Aleksander Hemon, who wrote a great essay on football in Chicago in Granta Magazine earlier this year called “If God Existed, He’d Be a Solid Midfielder,” is now writing a blog on football at the New Republic. This week, he offers up a great riff on the “ritual demise” of “Europe’s most annoying soccer club.”
All Things Considered did a piece tonight about the U-17 U.S. Women’s team consolation of the Haitian goalie after their 9-0 victory over the Haitian team. Many of the Haitian players lives’ had been upended by the January 12th earthquake. The goalie had lost her parents in the earthquake, and most of the team members had similarly lost family members.
Though obviously the circumstances and impact were quite different, I was reminded in reading about this of famous “peace match” played in Haiti in 2004 by the Brazilian team, which was used as an opportunity to try and put an end to violent political conflict in the capital: those who brought a gun to surrender to the authorities got into the game for free. Brazil defeated Haiti in the match, but it was in a certain way a national victory for Haiti, a country packed with ardent fans of the Brazilian team. Indeed the footage here of Haitians greeting the Brazilian team, escorted by UN troops, is amazing.
There is a phenomenon in Spain, one that is on the lips of commentators of the Primera División all over the world, one that tinges any match involving Spain’s two biggest teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona: villarato.
When I hear the word uttered on GolTv, on ESPN, even on the Fox Sport family of networks, it quickly becomes clear that the depth of this conspiracy is not that evident to those whispering its sinister name.
The Barcelona blog totalBarça is one of the few sites out there with a good run-down of the theory. To make a long story short, the Madrid press, spearheaded by Marca and their trusty rival/adversaries at AS, have perpetuated the idea that the past six years have witnessed a vast, secret plan by RFEF (the Spanish football association) President Ángel María Villar to damage Real Madrid and boost Barcelona by influencing referees.
The theory goes that because Barcelona’s President Laporta, notorious target of the Madrid press, supported Villar at a time when he was being pressured to step down by a number of big teams, including Real Madrid. The reward for Laporta’s support is the favoritism of referees, disciplinary committees, scheduling, etc.
The extent to which the conspiracy theory has been spread is a testament to the massive (and often meddling) influence of Marca and the Madrid press in general. Those of us who have coffee when we are in Spain (that would be 99% of us; the other 1% still go to the café and drink hot chocolate or orange juice, etc) know that there is virtually no watering hole, lunch counter, kiosk in the country that is not dominated by the Madrid daily. They are on the radio, in print, and of course, online, winning the game the most effective way possible: through an unending barrage of content, which always trumps quality in their aesthetic.
Barcelona-based daily, and main opposition (alongside El Mundo Deportivo) to Marca and AS, SPORT, has launched a counter-campaign, featuring a t-shirt that exclaims: “Villarato? What balls!” The t-shirt, pictured here alongside the aptly selected t-shirt commemorating last season’s 2-6 complete arsewhooping visited upon Madrid’s hide with little to no referee assistance in their own shell-shocked Bernabeu.
Naturally, one great loophole in the theory would be how to explain the atrocious performances by Madrid’s players in Spain and Europe that led to Barcelona running away with the spoils (including a number of drubbings administered by Barça upon their eternal rivals). Another would be that Real Madrid actually won a couple of league titles right after the alleged bust-up between Villar and his enemies.
Beyond the conspiracy theory is this lurking idea of the Madrid media. MARCA has had some truly outlandish features in the past days, including a new video diary by their director, Eduardo Inda, which features him pouting and crying over spilled milk on a variety of topics. Most recently, it has been an anti-Manuel Pellegrini campaign in which the daily has been publishing any possible news to discredit the Madrid coach.
A recent Guardian article points out the obvious: that Pellegrini is and always was a scapegoat at a club where there is a coaching change on average once a year in the past 24 years. Indeed, for anyone who has followed the travails of the Madrid giant in the past few years, it has become clear that role of coach has become one of sacrificial lamb. Even coaches winning titles (Vicente Del Bosque, Fabio Capello) have been axed unceremoniously (Del Bosque for “not fitting the image” of young, cosmopolitan brand during the first Florentino Perez era) after winning the Spanish league. In Del Bosque’s case, he won two Champions’ Leagues and was still fired; before him, Juup Heynckes won their 7th Champions’ League before getting the boot.
In most of these cases, the Madrid press has either heavily campaigned for the heads of such coaches or exacerbated atmospheres in which they were being called in to question. Despite the premise of being “civilians” in the world of football, the press has taken a hands-on approach, destabilizing teams and influencing the politics of the club. Their influence has extended even to the Spanish national team: during the Luis Aragonés era, MARCA campaigned against him, basing their argument on his refusal to call up Raúl González–favored pet of the newspaper–to the national team.
In reality, Raúl’s form had been atrocious in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2008, and it was becoming apparent that his number was up as a top-class player. He did not take part in the run-up to the tournament, yet based on an upturn in his performances near tournament time, this segment of the press rallied for his inclusion. Aragonés held firmly; Raúl was never called up again and Spain won the European Nations’ Cup that summer.
The anecdote of Raúl is a telling one; for years, the Madrid press has put him on a pedestal (at times, deservingly) for his performance, though often the impression one gets is that he is idolized by them for being a symbol of some post-Francoist Spanishness. In his appearance, his marriage to a supermodel who became a homemaker, his manners, he is a classic macho ibérico, embodying masculine traits of loyalty, devotion to the cause, etc. Former players have called him a destabilizing force, even a cancer, in the locker room. Go figure.
As MARCA continues its neo-nationalist quest to destabilize Barcelona with the villarato theory, their campaign to bring down Pellegrini speaks of another defense of “Spanish ideals.” As the Paul Wilson/Guardian article discusses, there is a desperate desire in the coffers of Real Madrid to defend the “Real Madrid Way.” This “way” has recently been to pay overblown prices–exaggerated and sky-high–for top players, cramming them in a team with no regard as to how they will play or developing a system, and demanding instantaneous success. Later, when the project fails, as it has this season, the hundreds of millions of euros are burst like a bubble and the press (and the sporting directors) scramble to find a donkey to pin the blame upon.
With the current economic crisis in Spain, few reasonable people would dare to defend the way that speculators and “investors” exerted control over the now-burst bubble that was the Spanish economy in the past decade or so. However, MARCA proves that there are people out there militantly defending the footballing equivalent of such exorbitant ways.
Alexander Wolff has just written a beautiful piece at Sports Illustrated on Joe Gaetjens, the Haitian footballer who scored the single goal in the 1950 World Cup upset by the U.S. against England. It’s a great piece of investigative reporting and an important tribute to a man whose story has long been either forgotten or distorted.
As the big countdown ticks away, less than 100 days before the World Cup, perhaps Africa’s strongest team, Ivory Coast, is still without a coach. An article in the Zimbabwean brings up the state of African football and its reliance on foreign coaches.
In Cote D’Ivoire, the disgruntled Vahid Halilhodžić was unceremoniously dispensed with following an unsuccessful run at the African Cup of Nations (despite having lost only one match during his two-year tenure). Similarly, Nigeria rid themselves of Shaibu Amodu after only getting 3rd place in the same tournament. He was axed in late February and replaced with Lars Lagerbeck, a Swedish coach whose most recent claim to fame is failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with Sweden.
The appointment of Lagerbeck was quite a prize for not being able to qualify with his original team, and he now has the task of ingratiating himself to the players and learning up on Nigerian football in the 90-odd days that he has before the tournament starts. Lagerbeck replaced a Nigerian coach who would have been the only other African coach in South Africa (besides Algeria’s Rabah Saadane).
Whoever inherits the Ivory Coast (latest word is that Dutch “miracle-worker” Guus Hiddink is poised to get the job) gets the privilege of coaching one of the world’s most talented squads, bursting with ability, speed, power, and efficiency at every corner: Didier Drogba, Yaya Touré, Kolo Touré, Didier Zokora, Emanuel Eboué, Salomon Kalou, and so on, without having to actually do any work in qualifying. Common sense tells me that an Ivorian coach is not in the running.
South Africa has chosen a similar path, re-hiring Carlos Alberto Pareira (Brazilian; you might remember him from the World’s Most Boring World Cup Final [TM]  or as the Man Who Could Make A Team with Romario, Ronaldo, and Bebeto into a Side-Passing Snore-Fest [R]. Also known as Coach of Oil-Rich World Cup Whipping Boys [Kuwait 82, United Arab Emirates 90, Saudi Arabia ’98 aka “Fired During the World Cup”]. And most recently known as Man Who Can Make Even Brazil Look Bad [Brazil, 2006]). Interestingly, he was coach of South Africa previously, and quit, citing family reasons (though it is hard to ignore the fact that he did not do anything worth noting in his brief stint with them). Perhaps he needs to fund that vacation home (I’m guessing it won’t be in Ivory Coast).
In July of 2009, Cameroon appointed perhaps the most interesting of the [actual] coaches so far mentioned, Frenchman Paul Le Guen, who played a major role in turning Olympique Lyon into a dynasty in French football. He established a reputation at Lyon for good football with resources far smaller than those at other European top clubs. Furthermore, he coached a number of immensely talented players (many of them African) and helped springboard their careers at bigger clubs.
In comparison, Ghana go WAAAAAY back with coach Milovan Rajevac, who has been with them since all the way back in 2008. Amazingly, he did not get the axe despite coming in 2nd place at the African Cup of Nations.
We shall see in the coming days how the Hiddink acquisition pans out (no doubt some interesting transactions will be taking place, considering he is still under contract with the Russian Federation). In all of this, it is a tad disheartening to see the reliance on coaches that apparently have had little or nothing to do with a nation’s football. In some cases, a coach might have a past triumph under his belt (as in Pareira), but in others (especially Lagerbeck) one wonders whether getting a mere European name is better than finding a true match for a national team’s football.
The idea of the foreign coach has been slowly adopted even outside of Africa; even England have turned to the [zzzzzz] Swede Sven Goran Eriksson and in 2010 will be lead by Italian Fabio Capello (Italian for “Fabulous Hair”). In 2004, Greece won the European Championship with a German coach, Otto Rehhagel . Though now that you think about it, there haven’t been all that many foreign coaches at the world stage with such success.
An article by Jonathan Wilson in the Guardian today asks an interesting question for those of us who grew up in an era in which West African football was the realm of skilled artists such as Abedi Pele, George Weah, Roger Milla, and exciting teams like the “original” Nigerian Super Eagles who played swashbuckling, imaginative football. In a piece that starts out by discussing Egypt’s tactical formation (very interesting as well), he goes on to ask:
So where have Africa’s creators gone?
That then raises the issue of where the creators have gone; why west Africa has, in a generation, not produced a player like Jay-Jay Okocha or Abedi Pele. Okocha blames the attempt to impose discipline and adopt a “European model”, but that has not prevented European nations from producing gifted creators. Manchester United’s scout in Africa, Tom Vernon, who runs an academy in the hills above Accra, suggests that the fault lies partly with European clubs, who tend to have what he terms “the Papa Bouba Diop template” in mind. The African players who have succeeded in Europe in the past have usually been big and robust, and so clubs look only for something similar. Players called up by European clubs at a young age develop faster and have a higher profile, and so it is they who make it into the national team.
Indeed, a superficial survey of some of the West African players in leagues like the Premier or the Primera División of Spain will confirm this tendency; robust, very physical, big players often placed into combative roles. Think Essien and Mikel at Chelsea, Toure Yaya and Keita at Barcelona, Abou Diaby and Song at Arsenal, M. Diarra at Real Madrid, and so on. Even African players, like Drogba at Chelsea, who play in other positions seem destined to rely on their athleticism and power; in very few instances do you see a “creator” or creative midfielder from Africa.
Of course, fans of football are no strangers to stereotyping, often of racial nature, when it comes to players at the international and club level. In England, there are stereotypes of what nationalities will succeed and which ones won’t. In England and Spain, there is an obsession with West African hard-working midfielders, yet there are few Italians (though you will find West Africans in Italy). You see a crop of Brazilians in Spain yet they are seen as difficult to adapt to England. And so on and so on.
The idea, though, becomes interesting when one starts to wonder to what extent such ideas influence the way a team thinks of itself. There is no doubt that racism towards West Africa (and elsewhere) exists, that European clubs are looking for their “Makelele” or other player willing to do the unglamorous, slavish dirty work so that their starlets may thrive. But how does this affect the way a national team, for example, envisions its own football?
Manchester United’s scout, quoted in the article, readily admits that players in these African national teams are often in a hierarchy related to who plays abroad and where. When you have such an economic force as European club football drawing up players from Africa to play in roles determined by the European footballing imagination, what impact is that going to have on the national teams?
The scout, Tom Vernon, goes on to speculate that the way kids play on the street in Ghana might have something to do with it, as in his opinion playing on tiny pitches forces them to “play through the middle” and sacrifice creative wing play. Of course, anyone familiar with Brazilian football, to cite just one example, can write that off as nonsense. In Brazil, one can witness football being played just about anywhere there is flat ground, regardless of space. The greatest players from there have hailed from inner-city squatter ghettos where space is at a premium; it is precisely that lack of space that is a driving impetus for imagination and creativity.
In the case of Brazil, these players seem to transform when they put on their yellow jersey to be a part of the seleção; while the commentators during this upcoming World Cup might talk about the Brazilian footballing blood in their veins, I would say to think about the culture built into the minds of these players. Players of diverse racial backgrounds who are playing under the idea of being Brazilian, in a culture that deifies anything related to the supposed jogo bonito, the Brazilian “beautiful game.”
Naturally, anyone who has witnessed football under Dunga, especially in ’94, knows that the Brazilian national game can be anything but beautiful, and that their best results are the fruit of grim determination, discipline, physicality, and efficiency even more than artistry. The Brazilian team of today emphasizes this even more clearly, as Dunga coaches them into South Africa.
For the African teams in South Africa in 99 days, success will be a measure of how well they can overcome the typecast images of themselves that dominate their football history. It will be a test of how this idea of hard-working journeymen playing on chaotic, disorganized African teams can be overturned and how new ideas can be formed. To the extent that these are external, cultural ideas, accumulated and enforced through the brutal economics of football, one can say that it will take something truly special to pull it off.
And yet, from time to time we see teams overcome the burden of history to change the course of their destiny. Most recently Spain, in 2008, overcame the “perennial overachievers” tag to capture their first senior international triumph in 44 years. Last summer, the USA very nearly pulled off a worldwide shockwave by going up 2-0 against feared and revered Brazil in the Confederations’ Cup final, before falling victim to their own tactical naïveté (though the second American goal will live long in my memory as perhaps the finest counterattacking goal I’ve ever seen).
For many (myself included), the first African World Cup will be a fascinating stage on which some of the dominant myths of international football could well be overturned. I, for one, wonder if it will be a time for players like Essien and Toure Yaya to break their shackles as huffing-and-puffing defensive midfielders and play to their true potential as creative, imaginative geniuses that I know they can be.