It has been a week since Moscow broke Croatia’s heart. The world still reels from the hangover of the most amazing and dramatic athletic tournament anyone alive can remember. For a month, the world cup was the dope that kept the world off the current world reality shit show, keeping us all happy. As the world battles the withdrawal symptoms of the drug weaning off, the mind keeps craving for one more hit, unable to come to terms with the fact that it has all ended, that there won’t be another game today evening which will see a G.O.A.T-powered former champion crash out in a high scoring game from a goal scored in the 94th minute. It is this when one wants to keep harking back to what transpired during this Russian summer, the second greatest of all time (sorry, but it will take something truly exceptional to better the sheer insanity that was Switzerland ’54). It is so wonderfully therapeutic to see how the world forgets everything when bands of young millionaires start kicking a ball around.
I, of course, got myself a cable connection and enjoyed the world cup to the hilt (and disconnected it after that). It was especially fun since I couldn’t care less who won or lost as I was unencumbered by the weight of personal favorites as the Netherlands watched from home as well. Maybe they thought they needed some relaxation after the heartbreak at the past two tournaments. And oh God, what a tournament it was! All the favourites crashed out, unexpected ones rose and quite a number of stars saw their auras diminishing by quite a lumen. Russia 2018 showed us how football has changed, how the game no longer can be contained into silos styles categorised by national identity, and of course, how the era of “superstar football” is finally over. However, the biggest casualty of this World Cup is that of the myth of the “beautiful” Latin American football.
We have been fed with this myth of the “beauty” of Latin American football ever since most of us can remember. As per this famed two-nation footballing theory, football was mainly divided into two schools: the Latin American “beautiful” football and the European “rigid” football. The former, played by the people of the southern American continent was said to be free-flowing, “happy” and lively, dominated by breath-takingly dazzling displays of individual attacking talent and small, synchronised passes and marvelously stunning goals. The South Americans didn’t actually play football, they just danced to the beat of the Samba, scoring a goal or two in between. The Europeans, on the other hand, played a boring, emotionless, technical game, stiff-backed with long, measured passes, emotionless, mathematical movements, tactical formations and set pieces. In short, as the unfazed European kreigsmaschine mounted wave after wave of relentless attack like a Panzer battalion and defended like the Berlin Wall, the little happy-go-lucky South Americans used their grit, pluck and dance to keep them at bay, and win. In this game there were no defenders, only strikers and attackers.
In Kerala this legend has been particularly strong. Come a world cup, the state gets split down the middle into mainly Brazil and Argentina camps, though there has been an infusion of Portugal, Germany, Spain etc lately. This phenomenon is like many things in modern Kerala, an outcome of the Gulf influence. The first venturers out into the world bought back with them fables of yellow wizards who wove magic with a ball on the green, conquering the world while doing so. And then, in 1984, by which time every village in the state had atleast a couple of TVs (again, the Gulf boom), the first “football generation” of Kerala watched another set of men clad in a soothing sky-blue and white recreate those fables on the green, almost single-handedly so (pun intended) by a demi-god in a No.10 shirt. A half of the followers of la Seleção almost immediately defected to la Albiceleste, including most new recruits. Shoring up this was the horde of writers and media. Everywhere you looked, you found minstrels singing about the mesmerising beauty of Latin American footbal dancing to the exhilarating beat of Samba drums and such.
പഴമക്കാലം മുതൽക്കേ പാണൻപാട്ടുകാർ പാടി നടന്നിരുന്നു, സാംബയുടെ ചടുലതാളങ്ങൾക്കൊപ്പം നൃത്തം വയ്ക്കുന്ന ലാറ്റിനമേരിക്കൻ ഫുടബോളിന്റെ മാസ്മരിക സൗന്ദര്യത്തിന്റെ കഥകൾ.
It is time to put an end to this nonsense. Right from the first world cup I watched, USA ’94, I’ve in vain searched for this “beautiful” game the Brazilians, Argentinians, Uruguayans, Chileans, Columbians and others were rumored to play. In USA ’94, Brazil played some of the most horrendously boring football, ever, and it only got worse. Individual brilliance from stars like the Ronaldos, Ronaldinho, Messi etc notwithstanding, there is no trace of the “dancing” football ever to be found. This is because there is no such thing anymore. By Qatar 2022, it will be a whole two decades since a South American team has won a world cup. A person who was in school when Brazil last lifted the cup will probably have a couple of kids by then (Argentina fans, rejoice! No longer will the Brazilians be able to taunt you on your cup-drought). And this shows what kind of football has evolved to take the podium. In today’s world, not much of a difference exists anymore between the footballing styles of nations anywhere. There is only one kind of football left, the one that propelled France to the championship of the Russia 2018 World Cup. And unfortunately, it is that kind of football that is definitely not one of the Latin American persuasion.
The lore of South American football was though true once upon a time, when nations were actually identified by their unique footballing identities and styles. In those un-globalised days played for clubs and in leagues of their nation of birth all their lives. The concept of migrating to play for a league in another country simply did not exist. The primary identity of a footballer was that of his nationality. Since players were always available within the country in close proximity to each other all the time, they could develop into a cohesive, well-knit, integrated group that could be trained to possess and exhibit unique playing styles. There simply was a lot of time to train players into playing as a team in a particular way. This has changed today. Footballers have evolved into global entities whose identities and styles keep fluxing and changing as per market demands. Take a look at this chart here. It shows the number of players of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay per world cup squad who played in foreign leagues over the years.
When globalisation and the Boeing 747 opened up the world in the early 80s, football was one of its first and greatest beneficiaries. South American players unhesitatingly jumped ship across the Atlantic. A common language across the shore helped. By the end of the decade, no Latin American national football team had more than five players playing for their home leagues. Later, equality of employment laws and judgements like the Bosman Ruling filled European leagues with “foreign” players. Today, talented players ditch their home leagues for the more glamorous ones in Spain, England, Italy and France as soon as they are given an option, developing their talents, advancing their careers and becoming incredibly wealthy on a level they couldn’t even have dreamed of in their impoverished countries of birth. Latin American football clubs and academies have essesntially turned into talent factories for European clubs. Exceptionally talented players might never even appear in their home leagues at all. They get picked up by European scouts right out of school. Messi, for instance, has never played for an Argentine club in his senior career. He left for Barcelona at the age of 15.
Today, the primary identity of a football player is that of their club. As the club season lasts for three-quarters of a year, it is at his club that the player primarily lives, trains, plays and creates bonds and partnerships. National training camps are often hastily convened affairs with teams barely getting enough time to develop and emerge as a cohesive group. Every national team contains a mix of players paying in clubs all over the world (England is an exception), which keeps changing with every transfer season. Players bring with them varied styles of play and attitudes from clubs to the national table. As these things even out, ultimately all teams and the way they play start looking the same as clubs pick up from national team strategies and vice versa. There is a reason why the way Barcelona plays seems to be a better evolved version of that glorious 2010 Spanish side. As lines and boundaries between club and country blur, attributing playing styles to particular countries make no sense any more. And now with the help of technology, and all that, it gets easier to copy, analyse, simulate and put statistics to coaching, games, players, formations, etc. The gap between the traditional “Greats” and smaller teams and countries have been increasingly narrowing. It won’t be very long before the world sees a new world cup champion.
The proponents of the “beauty” of football do not seem to realise that the most beautiful football that was ever played was by a European team: the legendary Netherlands squad of the 1970s. Johan Cryuff’s wonderteam came from nowhere to reach the finals of the 1974 world cup, where they scoring first in the 2nd minute before a German player could even touch the ball. Their legendary “Total Football” is what ever came closest to beautiful football if there was any such thing. Read up.
See, football is a very simple, all-and-all team game. Whoever plays the team game scores more goals, and whoever scores more goals, wins. “Beauty” does not win matches. Traditionalists would be quick to say that more goals would come out of more possession. Keep the ball with you long enough, you are bound to score sooner or later, because what else would you do? Well, Spain, in their round-of-16 game against Russia held to the ball for an exhausting 75% of play time, completing a ridiculous 1115 passes and still couldn’t score even one field goal. It also was one of the tournament’s most boring games (Spain’s one goal was a Russian own goal) and they were eliminated on penalties by the host. Spain probably thought the game worked like credit card points – 1000 passes equal one goal – or something. Germany had 65% possession in total, Argentina had 61%. Brazil was at 60%. Portugal had 64% possession in the match they were eliminated by Uruguay. On the other hand, France never reached even 40% of possession in any of their four knockout matches! So, just kicking the ball around does not mean anything anymore.
This is what made this world cup so great. It turned the definition of “team-play” on its head, which does not mean possession anymore. Much has changed from the world eight years ago when Spain tiki-taka’ed their way to glory. Football has evolved strategically so much that everyone is attacking and defending all at the same time. This is what “team play” means today. This world cup saw defenders being firmly integrated into many teams’ attacking strategies. Even their defending moves were part of attacking strategies as many of their tactics ended up in goals! Sophisticated technology tools help to record, analyse, slice and dice match by play, move and pass, to run simulations, and decide on performances, marking and tactics that can be used in future games. As coaching and strategy building methods have gotten more technology assisted, teams now sit back analysing and studying opponents, running probability metrics and simulations to set pace for matches and so on. If you keep the ball with you and wait for the striker superstar to descend from the heavens to shoot goals, you are dead. Football has become a highly technical and tactical, technology and statistics-enabled game, played by the numbers. Here, “beauty” has unfortunately no place anymore, for the good or the bad.
There has always been great glamour attached to attacking and forward-playing football. Traditionally, the strikers are the highest valued and worshipped superstars, around whom the legends of the “beautiful” play gets built. Defenders were regarded mostly as irritating props, especially so by Latam team lovers, who generally loathe defenders as impediments to their striker demigods’ greatness. It is this that is what has changed now. This world cup has been one of the most defensive-minded in recent history, but funnily enough, at the same time enthralling and entertaining in its action. It proved that defensive football-turned attacking mode can be fun to watch and enjoy, and can create champions. If you build a front-heavy team that pushes forward on the striker and a couple of forward-attacking midfielders, you will get what happens to every front-heavy setup: you fall flat on your face. The days of single superstar strikers are over, hopefully for good. No longer can the lone striker carry the entire team on their shoulders. No more can one Messi or Ronaldo or Neymar, ‘Maradona’ their way through tournaments. If you play with a strategy as stupid as “Somehow get the ball and pass it to Messi”, you shouldn’t surprised if you get eaten for breakfast. GOATs do not matter if they are not integrated into the team strategy. Incredibly talented players cannot compensate for a non-existent defence even if you have the best player in the world. Probably Sweden could play so well this time because they were unburdened by Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The mass hysteria around the football superstardom is mostly a creation of the media. Creating superstar auras and keeping the light shining around them nets good money and keep the pot boiling. Now that Messi and Ronaldo are starting to lose their sheen, they have already anointed Kylian Mbappe their heir and successor. Mainsteam mass media are streaming endless articles insisting how the 19-year old is the “king” and the future of football and so on. Well, he is not, as is evident from the fact that France won the bloody world cup. France won because their performance was the culmination of everything we have discussed until now. They played team-football. They were content with their opponents keeping the ball, they patiently waited to figure out (and tire out) the other side, and then grouped and attacked when they found an opening with their defensive lines providing the first touches and initial strategy. Everyone contributed. Even Mbappe played along with the defensive lines in the beginning of the final. They kept the reins tight. They didn’t let their enormously talented superstars run amok. The real heroes in the French side were Pavard, Varane and Umtiti, as were Mbappe, Pogba and Griezmann.
That is how and why France won. They didn’t play “beautiful” football, but played sensible, tactical football, programmed to win, exhilarating to watch it its own way. What makes the game “beautiful” is not moments of individual brilliance alone, but the sum total of many, many such moments that together make up the game. And this has been especially true for this world cup, the most exhilarating and entertaining football event one can remember, packed with action, thrills, tears and drama. We should’ve taken a cue when Italy and the Netherlands failed to make it. Early eliminations of Germany, Spain, Portugal, Argentina. Fast and furious gameplays. So much last minute drama. Spain and Portugal tying each other for three goals each. Mexico. Germany getting ousted by South Korea who scored not once but twice in injury time. Xhaka and Shaqiri. That absolutely crazy Russia – Croatia game! Senegal, and Cisse. Uruguay – Portugal. The Paraguayan fans! The mindbending Argentina – France and the Belgium – Japan quarterfinals, games of the ages. Lukaku’s video. England winning on penalties. VAR. Neymar the diver. The goalkeepers. Ochoa, Schmeichel, Akinfeev, Courtois, Ospina, Subasic. And Luka. Luka. Luka Modric and his merry band of checkered Croatians. The amazing Japanese team and their fans. The skies opened up during the prize awarding ceremony giving this drama-laden month a completely fitting finale and send-off. Surely, this has been the tournament of the century so far! Spasiba Russia!
P.S. Oh, and the international football season will restart sooner than one would expect. UEFA has come up with a new UEFA Nation’s League to replace haphazard European friendlies. All UEFA member teams are divided into “leagues”n in which there will be four groups each, whose teams will play each other home and away. And guess who will play on September 09 2018? Yeah, the Netherlands will play world champion France! (For some reason, Netherlands has been seeded into League A along with France, Croatia and all). This will be something to watch out for.