Archive for July, 2012

Jul 30 2012

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Youth Soccer

A football club cannot be successful without cultivating new young talent to supplement older veterans. This changeover is essential to continue moving forward. Clubs all over the world pay particular attention to developing their future stars for many reasons. If a club nurtures its younger players with the correct support and coaching the result will likely be a successful record on the field along with a healthy balance sheet. The prime examples are FC Barcelona and AFC Ajax, where the core of each team has emerged from the depths of their youth programs at La Masia and De Toekomst respectively. The Ajax youth academy is also prized for having filled the Dutch National team for years, and instilling the approach of “Total Football” in players.

Each has different styles to rearing football prodigies, but the goal is the same, to produce players to play for the first team. Ajax looks at their young players as a business investment, giving them everything they need to succeed and pays particular attention to not wearing their young athletes out for fear of losing their capital.  And they certainly should for they routinely sell players they have trained in their academy for millions of euros. Their academy stresses that development and technique is the key to success. Rarely are wins and losses considered when determining which players will make it to the next level at such a young age.

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Barcelona begins enrolling players in their academy (pictured above) at age 7, and they follow a rigorous schedule with little time for unsanctioned activities from dawn until dusk. While Spain and the Netherlands let the football tutelage specifically up to the clubs, France also employs a national training center in addition to club academies. These approaches are time proven to produce world class footballers that save their parent club’s millions in transfer fees. They have a structured plan to develop players and give them all the tools necessary to achieve. The question is, however, whether they give them the ability to live a normal childhood. People will argue that great players were never normal but what about the children who won’t earn World Footballer of the year? One of the costs of the academy system is that the single-minded focus on athletic training can leave players who ultimately don’t make it in the professional world without alternative skills or professional options.

For aspiring soccer players in the United States there is no real equivalent to these structured environments. Athletes are largely left to their own devices to figure out how to succeed. That is what I experienced growing up in Pennsyvlania.

I began my playing career like most young American children — in youth soccer. Seriously, is there a handbook somewhere that instructs all parents to enroll their children in youth soccer? It seems like almost everyone played on one soccer team or another during their childhood. But most won’t remember the team’s name — or the rules of the game for that matter. I, however, found a love for the game and progressed from one local youth select team to the next. First it was a county team, then a regional team, and then my local club team, Leeds United — which later became Pennsylvania Classics.

This is where Zarek and I began playing together at age 11. Although we played many games, it’s not clear to me now how many of them were truly worthwhile. We did a lot of traveling with Pennsylvania Classics and other select teams simply to get more practice and more exposure. I also competed for my high school team for three months of the year. That was a great social experience, but it disrupted my practice schedule with my club team. The other select teams were often apart of the  U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program. In trying to progress towards the highest levels of the game, we tried to balance playing for these different teams as well as Pennsylvania Classics, but it wasn’t always easy.

Among players, everyone’s goal was to be asked to join the U.S. U-17 Men’s national team residency program in Bradenton, Florida. That program was the only place were you could get a high level of training on a daily basis. The program was modeled after the French Football Federation’s National Institute of Football at Clairefontaine. You could be scouted for U.S. U-17 team with Pennsylvania Classics at any of the number of tournaments we played in or on any of the various Olympic Development Teams. There was no clear path to attain the ultimate goal so we tried to do it all.

U.S. Soccer finally figured out that players, myself included, were playing way to many games with little meaning. So, they created the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Program; a league that has  78 clubs in the U.S. and Canada and  culminates each year with a National Championship game. The “Development Academy” lays out a structured format for all elite players to compete against each other. It also has a set of guidelines for coaching instruction and puts an emphasis on development over winning games. Players are asked to forgo their other commitments, specifically high school soccer. This eliminates the need to play for multiple teams and allows them to concentrate on one avenue for success. At the same time, as Kyle Martino has noted, while high school soccer may disrupt club practices, it does provide an important avenue for social growth. The question is how to balance a pursuit of a professional dream and a normal childhood. Is it even possible?

My team later joined the development academy and saw a marked improvement in the competition. The Montreal Impact Academy is going to field two teams to join this very league in the coming year in the U-15/16 division and U-17/18.  Outside of the MLS clubs with youth teams in the “Development Academy,” there is no direct path for youth players to take to a professional team.

Many MLS clubs are giving their youth players the support and coaching they need but most importantly a clear path to the first team. Youth players can achieve their goal by being offered a Homegrown Contract which allows them to sign for the MLS team without entering the draft. Andrew Lewellmen argues that Homegrown Contracts are the future of MLS as the league looks to capitalize on its investment in youth systems. The Montreal Impact have a very defined youth academy and have already shown that they are willing to sign deserving players to homegrown contracts. Our first team often plays the academy team; this gives them an opportunity to see the level they must attain. The Impact have stated that they modeled their academy off of the famed youth systems in France, Spain and the Netherlands mentioned above  but curtailed it to specifically support the Quebec soccer community. It is set up with soccer schools, U-12 and U-14 teams that compete in the Quebec soccer league. U-16 and U-18 teams that will compete in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and the U-21 team that will compete in the Canadian Soccer League.  Karl Ouimette is a prime example of progressing through the academy as he is the first Montreal Impact player to be signed to a homegrown contract. Karl signed on June 5th 2012 and he commented that, “Being the first homegrown player is an honor and it is due to all the hard work I did with the academy. It also proves that the academy program trains players to be able to play with the first team.” He has certainly proven that the academy is a strong component of any successful club and specifically the Impact.

The club draws players from other Quebec clubs that have close to 85,000 players. The academy has a full time staff that is focused solely on coaching soccer players. Players in the Montreal Academy system have an advantage because they are seen on a regular basis by the coaches and administration of the first team. This would hopefully lead to a professional contract similar to Karl’s. Montreal is not the only MLS team with a youth system, every other club has an academy in some form or another. Most recently Toronto FC just unveiled their new academy structure that is looking to compete with the NCAA. In contrast I went to college at Duke University and eventually entered the MLS draft. Things may have been different had I had the opportunity to play for an MLS academy team before college. I certainly would have benefited from competing against better players. Though I do agree with Alexi Lalas, I feel that I was able to mature and grow as a person in college and learned to handle myself for the x number of hours that I was not on the field. I also grew considerably as a player. Could I have grown more if I had played in a less restrictive NCAA regulated environment where a prolonged season replicated a professional season? Possibly, but I will never know. I enjoyed my time in college and think it was a beneficial experience for me, not to mention I value my education. Is college for everyone, clearly not. Each player must figure out what is best for them.

There is no right way to accomplish your dreams but it is hard to argue that MLS academy systems and most European academies are giving players the tools necessary to succeed. What you will see is a movement to the MLS academy system and more and more players will be produced from the academies. The question is are all of these academies the correct balance of soccer and life at such a young age? At the end of the day there is no right answer for everyone, each individual is different and will take a different route to achieve their goals. Talent will always be recognized one way or another.

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Jul 16 2012

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La Garde

Since my first game in Montréal — versus the Chicago Fire on March 17th 2012 — I have been struck and moved by the powerful support we get from our fans. It was my second game as a professional, so you might have thought I would have gotten over the nerves of playing in front of a large crowd. Only a week earlier, I had my debut as a second half sub versus the Vancouver Whitecaps. I’ll admit that at one point when play stopped for a throw in and substitution I took a few seconds to look up and marvel at the number of people in the crowd. Although we lost, after the game I realized how incredible it was to be playing in front of such a large group of spectators. When, a week later, I was substituted in against the Chicago Fire during the 2nd half, I ran out onto the field in front of 58,912 spectators, most of them our fans. As I pulled on my jersey I thought: “Try not to trip as you run onto the turf!” Though the game was a draw, it was truly magical to experience our fans and feel their support behind us the entire game.

It was incredible for close to 60,000 supporters to come out and show their support for the team and the organization. We felt their passion again during our recent game against Sporting Kansas City, when they clearly let their displeasure with the events on the field be known. It shows that they truly care about Impact de Montréal and the city.

One of the most moving shows of support came during the game against the Columbus Crew on July 8th. My roommate Zarek Valentin commented on  twitter that the fans were unbelievable. We had suffered a few tough losses at that point in the season, and went down a goal in the middle of the second half. But no one left for the exits early. I was watching from the stands and saw only two men leave — but they returned two minutes later with fresh beers knowing it was going to be an exciting finish. Without the fans’ support we couldn’t have clawed back from the one goal deficit and eventually won the game. It was a special feeling those last 20 minutes as you could see the team recover mentally from the deficit and begin to earn the win as the excitement in the stadium got stronger and stronger. It was our fans that produced the collective feeling of belief and unity that helped the players on the field succeed. The fans truly were the 12th man, “La Garde.” They exuded a passion for the game and for our team that is typical of the city. All the players on the team are very thankful for the support for you have helped us through some tough times this year!

 

As I saw clearly from the reactions to my first post both here on the blog and on twitter, residents of Quebec and specifically Montréal really throw themselves into a cause or event they believe in. I have already commented that I was struck this year by the passion and effort the students of Montréal showed as they opposed laws they found unjust. It was a new experience for me moving from the States and seeing the scale of these protests. Though I don’t know enough about the details of the issue and am not endorsing or opposing their stand, I feel one must respect the commitment they showed to their cause, something that seems ingrained in the culture of the city. In my reading of “A People’s History of Quebec” I learned about the politics surrounding Bill 101 on August 26, 1977 — which parents of current university students must remember — which stipulated the use of French in government and other official capacities. At that time, residents in Montreal also stood up, supporting the culture and Bill they believed in. In the same way, this generation of students marched and stood for their beliefs.

Standing for what one believes in is clearly not a new idea to residents of Montréal, and it is something Impact de  Montréal supporters group “les Ultras” do for 90 minutes — pun intended. Since I first saw their massive 60 foot banner and heard their support during my first home game in the Olympic stadium, I have been intrigued by our supporter groups les Ultras as well as 127 Montréal. I’m probably biased — and have yet to see the Sons of Ben, the Timbers Army, or the supporters of the Seattle Sounders in person, but the Impact ultras are one of the best supporters group in the MLS I have seen thus far in my short career.

I had a chance to chat with one of the members of the ultras, Eric Chenoix, about their organization which recently celebrated their ten year anniversary. I learned that the group began as an idea in 2001 when 60 Toronto Lynx fans invaded Claude-Robillard stadium unopposed. Group founders Daniel Nahmias Leonard and Patrice Vaillancourt made the idea a reality in 2002 when the small group encouraged the Impact to a 2-0 win over the Lynx. They set out to build a group whose sole mission is to support our team Impact de Montréal. Nick Sabetti recently covered the ultras’  anniversary with an article. He quoted Eric as describing the group as “apolitical” and saying, “We avoid mixing politics and football. We don’t even use the Québec flag, to avoid any association with separatism or anything like that, although we do use it on the road sometimes. We just want to support the Impact.” In my own conversation with Eric, I learned that the ultras took inspiration from the larger ultras movement in Europe, modeling themselves on groups in France, Belgium, and Germany but seeking to infuse the group with the traits of  Montréal and its devotion to a cause. The term ultras is used for extreme football fans, and is meant to characterize their extreme devotion for their club and fellow members. I have been told that Ultras Montreal members see their support of the team as a job.

I have recently been reading two excellent books about “ultras” that help me understand a bit more about those I have encountered in the city. The first, about the fans of Millwall in England, was written by scholar Garry Robson named after one of their amusing chants: “No One Likes Us We Don’t Care!. The other is a recent account by journal Robert Andrew Powell of the supporters of a team in Cuidad Juarez, where soccer provides hope and community in the midst of violence.

Fans of Millwall are known for their aggressive support of their club but this commitment takes on a deeper meaning for they have joined their  physical being and their love for Millwall F.C. into one. This kind of commitment to the club is typical of international ultras movement minus the aggressive posture. Garry Robson argues that “Millwallism” is not, in fact, mainly about language and symbols. It is, instead, defined by “experiential relationships” between individuals who find in the fan group a place express themselves collectively. (137) It is this state of a living and breathing relationship for one’s club that defines what it means to be an ultra. Once a fan defines their life by the club, they then become an extreme fan.

The Indios de Ciudad Juarez are also loved by residents in Juarez, Mexico for whom it is one of the few positive aspects of their lives as drug cartel warfare rages on their doorstep. Powell’s book, which focuses on a group of fans who call themselves — with a bit of irony — “El Kartel,” gives a riveting depiction of not just soccer but also humanity in a modern day war-zone. It illustrates how the power of a soccer team’s promotion can allow its fans a brief respite from the horrors of everyday life. The fans of the Indios may live in an inhospitable place but they still find the need to support their team.  

The Impact ultras, then, are part of a global cultural phenomenon that is a central part of what makes soccer such a powerful and meaningful sport for communities throughout the world.

Two hours before a game, the Ultras Montréal meet at Bar 99 on Hochelaga Street. From there, they walk as a group to the stadium where they take their positions in section 132. There they have some 20 different chants they use to invigorate the crowd in Stade Saputo in support of the players on the pitch. Since I have been injured recently, I often sit behind the ultras and I always enjoy the way the chant leader or capo directs to the group. There is one particular chant I love. I don’t know what it is called or what the words are, but everyone sits down for about 30 seconds and bangs their feet on the stands before finally jumping up and waving all their scarves and flags. I get a kick out of it every time.

Outside game days, the group meets regularly. They enjoy each others’ company, for they have a common bond in their support and passion for the Impact. They spend time making flags and tifos, watching away games or planning trips to those very games. Each member designs their own flags and tifos, which allows them to individually express their own form of support for the club and the greater city of Montreal. When I asked if the group drew on a specific demographic in the population, I was told that the only thing that united them all was a passion for the Impact. Otherwise it is quite a diverse group. To become a member of the ultras it is simple: fans just need to get involved in the group by coming to games and other group events, living their passion for club, and investing their time.

The ultras are not the only supporters’ group for our club. The fans in section 127 of Stade Saputo are known as 127 Montreal. Though their group’s inception was much more recent, their support is just as passionate. The group was reportedly founded — as most supporter’s groups all over the world probably are! — over several pints of beer in early 2011. Since then, it has flourished. Instead of a march to the match they can always be found in the parking lot before the game tailgating. I have often walked by on my way into the stadium and they are always having a good time getting themselves prepared for the match. All you have to do to join in is go up and introduce yourself and talk about the team.

From my brief experience in Quebec, it seems to me that here professional teams — whether the Habs or the Impact — in some ways take on the status of representing the province as a whole. Given the strong provincial pride, and the two relatively recent attempts at establishing Quebecois sovereignty, I’m curious about what the local relationship is to the Canadian national team. I know Patrice Bernier is a native of Montreal and has represented his country 46 times. But I wonder: do fans here have more admiration for, CNT of IMFC? Or do they support both equally, but in different ways? How deeply do political sentiments in favor sovereignty influence sports fandom? Like the Impact ultras, many fans prefer to see their relationship to a team as “apolitical,” and yet it seems that at times it’s difficult to untangle sport from regional or national political contexts.

I have profiled two of the Impact’s supporters groups here. But these groups do not make up the bulk of the fans of our club. Though what we might call “the common fan” does not align themselves with a certain group, their passion is just as strong. Perhaps we can start a conversation to find a way so that, once or twice during the game, all the fans can join together in one concerted effort to support the club and the city. This could take the form of a quick chant or simply raising your scarf above your ahead at the beginning of each half. It would be a great way to celebrate and enjoy the unity of all the fans in the stadium, who have a common affinity in supporting the team and loving Montreal.

As a player I am always working and searching for that one night when everything goes right. It rarely happens. But you keep searching for that mystical apex of perfection. The same goes for fans for you routinely come back to cheer on and support our team, thinking and hoping that tonight could be the special night when everything falls into place and works perfectly. Laurent Dubois comments in his book “Soccer Empire”: “Football games open up incredible spaces of mass mobilization, public fervor, and hope. They give spectators the rare feeling of being ‘exactly at the right place at the right time’ and ‘at the centre of the whole world’ writes Nick Hornby ‘” He also quotes the novelist B.S. Johnson, who writes about the felling that accompanies the beginning of any soccer game: “‘Always, at the start of each match, the excitement, often the only moment of excitement, that this might be the ONE match,’ . . . the one ‘where the extraordinary happens,’ the game ‘one remembers and talks about for years afterwards, the rest of one’s life.’”(21)

Let’s be honest — we may be searching for that night for a while. In the meantime, though, we can fill each night in the Stade Saputo with the collective belonging that celebrates Montreal and it’s culture. We can make each night one where everyone believes tonight is the tonight, doesn’t give up on our team even in the face of adversity and continues to stand and support us. Those are the nights when the hair rises on the back of your neck — for you know something special is happening and that this is a special place. Nights like that of July 8th 2012 against the Columbus Crew.

As always, I invite you to leave your thoughts, tell me where I am right or wrong, or simply suggest what I should look at next. Leave a comment here or tweet to @andrewwenger.

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Jul 10 2012

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From Montréal with Love

2012 is a big year for Montréal sports and the Saputo Family. Following a 20 year existence the family-owned football club “Impact de Montréal” finally entered Major League Soccer. It is a year of firsts for our club, for it saw our first game, first goal, first win, and first game in the redeveloped Stade Saputo. I have had the pleasure of being apart of many of these firsts, actually scoring the winning goal and my first professional goal in our first MLS win versus our rivals Toronto FC on April 7th, 2012.

Being in Montréal I have begun to realize that the city has a culture that is unlike any other in North America. This culture plays a hand in the soccer and politics of this great city. Any newcomer to a Impact game will immediately realize that our supporters group, “les Ultras” sing and chant in French. This is just an introduction to the unique culture of our club and this great city.

The best place to start for an understanding of Quebec politics is to go through Quebec’s long history. Since arriving in Montréal, I’ve been reading A People’s History of Quebec in order to better understand the history of the city where I now play.(The quotes and page references below are from this book). I’ve learned that the roots of the territory’s current political issues are grounded in an event that happened centuries ago. On July 24, 1534, Jacques Cartier and his men erected a large cross with the three fleurs-de-lis on the Gaspe Peninsula and declared the territory for the King of France. Jacques Cartier then moved further up the St. Lawrence river and settled on Montréal Island for the winter effectively founding the city. Today Jacques Cartier is honored with a plaza donning his name in the Old Port of Montreal, which is a large tourist destination. Additionally the fleurs-de-lis is enshrined on the flag of Quebec and on our Montréal Impact jerseys. It is a national symbol of Quebec and one that is meant to invoke “the francophone character of the province.” Upon reflection I must admit that the book I used was too narrow in its history of Montreal and the province of Quebec for it rarely touched on the aboriginal people of the territory. Hence it must be noted that these groups played a role in the making of this province and its history.

This strong French culture intensified as Montréal was settled by Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve in May 1642. Montreal soon became the main focus of France as it worked to colonize ‘New France.’ This decision laid the groundwork for a specific people with French culture in Quebec that was uniquely different from the rest of  British controled territory in what is present day Canada. It was during this time that settlers in the St. Lawrence Valley began to identify themselves as different than their French counterparts in France and rather as “Canadiens.” During the 1660′s the newly minted “Canadiens,” “preferred to be called ‘habitants’ instead of ‘paysans’ or peasants as they were in France.” (24) This term is still used today and identifies Montréal’s hockey team as the ‘Montréal Canadiens’ and their popular nickname being “Les Habitants.”

What unsettled “Les habitants” was their capitulation to the British during the “Seven Years War” or what as Canadiens refer to it the “War of Conquest.” The differences between the French Canadiens (what Quebecers began calling themselves as English speakers adopted ‘Canadians’) and British cultures are immense specifically being the language and religion: Protestants and Catholics. These issues were only worsened as the British rulers attempted to assimilate French Canadiens into British culture. In 1766, for instance, “the Attorney General of the Province, Francis Maseres, held that the only way to eliminate the growing conflict between the French and English speakers was to simply assimilate those who spoke French.” (72) This statement led to resentment from French speakers as they clung to their language and specifically their religion.

Today Montréal is officially a French speaking city, all of the traffic signs and government documents are in French, and I can add from personal experience my lack of French has left me in awkward positions more than once. I often  found it tough trying to figure out where I wanted to go (though my lack of a sense of direction may be the true cause of that.) Though many French Canadiens appreciate my poor attempts at “Bonjour, como ca va” it leaves me at a real disadvantage in truly understanding and assimilating into the culture. Learning the French language is an important way for me to endear myself to the fans, but I will be honest it is not an easy task.

French Canadiens have fought tooth and nail defending their unique culture and language in Montréal, which is distinct compared to the rest of Canada. The Act of Union officially made English the primary language of Quebec in the 1840s but Montréal and the rest of Quebec resisted and over time built up a harden and sometimes malicious defense. Following the Confederation of Canada in 1867 Montreal has worked to regain their sovereignty. They installed the Ministry of Culture during the Quiet Revolution, used physical force and intimidation at the hands of the FLQ (Front de Liberation du Quebec) before finally making French the official language in 1977. These efforts were followed by two unsuccessful attempts to affirm sovereignty referendums for Quebec. The latest one in 1995 lost by the slimmest of margins of 50.6% no to 49.4% yes. Residents of Montréal and the greater Quebec province take their allegiances and culture very seriously.

This immense passion for Quebec nationalism is also evident when fans support their favorite sports teams. The enthusiasm and love for the Montréal Canadiens is no joking matter in Montreal. The team’s performance directly affects the moods of thousands of Montréalers. Though fans of Impact de Montréal are a smaller group, they are equally ardent in their support of the club and the players. This type of passion is shown in times of glory and failure — let me tell you, our fans will let you know their feelings. That is fantastic, as it makes me yearn to please them and earn their admiration in return.

This post has been an introductory post to shed light on the back story of Montréal and its culture, a culture that is clearly apparent in its sports teams and their fans. It has been interesting for me to learn about the prominent names that helped shape this city’s rich history such as Rene Levesque, Papineau, Frontenac, Jean-Talon. Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Maisonneuve and Jacques Cartier. Their names now don many places in the city. If you want to learn more about Montreal’s history or are considering visiting the “Paris of North America” you can visit this website for additional historical knowledge or read “A People’s History of Quebec.” This post is the first in a series of articles I am going to be writing in the next few months that look at the politics and soccer in Montréal. If you have suggestions for article topics or comments on what I’ve written here I more than welcome them in the comments section or on twitter at @andrewwenger.

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Jul 05 2012

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¡Tricampeones! Spain complete their cycle

“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football. I go about the world, hands outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
- Eduardo Galeano

 

They are calling them el generation de fenómenos – ‘the generation of phenomenons.’ On the night of July 1, 2012, in Kiev, the most talented generation of footballers that Spain has ever produced – or, perhaps, will ever produce – fashioned their most lucid performance. With their destruction of Italy by four goals to nil, the largest margin of victory in a European or World cup final, Spain has become the only team to defend successfully the European Championship, and the first international side since the Uruguay teams of 1924, 1928, and 1930 to win a hat-trick – tres tantos – of consecutive major tournaments.

Spain, the perennial underachievers have become perennial world-beaters and record-setters. Much has been made of the fact that the cycle that was set in motion when Spain defeated their bête noire, Italy, on penalties in 2008, a team that they had never previously beaten in tournament football, has now come full circle. Italy has been beaten again, and with panache.

Spain’s recent dominance of world football has been so staggering that we must rouse ourselves from the enchanted state that their mesmeric play is capable of inducing and remind ourselves of its unreal reality: Spain have not so much as conceded a goal in a knock-out game since Zinedine Zidane scored a break-away solo effort in their 2006 World Cup quarter-final against France. Or to put it another way, as Rob Smyth has observed, “Iker Casillas’s net has been untouched for sixteen and a half hours.” Spain’s extraordinary cycle has been defined not only by their inventive and artistic football, but also by their impregnability.

Yet, it is not for achieving their record-setting triptych of victories that Spain 2008–’10–’12 now assumes a place in the pantheon. Hungary 1953, Brazil 1970, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982: football’s immortal sides are not mere winning machines, but the workers of miracles. Last night, Spain’s miracle was to play at a level of such audacious incisiveness, married to an impregnability approaching perfection, that, as Pablo Neruda might have put it, it were as if the moon and the stars lived in the lining of their skin. If it was not quite as astounding as Barca’s 5–0 destruction of Real Madrid in 2010, the spectacle of the condemned Italians chasing Spanish moon-shadows was both exquisite and cruel.

That the Italians had sight of goal on occasion only exacerbated the cruelty of the joke: as if the cat-like Casillas would ever be beaten! Denied agency, Spain’s adversaries became mere victims: the harder Italy chased, bravely competing for territory and possession, the more stretched they became and the more hopeless their cause. By half-time Spain were two goals to the good.

Jonathan Wilson has argued that Pep Guardiola’s final season at Barcelona became like a Greek tragedy – the hero aware of his destiny yet unable to prevent it. This final’s narrative arc also took on something of the hue of Greek tragedy: Spain compelled Italy to chase the game, creating the conditions in which Italian defeat would be fulfilled by their desperate attempts to avert it. The theme of Italy’s defeat had been scripted through the ages: Aeschylus and Sophocles, Yeats, Mann, and Conrad. Italian defenders strained and stretched sinews, contorted their bodies (to breaking point in the cases of Giogio Chiellini and Thiago Motta), pressed and continued to chase, but Spain’s prodigies created or discovered space where none seemed to exist, stretching, manipulating, and piercing defensive lines, seemingly at will. Such exquisite mastery sears itself in the memories of aficionados forever.

The aesthetic aspect of Spain’s sublime technique and dazzling collectivity is consummate evidence with which to buttress Lilian Thuram’s contention: “Footballers can be like artists when the mind and body are working as one. It is what Miles Davis does when he plays free jazz – everything pulls together into one intense moment that is beautiful.”

Intense moments of beauty in which fantasy and reality blur: Xavi’s perfectly measured pass for Jordi Alba in full-flight, inviting the left-back to return to earth to score a goal I had only thought possible on a Playstation; the balletic quality of an Iniesta body-swerve; the high-speed smuggling of the ball through, between, around, and away from Italians all night long; the sublime improvisation inherent to what Xavi calls “mig-toc” – “half-touch” – tiki-taka that maps the coordinates of a beautiful and unrelenting dance: ‘there is only one ball and you shall not have it.’

With Spain’s near flawless performance in Kiev, the argument about the identity of football’s greatest team just got more complicated.

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