconds. If only David Eagleman had had the two men wired to some fabulous machine that could represent for us the speed at which it unfolded for them. . . . But still: I’ll never understand how Alves got his leg out of the way in time.

Each of us will have to seek in his or her own heart an answer to the great question: Which of the two acts is more contemptible, Pepe’s attempted assault or Alves’s subsequent impersonation of a lawn roller? But whatever answer we give, I think we have to lament the transformation of the great drama of El Clásico into the pathetic melodrama of Wednesday’s anti-clásico—not least because hardly anyone is talking about Messi’s extraordinary second goal. It was such an outlying event, coming as it did against the run of non-play. Adebayor (who probably should have been sent off himself) was justified in saying that “every time you play against Barça, every time you touch them, they throw themselves to the ground”; and Pique was equally right to say of Mourinho’s tactics that “When you play with fire, at the limits of violence, you get burned.”

Mourinho’s tactics are often seen as risk-averse, but as Pique’s comment indicates, in fact they exchange one kind of risk—that of giving up goals—for another—that of getting players sent off. What’s most notable about his approach to Wednesday’s semifinal was not that he filled the pitch with defenders and left some of his most creative playmakers on the bench, but that he had those defenders playing so physically, seeming to find tackling the preferred option, rather than what you have to do when you’re caught out of position. (They looked like a team of John Terrys out there.)

One might argue that that’s a smart way to play Barça, whose players put every defense out of position sometimes, and a milder version of the same approach worked well in the teams’ recent La Liga draw. But if you’re going to do it you have to accept the risks you’re taking, and this Mourinho is clearly unwilling to do. Not content to get himself sent off in protest, he also refused to make any changes to his side even after Real fell behind, and, in the tones of a shrieking Wagnerian soprano, has insisted that his team has no chance of winning the second leg at Camp Nou.

There’s a really bad feedback loop here. Real’s physicality aggravates Barça’s histrionics, to which Real responds with further aggression, and so on. And when it’s not possible to be aggressive on the pitch, Mourinho uses fighting words instead. If I were Emperor of Soccer, I’d not allow these clubs to play each other for a couple of years. Xavi said after the match that “Football was the winner.” I don’t think so.


The Loser

by Alan Jacobs · April 30, 2011

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