The mechanisation of the beautiful game


It was as inverse a relationship as Dorian Gray’s with his portrait. For decades, Italy played a cold and defensive football that bucked their own nation’s splendour. The team is now among the easiest on the eye. Besides the obvious qualm — is Italy about to become a dump? — I cling to such mercies in a bland age for the game.

Euro 2020 is the first major tournament that has not held my attention since 1986, when I was four and there was no television at home. Were it not for the risk of bruising your abdomen with laughter, I would claim to have been working too hard.

The real problem has been in gestation for the best part of a decade. It started with the cult of “pressing” (running to recover the ball). It continued with the NFL-style rehearsal of attacking plays. Pep Guardiola once benched Thierry Henry for moving out of place in a sequence of passes. The fact that it had netted him a goal was scant mitigation.

Add astronaut levels of physical conditioning to this micromanagement, and you have the mechanisation of a game whose central point is anarchic expression. Undivided into “sets”, “pitches” or “phases”, football at its best is as formless as a great city. The modern game has something of Canberra about it.

A proxy measure of the change is the physical shape of the players. They were once Rolling Stone-thin, all the better to turn on a centime and thread sinuous passes. Now even the most mobile positions — full backs, midfielders, wingers — have the tight-shirted, gym-inflated look of a certain kind of City trader on a night out.

I mostly salute the Americanisation of football: the data, the granular analysis, the consumer-friendliness. The one import I question is the idea that athleticism is intrinsically compelling. The place for it is athletics.

To say one good thing about the new game, it has taught me patience for the idea that development is not axiomatically progress. In most things, I am what the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul would call one of “Voltaire’s bastards”. I find modernist LA more beautiful than Prague. I view with suspicion the historical laundering of what we are no longer meant to call the Dark Ages. It is all I can do to keep my dinner in my stomach when some fool sells the lockdown as the path to slower, more soulful living. Here I am, though, moping over football’s artisans as the new breed of spinning jennies churn around them. 

Younger readers will diagnose early-onset middle-age here, and its attendant nostalgia. Older ones might comfort me that sporting trends are cyclical. There was a moral panic in tennis when Pete Sampras and other ballistic servers first emerged. What followed them was a constellation of genius that is still with us.

The green shoots of a stylistic renaissance have poked through in this tournament. There is Spain’s Pedri, the competition’s youngest ever starter. The Dutchman Frenkie de Jong is another who bears the telling stamp of the old school: he seems to run faster with the ball than without. 

In the end, though, I sense their diaphanous promise will be brought to heel. This is a sport that now gives the time of day to that most soul-hollowing of statistics: distance covered. 

An examiner once said of the dazzling scholar Jeremy Wolfenden that “he wrote as though it were all beneath him; he wrote as though it were all such a waste of his time”. From George Best to Ronaldinho, nations great and small had footballers with the same majestic languor. Italy at their meanest still accommodated Roberto Baggio, even as a ruined knee rendered him borderline immobile.

The point is not that skill and wit have gone. Given the speed of the game, players need to be better than ever at controlling the ball and spotting opportunities. England alone have a couple of young masters.

It just that all this flair is wedged into a corset of defensive duties, clockwork passing patterns and — oh, the vulgarity — running. At club level, Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps the grandest talent left in the tournament, is a case in point. See him recover the ball, find his station out wide and whip a scudding cross, ad infinitum. It is beautiful, but so is a caged blue jay.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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