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.
Seemingly as bumptious as he is precocious, Jack Rodwell recently said that several of England’s senior players including Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, and John Terry, would be certain starters if they were in the current Barcelona squad—a boast sure to induce more than a few guffaws even if publications like The Sun are patting Jack the Lad on the head for his bulldogged patriotism.
But Rodwell’s comments are far less blinkered than they might seem considering the tremendous pressure facing not only the England U-21 team after they were plainly outclassed by their counterparts from Spain, but English football in general, which is facing a crisis of confidence after the national team’s tepid performance in the last World Cup and in light of Spanish club and national teams’ great successes over the past four years or so, which they achieved in a style considered an anathema to the English game. English soccer and its representatives, as I see it, are under more and more pressure to justify the prolongation of the English soccer tradition in its most distilled guise, which involves lots of running, hoofing, bravery, and passion to the detriment of guile, touch, and movement. As one of English soccer’s representatives, Rodwell was defending this tradition while doubling down on the notion that British players are in no way technically inferior to South American or continental opposition, because admission to the latter (technical inferiority) is tantamount to preemptive capitulation, which, based on the principles of the former (a never-say-die attitude), is an impossibility. Keep calm and carry on.
Stylistic variation based on national tradition is one reason so many of us consider soccer such compelling viewing. Watching the Dutch play the Germans isn’t solely exciting because these nations have quality footballers, but because these fixtures hold the promise of a stylistic clash. Curiously though, in the last World Cup we saw the Germans play like the Dutch and the Dutch the Germans. Many argue that globalization is the culprit here, homogenizing style in a way that is tearing soccer ideologies in the plural asunder.
I’m less interested here in whether or not the style in which soccer is played is becoming homogenous (I don’t think it is), and what style is in ascendancy (I’m not sure), and more on the mechanisms underlying the process of adopting or rejecting a new soccer style. When dealing with teams with firm ideological traditions like Arsenal or the Brazilian and English national teams, simply changing the way you play in order to achieve success often doesn’t lead to more than temporary changes in tactics and approach, especially if those tactics and approach violate the way supporters think the teams they support ought to play. Pragmatists like Dunga are tolerated as managers for Brazil so long as they bring success, which is a Brazilian virtue often overshadowed by their penchant for sexy football. Failure, however, is met with an unceremonious sacking, a national moment of reckoning, and a statement-making performance considered worthy of their roots. Purist supporters seem to multiply when cultural shifts coincide with hard times—politically this often leads to chauvinist or exclusivist forms of nationalism, which in soccer might simply reflect a benign demand to play in a way comforting to wide swaths of the fan-base. Often derided as belligerently obtuse, Stuart Pearce spoke a lot of sense when he pointed out the power of fandom and tradition after the draw with Spain.
“We all have our DNA as nations, whether you’re Spanish, Italian, English, German.
“We all play in a certain way that the public demands in that country and probably the breeding and the climate that you train in as well.
“We have to learn lessons from other nations and try to learn lessons from them to improve us but never lose sight of the DNA of our nation, and the strengths of our individual players.” (Italics my own).
That said, at some stage Arsène Wenger convinced fans in north London that weaving pretty patterns and caring about sports science and nutrition could become as Arsenal as hard won 1-nil victories. And despite their six-year barren period, Arsenal fans by and large harbor an emotional attachment to the way they play soccer, which projects a kind of sullen patience characteristic of a defender of the faith. Sure, there are many rather loud demands to buy a proper English center-half and a Viera-type midfielder, but Wenger’s general formula of financial stability and faith in youth remains fairly dogmatic.
How are soccer club and national-team staff able to change their team’s playing style without alienating supporters? As he so often does, Jonathan Wilson recently provided some insight here when he discussed how Bill Shankly was able to justify a new style to Liverpool fans after their defeat in the European Cup in 1973 to Red Star Belgrade. As Wilson tells it, a week later Shankly entered a discussion with his boot room staff about the possibility of the changing tactics and style of the team, and ultimately came to the conclusion that Red Star’s more patient style was worth emulating, but at the same time understood that supporters would probably jeer the changes. The next year before the first European game, Liverpool included a note in the match program explaining that they would experimenting with the tactics and would “be playing some sideways passes,” and that the club believed that it was going to be beneficial to the club’s success in Europe. Liverpool won four European Cups in the next ten years. The take away point, according to Wilson, is that the fans had to be consulted and, on some level, “educated” before the team took on a slightly different identity in terms of playing style.
Listening to this story reminded me, strangely enough, of a book written by my dissertation adviser about how Islamist political parties adopt new, more democratic beliefs and practices. She explains how groups like the Islamic Action Front (the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood) became more willing to engage in elections and cooperate with secular parties only after they found a way to discuss and justify those changes in terms of their core beliefs. The party’s constituents expected it to advocate for conservative reforms that are central to their understanding of Islamic life, so the group faced a problem when the kingdom reintroduced competitive elections in the late 1980s. Of course the group wanted seats in parliament, but that would mean working alongside communists, socialists, and liberals who advocated secular policies strongly opposed by the Islamists. Could the party make this move toward participation without totally alienating its core followers—a constituency that cared little about democracy and viewed leftists as infidels? After considerable debate—including dialogue with the group’s followers—the Brotherhood was able to justify participation alongside communists and socialists because the latter were not advocating atheism. What is key here is that even though participation in the elections was the right move for the group, it had to justify the move internally as well as to its core supporters. Liverpool FC doesn’t have anything substantively in common with the Muslim Brotherhood, but Shankly’s boot-room deliberation and consequent program note demonstrates that changing club cultures often requires that breaks with tradition be redescribed as extensions of the club’s identity.
Indeed, soccer clubs, like political parties, have core interests (winning, financial viability), beliefs (style in theory, business models, player development), constituents (supporters), and particular styles of politicking (tactics and style put in practice). These analogies are clearly imperfect, but they might offer a cursory way of thinking about changing soccer ideologies. Virtually all teams at all times have an interest in winning, but not necessarily at any cost. Sacrificing certain core beliefs about playing style and player development in the short term might compromise long-term goals and identity.
Real Madrid supporters, for example, are currently grappling with Mourinhoism as a soccer ideology, while certain recent events are conspiring to favor José’s way including the liquidation of internal club rivals. Nonetheless, if Alfredo Di Stefano’s somewhat elliptical public digs at Mourinho are any indication, José will have a very difficult time impressing his style beyond his term as manager, the way I suspect Wenger has done for Arsenal, Shankly for Liverpool, and Cruyff for Barcelona.
Success itself, especially if achieved with great panache, often contributes to the way teams aspire to play. To play beautifully and win needs no justification, only passionate praise and tireless promotion, while triumph might be the only thing that can paper over artless play. Beautiful victories are lodestones for ideological hegemony, ugly ones merely examples of the brutal facts of competition: there must be a victor at the end. To wit, Mourinho’s Champions League victory with Inter Milan is taken as a blueprint for beating Barcelona, while Barcelona’s two trophies are taken as a blueprint for success writ large. Spain is imagined as more beautiful and more just than their continental competitors. Maybe tiki taka, like democratic government, is fast emerging as the only game in town, meaning we will all soon inhabit Barney Ronay’s personal dystopia where every team plays like Barcelona, passing sideways until they reach the edge of the earth. Somehow I doubt it.
Now of course long ball isn’t Sharia Law and tiki taka isn’t democracy, but certain dominant narratives about the way the game ought to be played are forcing managers, players, and club reps to justify their modus operandi, which is why Rodwell and Pearce’s comments are neither as banal nor obstinate as they might first seem. In fact, Pearce’s comments demonstrate a keen understanding that English managers cannot simply start demanding that their charges start playing like the Spanish, and not just because the players lack the technical ability to do so, but because many supporters won’t buy into it.
After England’s senior squad lurched to a 2-2 draw against Switzerland, I tuned into BBC’s 606 Call-in show to gauge the British public’s reaction. It was more or less variations on a theme—the lads lacked heart/courage/desire/pride/respect/humility/passion/Redknapp. Character flaws were exposed, Harry Redknapp was invoked as savior (a man “with England in his heart and belly”), and one caller demanded that the national team be purged of all the Premier League players to make way for a team staffed fully by Championship players because they would give away their wife and children to wear the “Three Lions” while the spoiled louts in the current setup simply couldn’t be bothered. The host, Alan Green, struggled to mask his condescension for this caller’s opinion, and asked a few others what they thought of his idea about an all Championship England. Two callers actually took his side, while again suggesting that a lack of fighting spirit is miring the national team in mediocrity. What I didn’t hear a lot of, on the other hand, were calls to improve the overall technique of the players and/or a clamoring to engage with other soccer styles to improve results. There was some of each, but not much. Bravery, directness, and more passion were, instead, put forward as the combined ingredients to better future performances.
To be sure, there are many other English fans who desperately lament the national team’s poor technique and apparent unwillingness to play in a more continental style with patient buildups and quick interchanges. But emphasis on bravery and directness is nothing if not typical.
Not long ago, Simon Kuper wrote a superb short essay on Frank Lampard, which doubles as a terse diagnosis as to why England’s “golden generation” has underperformed in meaningful competitions. Based on conversations with Guus Hiddink, Kuper explains that individual English players often hurt the collective by simply trying to do too much. A peculiar but ultimately familiar sight for Hiddink when he was coaching Chelsea was that of the overly assertive English midfielder hysterically bombing up and down the pitch fueled by an almost neurotic need to satisfy the braying crowd. What continental coaches like Hiddink and Rafa Benitez discovered was that British midfielders like Lampard and Gerrard are not only trained by coaches to play in the frenetic, be-everywhere-at-once fashion, but also by the fans and the culture that surrounds the sport. They are told to constantly hunt the ball and carry it forward—never sideways—with pace and purpose irrespective of their position on the pitch. This makes them individually a) extremely tired and b) often out of position, which makes the team as a collective a) predictable and b) easy to pick off on counter attacks. In Kuper’s words, “Lampard’s flaw—and the golden generation’s—isn’t a lack of spirit. It’s an excess of it.”
Evidently some supporters have started to ask themselves if they’re in any way responsible for the way England performs—both in a sense of results and style of play. The LondonEnglandFans supporters’ club deliberated after the last World Cup and, as Kuper tells it, acknowledged that bellowing instructions like “Get it forward!” when the defense is patiently circulating the ball at the back probably isn’t sending the right message to the players.
Perhaps moments of clarity like this combined with a waxing appreciation of Spain’s success done in style are signs of a shift in British soccer ideology. But, generally speaking, if you pass sideways in the British Isles you are still called a “crab,” in Spain a “crack.”
Sam Fayyaz is a PhD student at UMASS, Amherst where he studies political science when he’s not anoraking about soccer.
I could be off base, but my impression is that the changes Arsenal supporters are asking for have more to do with strengthening a few positions and slightly less financial austerity than overhauling the entire system.
Schwedler, Jillian. 2006. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. New York: Cambridge University Press.
To add insult to injury, it was a Spaniard, Xabi Alonso, who pointed many of these flaws out in an interview with a South African publication during the World Cup, when he said: “You have to have players with different qualities and, in my opinion, the England team had too many players who can run all day long, who invest a huge physical effort, who attack and defend—‘box to box’, as they say in England. But the way I understand the game, you also need someone who delivers short passes, even if they seem innocuous at the time. That sort of player has been missing from the England team.”
by Sam Fayyaz · July 2, 2011