I must apologise to the more serious-minded readers of this blog for turning away from the debate that has unfolded underneath my recent post on the teaching of history and instead discussing that trivial pursuit known as football. I promise to get back to history in a day or two, but the World Cup is about to shut up shop, and I feel that I need to say one or two words about tonight's final, if only to qualify my earlier, rather reckless posts in support of the All Whites and of Maradona's ill-fated Argentines.
I realise that I probably have little credibility, now that I've decided to throw my weight behind yet another World Cup team. New Zealanders who are my old age or older may remember a politician named Gilbert Myles, who was elected to parliament on the National Party ticket in 1990, defected to the short-lived Liberal Party about half-way through his term, joined the newly-established Alliance Party a few months later, and then dumped the Alliance for Winston Peters' New Zealand First outfit shortly before the 1993 election. Myles was drummed out of office by an electorate which felt that a man who had belonged to four parties in three years probably didn't possess the best judgement in the world. By switching from the All Whites to Argentina and now, at the last minute, to Spain, I'm probably making myself into the sports fan equivalent of Gilbert Myles.
Skyler certainly reacted cynically when I told her that I had become a Spain supporter after watching that team dismantle Germany on Wednesday night. 'Let me guess - you like their uniforms?' she sneered. In the hope of proving that my attitude to the beautiful game is not quite that shallow, I'd like to offer some more or less serious reasons why the footballing world, and perhaps the world in general, will benefit if Spain overcomes the Netherlands tonight.
Of all the world's sports, football is surely the one most firmly subordinated to the law of profit. Sports like rugby union and league are only now beginning to see the emergence of the sort of autonomous club-corporations that have dominated the round ball game for decades, buying and selling players and bullying national football federations. Today, for the typical football capitalist, the maximisation of profits demands that a team wins, and also that it features several stars who can perform feats in front of the goal mouth that will look good when they are flashed across the evening news. Over the past couple of decades, especially, the income that clubs derive from 'brand' players - the Beckhams, and Ronaldos, and Ronaldhinos - has begun to rival the income they can get from their 'team brands'. Teams need to win regularly, and to keep some championship silverware in their cupboards; at the same time, elite players need to be differentiated clearly from their team mates, if their 'brands' are to be maintained.
At many clubs, and in many national sides, these twin imperatives have bred a style of football which sees most players in a team subordinating themselves to one or two superstar strikers. Defenders and midfielders are taught to play an unambitious game, as they claim the ball and transport it upfield to the show ponies at the front of the formation.
In many ways, the current Dutch team exemplifies the style of football I have been describing. The Dutch have a set of rugged midfielders and backs who play a dour but aggressive game together, shutting down opposition attacks and delivering the ball to four star strikers - Schneijder, von Persie, Robben, and van der Vaart - who are allowed to 'express' themselves in front of the enemy goal mouth. Where the legendary Dutch teams that reached the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals played a 'total football' that obliterated the distinctions between attackers and defenders, stars and supporters, the 2010 model relies upon these distinctions for its success.
The style of football the Dutch are playing is not new. It won the 2006 World Cup for a deeply cynical Italy, and the 2002 World Cup for a muted Brazil. It was employed at this tournament by at least a dozen teams. If anything, the Dutch have been playing in a more expressive, attacking manner than most the teams they share their method with. At least they deploy four men 'up front', unlike Portugal, who left Ronaldo stranded as a lone striker in the opposition half, or the almost sublimely dull Swiss, who parked eleven men deep in their own half for long periods of their games.
The subordination of so many members of so many World Cup teams to an elite of branded 'stars' is part and parcel of the increasing stratification of professional football. While the Rooneys and the Ronaldos enjoy unprecedented salaries at the summit of the game, thousands of professionals are shunted from club to club on short-term contracts, and find themselves living hand to mouth. The pre-World Cup careers of All Whites heroes like Rory Fallon, who has jumped from one struggling English club to another, vainly searching for a Premier League contract, or Shane Smeltz, who has drifted across Europe, sleeping on the couches of friends, trialling for small-time club after small-time club, illustrate the lot of many of today's full-time footballers.
It would be foolish to deny that the style of football employed so successfully at this World Cup by the Dutch, and rather less successfully by teams like England, Brazil, and Portugal, can provide passages of entertaining play. Players like Robben and Rooney are wonderful athletes, who combine an almost balletic grace with bursts of pace worthy of Usain Bolt and the kicking power of Don Clarke. But the isolated seconds of brilliance that extravagantly gifted strikers can provide must all too often be earned by long passages of dull, dirty play, as defenders shrink back towards their own goal lines, limiting the space the opposition has to manoeuvre, and midfield thugs like the Netherlands' von Bommel bring proceedings to regular crunching halts with fouls.
This World Cup has seen a reaction, on and off the field, against the excesses of the megastars and the pattern of play that has been created to cater to their needs. With the global economy in trouble, austerity programmes being imposed on unhappy working classes, and once-mighty corporations on welfare, the vast salaries and pompous behaviour of elite players have bred disgust, not admiration, from the footballing public. When the pampered mega-stars of England and France launched insurrections against their managers during the group stage of the Cup they earned the contempt of their own fans. The weak performances of Ronaldo, who has proudly worn the label of the world's most expensive player, saw him mocked in his native Portugal and abroad.
There has been a stylistic as well as an emotional revolt against the reigning model of football. A number of World Cup teams have come up with alternatives to the dominant strategic paradigm, and have won enthusiastic support for doing so. The German coach Joachim Low took a team of young relative unknowns and taught them how to play an exciting brand of counter-attacking football which relied, not on the skills of one or two superstars, but on cohesion and speed. Low's players would defend robustly, claim the ball, and surge forward in numbers, using long, fast, precise passes to bypass the resistance of opposition defenders. Where the defenders of teams like England and Portugal were virtually prohibited from entering the opposition's half, the German backs were allowed to play like forwards whenever they could get away with it. The exuberant fluidity of Germany's play won them millions of fans outside their country's borders.
Before they were knocked out of the tournament by Germany, the anarchic Argentines also won a place in many World Cup fans' hearts. Under the genial but erratic leadership of Diego Maradona, Argentina revived the 'samba football' of the great Brazilian teams of the 1970s and early '80s, as Lionel Messi and co. set out on fearless dribble runs from all corners of the field, taking on packed and well-drilled defensive lines.
The most compelling alternative to the status quo has come, though, from the Spanish team, which has, in the face of a string of thuggish and negative opponents, preserved and developed the 'tiki-taka' style of play that won it the 2008 European Cup. As paradoxical as it might sound, a win for Spain in tonight's final will also be a win for the Netherlands. As Raphael Honigstein has explained, 'tiki-taka' is a creative development of the total football the Dutch invented back in the '70s and eventually abandoned:
Spain play the most difficult version of football possible: an uncompromising passing game, coupled with intense, high pressing...In 2006, Spain took a decision: they weren't physical and tough enough to outmuscle opponents, so instead wanted to concentrate on monopolising the ball...'Tiki-Taka', the constant passing and going, is such a devastating tactic because it's both defensive and offensive in equal measure. You don't have to switch from attack to defence or vice versa because you're always in possession. It's a significant upgrade of the Dutch 'total football', a system that relied on players changing positions. The Spanish don't have to do that anymore since the ball does all the hard work.
Like total football, tiki-taka requires both high skill and selflessness from its exponents. Ball-hogs and show ponies are ill-suited to the style, with its demand that a team holds possession for as long as possible, and its expectation that players be able to pass the ball dozens of times in a single movement.
The collectivism of tiki-taka restores some of football's traditional values. In a recent interview, the former Liverpool and England player John Barnes decried the influence of overpaid superstars on football, and insisted that the game had to be played in a 'socialist' way:
Football is a socialist sport...Financially, some may receive more rewards than others but, from a footballing perspective, for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end...
The teams which embrace the socialist ideology rather than having superstars, are the teams that are successful. Or if there are superstars they don't perceive themselves to be that...England gets by on the individual ability of a Rooney or a Gerrard or a Lampard, rather than collective method or strategy. Now if that individual either isn't playing or he doesn't play well, that means you can't win...
Spain has an identity. If you black out the faces and don't know who's playing, you can still say this Spain because of the way they play...
But even if it values collectivism, tiki-taka does not rob its exponents of their individuality. Because it allows players to roam up and down the field, and because it requires so many 'touches' from them in a single passage of play, tiki-taka allows a high degree of self-expression. Instead of seeking obsessively to send the ball up the field, toward some waiting superstar striker, defenders and midfielders are able to experiment with light touches and horizontal passes.
In the interview he gave to announce his retirement from cricket in the early '90s, the great New Zealand opener John Wright bemused reporters by telling them that he wished that it had been possible for him 'simply to bat', and not to worry about his score, or his career statistics, or the state of the game, or the position of his team in a tournament or championship. Arguably, Wright was expressing a frustration common to top sportspeople, who want to lose themselves in the pleasure of playing, but who find their performances subjected to over-rigorous, instrumentally-focused analyses by coaches, pundits, and administrators. The sheer joy of play can be lost, amidst the performance graphs and tables of statistics which are such a part of today's sports industries. With its contempt for chains of command and utilitarian game plans and its baroque structures, tiki-taka perhaps signals the return of a certain playfulness to the beautiful game.