Putting results before spectacle has some questioning the beautiful game
MAY 01, 2014 4:36p ET
Why do we watch soccer? Why do we play soccer? Why do we spend such a huge part of our lives thinking about soccer? These are questions that have been brought into the light over the past week or so as significant numbers of fans have watched the two UEFA Champions League semifinals and, particularly after the first legs, professed themselves bored by what they have seen.
They criticized Chelsea for sitting back and allowing Atletico possession and they criticized Bayern Munich for, as they saw it, fetishizing possession to the exclusion of almost everything else. Purely from the point of view of tactical theory, this double disregard is fascinating. For a long time, certainly in Britain, there was an instinctive identification of passing, possession-based soccer with attacking soccer.
That perhaps says something about the technical level of the British game: it was assumed that trying to retain the ball was risky and so the notion of trying to control a game by keeping the ball never really occurred to anybody (given how Liverpool and Nottingham Forest dominated Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that's clearly an exaggeration -- but it's probably not as much of one as it ought to be). The sense that a side retaining possession could be dull was new, even though when systematic passing was invented -- by the Scottish national team to circumvent its much larger English opponent in the first international fixture in 1872 -- it was a defensive ploy.
What the last week has proved is a theme that has slowly grown since Spain's dominance of the World Cup in 2010: that to speak of attacking and defensive soccer and to speak of proactive and reactive soccer are different things. You can stifle a game with the ball, and you can stifle a game without the ball. The question then is whether it matters if people are bored by it. What is soccer?
Perhaps it is just that social media acts as an amplifier, perhaps it's just that tiki-taka and attempts to combat it leads to imbalanced games in which one side can achieve 75% of possession rather than the more traditional to-and-fro narrative, but the stridency of complaints seems to have increased recently. The modern fan seems to expect to be entertained (some Sir Alex Ferguson blamed on reality television: people in the modern world, he said, expected to be able to vote off those they did not like).
One of the great cliches of soccer is that it is part of the entertainment business. It is certainly true that spectators derive entertainment from it, but of what is that derived? It is not a film or a play with a script that offers a satisfying narrative arc: the uncertainty of the outcome is key. If it was merely an appreciation of physical or technical quality, 60,000 people would be packing into stadiums every week to watch freestylers doing elaborate keepie-ups. But we are not. What concerns us is who wins and the process by which the winning is achieved.
There is a distinction, of course, between fans of a team involved in the game and neutrals, the former likely to be far more forgiving about the means by which victory is achieved, but for both groups, the result is likely to be the key point of interest. A manager's job, then, is to set his team out to achieve the best possible result -- the interest comes from seeing the extent to which he can achieve that. Of course there are aesthetes and pragmatists, those who prefer the beau geste and those who will flout every law they can get away with to win -- just as there are in life -- but for all parties, the beauty is in the struggle: a team performing tricks around training cones is not great football; a team performing tricks around a great rival is.
One of the great joys of soccer is that a weaker team, through diligence and organization, can thwart a greater one: it will rarely be pretty to watch, but that does not diminish the achievement or the interest. Similarly, one of the reasons soccer continues to fascinate is that there is no single way to play it: its tactics are open to manifold interpretations, to proactivity and reactivity, long balls and shot passes, sitting deep and playing with a high line, to defending and attacking. Variety is intrinsic to the appeal.
And that is why defensive soccer in and of itself should not be pilloried; cheating, time-wasting, systematic fouling, violent conduct, diving, feigning injury and other ways of breaking the laws are a quite different matter. Criticize it if it is done badly, or if playing defensively is not the most efficacious way of playing -- iti s entirely legitimate, for instance, to wonder whether Chelsea might not have been better off seeking an away goal in Madrid - but to condemn a team because they do not meet some arbitrary idea of attractiveness is absurd. Of course fans, players and managers, will have a preferred style, but a team's first responsibility must always be to getting the best result it can from a game.
For a spectator to deny that, to place their own aesthetic pleasure first, is not merely spectacularly self-entitled; it is also to misunderstand the whole nature of the sport. It may be entertaining, but it's not quite entertainment.