One Style To Rule Them All

Today on I found this gem.  The great American international Claudio Reyna, who is now the USSF youth technical director believes that “the United States needs to find a national identity in style of play and implement it at all levels.”

“You first have to build a vision or else you are driving with no lights on,” Reyna told’s J.R. Eskilson exclusively. “You have to have that; it’s a must. All the leading nations have one style.”

Reyna cited Spain, which has conquered all in the past handful of years with its distinct tiki-taka, and the Netherlands, with its reliance on Total Football. He also mentioned Germany, which under Jurgen Klinsmann shifted from an efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit to a smooth-flowing counter-attacking team.

Currently, no clear style has been identified to contain the diversity of styles and ethnic backgrounds in the United States.

“It is still relatively general, but we are looking for teams to trying to keep possession and play better, to create offensive teams and players,” Reyna said. “We want to reward teams here [at the Development Academy Finals Week] for playing well, so a style of play is very important to that. And clearly the national team is always the leader in that as the reference point on how we want to play.”

Were this the only article I have ever read about Reyna, I would question whether he is actually the man for the job.  Fortunately, it is not, and from other articles I have read, he does seem to have a grasp of what it takes to properly run a youth development program.

Having said that, I am still troubled by this emphasis on national style, and ambivalent about Reyna’s project.

The dirty secret about national styles is that they don’t start at the national level.  Developing a national style is a bottom-up not top-down process.  National styles grow from the club level; the successful style is imported to the national team.  Spain’s World Cup winning side could very well have been called Barcelona and Friends.  Barcelona’s Tiki-taka is an evolution of the Total Football imported to Catalonia by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.  Total Football was Ajax’s style before it became associated with the Netherlands.*

Notably absent from Reyna’s list of national styles is the infamous Italian catenaccio.  It’s not that Italy uses the specific tactics that made up catenaccio, but that term has come to embody the Italian defensive style (complete with fouling and diving.)  Furthermore, Reyna does not give proper credit to Germany’s “efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit,” which, maligned as it may have been, was a very effective national style that brought World and European titles.

America actually has a national style, although it is not particularly aesthetically pleasing.  It is direct, explosive, makes up for a lack of refined technique with unmatched athleticism and physical preparation, and is wrapped up with a never-say-die attitude (this is the same for the US women’s.)  Reyna rejects this style but ignoring that it exists.  He doesn’t want an American style, so much as he wants a certain kind of style, one with attacking flair and creativity in the midfield.  In other words, he wants US teams to thrill the connoisseurs (and the Jonathan Wilsons of the world.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad goal.  I personally would love to see it, and I know I am not alone.  Nevertheless, that kind of style does not just develop because Claudio Reyna has a vision (especially in the current days when the international game has become so focused on defense.)  The Ajax team of the early 1970’s basically grew up together and had Cruyff, the greatest player Europe has ever produced.  Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) current success was about two decades in the making, with the development of peerless youth academy in which the players were taught to play a specific style.

The other dirty secret about national styles is that they change fairly regularly.  Tiki-taka is in the ascendency, but eventually Spain will have to find something else.  England does not just play the long ball anymore, Italy has had good attacking sides, and Germany, despite popular belief, was not just brutally efficient robots until Klinsmann and Jogi Löw came along.**  The South American sides too have changed over time, none more so than Brazil.  Sure the players have individual flair, but jogo bonito is long gone.  Save for 1982 and 1986, since the great 1970 team, Brazil’s World Cup squads have been far more pragmatic than thrilling.

I find the claim that Americans are too diverse for a national style to be an absolute cop-out.  Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have quite a lot of diversity (i.e. immigrants), and yet they are able to blend together.  The problem is not that America is too varied, it’s that Americans are having trouble training and of developing young talent.  There are a bunch of reasons for that.  First, the goal for coaches at the youth level is to win not to develop.  Second, the college system is fine for people who do not want to play professionally, but unlike the farce that is college basketball, college soccer is not a serviceable finishing school, not when players in the rest of the world spend all day learning the game either in the academies or in the streets.  (This also goes for women’s football.)  Finally, USSF has not made appropriate inroads into minority communities, particularly the Latino immigrant communities.  One can gripe about being unable to integrate styles of different ethnic groups, but that is an excuse for failure rather than a legitimate stumbling block.

I would also question what the MLS clubs are doing to train the next generation.  In many successful national sides, the core of the squad is made up of key players from the same side.  Which MLS team is going to be like Ajax, or Benfica, or Barcelona, or Bayern Munich?  (Which one can afford it?  Probably none.)  The American style that Reyna wants is far more likely to develop out of an MLS club rather than a USSF boardroom.

National identity is lovely, but it is also an organic process.  Style comes after substance.  The whole system needs to be rethought, from the senior national teams to youth development.  It’s not about style, it’s about fundamentals.  If a national style is the ultimate goal rather than development of successive generations of complete players, then Reyna and the USSF cannot see the forest for the trees.



* The fact that Reyna believes the Netherlands still play Total Football is a very troubling statement from someone who should know better.  The Dutch have not played Total Football since the 1970’s.  At the very least the 2010 World Cup should have permanently demolished that myth.

** The 1974 World Cup winning West German side has been unfairly maligned.  At the time, West Germany were not seen as a bunch of solid robotic players, but rather almost an equal to Holland in terms of exciting play.  Since then West Germany have become an afterthought in the story of Holland’s 1974 rise and fall, the joyless and tactically-dull beneficiaries of beautiful Holland’s inevitable implosion.


Barcelona Tactics

I discovered a fantastic video about Barcelona’s tactics.  Some of these I described earlier, but I am not nearly the astute follower that the creator of this video is (although there is some stuff missing, particularly about how Guardiola drills his players to see the pitch as 8 squares and each square must be filled at all times.)  But it also shows that for all the plaudits Messi (deservedly) gets, the goals and the wins are truly a team effort.

Taking the content of this video as a whole, this goes back to something that I have been saying for quite some time, the style that Barcelona plays is more than just a series of tactics.  Rather, tiki-taka is an entire philosophy, a completely unique way to see and play the game, just as Total Football was.  Spain’s victory at the World Cup was in a way a redemption of the Holland team of 1974.  Barcelona : Spain 2010 – Ajax : Holland 1974.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is kind.

Barcelona And The Inadequacy Of Praise

I have not completely come down from my high of last week.  Barcelona won the Champions League, and they won it their way.  Pass-pass-pass-score.   Beautiful and exciting football, possession and pressing, no drama, just dominance.  Like in Rome two years, Manchester United dominated the first ten minutes, taking advantage of nerves and a slow start from Barcelona.  Also like in Rome, after ten minutes it was almost all Blaugrana.

There is no question that this Barcelona side is special, easily the greatest side since the Milan of the late 80’s early 90’s.  They are arguably better.  There is no doubt however, that this Barça side has joined the pantheon of great clubs sides.

Future generations will recite the names of the Barcelona starting XI: Valdes-Alves-Pique-Puyol-Abidal-Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta-Pedro-Messi-Villa.  Pep Guardiola has locked up the manager of the year award, and it is virtually certain that Messi will win his third straight player of the year award, thereby tying Platini, Cruyff, and van Basten.  (Some with a sense of irony might say that the award should go to Wesley Sneijder.)  Individual awards are silly though and meaningless.  Football is a team sport, and no club represents this more than Barcelona.  Barcelona would not be the team it is now if not for Messi, but Messi does not do it alone.  If he has achieved immortality, it is because he stands on the shoulders of (tiny) giants.

During the first ten nerve-wracking minutes, I sat hoping against hope that this match would be a repeat of Rome.  Sure enough, my wish came true.  I remember exactly when the momentum changed, and it was well before Pedro’s goal.  Barcelona began stringing passes together, weakly at first, and then stronger.  To absolutely no one I started saying “Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.”  The beats of a metronome, the precision of a Swiss watch, the gears of the machine running smoothly.  That is how reporters, pundits and commentators describe Barcelona’s greatness: machine-like.  Calling Barcelona a machine is too easy, and it’s dead wrong.

When confronted with beauty in football, I find that my own words are woefully inadequate.  I turn to Football in Sun and Shadow, and let Eduardo Galeano eloquently say what I cannot.  When writing about the famed River Plate side of the 1940’s, also called “The Machine,” Galeano said:

People called that legendary team “The Machine” because of its precision plays.  Dubious praise: these strikers had so much fun playing they’d forget to shoot at the goal.  They had nothing in common with the mechanical coldness of a machine.  Fans were fairer when they called them the “Knights of Anguish” because those bastards made their devotees sweat bullets before allowing them the relief of a goal.

This description of a side that played nearly seven decades ago also suits the Barcelona of today.  Barcelona have revived the flair of the old Argentinian style via Ajax and Holland.  Johan Cruyff, the link between Barcelona’s tiki-taka and Total Football, once said, “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”  (Or something like that.  I have seen many variations of that quote.)  Barcelona is the  proof of just how difficult simple football really is.

At its root, football is a game of running, passing, and shooting.  Tactics and formations are additions that have built up and evolved over time.  What works better, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2, etc?  Additionally, in the age of the super clubs and expansive squads, a starting lineup can be different in every match.  Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, changes his XI and his tactics to fit the opponent.  Against weaker opponents, Manchester United may attack more, but against a more offensively minded team such as Arsenal, United might depend on the counterattack.

Except in the cases of injuries, suspensions, and meaningless matches, Barcelona uses the same starting XI.  Regardless of the on-field personnel, Barcelona never changes its style of play.  Barcelona’s philosophy (when was the last time football had a philosophy?) is based on a very simple premise: if I have the ball, you cannot score.  Putting that philosophy into action though is extremely difficult no matter how easy Barcelona make it look (just ask Arsenal.)  If possession is everything, players need to be constantly aware of their teammates positions.  Passing must be more than accurate; it must be precise.  And when the ball is inevitably lost players must be able to play an intense press to get it back.  Therefore the entire team must (a) be in peak physical condition, (b) be skilled, and (c) have a good football brain.

Although most renown for its attacking capabilities, tiki-taka is actually as defensive a style as the dreaded catenaccioFor example, at the World Cup Spain conceded two goals throughout the entire tournament and none during the knock-out stages.  Nevertheless, Spain in the knock-out round Spain won each match 1-0, the complete opposite of tiki-taka‘s popular image.  For the most part, the personnel was almost entire the same, as the majority of the starting XI was from Barcelona, and the Spanish side played remarkably well.  The was one significant difference in personnel between Spain and Barcelona, but it was a crucial one.  Messi is the uncontrollable element that opposing teams fear.  When opposing defenses park the bus, Messi tears them open.  Therefore Spain had to eke out a series of 1-0 victories, a stat that unfairly maligns the World Cup victory, but underscores the defensive prowess of tiki-taka.

What makes tiki taka such a successful attacking philosophy at Barcelona is that (1) the front line (Messi in particular) is so adept at scoring and (2) the attack can come from anyone.  They players are so good at scoring that their defensive work is largely neglected.  Until the very final weeks of the 2010-2011 La Liga season, Barcelona led the scoring charts.  The Blaugrana let up at the end after the title was all but assured, and Madrid beat up on hapless teams whose fates were already decided (and Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to win the La Liga and European scoring titles.)  In the end, Madrid scored 102 goals to Barcelona’s 95. (In all competitions though, Barcelona scored more goals.)

Goals scored does not the real story however.  The goals allowed and the goal differential show exactly how dominant Barcelona was this year.  For the entire 38 match season, La Liga opponents scored a mere 21 goals against Barcelona, or just over half a goal per match.  Therefore, Barcelona’s goal differential was a ridiculous +74.  Compare that number to Real Madrid (33 allowed for a differential of +69), or the other league winners in the top European nations: Manchester United (37 allowed for a differential of +41), AC Milan (24 allowed for a differential of +41), Lille (36 allowed for a differential of +32), and Borussia Dortmund (22 in 34 matches for a differential of +45).

It should not be surprising that Barcelona has such an incredible goal differential; Barcelona’s offense and defense are one and the same.  To distinguish offense and defense is to misunderstand tiki-taka.  As I wrote above, possession is not merely a way of getting to the opponent’s goal, it is the primary method of defense.  Pressing is not just a way to pressure an opponent, but also a way to restart the attack.  Messi, Pedro, and David Villa are therefore the first line of defense while the attack originates with Valdes, Puyol, and Pique (to say nothing of the attacking fullback.)  The Catalans chant with pride, “Even our keeper plays the Barça way!

Tiki-taka is the logical next step in the evolution of Total Football, a philosophy that, in its 1970’s incarnation, could not combat the modern defense.  In Total Football, players alternated positions depending on who could do the most damage where.  It was a system tailor-made for Cruyff.  Tiki-taka employs fixed positions but each role is a crucial part of both the offense and the defense.  That is why in both Champions League finals against United, Barcelona was able to play defensive midfielders as makeshift center backs (Yaya Touré in 2009, Javier Mascherano in 2011) without any repercussions.

Since the rise of this Barcelona squad, Barcelona’s youth academy has attracted a fair share of media attention, and deservedly so.  Of the usual starting XI, La Masia produced eight: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Messi.  This is unusual for any club especially for one of the world’s biggest.  Yet, if you look at the list, La Masia has produced not just some of the world’s greatest active players, but also some of the greatest ever.  Even Ajax in the 1970’s did not have so many starters from its youth system.  Ajax now probably doesn’t either, and the Ajax Academy is the model for La Masia.

The youth system is the stumbling block for the Barcelona wannabes.  Even the great Barcelona teams were never this good, not the team of the late 50’s/early 60’s, not the Dream Team, and not the team from five years ago that featured Ronaldinho in his glory.  If Barcelona has never before reached this heights, what chance is there for imitators who do not have the youth system?  Tiki-taka (like Total Football) is too complicated a philosophy to be picked up easily in training.  It is rare to find a player who fits in easily.   Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, and David Villa are the only starters to came from outside La Masia.

That is what makes Barcelona great.  The Blaugrana have taken football to a new level.  Hopefully it will last a while, because great teams–truly great teams–do not come around often.

The Messi Side of Football

I.  Introduction: Brazil v. Argentina

On November 17, 2010, I watched the Brazil National Football (Soccer) Team outplay traditional rival Argentina but lose 1-0.  The match was an international friendly held in Qatar; only prestige was on the line.  Argentina had not beaten Brazil since June 2005.  In fact of the five matches played between the 2005 victory and this one, Brazil won four and drew one, outscoring Argentina 13-2.  The winning goal in this most recent match was scored in stoppage time at the very end of the match.  It was scored by Lionel Messi, probably the greatest football player in the world.

II.  Football and Me: A Love-ish Story

My love of football (sorry fellow Americans, I reclaim this word for what you call soccer) is a relatively new thing, but my awareness of the game goes back to when I was seven years old.  My parents signed me up for a local league, and I played all of one match before quitting–Saturday cartoons were far more important.  In retrospect, I wish I could have slapped some sense into my younger self, but at time football did not seem like much fun.  It was the mid-1980’s when I turned my back on football.  At that time most Americans had yet not realized that the sport was not just some novelty game that little children played only until they were old enough to play a more American sport (or could get a college scholarship for playing.)

At some point between age 7 and 1994 I learned four, and only four, facts about football: (1) the rest of the world loved it, but Americans did not because it is boring and our sports are better; (2) there was some competition called the World Cup and Uruguay won the first World Cup; (3) Pele was the best player ever; and (4) in 1950 the United States won the World Cup by beating England 1-0, but the English thought they won 10-1.

Before I continue with this post, I feel I should deconstruct and correct these four “facts” for any soccer newbie.  (1) Football is indeed the world’s most popular sport.  It is not however, the most popular sport in every country.  As a whole, nations that had once been part of the British empire favor other sports such as cricket (India), rugby (New Zealand), ice hockey (Canada) or their own weird variation of football (Australia, the United States).  Given that England is the home of football (the word ‘soccer’ is British slang, a nickname for Association Football), maybe the former colonies’ preference for other sports is a form of imperial rejection.  Some of the Caribbean islands and Venezuela prefer baseball.  (This is wise for Venezuela.  If you play football in South America, there is far too much competition.  Better to learn another sport that your neighbors do not play.)  Also, football is a very interesting sport, but like any language, you have to learn it before you can understand it.  And although Americans experience a strong feeling of exceptionalism, Americans are in no way objectively better or no worse than football.  (2) This is true.  I have no idea how or why I knew that Uruguay won it, but I knew they did.  It may be the only thing I knew about Uruguay at the time.  (3)  Pele’s status as “the greatest ever” is very much debatable.  Argentinians will tell you it is Diego Maradona.  The sniping that goes on between Pele and Maradona because of their narcissism and jealousy is embarrassing, but they need the attention and newspapers love it.  More on this later.  (4) Please, please, please do not think the United States won in 1950!  They did beat England, and that did shock and embarrass the English players, people, and press, but the Unites States team did not even make it to the next round.  I have no idea where I learned such a ridiculously false fact except that I probably thought there would be no reason to care if the United States did not win.  For the record, Uruguay won in 1950 (again).

In 1994, the World Cup came to United States and for about a month Americans deeply cared about football.  Partially this was because the American sports calendar is at a lull during the World Cup.  Of the big three American sports (and ice hockey), only baseball is in season, and baseball has not yet reached its full intensity.  The 1994 World Cup was a big deal for the United States, as it is for every host, but it was a big deal in a different way.  Before 1994, every World Cup had been held in a nation that loved football.  Each nation already had its own professional league and an international team that carried the hopes of a nation.  The United States had no major league of its own, most of the players were not connected with a club (just contracted to the national team), and most importantly there was no real football culture and very little interest in starting one.  After 1950 the United States did not qualify for a World Cup until 1990.  So little faith was put in the United States team that they were expected to be the first hosts not to advance out of the first round.  Despite all this, the crowd support turned out to be excellent, and the United States did advance to the second round (at the expense of Colombia, which sadly cost Colombian defender Andres Escobar his life–probably the first time the American public were confronted with the deadliness of football.)  The success of the Americans led to the birth of Major League Soccer.  All the gains made by American football and American football culture are directly traceable to the 1994 World Cup.

Ironically by 1994 the American women had already won a World Cup–the 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.  For all the attention paid to the men’s team success in 1994, practically no one knew or cared about the triumph of the women’s team three years earlier.  It would not be until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when the women’s team won the gold medal that people started to notice.  In 1999, the United States Women’s National Team won the World Cup in front of a home crowd of 90,000, and, for a brief shining moment, Americans cared about women’s soccer.  This has yet to be repeated despite a track record that the U.S. men could only dream of.

III. Becoming a Brazilian Nut

One of the great joys of football fandom is rooting against the teams you hate.  It is a wonderful sensation of schadenfreude; all the more so at the national level–when a national team loses, an entire population is devastated.  There are so many good reason to hate a national team, not all of them necessarily football related.  For example, I detest the English media and take great joy in seeing England lose.  I cannot root for any team from a nation under totalitarian control.  Conversely, I root against the Italians for purely football reasons. The Italian team is made up of cheaters and divers; their World Cup victory in 2006 was like torture for me.  However, when they bombed at this year’s World Cup, I could not stop smiling for three days.

Sometimes tastes change.  I hated Brazil in 1994 for eliminating the United States (who played far above their talent level in that match) and I rooted against Brazil for the rest of the tournament.  Still bitter in 1998, I was glad when France crushed Brazil in that year’s final.  I rooted against Brazil all throughout the 2002 World Cup qualifications when the Brazilians almost missed out on qualifying.  I rooted against Brazil all tournament.  In the final match, however, Germany had become the focus of my ire for eliminating the United States in the quarterfinals, an unfair result given the way the Americans played (and I also rooted against Germany because I am Jewish–an irrational hatred that I no longer feel.)  For the first time I cheered for Brazil.

Following the 2002 tournament I was momentarily hooked, and I tried to learn as much as possible about the sport.  That was when I learned about club football, the Premier League, the rivalry between Pele and Maradona, and Spain’s woeful record in international competition.2002 was also when I first heard about Jogo Bonito, futebol arte, and the legend of Brazil.  Ironically by 2002, Jogo Bonito had long since passed; the Brazilian game focused on strength and speed than creativity and beauty.  The rest of the world say this in 1990 but thanks to Nike marketing, I would not learn for another five years or so.  I warmed to Brazil because of  Jogo Bonito.

My interest eventually waned.  I drifted away from football because (1) I could not understand what I was reading (no Football for Dummies), and I knew no one who could explain it to me; (2) the European game was interesting but the American game was far slower and sloppier.  I knew of no channel that showed the European game; and (3) Philadelphia did not yet have a team, and the only American teams I cheer for are Philadelphia teams.

In 2006 I caught the World Cup fever again.  Thanks to his status as the world’s greatest player, I focused on Ronaldinho.  I could easily find highlights on the Internet, and I watched as much of Ronaldinho as I could.  I was hooked; through Ronaldinho I found FC Barcelona, his club at the time, and the best club in Europe.  Because I had lost touch with football in 2002, I had thought that Barcelona was just the second best team in Spain after the Real Madrid juggernaut.  In 2006, I learned about Barça’s success and its history (the Barça good/Real Madrid evil version; it would be a few more years before I learned the more rounded picture.)  Although I no longer have illusions about Barça as the team of the angels, it is still my team and always will be.  Years after Ronaldinho squandered his talent and left for Milan, I still root only for Barcelona.

I cannot profess the same devotion for Brazil.  For four years they were my second team behind the United States.  The more I watched Brazil though, the more my feelings changed.  In qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Brazil were very successful but not spectacular.  Individual players could do amazing things, but as a whole the team was more respectable than lovable.  I was especially annoyed at Robinho; his blatant diving was aggravating and his juvenile antics at his club were disgusting.  Moreover, I can never love any team that has Kaka; his holier-than-thou evangelizing grates every one of my nerves.

I cannot stay mad at Brazil forever.  I feel a connection to that country, despite never having been there.  The people are beautiful, the movies are enjoyable, the music is spectacular, and the language is sensual. I also have distant relatives in Brazil, and I would like to meet them one day.  Following the 2010 failure, Brazil are starting to play creatively again, which is very nice to see.  Given that the next World Cup is in Brazil, the squad will face more enormous pressure in 2014.  The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil (1950) the national team lost in the (de facto) final.  The nation mourned as if struck by an actual disaster.  The 2014 Brazil national team will need all the support it can get.

IV.  The Thrills and Dangers of Flair

I am a Barcelona fan and a United States National Team fan.  Beyond that I root for teams that play beautiful football.  It is a loyalty to the game than to any particular one team.  “Beautiful” football means a clean, high scoring game, intricate passing and dribbling, and goals that belong on a highlight reel.  Brazil played like that from 1958-1970 and again in 1982.  Despite not playing that way anymore, Brazil are still considered the foremost example of that style.  Conversely, a team that is associated with a defensive style of play can also never shake it.  Italy is most famous for using an ultra-defensive style called Catenaccio, which literally means door bolt and is designed for the lifeless 1-0 win.  Although true Catenaccio died by the early 1970’s, it is forever associated with the Italians (although it was originated by the Swiss and brought to Italy by an Argentine.)  The Italians national team today does not help its cause.  Every tournament, the Italians employ an overly defensive style, but with so much diving, fouling, and play acting that they are more spaghetti western villains or a bel canto divas than footballers.

Since 2008, that team that played the most interesting and beautiful football has been Spain.  I was ecstatic to see Spain finally win the World Cup in 2010 and end decades of national frustration.  The Spanish win was more than a joy; it was a relief.  Football fans, particularly those who follow the international game, know that the best team does not always win the World Cup.  In fact, there is a running list of magnificent losers.  This list is topped by the three most famous sides not to have won–Hungary 1954, Netherlands 1974, and Brazil 1982.

The 1954 Hungarian team conquered all who played them.  Most famously, they humiliated the English 7-1 at Wembly, the first non-British side to beat the English on home soil (and then beat them again 6-3 in Hungary.)  En route to the World Cup final Hungary became the first team to beat reigning champion Uruguay at the World Cup.  A Magyar victory seemed inevitable, but they lost to West Germany (a team they decimated earlier in the tournament) in the final round.  So unlikely was the German victory that it is referred to as “The Miracle of Berne”.

The Dutch team of 1974 was similarly legendary and even more beloved.  Led by the great Johan Cruyff, the team introduced “Total Football” to the world, a style that involved players taking over their teammates positions at any time so that formations were constantly in flux.  Like Hungary, the Dutch–in a fit of hubris–lost to West Germany in the final round.  Although the Dutch stopped playing Total Football decades ago, the style is so associated with the Oranje that most (lazy) writers call any attacking Dutch play Total Football.  The 2010 Dutch team disappointed the world by choosing a thuggish defensive football over a free-flowng attack.  To fans of the Dutch teams of the 1970’s, the 2010 squad betrayed their heritage.

The 1982 Brazilians were the quintessential practitioners of  Jogo Bonito/futebol arte.  Even their names were cool: Zico, Falcao, Socrates.  They played free-flowing attacking football with lots of crowd-pleasing tricks.  To say they had flair is an understatement.  As they swept through the early rounds, their victory seemed a foregone conclusion, but mid-tournament they lost to Italy in one of the great World Cup matches.  Sadly, this was the match that destroyed Jogo Bonito.  No Brazil team since the 1982 squad had as much panache and élan, and most likely none ever will again.

Given this history, I was terrified for months that Spain 2010 would be added to the list of beloved losers.  All the signs pointed to a loss.  First, Spain always failed at the World Cup.  Reasons given for this were as poetic as a Quixotic national ethos and as prosaic as the players could not get along with each other (the ethnic and regional rivalries in the Spanish dressing room mirror those that fracture Spain.)  The 2008 European Championship win, which was nothing short of magnificent, was hoped to be a turning point, but by the World Cup, most people (including in Spain) thought a solid Brazil would beat a stylish Spain.

Second, Spain played by using a specific style called tiki-taka.  Tiki-taka is a nonsense phrase that describes a style in which teammates exchange the ball to one another via rapid short passes, thereby dominating possession and creating a quick tempo.  It is a game of patience as well as speed, as the offensive constantly probes for weaknesses in the opposition defense.  Tiki-taka is also Barcelona’s style, no surprise given that so many of the Spanish first team played for Barcelona or trained at the Barcelona youth academy.  The problem is that a distinct attacking style does not necessarily usually translate into victory at the international level.  Teams with an attacking style garnered but generally few titles.  Argentina’s early sides had La Nuestra, Hungary had its domineering style, Austria’s Wunderteam of the early 1930’s pioneered in attacking play in Europe but came in fourth in the 1934 World Cup, the Netherlands had Total Football, Brazil 1982 had Jogo Bonito.  The exception to this rule was Brazil in 1958, 1962, and 1970, but those Brazil teams had Pele,  Garrincha, or both.

Why do attacking styles fail at the World Cup?  If I had to guess I would say there are two reasons: (1) Attacking requires a stronger team both in terms of players and overall ability to work together.  International teams are made up of players drawn from multiple clubs (sometimes worldwide) who play together only a few times a year.  International teams are not as good as clubs because players do not have the same time together.  (2) Styles change in football as opposing teams uncover exploitable weaknesses.  Styles start at the club level, and by the time a World Cup arrives coaches know how to structure defenses against these attacking styles.  International tournaments, by virtue of being so short, do not allow for tinkering, especially with an attacking game.

Third, defense usually wins the World Cup.  When Spain lost to Switzerland in the first match, it looked like the World  Cup was about to claim another victim of style.  Every team that Spain faced, with the exception of Chile and possibly Germany, chose to concentrate on defense and counterattack.  All of Spain’s matches were low scoring for that reason.  The commentators missed an important part about Spain’s game–although Spain played an attacking style, tiki-taka in inherently defensive.  True, Spain were constantly on the attack, but there is no counterattack if Spain keeps possession.  Opponents could only defend, not score themselves.   Holland came closest to disrupting Spain’s style in the final by forgetting the ball and attacking Spanish players.  It was awful to watch.

Ironically, Spain’s style owes its existence to Holland.  Barcelona plays tiki-taka.  Barcelona is managed by Pep Guardiola, who, in his Barcelona days, played for and was mentored by Johan Cruyff, the prophet of Total Football.  Cruyff’s arrival at Barcelona as coach (he played there too) was the beginning of Barcelona’s Renaissance as a stylish team.  Before Guardiola, the Dutchman Frank Rijkaard managed Barcelona.  Rijkaard’s first played football at Ajax Amsterdam, the ground zero of Total Football.  When Cruyff played at Ajax in the early 1970’s, he led them the club to three straight European Cup victories.   In his final seasons at Ajax, Rijkaard too was managed by Cruyff.

Spain’s dominance is ending.  They have had a tremendous run, and will go down as one of the great international sides.  Bad losses to Argentina and Portugal show that Spain’s run may have ended.  Although tiki-taka may no longer win tournaments, the resurgence of the stylish attacking game as spearheaded by Spain is showing itself in the most unlikely of places.  At the 2010 World Cup, Germany played an elegant attacking game.  Over seven matches Germany were a joy to watch.  Should they continue to play like this, I will gladly root for them at Euro 2012.

That any non-German could love Germany is surprising.  That Germany play a beautiful style is downright shocking. Germany is the quintessential solid team, respected for their mechanical work ethic and domineering style, but never loved. Germany are also the most consistent performer in the world game.  Germany/West Germany won three World Cups and three European Championship, which is impressive enough.  At the World Cup, no team–not even Brazil–has Germany’s consistency.  In seventeen appearances, Germany won three times, came in second place four times, and made the semifinals five other times.  The last time Germany did not make the quarterfinals was 1978.  The only time Germany lost in the first round was 1938.

Germany’s beautiful game reminds the football world of how fluid national styles become in an age of globalization.

V. Don’t Cry for Argentina

Of all the national sides, I am most ambivalent about Argentina.  Since 2006 when the team shamefully started a fight with the Germany after being eliminated by them, I have rooted against Argentina.  That particular loss was difficult for Argentina.  In the group stages they played like the were destined to win while their rival Brazil (who, as we were told over and over was full of the best players in the world) played without passion.  Argentina outplayed Germany, the home team, for 120 minutes but could not break down the German defense.  Poor coaching decisions took their toll, and Germany won on penalty kicks in front of an ecstatic home crowd.  Some Argentine players started a brawl, which humiliated both teams. Argentina’s coach, José Peckerman resigned as a result.  Right then and there I decided I could never be an Argentina fan.

The truth is though I cannot completely hate Argentina the way I can Italy.  I rooted against the Albiceleste with satisfaction when it looked like they could miss the World Cup.  I especially wanted them to lose once Maradona came in as the national coach.  When they were eliminated 4-0 by Germany (again), I practically danced for joy.  On the other hand, I have difficulty rooting against a team from a nation that is so so progressive on LGBT rights.  Moreover, as a Barcelona fan, I cannot in good conscience root against Lionel Messi.  In 2010 my distaste for Maradona won out–El Diego makes himself so easy to hate–but now that he is gone, and Messi is still there, the balance is starting to shift.

Argentina has been a powerhouse in world football for decades.  They were runners up to reigning champions Uruguay at the 1928 Olympics and lost again to Uruguay in final of the first World Cup in 1930.  The Italian side that won the 1934 World Cup played Argentinian expatriates (who played in for Argentina in 1930) whose ancestors had left Italy for Argentina.  Argentina and Uruguay pioneered the South American style that enchanted Western European audiences–an attacking style that showed off passing, dribbling, quick reflexes, creative thinking, and dazzling individual talent.  Argentina’s stylish attacking play (called La Nuestra) found its apogee in the legendary River Plate side of the early 1940’s, La Máquina (a side perhaps more mythical than anything else–the five forwards who made up La Máquina only played together about 18 times.)

On the heels of La Máquina, River Plate produced Alfredo Di Stéfano, another candidate for greatest player of all time (my pick) and the icon of Real Madrid.  Di Stéfano briefly dominated in Argentina before a football strike led him and fellow players to leave for Colombia where they essentially built Colombian football.  Barcelona tried to sign Di Stéfano in 1953, but due to very controversial circumstances Di Stéfano ended up at arch-rival Real Madrid.  It was there that Di Stéfano reached his apex.  Already dominant in La Liga, Di Stéfano and Real Madrid essentially built the pan-European game by winning the first five European Cups (the forerunner of the UEFA Champions League.)  Two things keep Di Stéfano out of the Pele/Maradona debate: (1) a poor international record; and (2) lack of television exposure.  Both of these strikes against Di Stéfano boil down to bad timing.  Television coverage as we know it did not come about until after Di Stéfano retired (the 1970 World Cup was the first time that tournament was broadcast in color.)  Di Stéfano was a just plain unfortunate in international play.  There were no World Cups held in the 1940’s.  Argentina did not enter the 1950 World Cup, FIFA declared Di Stéfano ineligible for the 1954 World Cup.  By 1958 Di Stéfano played for Spain but Spain failed to qualify for the World Cup.  Di Stéfano led Spain to qualification in 1962 World Cup, but an injury kept him out of the tournament.  Di Stéfano retired from international football shortly thereafter.

Following the 1940’s Argentina, while successful in South America, underperformed at the World Cup or did not appear at all.  To add insult to injury, neighboring Brazil surpassed Argentina.  Part of this was Argentina’s own fault; while Uruguay fielded black players as early 1924 and Brazil also integrated early, Argentina maintained teams as white as any found in Western Europe.  (Race is a touchy but important subject in world football that requires far more room than I can give it in this post.  Suffice to say that just because Brazil and Uruguay integrated early does not mean that racism vanished there.  Nor is racism simply black and white.  Argentina has a long and unfortunate history of prejudice toward mestizos and immigrants from neighboring Latin American countries.  In 2006, the Argentina was led by a proudly Jewish coach in Peckerman, and fielded a Jewish left wingback named Juan Pablo Sorín who was deeply ashamed of being Jewish.)

As Argentina continued to fail on the world stage, the pleasing but now ineffective La Nuestra associated with River Plate was replaced by the more brutal style (called anti-football) most associated with South American villains Estudiantes de la Plata, who won the Copa Libertadores in 1968, 1969, and 1970.  At the 1966 World Cup, Argentina and England’s match produced enough bad blood in both nations to fuel a bitter rivalry that continues to this day—although that dislike intensified into hatred after the Falklands/Malvinas War.

In 1978, Argentina hosted the World Cup for the first time.  At the time Argentina was ruled by a military junta.  It goes without saying that totalitarian regimes do not protect human rights.  FIFA has an appalling human rights track record (that is why their campaign against racism, no matter how noble, also rings hollow), but even by FIFA standards, allowing the World Cup to proceed in Argentina was a horrific decision–a move that equalled allowing Mussolini’s Italy to host the 1934 tournament.  Under dubious circumstances, Argentina won the tournament over a Cruyff-less Netherlands.  The victory is suspect thanks to possible junta involvement and Argentinian gamesmanship, but the 1978 Argentina squad is fondly remember thanks to great players and a lovely attacking style instilled by football philosopher/leftist coach César Luis Menotti.  Although not a return to La Nuestra, Menotti understood the spirit of the old style.

Menotti omitted a teenage Maradona from his squad, and that ate at future star for years to come.  In 1982, Menotti gave Maradona his chance, but to no avail as first Maradona met his match in Italy’s Claudio Gentile and then Brazil’s team tore apart their traditional rivals.

By 1986 Argentina’s junta had ended, Menotti was gone (replaced by Carlos Bilardo, former Estudiantes villain and right-wing doctor), and the national side was, by all accounts, mediocre.  Maradona, the one superstar of the team, almost singlehandedly willed Argentina to a World Cup triumph.  In the match against England he scored both the famous “Goal of the Century” and the infamous “Hand of God” goal.  The 1986 tournament secured Maradona’s legacy as both a god and a demon depending on which nation you lived in.  What Maradona achieved with Argentina he repeated on a lesser scale with his new Italian club Napoli leading them to two Serie A titles and a UEFA Cup title.

From this the Maradona/Pele debate was born.  Pele won three World Cups (except that he was injured and barely played in most of the 1962 Cup—Garrincha carried Brazil to victory), but he was the superstar of great teams.  Maradona won one World Cup, but he won it in spite of his team not because of it.  Maradona played (and won) for clubs in Europe while Pele only played in Brazil (discounting his NASL years which were a glorified retirement.)  However, when Pele played in Brazil Brazilians rarely went abroad so the competition was fiercer (although a national league did not exist.)  Pele won two Copa Libertadores with his club Santos while Maradona’s only international club victory was in Europe’s second tier tournament.  Just as Pele benefitted from television coverage that his predecessors did not have, Maradona benefitted from more comprehensive coverage that Pele did not have during his best years.  The arguments go round and round with no answer.  The debate is tiresome and fraught with nationalism.  (The greatest ever debate also generally overlooks defenders, a thankless job in football.)

What is not debatable is that Pele controlled his image far better than Maradona.  While Maradona’s teammates loved him, Pele’s merely respected him as a player.  Nevertheless, whatever Pele’s personal failings, he has largely smothered them through the image of himself that he puts out: smiling Brazilian ambassador of football, specifically futebol arte.  Maradona has no such self-restraint.  He is a creature of contradictions driven by pure id.  He was a superstar who could not play with other great players yet is beloved by his teammate.  He is an avowed leftist who talks about oppression, yet he pals around with dictators and tyrants.  He wants what is best for the Argentina national team yet would not step aside gracefully long after it was clear that he was not that solution–part of the problem in fact.  Maradona’s personality is a very difficult to tolerate, but to Argentinians he is a deity.  There is actually a church of Maradona in Argentina.  Both Pele and Maradona show that the kind of person you are can be overlooked if you played a great game of football.

VI. A Messi Sport

For years top Argentinian players fell under the weight of the title “The Next Maradona.”  In that context it is no surprise that Argentina has not won a senor title since 1993 despite the steady stream of talented youth.  It virtually certain now that Maradona’s true successor has emerged in Lionel Messi.

Messi was born in Rosario.  At the age of 11 he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, and his family could not afford treatments.  FC Barcelona, aware of his talent, brought Messi and his family to Spain, and the club paid for his medical treatment.  Messi trained at La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy which also produced legends such as Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, and Cesc Fabregas (among others).  Messi synthesized his South American creativity with the European structure he learned  at La Masia to become the best player in the world and the sharpest sword in the attack that won Barcelona its historic Sextuple.  Every match he plays adds to his legend.

What Messi is not, at least not yet, is a leader.  At 23 this is understandable.  The only club he knows is Barcelona which has formed a structure he fits well into.  Messi can create chances and goals out of nothing, but he needs the support of a dominant midfield and the constant rhythm of tiki-taka.  Take these factors out, and Messi’s sting is not so potent.  Maradona, as Argentina manager, could not understand that and saw Messi as fulfilling his role.  In 2010, Maradona did not understand that Messi could not do it alone, especially against an organized German counterattack.  Messi had to be everywhere at once, an impossible feat for anyone, but especially one marked as closely as he was.  Germany exploited each one of Argentina’s weaknesses, and the result was utter humiliation.

VII. World Cup 2014 Fever Begins

On November 17, 2010, Lionel Messi beat a senior level Brazil squad for the the first in his career.  Despite Brazil’s technical superiority, Messi worked his magic at the very end the way he has done so many times for Barcelona.  His goal was a thing of beauty, but beautiful goals are normal for Messi.

How did Argentina succeed?  Argentina’s new manager Sergio Batista is trying to mold the team to suit Messi’s needs–something Maradona could never learn.  Although the team will be not be as skilled as Barcelona, it need not be for international play.  All Argentina need to do is give Messi the space and support he requires to work his magic.  Batista, who coached Messi and Argentina to the 2008 Olympic gold medal, understands this, or at least appears to.  Messi will be 27 at the next World Cup.  It will be held in South America where no European team has won before.

If Brazil is not careful, 1950 could repeat itself.

Music I listened to while writing this post: World of Tears “Don’t Look Now”;  Gypsy (Original Broadway Cast) “Baby June and Her Newsboys”; Zoltan Kodaly “Háry János Suite” Entrance of the Emperor and His Court; Roger Cicero “Frauen regier’n die Welt”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Orchestral Suite #4 In D, BWV 1069”  Overture; Fleetwood Mac “Everywhere”; Franz Joseph Haydn “Symphony #85 In B Flat, H 1/85, ‘La Reine'” Adagio-Vivace; Carl Nielsen “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands”; Modest Mussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” Promenade 2; Alessandro Marcello “Concerto for Oboe, Strings & Basso Continuo in D Minor, Op. 1” Presto; Europe “The Final Countdown”; Ma Rainey “See See Rider Blues”; HMS Pinafore “Farewell, My Own!”; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #1 In F Sharp Minor, Op. 1” Vivace; Värttinä “Pihi Neito”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 – Variatio 24 Canone all’Ottava. À 1 Clav.; The Jacksons “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground); Max Bruch “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op.26” Adagio; Sergei Rachmaninoff “Piano Concerto #3 In D Minor, Op. 30” Finale, Alla Breve; Enrique Iglesias “Be With You”; Miriam Makeba “Pata Pata”; Sarah Vaughan “Goodnight My Love”; Arnold Schoenberg “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42” Andante;  Giuseppe Verdi “Otello” Già nella notte; Dana International “Diva”; Howlin Wolf “I Ain’t Superstitious”; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov “Sadko, Op. 5” Ho! My Faithful Company (sung by Vasili Damaev); Johannes Brahms “German Requiem, Op. 45” Herr, Lehre Doch Mich; Frédéric Chopin “Mazurka #23 In D, Op. 33/2, CT 73”; Mika “Grace Kelly”; Aaron Copland “Appalachian Spring” Subito Allegro; Chicago Broadway Revival Cast “Mister Cellophane” (sung by Joel Grey); John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “One Down, One Up”; John Coltrane/Classic Quartet “Your Lady”; Jennifer Warnes “Right Time of the Night”; Dusty Springfield “In The Winter”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Cello Suite #2 In D Minor, BWV 1008” Menuetto; Rosa Passos “Duas Contas” Virginia Rodrigus “Uma História de Ifá”; Janis Joplin & Big Brother and the Holding Company “Down on Me’: Tanja Solnik “Zing Faygeleh Zing”; Camille Saint-Saëns “Carnival of the Animals” Fossils; Charlie Christian “As Long as I Live”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Concerto No. 3 in G major BWV1048” Allegro; Ludwig van Beethoven “Piano Sonata #3 In C, Op. 2/3” Scherzo: Allegro; Nina Simone “To Love Somebody”; Gioachino Rossini “William Tell Overture”; The Four Tops “Left With A Broken Heart”; Gyorgi Ligeti “Sonata for Cello Solo” Dialogo; Three Dog Night “Black and White”; Harry Belafonte “Sylvie”; Enya “One by One”; Ella Fitzgerald “How High the Moon”; Johann Sebastian Bach “Magnificat In D, BWV 243” Gloria Patri; Ludwig van Beethoven”String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131: Allegro.