Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Taxi for Tiki-Taka: The Dialectics of Football

July 22, 2011

I’ve always been relatively ambivalent towards the tiki-taka phenomenon, without ever quite understanding why. Having since puzzled it out, I now realise that simple recourse to onomatopoeia would have saved me a deal of soul-searching. The childlike flippancy of the term itself encapsulates much of my aversion to the style it denotes.

In an era of neo-brutalist vulgarity, in which forwards are equally prized for their defensive as offensive qualities (Tony Grant might have been an unlikely pioneer of the age, had he not abnegated his place in history by scoring freely up-North for Glenavon), Barcelona’s attacking, progressive football is rightly regarded as a breath of fresh of air.

Concessions are made to certain indispensable elements of the Zeitgeist; Barça press hard, but to state that a modern professional football team presses hard is to state that it fields eleven men. The Spanish national team, with the explosive and unquantifiable variable of Lionel Messi excised from the equation, represents arguably the purer strain.

I think I’ve expressed before my preference for the Russo-Ukrainian school of football espoused by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv and USSR teams (they were essentially one and the same). The following is an excerpt from Lobanovskiy’s book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, quoted by Jonathan Wilson in this month’s World Soccer.

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.”

“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game”.

(Thought you’d escaped the politics, didn’t you? Not so fast, motherfucker!)

Attempts to conflate styles of football with the political and cultural environments in which they flourish are invariably tenuous (where they’re not downright mischievous). But Lobanoskiy concocted a style genuinely expressive of egalitarian values; a hard-running, dynamic, counter-attacking game which was exhilarating to watch, all the more so because it was played at such pace (unlike tiki-taka).

In Lobanovskiy’s framework, every member of the team was a potential playmaker. The man in possession, whether he was a full-back, a midfielder or a central defender, was expected to launch the counter-attack with a single long pass to a free player as soon as the opponent relinquished the ball. Likewise, everyone was expected to chase down possession with equal fervour.

This is where the crucial cleavage between the Russo-Ukrainian school (faint echoes of which survive in Eastern Europe today) and tiki-taka becomes apparent. Lobanovskiy strove for constant movement of both ball and man. In his eyes, a player who could release the ball and then receive it back in the same position wasn’t working hard enough.

The Barça model lacks that kind of rigorous humility and a certain amount of, as it were, Dynamism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Barcelona won the Champions League, and I’m glad Spain won the World Cup. But they are teams to be admired, not teams to be loved. They neither aspire to, nor are capable of attaining, the sublime (except in the person of Messi). Rather, their holy grail is the achievement of absolute technical competence, like a backroom of IT geeks, or Fleetwood Mac.

A small, blackened corner of my heart drew immense satisfaction from Barcelona’s defeat to Inter in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final (as dismayed as I am by any outcome which burnishes Mourinho’s reputation).

Barcelona showed up at San Siro expecting to pass rings around a flat-footed collection of South American has-beens, cast as the Washington Generals for one night only. Instead, Guardiola’s side visibly wilted in the face of a fearsome fusillade of passionate, attacking football which cut them down to size. Their self-satisfied arrogance had blinded them to the dialectic of the game; they had no response.

One could make the claim that FC Barcelona’s success has given contemporary Europe the champion it deserves; a technocratic elite, backed by big money, which parades across the continent beneath the banner of UNICEF in a false posture of social solidarity.

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21st Century Balls

August 14, 2010

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Happened upon that advertising gif on an image-hosting site recently. A particularly pernicious piece of work, I’m sure you’ll agree. It reminded me of an article I read about the ProZone video analysis system used by top football clubs. Whereas many punters imagine that the software is primarily used to track positioning, passing range and so forth, the feature which most appeals to management is the ability to measure frequency, intensity and duration of sprints.

This is especially useful, the company spokesman proudly proclaimed, for identifying players who are concealing an injury from the medical staff. I wonder how long it will be before we see systems like this used in manual labour workplaces (if they’re not already.)

While I’m on the subject of football and technology (and by no means desperately trying to pad this post), I was dismayed to read that FIFA have capitulated to the baying of the tabloids and agreed to re-examine the use of goal-line and/or video technology. The main culprit in this perversion of football is the British media, with its politics-of-the-last-atrocity refusal to accept that shit happens and interferes with the digestion of armchair fans in wealthy countries from time to time.

Equally distressing are The Blatter’s comments about restructuring the group phase of the World Cup to discourage negativity:

Sepp Blatter says Fifa is considering scrapping draws at the group stage of future World Cup finals by introducing penalty shoot-outs after 90 minutes.

Blatter, president of world football’s governing body, is known for voicing radical ideas on changing the game.

He wants to put an end to defence-minded teams playing to get a draw.

“If there is no winner at the end of 90 minutes of play, we would proceed directly to penalty kicks,” he told German magazine Focus.

Yes. That’ll fucking work, won’t it? Instead of encouraging teams to think that if they stick ten men behind the ball they might nick a point, encourage them to think that if they stick ten men behind the ball they might nick three points (without even having to score off a set-piece, Rehhagel-stylee.)

Oh, and…

Another possibility, according to Blatter, would be to revive the “golden goal”.

We don’t even need to embark upon hypotheticals here, we know what happened last time this idiotic rule was implemented. Far from encouraging attacking play, it made everyone shit-scared of conceding in extra time and determined to cling on for the dubious refuge of penalties.

IPSC Off-Target With Protest

July 15, 2010

Via the SWP:

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), supported by Eirigi, the Palestinian Right Institute & Irish Anti War Movement, will hold a peaceful protest at the Shamrock Rovers vs Bnei Yehuda Tel Aviv game in Tallaght Stadium on Thursday July 15th. The protest starts at 7pm and will take place outside the stadium.

Well, now. I must confess that the tenor of discourse and polemics engaged in by the Irish left in relation to Israel occasionally makes me uncomfortable. The word “Zionist” I find particularly disquieting, even beyond the context of those crass “SMASH THE ZIONIST STATE” SWP placards.

Let me be clear about this, I believe the actions of the Israeli government towards Palestine to be fascist, racist and quasi-genocidal in character, and I believe the Israeli ambassador should have been invited to leave as soon as the passport thefts were uncovered.

However, the violent repression of an ethnic, sub-national or religious community is a doleful phenomenon that can be observed in every inhabited continent of the world. To characterise its Israeli manifestation as “Zionism” risks portraying it as a peculiarly Jewish perversion.

Returning to the vexed matter of the intersection between politics and sport, here’s what Freda Hughes of the IPSC has to say:

“Some people say that sport and politics should not mix, however we say that sport and racism should never mix – hence the theme of our protest, ‘Love Football, Hate Apartheid’. The IPSC would point to the sporting boycott against South Africa, which was one of the most effective tools employed in ostracising that state and revealing to the world its Apartheid regime and disregard for human rights.”

The problem with this statement is that there is no such noxious admixture of sport and racism involved in tonight’s game. Israeli football is relatively free from institutional prejudice, with some notable exceptions which I’ll come onto presently. The Bnei Yehuda players (including the young Arab midfielder Hasan Abu Zaid) are representing their club and the Israeli Football Association, not the Israeli government and state.

It’s fashionable in the Anglophone world to decry the actions of FIFA, but their meticulous work in maintaining a cordon sanitaire between football and state politics by prohibiting government interference in national football associations is what keeps international competition viable. Sure, it allows corrupt and self-serving bureaucracies to become impregnably entrenched, but that’s distinctly the lesser evil.

Arab players and even Arab teams compete on an level playing field in the Israeli Premier League, largely without victimisation from predominantly Jewish clubs and their fans. A rare exception is the case of Beitar Jerusalem, whose supporters are notorious for their vile and violent racist conduct. This conduct, incidentally, leads to frequent fines from the Israeli FA. Beitar have never fielded an Arab player, and I pity the poor bastard who gets to be that pioneer.

As somewhat of an aside, Beitar also provide an instructive example of the imperfect nexus between politics and sport. In 2005, the Russian plutocrat Arkady Gaydamak acquired Beitar, poured millions into the club and led them to the championship. In 2008, he ran for Mayor of Jerusalem. He garnered less than 5% of the vote.

Freda’s juxtaposition of Israeli state chauvinism with South African apartheid is also rather wide of the mark. Sporting resistance to apartheid began in earnest in 1957, when the Confederation of African Football invited founder members South Africa to compete in the inaugural African Cup of Nations.

The South Africans were adamant that they would send only an all-white or an all-black team. CAF insisted on a mixed team, the South African association declined, and were banished from African football until 1992. (It took FIFA, then under the stewardship of a fine upstanding Englishman in Sir Stanley Rous, rather than a Swiss bureaucrat, until 1976 to follow Africa’s lead.)

The next milestone in apartheid’s incompatibility with sport arrived in 1968, when the South African emigré Basil D’Oliveira, designated a Cape Coloured under the country’s racial laws, was (reluctantly) selected by the MCC in the England squad to tour South Africa. As with African Cup of Nations example cited above, this was a clear case of political prejudices being directly imposed upon sporting events. There is no parallel with tonight’s game.

Freda makes a more persuasive, though ultimately misguided, case for the protest when she addresses the matter of football in the West Bank and Gaza.

“Palestinian teams have consistently been refused visas to travel to competitions, and aren’t afforded the same training facilities and funding as Israeli teams. Restrictions on movement both within the West Bank and between the West Bank and Gaza further compound the difficulties that Palestinian footballers face.”

The behaviour of the Israeli state towards Palestinian teams and players is one more scandal to add to a rap sheet which runs to volumes. It is certainly an area in which FIFA should be exerting more muscular pressure. But it does not come within the remit of the Israeli Football Association (hence, the irrelevance of the remark about funding.) The Palestinian Football Federation has separate membership of FIFA and the AFC, and its own leagues and national team.

FIFA and UEFA very rarely put a foot wrong when it comes to keeping politics out of sport. One notable solecism was FIFA’s insistence, in 1973, that the USSR fulfil the second leg of their World Cup qualifying play-off against Chile shortly after Pinochet’s coup. Quite properly, the Soviets refused (although crucially, on the grounds that the match was to be hosted in the National Stadium where many of Allende’s supporters had been incarcerated and murdered, not because they objected to playing Chile per se.) The footage of Chile attacking an empty goal in that “game” is often shown whimsically on TV, with the political and humanitarian context skirted over.

The FAI, incidentally, had no such moral qualms when they sent Ireland to play Chile in that self-same stadium the following year. And it was Ireland which was guilty of another aberration in June 1999, when Fianna Fáil, scrambling to appease NATO in their war on the rump Yugoslavia, refused visas to the Yugoslav national team scheduled to play a Euro 2000 qualifier in Dublin.

Instead of kicking Ireland out of the competition, UEFA bottled it and rearranged the fixture. This was the second occasion on which reactionary forces in Irish society had objected to a visit by Yugoslavia; in 1955, Archbishop McQuaid advocated a boycott of a friendly international in Dublin in protest against the incarceration of Croatian fascist collaborator Cardinal Stepinac. On that occasion, however, the game went ahead.

It’s hard to divine just how tonight’s protest can be anything other than counter-productive. Targeted boycotts, such as that pursued against Veolia, certainly have their place. But the singling out of individual Israeli visitors for the innocuous and fraternal act of playing a football match is a gross miscalculation. It will certainly do little to persuade those young men, whatever their political convictions, that the siege mentality which their government would seek to inculcate in them is misplaced.

Kicking Against DPRK

June 10, 2010

I don’t have much time for the totalitarian/militaristic/nationalistic stylings of the North Korean regime. Most on the left share my distaste, although, like the pornography industry, there’s a niche group to cater for every perversion.

Nonetheless, the lazy, reflexive, shibboleth-laden coverage given to the participation of the DPRK football team at the forthcoming World Cup is getting on my Eklands. When combined with the slavish, philistine gushing over Brazilian football which is so typical of the British sporting press, the annoyance dial cranks up to CRITICAL. Behold:

The images projected by the two nations are similarly far apart.

Brazil is synonymous with an unfettered joy of expression, illustrated perhaps most vividly down the years by its football team.

Think of North Korea, however, and thoughts instinctively turn to a political regime, whose military spending and belligerent foreign policy earned them a place alongside Iraq and Iran in former United States president George W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

Well, not really. There was a time, in living memory, when to freely express oneself in Brazil meant to end up very much fettered, if not very much dead. Secondly, everyone knows that the only reason North Korea made Bush’s Most Wanted list was to disguise the religious crusading nature of the War on Terror.

These perfunctory slanders will be familiar to anyone whose memory extends to the late 1980s, and the heyday of Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev/USSR teams (they were effectively one and the same.) Lobanovskyi’s teams played a pulsating, swift counter-attacking style of football in which every member of the side was a potential playmaker. In many ways, it was a precursor to the tikki-takki house style for which Barcelona and Spain are lauded today, although played at a faster pace and more exhilarating to watch.

Of course, that wasn’t how the Western press saw it. Instead, they wrote of automatons, who knew what to do with the ball before they received it, doubtless as a result of harsh, repetitive, military-style training (as opposed to having their intelligence and technique honed by the scientific coaching methods of Lobanovskyi.) It was somewhat of a blow to this thesis when Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev and Romantsev’s Spartak Moscow sides retained and refined this style long into the capitalist age.

So, for all that the constant evocations of the Dear Leader by the coaching staff irk me, and the archaic 5-3-2 system offers little hope, I hope North Korea do well at the World Cup. It will offer the beleaguered people of that nation some little solace (and yes, they will see and/or find out about the results) and piss off a lot of people I don’t like.

If nothing else, it might put a stop to stuff like this:

Their domestic media were described as “so suppressed they are non-existent” by campaign group Reporters Without Borders and the few interviews that have appeared from inside the squad have been full of cliches.

Take a moment to savour the rich, delectable irony of that last bit, bearing in mind that it comes from the BBC’s dumbed-down-to-death football department. If North Korea’s players deal in clichés because they come from a totalitarian dictatorship, what’s the England squad’s excuse? Maybe Juche is the state ideology of Soho Square. It might explain how Eriksson kept his job for so long…

The Joy of Thursday

May 6, 2010

Much too angry about the shit going down in the country (especially this) to post anything coherent, so I decided to make an humorous video about Paul Doolin to take my mind off it.