Category Archives: Football

Spain 2008-2012 – the greatest football team ever?

I love Spain. I love Spanish food. I love Spanish wine. Andalucía is my holiday destination of choice. And I love Spanish football. It’s a love founded on watching Barcelona on Eurosport with my dad in 1996 when I was 17, when Ronaldo, 20 years old, scored 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, was unstoppable, unplayable, as good a goalscorer as he’d ever be plus, pre-injuries and thickening-out of his physical frame, was as fast as a whippet and possessed of such sublime touch, poise, and balance that I didn’t think there’d ever be a better footballer. (A decade later, of course, Messi came along.)

So I was pleased last night when they won a third consecutive major international football tournament, and made history by doing so. And I was more than pleased – delighted, in fact – that they won it in such style, by a record margin, by sticking to their ideology, by playing football the best way there is to play it; the way my brother taught me to play when I was a kid, which is by repeating the same three words over and over again. “Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move.”

I’m fed-up of English football, of the hustle and bustle of the premiership, of the unfathomable amounts of cash lashed around on players’ wages, on TV rights, on tickets for games, on Bentleys and Range Rovers and Lamborghinis. I’m fed up of Steven Gerrard being our best footballer when he’s a one-dimensional presence on the pitch in terms of imagination, going for the match-winning “ego pass” every time, whether it’s appropriate or not, possession and control of a game sacrificed for the vaguest glimpse of a chance of personal glory.

I’m fed up of John Terry and Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney and all the other “role models” chasing after money, and models, and loose balls. Even the one young player we have who might point towards footballing sophistication, Jack Wilshere, is in danger of becoming a spitting, brawling thug. I’m fed up of the empty, worthless, hollow spectacle of it. I refuse to pay for it, and my engagement with it stops at Match of the Day and taking part in a fantasy football league for camaraderie’s sake at work. I’m fed up of the way the speed and “passion” and spectacle of the English premiership has infantilised its supporters to the extent that they accuse the Spanish team of being boring because they’re not running around like headless chickens.

Fabregas sums it up well: “Those people who think we are playing boring, in my opinion, don’t understand the game.” Possession is everything for the Spanish; it’s how they attack, how they defend, how they control a game. The way they probe an area and a set of players, looking for weaknesses, finding nothing to exploit right now, and move to another area and set of players, from rightwing to leftwing to the D and back again, until they do find something to exploit, until a chink appears in the armour, is fascinating and remarkable and betrays an understanding of the game that is so far above England’s that it makes us look like cavemen. No current English player would get in this Spanish squad. None of them would even get near it. We don’t understand what it is that they do, even though it’s incredibly simple and logical and obvious.

The Spanish achievement is remarkable, and pretty much cements their place as the greatest international football team the world has ever seen. I’ve researched the 1954 Hungarian team of Puskás and Kocsis and Bozsik and Hidegtuki, read books about them and watched as much footage as possible (I bought the 1960 Real Madrid European Cup final victory DVD, just so I could see Puskás play a full 90-minutes). I’ve watched huge amounts of footage of Cruyff’s Holland team from 1974 and the 1970 Brazil team. I remember the Germany of Brehme and Matthäus and Klinsmann. I watched France win the World cup in 1998 and then take Euro 2000, too, and thought that was incredible. But Spain eclipsed all of them last night.

Of course Italy were beset by bad luck: Chiellini looked like a terrific outlet for them for the first 20 minutes until he was injured; De Rossi has clearly been less than fit through the tournament; Cassano, with his awesome balance and touch and vision, is only a few months out from heart-surgery. When Motta pulled his hamstring within moments of coming on, and had to be carried off the pitch, unable to continue and leaving Italy a man down against the best team the world has ever seen, there was never going to be any way back. Italy actually played nearly as much football as Spain last night, it just wasn’t as good.

But let’s not forget that Spain won last night, and over the last three weeks, without Puyol, their greatest defender, or Villa, their record goalscorer, with Torres only just nearing the light at the end of a torrid two-year tunnel. If anyone mentions exhaustion on behalf of the Italians, the Spanish players have collectively played 17,000 more minutes of football this season than the Italians. But it’s always, always easier to run with the ball or for the ball than it is to run after it, which is what Spain make their opponents do.

The success of Spain’s “tiki-taka” approach to football, which Luis Aragonés arrived at as a pragmatic decision because his players weren’t physically strong enough to out-muscle opponents, is a massive tactical and ideological victory for the beautiful game as far as I’m concerned. English fans crow about passion and commitment and sacrifice as if Xavi and Ramos and their kin don’t care about playing for their country or about winning trophies, but thinking about what you’re doing and working out the best way to win suggests that, in fact, you care a great deal. Enough to do a job properly.

Seeing Italy and Germany move towards this approach, and the cusp of success, ought to suggest that we’re doing something wrong in this country. A complete re-evaluation of how we understand, coach, and play football is going to be necessary if England are going to challenge these nations seriously, because, clearly, just having committed, talented players who care enough to physically bleed for their country isn’t enough. We need them to be clever and skilful, too. In the meantime, I’ll continue to take more pleasure and joy in watching Spain win beautifully and intelligently, than in watching England haplessly falter.

¡Viva España!

Edit. Oh, and the useless, witless idiots in certain sections of the British media (generally those owned by Australians) who are crowing about how the Spanish success last night was down to premiership players, can go to hell.

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Knees aren’t good

Just less than a year ago my knee collapsed while I was just walking to my bike. I said I probably ought to see someone about it, but I didn’t. I was just careful. It’s gone a couple of times since then, too, when playing football, but it recovers relatively quickly, and I strap it up and keep riding my bike and playing football and doing some exercises to try and strengthen it a bit. I’ve been riding a bit less lately because of poor weather and house-buying and also because I’ve been playing football more often – usually two or three times a week.

I played on Thursday night; scored some goals, made some assists, enjoyed every minute of it. I was fine. I’ve been fine for the last two or three months. But yesterday morning, at work, moving from one chair to another to take a photograph during a research presentation, my knee collapsed again, as badly as it ever has before. One of the researchers rushed out and called for help; the Estate Patrol guys literally picked me off the floor and took me back to my office (and offered to take me to A&E and then home – I declined, as I knew Em would want to), I made some calls and some emails to cancel things for later in the day, and I went to A&E.

The doctor reckons I have a small tear in one of the cartilages in my left knee, and that I probably did this years and years ago (I can remember the incident – dancing in Boxes, a long-since vanished nightclub at Exeter quay; body swiveled, foot stayed still, knee collapsed). Every so often I aggravate it and this is when my knee collapses.

As I suspected a year ago, I need an arthroscopy, where they stick a tiny camera in my knee, assess what’s wrong, and try and fix it. On Wednesday I have an appointment with my GP to get a referral so the ball can get rolling on this. In the meantime I can carry on as normal; a day or two’s rest after a twist / collapse, and then ride / play football as I want, and guard my knee movements against anything twisting or lateral.

I wish I’d done it a year ago.

Arselol

I’d never intended to blog about football, but sometimes you wake up on a Sunday morning having fallen asleep during Match Of The Day the night before and, as a disgraceful “beautiful game”-hyping armchair Arsenal not-quite-supporter one just feels injustice and hatred towards Newcastle United and also Mark Lawrenson and so feels the need to blog.

First up: genetically I ought to be a Sheffield Wednesday fan, as that’s the team my parents and (one) brother support (the other decided, despite being from Sheffield, to be a Manchester United fan at the age of about 8, for some despicable reason). But I was born in Exeter and don’t particularly like Sheffield and also on my 14th birthday in 1993 they had the temerity to not win the FA Cup final against Arsenal, instead stringing out the pain to a mid-week replay and an injury-time-before-penalties winning goal by, of all people, the clumsy donkey workhorse defender that was Andy Linighan. Pain doesn’t come much more intense. I’d received my first CD player as a present for that birthday, and decided that music wouldn’t hurt me the way Sheffield Wednesday had, so I got into The Beatles instead of follow that particular team to its current horrific state.

Then, as some kind of ideologue or idealist or dreamer or idiot or something, and also through confluence of circumstance, I ended up watching Arsenal a lot on TV before shifts working in a pub between 1997 and 2001. My boss at the pub was an Arsenal fan. And Arsenal at that point played exceptionally beautiful, intricate, aesthetically pleasing football. So I applied the same logic to being a football fan as I did to being a music fan, perhaps, almost, and they became the team I wanted to see win (or, rather, the team I wanted to see score spectacular goals).

When the oligarchs started moving in and spending billions of pounds on making football teams into invincible wrestling conglomerates, Arsenal’s relative fiscal reserve added another layer of ennui to my affection for them. They’re not crass nouveau-riche tosspots, you see. Well, not compared to Chelsea or Man City. Nor did they allow themselves to get bought-out and screwed-over like Liverpool or Man Utd.

So this is why I like Arsenal.

Right. Rant. Any team that gives away a 4-0 lead established within the first 26 minutes needs some serious “don’t take your foot off the gas at halftime” realtalk aimed at them. Especially against a team that’s just sold their misogynist thug star centre forward for £35m to, oh, some nouveau-riche playboys, or whoever.

That said; rant.

Diaby shouldn’t have retaliated against Joey Barton, even if Joey Barton does deserve to have stones thrown at his head in the street for being a nasty vicious Scouse thug. He shouldn’t even have retaliated at Joey Barton for streamrolling through him with (what looked like) one set of studs up. “That’s a firm but fair tackle,” says Lawrenson. No it bloody isn’t, it’s thuggishness. Only putting one set of studs up doesn’t make you a gentleman. Barton, on the other hand, should have been given more than a frown. Considerably more.

The linesmen (emphasis on “men”; Sian Massey, I am sure, would have done a better job because she seems to be very good at her job, unlike these tools) disallowed a perfectly onside goal by Newcastle. I’m loathe to admit it, because I find it funny when Newcastle lose and because I wanted Arsenal to win, but it was a fine goal. Rosicky was in the wrong place. They also awarded a penalty (Newcastle’s second; the first was fine, totally legitimate – a clumsy, silly challenge) for what looked like some very gentle and aimless jumping-for-and-missing-the-ball which appeared to be absolutely equally weighted between two Arsenal defenders and a Newcastle attacker, none of whom elbowed anyone else or handballed it or fell to the floor or pushed anyone else to the floor. Stupid decision.

Almost as stupid as not sending off Kevin Nolan for getting the Arsenal keeper in a head-lock and throwing him to the floor. Headlocks, whether the ball is in play or not, are a little unsportsmanlike, right?

They also flagged offside for a spectacular Van Persie finish which, when the BBC laid their digital offside-line over the screen, showed that Van Persie was absolutely shoulder-to-shoulder level with the defender. Possibly his kicking foot, as he kicked, might have been beyond the defender, but his body was not. “That’s offside,” says Lawrenson. How is it offside, you moron? I know the rule changes every ten minutes but the original intention is surely to prevent dirty goal-hanging cheats, not, you know, people level with the defender and outside the box (he was outside the box, right, just about?) from scoring great goals. What happened to “benefit of the doubt” being given to the attacker? Also, what happened to “when the ball is played”? Because that line wasn’t overlaid at the moment the ball was played forward, I’m pretty sure. I don’t know. It was late and I was practically asleep.

I’m going to stop now before I sound like (more of) an idiot.