Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Golden Years (Andrea Pirlo's One Man War Against Information Overload)

Even before he dished out a supremely understated lesson in how to deconstruct  a vaguely spirited yet laughably ill equipped England side last Sunday night, watching Andrea Pirlo – the concept as much as the man, the spectacle as much as the footballer – was already my personal highlight of Euro 2012 so far.

No one should need to qualify such a statement. This is a man, after all, whose almost foppish physical nonchalance is complemented by what seems like a cybernetically inclined ability to initiate attacks from his own half, the kind of player who imbues the fundamental simplicity of football as form with an aching beauty. Much has been made of England's bizarre inability to quickly close down and pressurize a thirty three year old deep lying playmaker who, despite the renowned majesty of his technique, has never been blessed with the most scintillating pace. Any pace at all, actually. We should have shut him down. We should have pressed higher up the pitch, packed the midfield, marked the potential recipients of those arcing, crystalline passes out of the game. Of course, any or all of these analyses are fundamentally wrongheaded, tacitly peddling, as they do, the flawed logic that Pirlo is a player who exists as a product of contemporaneity.

Lets get this straight: Pirlo looks as if he could rock up to a party in pastel slacks and loafers without socks and not look like a cunt. In my minds eye, he's the footballing equivalent of what those hypnagogic dullards are failing to capture, a manifestation of, simpler, intangible, scarier times in another world that never actually existed. His very presence amongst the dispiriting bipolarity of modern footballing avarice, from the sexless, defeatist realism of Laurent Blanc's cowardly tactical implosion against Spain to the World and European champions oddly dissociated robo-posession-paranoia, Pirlo is a sort of one man reclamation mission, like some dimension hopping spook charged by Calcio's equivalent of John Connor to travel back in time and battle against all the odds to stymie the inexorable rise of the machines.

He's pure fantasy, is Pirlo. He is, essentially, unreal. This might be a generational thing on my part. I'm one of the last of our kind who will remember what life was like before all the digitalized hyperinfo, before the acute consumption anxieties fostered by large scale cultural dematerialization. You have no idea how obsessed with this actuality I am. I'm often crippled by it, rendered anhedonic for hours on end, pressing refresh with the same mixture of perverse relish and apocalyptic fear that grips the adherents of Opus Dei as they flagellate the absolute fuck out of themselves for the big man upstairs. At least those that come after us can bathe in the excusable ignorance of their arbitrary birth dates, while those who came before us were able to live out their wildest years with something approaching an organic sense of temporality. If you thought time flew then, imagine what happens to a persons sense of self when, having had just over a decade to adjust to the then prevalent speed at which culture is produced and disseminated, corporate communication technology smashes every one of those preconceptions to pieces amidst the onset of the cyber-steam age. And you end up so completely free, so utterly unburdened that you come out the other side incalculably panic-stricken, terrified that you will end your days without having been able to consume all this shit, all of which sounds incredible.

You will die.

You won't hear/read/see it all.

So, instead, you patch together curious fictions from the data rubble, junkyard excavations of inner space that eventually arrive at a kind of constantly fragmenting, transitory mode of radical culture, one that encompasses the actually pretty bloody Deluzian maximalism of, say, Rustie as much as it did the self publishing CD-R and cassette boom of the 2000's. Which is paradoxical, really. The hand crafted, individually numbered totems that spewed out of Vermont and Detroit, Glasgow and Newcastle and a million other outposts of that free folk/noise nexus thing were meant to be a bulwark against dematerialization. Most of these groups still despise the download culture. But the fact remains that the majority of their admirers, whether through laziness, economic hardship or opposition to the notion of intellectual property and subcultural product as artefact, did download their stuff. This dichotomy was hardwired into the very ethos of these groups though, folk like Sunburned Hand Of The Man or early Charalambides, to name but two ostensibly pretty divergent examples. In bypassing the traditional clidhes of the clapped out MOJO humping linearity of musical history and repositioning figures from the margins of mainstream culture (John Fahey and Albert Ayler and Harry Smith in particular) as transformative reference points, they had been prefiguring the collapse of conventional material temporality that the advent of web 2.0, like some gauche, steroid loaded nutjob took a blowtorch to. No one escapes this shit. Not really. We are attempting to map entirely unnanvigated virtual terrain and anyone who reckons they know what's really happening is a straight up fucking snake oil salesman. So we create our own fictions, we recalibrate our own backstories and try and grasp at something vaguely profound pre-sleep. 

 Sorry. This is meant to be about Andrea Pirlo. And it honestly still is. 

There he is right now, pootering around somewhere between the empirical psyches and collective unconsciousness of a the pre/post internet generation. Probably in a Ferrari Daytona. And I know how he fits into my particular fictionalized backstory, why watching him spray a football about still seems important to me. The first game that I can actually remember attending is now a veritable historic curiosity in itself. It was the tale end of the 1992/93 season and the first match in which me and Dad were ensconced in the Platt Lane “Family Stand” of Maine Road, as opposed to the womblike, piss encrusted and utterly threatening environs of The Kippax. Manchester City and Wimbledon played out a harrowingly functional, meaningless end of season 1-1 draw, with Rick Holden scuffing one in off his baws' for us at the death. This might have been the inaugural season of the Premier League, but English football for your average bottom to mid table top flight side was still fundamentally agricultural in its execution, a percentage game of risk minimization and based around a defiantly uncontinental predeliction for attrition that was a pretty accurate reflection of the rampant xenophobia that still riddled the old terraces. Maine Road itself was perhaps the most endearing, beautiful shithole that I have ever laid eyes on. A bizarre melange of several architectural failures, somehow pasted together by deluded chairman Peter Swales inbetween televised, proto-Brentian carcrashes, we were knee deep in a Moss Side, engulfed in the immediate aftermath of one of the worst periods of gang warfare Britain has ever seen, my overwhelming memories of my early years as a City supporter tend to manifest themselves nasally: horse shit, flat lager, soggy chips and piss (always piss). 

This was the footballing culture that I had been born into. Everything was falling apart, rackety as fuck. Nothing had been painted for time. Remember that shit about temporality and cassettes and that, that stuff I was banging on about before? Well this is a bit like that. Its hard to explain to anyone born after 1990 quite how intertwined football and class still were – or at least felt – back then. As football supporters, we were still licking our wounds from the last round of top-down class war executed by the state against the post-industrial regions, of which football had formed an integral battleground. English football could barely be described as an industry when Hillsborough struck. Sure, some clubs made money, some made rather a lot of money, but 96 people might have had a chance of coming home that day if football supporter wasn't just another euphemism for how much economic leverage a person had, for whether or not they were to be herded like disposable cattle into plainly unsafe environments and (un)policed to their deaths. We sure as fuck werent “consumers” then. No one went to any great lengths to ensure that our “match day experience” was enhanced. In this light, its perhaps easier to understand why the majority of less glamorous English clubs retreated into the stultifying comfort of the long ball game, the big fat anti-corporate fuck you kick-and-rush reflex still practiced today – albeit with genuine sports science and gluttonous pro-zone analysis - with admirable gumption by the likes of Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce. 

(Sorry. This is definitely about Andrea Pirlo. I promise) 

Into this sporting equivalent of national class based self harm blazed Channel 4's Gazzetta Football Italia in 1992, followed two years later by the first truly post-Fordist World Cup: USA 94. The latter, often derided by the purists, was the first World Cup that I can remember with any vividness. The outrageously bright transatlantic satellite feeds forever rendering the genius of Georghi Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov, the Cracked Actor era Maradonna gurn and the pathalogically pugnacious tight-spot squirm of Romario into scintillating memory bank keepers. But above all I remember Franco Baresi and Roberto Baggio. The all consuming totality of the twin tragedy at the heart of the Azzuri's penalty kicks capitulation to the most functional Brazil side in living memory remains a blight on my youth. Even at such a tender age, and possibly because of my upbringing as a fourth generation football supporter, I was, and remain, obsessed by the concept of masculinity. I'm unhealthily attracted to artistic depictions of men whose presuppositions and hopes are collapsing all around them, from Bigwig in Watership Down to the new Bill Orcutt record. Just one of those things I guess. Baresi's insanely heroic performance in the final and his complete emotional implosion as the ultimate prize gradually slipped away from the finest defender of his generation probably sealed the deal on this lifelong obsession. 

Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks once described his first encounter with punk rock as “like a fucking comet hitting the planet... I had never heard or seen anything like it”, which neatly sums up the insanely exotic allure of one game and one highlights package a week streamed straight into our living rooms from a country that could then quite comfortably claim to have the best league in the world. In 1993 Gazzetta Football Italia seemed like sci-fi. Having been served up the turgid dunderheadedness of a Fitzroy Simpson, Mike Quigley and Andy Dibble for the previous years of my existence, this was an otherworldly addition to my usual Sunday evening itinerary. There was something different about the Italian game, something so much more profound and expressive than what our season ticket treated us to on a weekly basis. At least thats how it seemed back then. Everything feels monumental when you're 8 years old. Even the minor teams, the Padova's, Reggiana's and Chievo's of this world, seemed to have a playmaker. Someone who could make time for himself on the ball. Someone who didn't shirk under pressure. Someone who slowed the game down. Someone patient.

Someone exactly like Andrea Pirlo, then. The possibility of witnessing the birth of a future mythology in real time is one of the few elements of unpredictability in modern football that international tournaments serve to enhance. My aforementioned preoccupations with the inherent tragedy of conventional masculinities often leads me to pay especially close attention to those players who know this might be their last tournament, their final chance to etch a legend. I make no apologies for this romantic filleting. Zidane's magnificently original chest-butt represents the apex of this tradition, for the true legend in the making must be prepared to do things on their own terms, to never sell out or play the game by someone else’s rules. Like Zidane was then, Pirlo is currently possessed of an inescapable air of pathos, a sense that every pass might be his last. The modern day obsession for absurd slo-mo hi definition reaction shots of players has only heightened his existential appeal, the total freedom he attains with every calculated ball into his front men, each beguiling slip down the line to his supporting fullbacks representing a man fundamentally out of sync with modernity. And therein lies his real heroism. I don't buy into the argument that Vicente Del Bosque's all conquering Spanish side have become particularly boring to watch (that fault lies in the adventurousness or otherwise of the opposition they face), but it appears self evident that they are a by-product of information overload, obsessive hoarders of possession like so many MP3's on an external hard drive, terrified to give the ball away, to let go, they are the ultimate multitaskers, resting as they work, working when they rest.

But Pirlo! Pirlo plays Slow Football. Reflective football. Finding time, appreciating space and the moments between actions. Coincidentally, the new LP by Trapist arrived on my door step just days before Italy's first game in the group stages. As its title suggests, The Golden Years shimmers throughout with a luminous sense of unravelling time and space. Its dedication to patience in an age of maximalism is the key entry point to its multiple modes of emotional interrogation – in parts it is truly, glisteningly beautiful. Tentative gestures, notes left hanging in the air pensively. Its magnificently sad in places, moments of up front noise and textured caterwauls are often immediately paired back to a regretful, almost embarrassed minor key supplication. It often retreats into near silence, a powerful expression of introspection in an age of hyperinformation.

I reckon Andrea would probably dig it.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Loss adjusters

It had not started well for Roy Hodgson as boss of All-England. First he wasn’t Harry Redknapp, then he had been persuaded not to take Rio Ferdinand, publicly out of concern that a fading ledge such as the Man U stopper shouldn’t be mere back-up. Personal and political intertwined in an ugly mess; it was a move that only empowered John Terry, as if that loathsome individual hadn’t wielded enough influence in terms of managerial sackings and deferral of his racism case already this season. That gave the Scum sufficient reason to run the expected tactless jokes about his lisp just weeks into his tenure.

Hodgson’s skills as a manager lie in the time he spends with the players, not just on the training pitch (though clearly he finds players to fit his preferred, fairly rigid tactics than the other way round), but in making them feel confident, wanted, willing to run through the proverbial brick wall. But he also had to pull off an arguably bigger trick, in placating the neurotic English fanbase who mixed good sense with idiot hope, high expectations and low expectations. Many with low expectations were really just masking their giddy anticipation so as not to appear irrational, while those who saw no reason not to expect a semi final at least were ready to default to gallows humour at the first embarrassment. Getting past the first round would be an achievement in times straitened by injury, lack of talent and the demise of the Golden Generation, but we were constantly told ‘why not, of course we can win it’ by all concerned. There was still a refusal to countenance England as a second-division nation despite the preparations indicating that performances would be somewhat compromised. There was still the sense of the Bulldog / Crusader mission taking it to the continentals with their maddening game of short accurate passing. What can’t be achieved by rolling up the sleeves and getting stuck in?

Yet in addressing the supporters, and getting the squad on side, he had won a certain amount of respect, as was evident in the way the senior players conducted themselves around him. Not many other England managers had seemed quite so aware and adept at this business of managing the gamut of expectations. Well done Roy.

And these parallel lines extended into our appraisal of the team. France had run us ragged for a while with their tight but largely impotent passing game, Sweden and their Zlatan had us worried, but with seven points we were first out of the group. Few would deny that progress had been made, yet real doubts persisted. You could argue that the 442, and a very deep 442 at that, stopped players like Gerrard from getting forward and influencing the play. Did the defence need that much support? Was the preference for Milner overcautious, were others (principally Ashley Young) getting more gametime than they deserved? Again, our conclusion was tempered, we had built a solid base from which to perform but seemed to be able to do little with the possession when we had it. Surely this would tell against the better teams.

Not bad enough to be beaten in normal time by Italy but never good enough to beat them, as Whispering Dave observed correctly. And indeed the drift into containment football, whether directed or not, from the second half onwards made for a largely drab affair for the neutral. Sure enough we deferred to type and bottled the penalty shootout despite edging ahead. Joe Hart’s antics were given short thrift by Pirlo’s Panenka (and indeed he didn’t get near all the others either), Young lashed an unthinking boot down the middle but onto the bar and Cole’s pen was much worse than his effort for Chelsea against Bayern, when it really mattered.

The damning statistics came thick and fast – 36% possession against Italy; Hart our most successful passer – Roy’s nous was no use here and we were left to the usual defeatist, dissembling clichés about pride in the performance, lack of luck, saw enough to be encouraged for the future, etc. As did the usual prescriptions – get the kids passing from birth, stop the overly competitive junior Sunday league system, fewer foreigners in the game, etc. Action on all of which is being prepared in Optimism House, Cloudcuckooland as we speak.

People talk of the renaissance of the game post-Italia 90 but even in hard times it was always the number 1 popular sport, capable of uniting north and south, middle and working classes, in its thrall. Our game, which at the top end at least is held up as a profitable and functional exception as the finance capitalism around it founders, has never wanted for intensity, and it’s the investment in the blood-and-thunder pyramid right up to the Premier League that makes those stakeholders reluctant to see it changed.

The modern football fandom of season ticket holders and Sky Sports subscribers will not jettison their weekly downloadable package of thrills and spills, ludicrous decisions, predictable outrage and wind-ups for the benefit of the national team, even as they profess love for the ‘Three Lions’. Being honest, Baddiel and Skinner’s ‘30 (now 46) years of hurt’ palls in comparison with club heartaches, the allegiance to which you fight your corner – through right moves and wrong by your team’s players, managers and owners – week in week out. We have been mainlining the collective hallucination, the hype, sensation and supersundays, for too long now and would find the comedown and transition difficult. Let the other nations, many of whose best players come to our Best League in the World™ for these very reasons, focus on national glories. That might be what a bit of us wants, in our slightly insincere Lionhearts, but we don’t want it enough to reorient our game toward it. What would be welcome is a realism about England with no lingering self deception; Hodgson is a canny enough bloke to aid that process.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Hodgson's Choice

So far, the diminished expectations of England's chances have resulted in relatively little scrutiny of Roy Hodgson's selection choices. The consensus that the pool of players he has to drawn on is irredeemably mediocre has dulled the usual bitter acrimony surrounding who's been selected and who hasn't. The one controversial managerial decision so far - to leave Rio Ferdinand behind - was made, despite Hodgson's protestations to the contrary, for non-footballing reasons. 

In the light of this Hodgson's tactical choices for the second game against Sweden - playing Andy Carroll from the off and bringing on Walcott after we fell behind - have seen his stock rise enormously. Quite understandably, as these two players scored a goal each and set up the third. Walcott's appearance in particular was hugely impressive, adding pace, sharpness and unpredictability to England's attack. The question it raises though, is why have a player of his ability on the bench to start with? And, more importantly, why put him back there subsequently?

For surely Walcott merited a place in the starting line up against Ukraine? In the short space of time he was on the pitch against Sweden, he was by and away England's best player. In defending the odd decision not to use him though, one could immediately sense the mobilising forces of perverse British pragmatism. Walcott, we were told, is the ideal player to bring on if we're in trouble, or need an injection of pace late on in the game. Heaven forbid that a team would want to start with some pace or, indeed, set out not to get into trouble in the first place. 

There's a strange parsimonious logic to the idea of only using a player if you really need to. It suggests that it would be much better, more sporting perhaps, to win without using him. "He's a great player to have on the bench", people say, as if this represents some unarguable logic. But, like the equally bizarre idea that there is a "good time to concede a goal", this has always struck me as one of those ultimately meaningless phrases used by expert commentators to fill the void. What does it mean to be a good player but not actually play? Is the scoring of goals really only necessary in an emergency? Would the ideal team set up be to have ALL the best players on the bench?

So, James Milner started again against Ukraine having done virtually nothing to justify his place in doing so.  His work rate and uninspired finishing was inexplicably favoured over Walcott's explosive pace and inspired goal. At the same time, Rooney's return was never really in doubt. Even though it threw the shape and formation of the team that ultimately triumphed against Sweden completely out, Rooney's return was a given. He - England's supposedly best player - was obviously not too good to be left on the bench. 

The only other selection justification that Hodgson has been called on to make was Rio Ferdinand's omission. And again, his stated reasoning made little sense. Ferdinand was too good to be in the squad. Poor old Rio was too experienced to be there just to make up the numbers. Well, if he's that good why not play him? And if he's better and more experienced than people ahead of him in the squad what are they doing there? Clearly, in Ferdinand's case there are other, much murkier reasons for his omission. But it's interesting too that Hodgson's stated reason has been accepted, at least on a footballing level. 

So, finally, here we are back in the familiar territory of inexplicable tactical choices and mystifying team selection. England's progress to the last eight has granted us the right to quibble. It has opened up Hodgson to something more than benign pity at his hapless lot. He now has choices to make.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012


About the time of the last World Cup, I finally got hold of a copy of Ed Horton’s book, ‘The Best World Cup Money Can Buy’. For those who aren’t familiar with him, Horton was a writer with a sharp polemical style who contributed to WSC, and apparently to the Socialist Worker, throughout the 90s. Sometime around 2000 he dropped off the radar. ‘Best World Cup’ was an excellent book which touched on almost everything we were writing about on Minus last time, but I didn’t finish the book in time to use any of it. This borrows heavily from his chapter on the Greek team of 1994.

Greece’s qualification for the 1994 World Cup was met with an upsurge of nationalist rhetoric at home, and some corresponding sabre-rattling against the newly independent FYR of Macedonia. National team manager Alketas Panagoulias (along with the chairman of the Greek FA) tried to ride the national team’s coat-tails to power, Berlusconi-style, by standing for parliament as a New Democracy candidate. He spent the build-up to the finals making statements like ‘We have undertaken an obligation to succeed in a national mission. Our purpose is holy. World Hellenism wants you to make them proud,’ and ‘(the tournament) is a big opportunity for Hellenism to promote its views.’

Things didn’t really pan out. Panagoulias and his boss failed to win seats; New Democracy were defeated by PASOK and remained in opposition for the rest of the decade; perhaps most painfully of all, Greece lost all three of their games at the tournament, failing to score any goals along the way. The representatives of World Hellenism were little more than bystanders as Batistuta, Lechkov, and Amokachi stroked the goals in. As Horton remarks, ‘they must have been dancing in the streets of Skopje’. The off-pitch rhetoric backfired – ‘if you make speeches of this colour, you can’t expect people to react as if only eleven players in white had been thrashed.’ 

The idea that Friday night’s Germany-Greece game could be about anything more than football is being carefully denied by both sides. The BBC and ITV tournament coverage has restricted itself to harmless platitudes – Greece’s progress is a fillip for a nation ‘that hasn’t had much to cheer about recently’ (that one’s normally wheeled out for countries ruled by dictators, but there you go). The less stuffy sections of the media haven’t been so cautious – ‘group of debt’/’grexit’ jokes have been a staple of the humour/‘Fanzone’ columns since the draw was first made. Everyone knows what it's really about - the profligate Greeks against their overindulgent EU creditors. I can’t quite bring myself to look into what the German papers might be writing about the game (but I’d hazard a guess that they’re not taking the usual uncomprehending and slightly embarrassed tone familiar from the one-sided rivalries with England and the Netherlands: this is something a lot closer to home*).

Greece has just had an election in which New Democracy (who no longer have to scrape around for football coaches to run as candidates) ghosted home ahead of the left-wing, anti-austerity Syriza grouping. Some of the ND support came not from conservatives but from wavering liberal and centrist types who might otherwise have voted for Labour-analogue PASOK (who themselves had long since drifted too far out to be credible challengers**). ND’s victory had European mainstream opinion breathing a sigh of relief – one Tory backbencher here commented that ‘when push came to shove, Greece opted for austerity and sanity’. Sanity? There’s certainly been enough scaremongering about the apocalyptic consequences of a Greek default and exit – it’s not entirely surprising to read a suggestion that anything other than the technocratic austerity consensus is not merely wrong but insane. As it goes, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras has repeatedly insisted that he would not initiate any unilateral action on Greece’s part. Syriza’s mistake was to even entertain the notion that there might be an alternative to accepting the logic of austerity, apologising for the idleness of the Greek people, and humbly tugging the forelock in gratitude for another cartload of austerity measures. ND, supported by the ‘responsible’ left parties (PASOK, Democratic Left), will most likely form a working coalition and continue the debt-bailout-austerity cycle for a while longer.

Countries aren’t monolithic blocs; there are plenty of reasons why individual Greeks might take particular relish in victory over Germany. Syriza or Antarsya supporters might see it as a chance to uphold national pride against the austerity programme and the insulting narrative that comes with it. For the fascists and Europhobes, Greek progress would be a victory of the true Hellenic spirit over the malcontents, layabouts and outsiders – as the Independent Greek party rhetoric has it, a ‘renewal’ of the nation against the ‘international conspiracy’ that has brought Greece to this point (see also the Golden Dawn campaign slogan, ‘we can rid this land of filth’). Perhaps, though, the greatest volume of guilty, cold-comfort satisfaction might come from those nominal progressives who shied away from the unpredictable consequences of electing Syriza to cast reluctant votes for ND and the existing order this week. On paper Greece don't have much of a chance - but the appeal to realism has always been more effective at the ballot box than on the sports field.

*The war’s never far away at times like this - the right-wing group Independent Greeks repudiate the debt on the ingenious grounds that Germany still owes Greece considerable reparations for the occupation during WWII. 

**PASOK’s parliamentary support of austerity measures being a primary reason. Paul Mason writes of one crucial vote, witnessed by the Syntagma crowds on café television sets: ’As they watch the vote unfold, you can see in their eyes the intensity of people watching penalty shootouts at football finals.’

On The Virtues Of Not Having The Ball

 Dont bother spotting the ball; it's not there

England are rapidly turning into the best team left in the competition without the ball. We’ve had very little of it, and haven’t lost any matches largely because of it. The old lie, still perpetuated, though dying slightly, is that possession is an indication of success in a football match. The statistics keep rolling (more so than ever; we're inundated by Opta stats) but this seems an increasingly empty way to analyse a match.

Look at all of England’s goals so far: Lescott's header against France and Carroll’s against Sweden were both attempts to get the ball away as quickly as possible by using the head; Rooney’s against Ukraine was similar, though with less apparent urgency (as evidenced by his earlier miss); Wellbeck's backheel was one touch, as if the ball would start being all mysterious if grappled with while even Walcott's long range effort was perhaps characterised by ever so slightly articulated hatred of the ball, requiring it to be shunted towards the opponent's goal with as little thought as possible.

All one touch, all an integral part of England's general view of the ball as somehow cursed, as a bundle of vicious hot fat, slathered in Ebola. England hates the ball in open play and this seems to be working. 

And it's not just England. The Croatia vs Spain game had a similar flow.... Spain kept the ball, holding it sacred; Croatia moved it quickly. Croatia should have won. And, remember, Croatia had one of the Premiership's leading one touch finishers - Jelavic - who's become kind of famous for wanting to get rid of the ball (by scoring) quicker than anyone else. I was only half joking on Twitter (@lowquay) during the Croatia match when I suggested an alternative tactic for them was to all run up towards the goal and let the keeper hoof it. If anything, Croatia tried too hard to play possession football and eventually became unstuck (they were, admittedly, more equipped to play Spain at their own game than England would be). Interestingly though, attempting to play Spain at their own game is flawed not simply because no other team can play that way as effectively but because the idea of keeping the ball for that length of time is itself flawed. When Spain score it's generally because they work it to someone who doesn't want the ball so much (Villa, Torres etc).

Goals are necessarily defined by not having the ball: 

"We don't have it; it's there, in the goal. The net has it." 

So the key to winning is not having the ball in the right direction. You may have 80% possession but during that time it's not possible to score a goal; at the end, you have to give it up. England have been very successful at giving it up. Have it Ukraine, but you'll have to shoot from distance to get through. Ok, France; you did shoot from distance and did score but we'll have to put that down to experience. In fact, we'll let you have that one... 

England probably won't win... Italy will be up for it, and have even less expectations than England (at the start of the tournament) due to all the match-fixing scandals and even if we do get past them it's Germany, who are the team most ambivalent about the ball (they pass quickly, moving through the stages at speed but often take two touches, rather than one... because they can) and thus perhaps uniquely balanced to win this thing.

Still, England have shown that not having the ball is a perfectly acceptable strategy and one that should be studied a little more carefully than the general exasperation and appeals to luck suggest. They have not been lucky (and they haven't been pretty to watch); they have found a system that works. They should want no more than 40% possession in the next games; they should cede the ball, if not the ground (watch out for the heat maps, folks!). They should keep their shape and not worry about looking like Iniesta or Xavi or Pirlo or Ozil (we have no one to match those guys and no one who should aspire to match them).

England need to keep moving, need to keep hating the ball/. England need to learn to accept their hate. Gerrard isn't trying too hard in this competition and he's been really good as a consequence; Rooney will need to calm his artistic aspirations and give in to his animalistic side - it's this dynamic that makes Rooney almost unique. 

Hate the ball. Hate the feel of the ball. Keep it the hell away. 

But in the right direction.

Friday, 15 June 2012


My one and only prediction for Euro 2012 is that Spain and Croatia will draw 2-2. This result would (will) ensure that both teams advance to the quarterfinals regardless of whether Italy manages to beat Ireland and – if it does – by which score. Thus, it will happen.

When it happens, the event won’t lack for dramatic irony: Italy, always the speculative team prone to making cautious calculations in order to progress in tournaments with the minimum risk and effort, will ultimately have been undone – as well as by its inability or unwillingness to take the game to Croatia in the second half of its second game (which is not ironic in itself) – by the more exact and assured calculations of others.

When it happens, the event will have an air of familiarity: not just because many players and officials of our national league – including defender Domenico Criscito, who was cut at the last minute from the team – have been involved in a match-fixing scandal so vast as to cast doubt on the non-predetermined nature of almost any game at the top level of Italian football, but also because the exact same scenario took place once before, at Euro 2004. Going into the last game of the group, Sweden and Denmark needed to draw 2-2 to be certain of progressing at the expense of Italy. And in the lead-up to the match the opinion in the country was divided amongst those who opined that just because we would have most assuredly found a way to fix the match had we found ourselves in the boots of either the Swedes or the Danes, it was unlikely that they would; and those who countered cynically that those brave, rugged Nordic warriors would ultimately find a way. And find a way they duly did.

Cassano, Del Piero and Pirlo walk off the park at the end of Italy v. Bulgaria at Euro 2004

Of course it is just possible in theory that that 2-2 result was not a fix. Perhaps it wasn’t, although it would be a remarkable coincidence and the way in which the last goal came about is decidedly suspect. However I find it interesting that some reporters – including the anonymous author of this piece on the BBC website – should be certain of the opposite. ‘It was clear early on,’ reassured us the Beeb, ‘that no Scandanavian pact had been signed as Sweden and Denmark sought to attack.’ This, beside the obvious question (how would you arrange a 2-2 without both teams going on the attack and trading chances and goals?), raises more interesting issues regarding the verisimilitude of sports and of the social Real itself. How do you know that the outcome of an event that depends on interactions between people hasn’t been predetermined or arranged at some time during its course? The history of match-fixing, both in its criminal forms designed to procure gain, typically through rigged sports bets, and in the more benign but in fundamental ways just as fraudulent amicable draws at the end of the season between teams that have nothing to play and teams that are seeking to avoid relegation (a most typical event in Italy), consists for the most part of games that look just like any other game, insofar as you would find it impossible to not only prove wrongdoing but in fact even suspect that anything is amiss on the evidence of the games alone.

And so too if you watched Denmark v. Sweden of Euro 2004 without knowledge of the score that would see both teams through you might not suspect anything, whereas with knowledge of the score you wouldn’t be reassured that a fix did not take place unless the final result had not been 2-2. Which makes my reasoning unquestionably circular. Nonetheless, my prediction stands. Spain and Croatia will draw 2-2, and it will be hard to tell that the result came about through anything other than the honest application of the rules of football to the chaos of physics.

(In fact, to the extent that I have a glimmer of hope that Italy might go through – assuming they beat Ireland, an event on which I wouldn’t bet my stereo – is that Spain might find it difficult to arrange such a draw. And I don’t mean morally, but purely from the standpoint of their logic of play, meaning the algorithmic, Playstation-like fashion in which their players move on the field, aiming for 100% possession of the ball. They couldn’t do it via a pair of own-goals, could they?)

Thinking with your feet

In this week's Joy of Six, Rob Smyth selects Zlatan Ibrahimovic's last minute flicked equaliser against Italy in 2004 as one of the great European Championship goals. One of the things that so impresses him is the 'speed of thought' shown. In a split second Ibrahimovic adapted to a new situation and then put the ball in the back of the net when it seemed nigh on impossible. And tonight we saw another example, from - shock horror - England's Danny Welbeck. As someone who writes about improvisation (albeit in a rather different context), I want to suggest that these goals are examples of improvisation's creative, embodied intelligence.

In a sense, football is all about improvisation. Players are constantly faced with new situations and have to decide what course of action would be best to take. They have to think on their feet and come up with new solutions. Yet very often the role of improvisation is limited by their reliance on established tropes: a well drilled offside trap, a simple pass to a teammate, a carefully rehearsed free-kick routine, etc. Even moments often hailed as 'brilliant improvisation' may be things that have clearly been practiced time and time again: the Cruijff Turn, for example (and likewise the Dilshan Scoop in cricket). Deciding when to employ these techniques are acts of improvisation in response to certain situations (sometimes co-ordinated with others), but the physical act itself is not something spontaneously made-up on the spot. Musical improvisers often complain about playing with people who have set piece tricks they bring out of the bag in every performance, and it's the 'speed of thought' of an act of immanent creation that they often crave. This, I'd argue, is what Welbeck and Ibrahimovic showed, and it has interesting ramifications for our understanding of intelligence.

Intelligence is generally associated with the mental rather than the physical. It results from conscious reflection and is the source of productive thought. It is often believed to distinguish humans from animals, who lack the capacity to think rationally, reflectively or critically upon their surroundings. This understanding is often challenged by improvising musicians, however, who find that in the midst of an improvisation they find that intelligence is also embodied: that their lungs and their fingers do things before they think them through. In his wonderful book Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (which, at the time of writing, is dirt cheap at The Book Depository), the saxophonist David Borgo states 'many of my favorite times spent improvising seem neither entirely mental, nor entirely physical, but rather when these binary divisons seem to dissolve and disappear, if only for a fleeting moment'. Today, Danny Welbeck's leg and foot seemed to do something before he had the chance to think it through. It was instinctive, spontaneous, entirely unthought through - yet it was also a moment of genius, a flash of supreme intelligence. He thought with his feet, not on his feet.

Now Danny Welbeck's flash of intelligence isn't going to create new forms of political community. Improvising to win a football match is hardly an emancipatory use of improvisation - it feeds into nationalism, works productively for capital (think of the replays! the youtube hits! the facebook shares! think how much TV rights would be if that happened more often!); and - like the Israeli Defence Force's use of improvisation in the military field - it results in the vanquishing of a foe (indeed, we can imagine a soldier being valorised for an ingenious use of improvisation in battle). And I'm certainly not saying that we should abandon reflective, critical intelligence either. But Welbeck's goal does, perhaps, point to the power of improvisation and embodied intelligence to produce the new, the brilliant, the unexpected: to bring hope where all seemed lost, when all seemed closed off. We need to communalise this brilliance; we need to improvise together - not to beat the 'other', but to increase our capacity to act collectively.  

(Or it could be that - as my housemate insists - Danny Welbeck just 'fell on his arse' and got lucky [...but then there's a whole other discourse on 'failure''s productive role in improvisation...])

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Now, over to The Tactics Truck.

International football, then. Is it a grave matter, more serious than life and death, something that should rightly occupy every synapse in our heads? Or is it just a pleasant distraction on long summer evenings, of no more broad significance than Olympic dressage, something we shouldn't invest too heavily in? The rival terrestrial channels have taken approaches to their presentation that neatly illustrate the two poles.

The BBC have based their team in a windowless underground bunker, not unlike the one thar houses the familiar MOTD setup. The furniture is Tron-shiny and elliptical, the virtual glass panels are reminiscent of the mid-90s BBC news studio, and the orange/black/white colour scheme gives the whole thing the feel of a Gillette advert - as if Alan might at any moment lean forward conspiratorially and say 'guys like us know that we have to look and feel at our best to perform. That's why I always use...'


Perhaps aware of the avalanche of criticism that fell their way during the World Cup, the team have (as Dhanveer observed the other day) made an effort to up their collective game. Maybe it's just that in a 16 team finals there are fewer no-marks to patronise and dismiss, but the analysis does seem to have moved beyond simple observation of failure or success coloured by assumed canards. Dixon and Shearer restrict themselves to what they were supposed to bring to the table in the first place (to distinguish them from you, me, or the nearest liveblogger) - a career's worth of experience as a top-level defender and striker, respectively. I was surprised to realise that even Shearer has useful insights lurking inside that bullet head. Lawrenson's banter-into-the-abyss co-commentary remains a problem - to share a quip from @immolations, it's 'like that of the chuckle brothers if one of paul or barry was dead'.

As the team lean forward from their minimalist chairs, unleashing all kinds of computerised in-screen gadgets to illustrate their points, the message is clear - these are serious men having serious discussion on serious matters. For all of Lineker's vaguely sleazy quip-laden compering, the process is as solemn as an episode of Newsnight. This isn't helped by the previews and idents - witness last night's shocking 'CAPTAIN. LEADER. WARRIOR' clip with Gerrard (encouraging him to live up to the example of England's past captains like Terry Butcher*).

Compare and contrast with ITV, who have taken a much more laid-back approach, from the moment their frankly charming and decidedly un-bombastic animated intro comes on screen. Their pre- and post-match analysis comes to us from a location studio with a huge picture window overlooking Warsaw's old town. The studio lights are reflected in well-scrubbed pine flooring and the team perch on tasteful Habitat-esque wicker chairs - it's like a high-end business retreat. The travelogue feel is only strengthened by the presence at the helm of Adrian Chiles, a man most recently known for presenting a primetime magazine show, who's only too happy to drop Rough Guide trivia into the mix ('the Palace of Culture and Science there... very much Stalin's unwanted gift to Poland').

The panel are more immediately interesting than the BBC's team (perhaps due to the curdled sense of fatigued familiarity with Hansen et al). Jamie Carragher was presumably brought in in an attempt to emulate the success of Gary Neville at Sky - unashamedly partial, occasionally spiky but clearly informed and reasonable in front of the cameras. Then there's Patrick Viera, who keeps his contributions short and usually needs Adrian's prompting to participate in the discussion. He has the air of a happily married man at an after-work function - content enough to sit back and listen to the office talk, but ultimately spoiling to be at home with people he genuinely likes. Furthest right we have Gareth Southgate, a man apparently cursed to forever bear the mannerisms of a teenager at his first job interview (his overuse of the hands in an attempt to appear confident and authoritative is a textbook nervous-interviewee symptom).

Topics of discussion are batted around casually as the sun sets behind the team, with stats and virtual-visual aids kept to a minimum - it's a very different atmosphere to the cabin-fevered quest for truth in the BBC bunker.

*Butcher, of course, revered for his visible and ostentatious bleeding in Sweden, not unlike the panel's fawning over Parker and Gerrard as they limped to heroic non-defeat against France - just why do we enjoy seeing our footballers suffer so much? Cue overblown 'St Sebastian for England' post sometime next week.

Monday, 11 June 2012

A Critique of Pure Footballing Reasons

There is something truly rotten about Rio Ferdinand's exclusion from the England squad which reminds me of phone-hacking scandal as it is played out in Leveson inquiry. You can imagine a similar inquiry being launched post-tournament: a similar parade of faceless FA apparatchiks would materialize, Hodgson and Bernstein would comb their curiously blank diaries and emails, rack their abruptly empty memories... and nothing would be revealed...

I'm not a huge Ferdinand fan – and I'm certainly not a Manchester United fan, but the case for taking him seems fairly watertight to me. Vastly experienced, not at his physical peak any more, but reads the game brilliantly, can pass and play the ball out from the back...

Instead the thinking seems to have gone like this: Terry must be presumed innocent, and therefore the impending court case cannot be allowed to impinge on his selection. How noble! And why after all should the case be pre-judged? Why should be punished with exclusion, if, as is both legally and logically correct, he is for now, innocent? 

Next, presumption 2:  Terry and Ferdinand cannot be expected to play in the same team. So, which, on this even playing field, does Hodgson prefer? Terry. Hodgson has never trusted centrebacks who might be described as cultured, or prone to passing the ball out from the back, or carrying the ball into midfield – a recent example would be his ostracization of Dan Agger at Liverpool.

So Terry is in, Ferdinand out. And you are left with the grotesque spectacle of player being excluded from the squad because his brother was allegedly racially abused and his alleged abuser must not be pre-judged... and punished with exclusion.

One brief thought experiment: England return from the tournament, whether as sorry husks discarded at the group stage, or having triumphantly Rehhagel-ed their way to a 1-0 win over Germany in the final. Shortly after, John Terry is tried and found guilty. Either way the failure becomes more ignominious or the victory is tainted. Either way the FA, by their inaction, have brought the game into disrepute. It's not even as if they're bound by precedent: in fact they're going against precedent, in that Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were both suspended form England consideration while on trial for assault.

Ferdinand hasn't mentioned it, but there's a strange irony in the fact that he misses Euro 2012 to preserve the presumed-innocent John Terry's place at it. Ferdinand missed Euro 2004 because he was serving a suspension for missing a drugs test. Not failing -- missing -- a drugs test: missed drugs test carrying not presumed-innocence but presumed-guilt.

Hodgson's get-out here is that he may really have made a decision based on 'football reasons'. As mentioned, Rio's style doesn't match Hodgson's model defender, which would a be a safety-first stopper.

Soooo, why not mention them?

Why not explain that he wants a different balance of left/right footed players, or wants to emphasize pace to enable a high line (he doesn't, or he'd have picked Micah Richards, and he played a line so deep at Liverpool it was much like a team curling into a foetal ball to protect its vital organs)? That he wanted to reproduce a club partnership by playing Cahill with Terry? Or detail any doubts about Ferdinand's injury record (even though RF wouldn't need to play in every game?)

The give-away for me, the proof that Hodgson has left out Ferdinand because of the Terry case, is that the only detailed 'football' reasoning he's offered is absolute disingenuous bollocks.

"Rio Ferdinand for me is not a player that you call up as a substitute, or to cover for the players that you have... We turned to Martin Kelly because I knew he was going to be someone who would be very useful to us. He's very happy to be here knowing that his chances of playing a big part in the tournament are quite small. You don't turn to people like Rio Ferdinand for that."

So, Ferdinand is... too good to be picked. OK? Because he's so good, so esteemed, so venerable, you wouldn't involve him unless as a starter... Even though the player in question has a) personally informed you he's fine to be in the same team as Terry and b) to travel as a squad player... Because every other squad in the world operates that way: a clear first XI plus a shadow, inferior 3rd XI to come in for injured players, and outside the squad all those players good enough to challenge the first XI, but who would be insulted by inclusion.

In this Lewis Carroll world of inverted logic, Hodgson is actually arguing that it would have been an insult to pick Ferdinand. Perhaps the most insulting thing of all is that he expects the player to believe that.

Sun Tzu: Italy Vs Spain

Okay, maybe a little obvious but...well, if any game was suitable for various shoehorned  Sun Tzu quotes...

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.

Italy's approach, I think. They packed the midfield and played around Spain in exactly the same way that Spain played around them. An odd almost mirroring of the Spanish approach, which must have taken the Spanish by surprise. The lack of a Spanish attacking threat (they had multiple midfield threats, of course) meant that Italy could afford to lose the ball on occasion in midfield and not be susceptible to the sudden, devastating counter-attack. In turn, this allowed Italy to feel more confident in their own passing game; a missed pass did not mean that Villa or Torres (ahem) would be running behind their defence like a flash. 
Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.
Italy played this par excellence. They way they played was clearly planned before they knew what the Spanish formation would look like; the lack of a Spanish striker simply meant that it was a less risky strategy. Italy may well have been the underdogs here but they certainly let Spain think that this meant more than it did; margins are fine in all these games, even the ones where one team 'clearly' outscores the other (The Czech's were bad, Russia were goodish... there wasn't as much in it as the score seems to say). But Spain, it seems, stretched their supposed superiority to its logical limit and tried to drown the Italians in midfield mazes... it just didn't work.

Invincibility lies in the defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.

Contrast Spain's play when Torres did come on... much more direct and much more able to get beyond the Italian lines. Spain temporarily forgetting that their suffocating midfield play is fundamentally defensive was a costly error. It's one you hear a lot of critics make; the assumption is that Spain are a formidable attacking threat because they are moving forward and sideways through midfield whereas their high tempo intensity is in fact an exemplar of  'the best form of defence is attack'. When they did realise that the possibility of victory is in the attack, they did better. If Torres had been on form, Spain would have won but the Italians rightly gambled that no main focus to the Spanish attack = no immediate counter-attacking threat. 

Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.
 The Italians didn't take on the doggedness expected of them, refused from the off to play the '20% possession, breakaway, set-piece goal' game that everyone (me included) thought they would. Most teams have played this role with the assumption that playing the Spaniards at their own game is bound to fail. Now maybe this is true of many teams, but Italy clearly felt they had the players (they had Pirlo, for instance) to play the 'Spanish' way.  Now Italy still had less of the ball (35% possession) but they didn't act like they had, refused to be pigeonholed into that grim resistance and I think, importantly, Spain wouldn't have felt that superior in possession. Italy played like they weren't fighting for survival and became self-fulfilling.
If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.
 It was an incredibly arrogant way for Spain to play, especially against Italy. They could have lost. Maybe should have. They seemed ignorant of the fact that, despite the brilliance of their midfield play in tournaments, they have still relied on a goalscorer to actually score goals (on Villa, on Torres). And if they thought that Italy would just sit back and let them play then, well, they just didn't think things through. There was no Plan B (unless 'bring on Torres' was the Plan B). Already, they are blaming the pitch for their failure to defeat Italy when it should be clear that the pitch allowed snappy passing, even if the pressing Italians didn't. There was lots of snappy passing, from both sides. 

Managing Expectations 1

Anyone needing a short illustration of the expectation problem that surrounds England need only look at these Alan Shearer quotes. Alan gets gloomy - almost maudlin - over one of the weakest and most unsettled England squads in years.

"I think it's the first time I can remember when we've gone into a tournament without huge expectations."

"We didn't even have a manager or a coach a month ago and we've had a lot of injuries."
Which is a welcome change coming from one of the dumbest chauvinist-cum-cheerleaders around. But pushed to make a prediction, Alan thinks...?

"I think maybe a semi-final position for England."

So injury-ravaged, under-prepared England to match their best ever European Championship campaign. What would Shearer have predicted with a fully-fit, suspension free squad? England to win in the final then go back and beat everyone again just to be sure?

His sage verdict on the Rio Ferdinand issue is that "Every manager has the right to pick who he wants and who he doesn't want." I hope Ruud Gullit saw that and enjoyed a hollow laugh or two.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Group A: The Group Of Life

4 teams that will all fancy their chances, a kind of reverse Group Of Death.

Poland, of course, are the team we need to keep an eye on; home advantage, a nation already faced by slurs on their identity and character, perhaps embittered by the focus on their potential for racism. The team is the country, or so it seems. Mark Van Bommel, that arbiter of good grace, has already made himself an unlikely hero by rightly stepping up to the plate on racist fans and has thus negated the slurs on his own character after his unique 'approach' to the last World Cup (even if de Jong was responsible for the impromptu karate against Spain, it's has Van Bommel's, er, stamp all over it).

I haven't seen much on Poland's chances, people don't seem to be giving them a hope. They could win this group and then... with the breeze against their back? Perhaps not, but just looking at the Group Of Life alone and you can see how things might play out.

Greece will sit back, become an archetypal hard to beat (like) side, but don't look lethal on the break (or the bench). They don't look like they have goals in them and I feel, this time, they'll need them. Russia will rely heavily on the old guard of Arshavin et al, who  look to be passing 30 quicker than even Gerrard's old bones. There's Dzagoev, who's looked a little tasty at CSKA Moscow but... the 4-4-3 favoured by Advocaat will see them overrun in packed midfields, leaving them heavily reliant on getting the fullbacks forward... could be an energy sap too far. The Czech's still rely on the mercurial Baros, who has a history in big games but hadn't had a great season and it remains to be seen if he's yet learned to look up while he has the ball, a skill he didn't need or use in previous successful Euro games but.... well, it didn't do Peter Barnes much good, as a mate said to me last week. Also, the Czech's have a relativelu inexperienced defence, which doesn't tend to bode well in games which tend to be tight.
So what of Poland?

My mate, Matthew (a Borussia Dortmund / Watford fan) has been posting various Dortmund based scouting tips on Facebook so I'll defer to him for a minute:

Robert Lewandowski. He bagged 22 in 34 Bundesliga games and 7 in 6 in the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) including a hat-trick against Bayern in the final. "Lewangoalski" was also named Bundesliga player of the season. He is quite a traditional 'English style' centre forward & it has been rumoured he will follow Shinji Kagawa to Man Utd. Lewandowski's main problem at Euro 2012 will probably be his relationship with his manager Franciszek Smuda, who he has openly criticised for relying too heavily on non-Polish born/speaking players. However, it's unlikely that Smuda will drop his star striker & I expect "Lewangoalski" will live up to Mirsolav Klose's billing as one to watch.

The captain, Jakub Błaszczykowski, is another Dortmund player to watch. Kuba, whose uncle also captained Poland, usually plays on the right-wing but can also play at right-back. For a winger he is certainly not afraid to get his foot in & can run all day. An obvious parallel in the England team would be James Milner, but Kuba is quicker & likes to get forward a bit more. A fan favourite at Dortmund, he overcame tragedy at an early age when he witnessed his father murder his mother. Apparently he reads the Bible & prays to God daily. I’m sure every single England player will be doing exactly the same throughout the tournament...
The third of Dotmund's Polish trio is right back Łukasz Piszczek. I say right back..., but he has also played left wing, right wing and centre forward! Like his fellow Pole Kuba, he is quick and likes to get forward but can stick the boot in when necessary. He has been linked with Internazionale, Chelsea & Real Madrid but since he signed a new contract last summer, which lasts until 2016, I would be a little surprised to see him leave Dortmund.

And then there's Szczesny, a goalkeeper who became an integral part in Arsenal's resurgence. He gets very little credit for his part in Arsenal's reawakened challenge for the Champions League places but he's going to be on a high too (What? You're not relying on Joe Hart?).
With Poland's first game today very winnable, they could build a head of steam (or perhaps let out a head of steam) which could see them win the group and then... well, you'd guess it'd be either The Netherlands or Germany... Tricky, but what would they have to lose?