The last time France won the World Cup, in 1998, they brought cross-culturalism – which in football is an augmented reality – into the media spotlight. Winners again, they were one of three semi-finalists who had significant numbers of players with a mixed heritage, sons or grandsons of immigrants. That mix, that blend, is to football what poverty always was too: proof that the game itself discriminates according to a player’s worth on the pitch, not his social status – a true meritocracy. The fact that the marginalized continue to find paradise in a game that’s ever more conditioned by money is not insignificant.
It is a relative conquest because the perspectives on this phenomenon continue to carry the same prejudices as ever. When Brazil failed to win the tournament in 1950, the narrative that won out was one that attributed that to the supposed impurity of their race. Eight years later, Didi, Garrincha, Pelé and company brilliantly won the World Cup in Sweden – in what was, you can only assume, proof that race could be purified in record time. Nowadays, depending on the score and depending too on who is talking, much the same things are said (or thought).
There is another, more telling message contained within the current sociological and cultural composition of national teams. This is a more purely footballing one. There was a time in which the way football was played was similar in some way to the place it was played. The theory held that we played as we were, and it found literary expression in Pasolini to whom we turned to hear him talk about the poetic football of South America and the prosaic football of Europe.
As globalization imposes itself, in football too people and ideas are ever more mixed, identities fragmented. And yet within that, identities survive and shift: to take just the famous example, no one can deny that Pep Guardiola’s teams play in verse, Diego Simeone’s in prose. I have no objection to that. I seek only to underline that football continues to reflect social pulses, heartbeats: there are tendencies here too. There are changes and challenges upon ideas and ideals. Nothing is inalterable.
Let’s take that idea on to the field of play, because there the pitches of Russia showed no respect for even the slightest glimmer of greatness, whether that’s national teams, players or dominant ideas. It didn’t care that Germany, Argentina, Portugal and Spain departed to the thunderous noise that surprises always provoke, opening up furious, bloody debate upon their return home.
On the same day, the two Napoleonic leaders of world football were eliminated at a stroke – goodbye to Messi and Ronaldo – and the World Cup didn’t care that their departure left a sense of emptiness among football lovers. The greatest act of disdain for the established order, though, was the merciless way Russia 2018 swept aside Germany and Spain, the previous two winners of the World Cup and also, more even than that, representatives of a way of being, an identity, that revolutionised the game, imposing an abusive domination of the ball over the last decade.
We came to the World Cup to enjoy it, to feel the excitement and embrace the emotion, to analyse the tendencies too, but the abrupt end that befell Germany and Spain left us disconcerted because it endangers something seemingly so significant as the tiki-taka style that conquered the last two World Cups and became a footballing yardstick by which the game was measured. This beautiful, winning style left mediocrity exposed but it always had its detractors and now they are dancing upon its grave. They would be mistaken to believe it is definitively buried, but those of us who adhered to an ideal which made the ball the heart of the game, the focal point of everything, would be even more mistaken to overlook its excesses and flaws.
Talent serves to make a virtue of vice. Players with natural deficiencies, those who lack the qualities others boast, find original means to hide their defects and thus, through embracing those deficiencies, they dazzle and often dominate. Players such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Philipp Lahm and Toni Kroos escaped from the obsession with physique and tactics, from the place where football was heading, to where – judging by what we have seen in Russia – it seeks to return. Instead, through exquisite technique in control and passing, an unusual intelligence and understanding of the game, they came to dominate – to impose their superiority and even, eventually, to abuse it. It is true that they did so with more possession than goals but their opponents regretted becoming footballers when they spent the entire game running after the ball. And at the end of it, it was the owners of the ball who lifted the trophy.
In Russia that virtue became a vice and tiki-taka became a caricature of itself. The objective became to pass the ball, ignoring the existence of the goalposts. Like a writer with a perfect command of language who forgets what it is he wants to say. The ball, used with creativity, guile and ingenuity, serves to distract and to clear the path towards the opposition’s goal. That requires criteria – an understanding of what it is you are trying to achieve – and it requires the ball to circulate quickly, in order to be able to reach the final 30 meters of the pitch with some advantage. From there, to unbalance and overcome the opposition, you need the same tools as ever: dribbling, a one-two, imagination, precision to deliver a pass inside and aggression in all its manifestations – speed, ambition, determination.
None of that happened in Russia, where tiki-taka became “tiki-tiki”, turning Spain (71.3% of the ball) and Germany (67.3%) into the victims of teams that accepted they were far smaller and played to resist, waiting with 10 men inside their own half. This World Cup showed that for domination to be victorious, it requires bravery and confidence – precisely what Germany lacked, and Spain even more so. They were more concerned with not losing the ball – playing tedious passes to feet in an attempt to avoid their opponents’ counterattacks – than with making their moves dangerous, accepting and embracing risk, giving their moves the daring football has always had.
I despise the notion of winning at all costs and any way you can, so let’s not even get on to the notion of not losing at all costs and any way you can. And yet even with those reservations over the ugliness and mean-spiritedness that always threatens football, it is to their great honor that national teams who are manifestly inferior rebel against the great powers with heroic effort and endeavor. We should appreciate that. That’s football too. And yet ultimately Russia 2018 did not rescue from defeat those who – like Sweden, Iceland, and Russia themselves – sought an antidote to tiki-taka in a defensive, reactive way of playing that offered little real joy.
Tiki-taka needs to be taken to the workshop and checked for malfunctions in order to prevent it becoming an act of impotence and pointlessness that commits the worst sin of all: to bore. The best mechanic to fine-tune the engine and tighten the screws had a significant influence on Spain winning the World Cup in South Africa from Barcelona and had an influence too on Germany winning the last World Cup from Munich. He lives in Manchester, he’s a little bit mad and his name is Pep Guardiola. If we are awaiting a way of revitalizing this style with a creative energy that can see that football reborn, that’s where it will come from. It would suit England too, as they begin to walk a path that is promising. To reach its end, you need an almost fanatical faith in possession as a dogma. That’s why a madman matters.
What the World Cup in Russia did was consecrate the middle way. Teams that do not seek to dominate for 90 minutes, nor dig in and wait deep – the tactic we came to know as “the bat”, everyone hanging from their own crossbar. That particularly miserable approach seems to have disappeared but so too does a sense of grandiosity – a determination to pursue values, a vision, to the last.
Pragmatic, eclectic teams won, teams that opened and closed like an accordion, driven by the effort of everyone. Teams that felt more comfortable counterattacking and that made set plays – as exciting as dancing with your sibling – a critical element of their game. Teams so pragmatic as to take off an attacker to put on a midfielder (or a defender) as soon as they led, and to do the opposite as soon as they trailed. Colombia were the best example against England. They started with three defensive midfielders and one striker and finished, better, with three strikers and one defensive midfielder.
Much of the football was somewhat claustrophobic, and very physical. The lack of space obliges teams to play faster than many players are capable of doing. But that isn’t something you fix by running more; rather, you fix it by improving your technique. From now on, anyone who does not have technique at speed will struggle to survive at the highest level. The majority of games were close, exhibiting a tremendous tactical awareness – the collective way ahead of the individual. They also showed levels of effort that was genuinely moving (even the stars were generous with their sweat), and, let’s be honest, a considerable dose of cunning and sneakiness. Pragmatism must take advantage of everything it finds in its path in order to prosper.
It is worth analyzing a coming problem here: as the penalty areas become patrolled, and controlled, by the VAR – and in the area, the sentences are practically jail terms – fouls will become preventative instead. They will be committed in the demilitarised zones of the pitch unwatched by the cameras, that territory where VAR does not patrol and referees are more permissive. There will be more of those fouls that tend to get called “tactical” or, with even greater cynicism, “intelligent”. As football is continuous, a game that flows, it is worth asking how many goals are lost somewhere in the middle of the pitch as a result of these absolutely unsporting interruptions.
As the World Cup brought us this refereeing revolution, it is worth reminding the judicial police who manage the VAR and the referees who abdicate responsibility, handing it instead to the men sitting before video screens, that their job remains the same as it always was: to protect the game and not become accomplices of the cheats and cynics who think they’re smart. It is a reminder, a warning, that it may be worth extending even more forcefully to the players and coaches so that they care for this wonderful game, playing it without cheating and, where possible, honoring it with beauty.
Honor, then, to France who raised the trophy and in doing so, like every winner, laid a path that sets a trend that will last until the next World Cup.
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