I have just had the melancholy experience of watching Glasgow Rangers lose the UEFA Cup final to Zenit St.Petersburg. It has left me feeling immeasurably disappointed, and really rather sad.
Now, let me clarify. I'm not feeling put out of joint because Rangers lost. I really don't give a damn. Nor do I particularly care about Zenit. But I very definitely do care about the sport of soccer.
Hence my sadness, and -- something I didn't mention before -- my anger. And Rangers take the brunt of my wrath for perpetrating an utter travesty of the sport. You want negative soccer? Rangers supplied it, bucket loads of it, dreadful, boring stuff. You want caution, you want crude, unimaginative, inept play? Rangers gave us plenty of all of that, too.
Really, Rangers should be up on a collective charge of bringing the game into disrepute. This was quite woeful stuff.
But there can hardly be any complaints that it was unexpected, that we didn't know it was coming.
Just look at Rangers' record in the eight UEFA Cup games that it played leading up to the final: eight games in which it scored only five goals. But eight games in which its defensive-bunker tactics meant that opponents were limited to only two goals! Take a look, too, at the semifinal against Fiorentina -- a two-legged series that produced no goals at all, and that Rangers eventually won on penalty kicks.
That tells you what really needs to be known, here -- and, by my measurements, it shifts some (but by no means all) of the blame. From Rangers to the guardians of our game. To FIFA, to the referees, and to coaches in general.
Surely there must be something wrong in a sport in which a team that averages less than goal game can reach the final of an important tournament?
Of course, I'm greatly tempted to draw a comparison with the dreadful Greeks who won the 2004 European championship -- a team that averaged 1.2 goals per game. The Greeks' deplorable performance was successful but the Rangers' efforts to copy the Greeks (and you knew that, sooner or later, someone would copy them) happily ended in abject failure.
A failure that was eminently deserved. What is to be said of a team that isolates a lone forward (Jean-Claude Darcheville) up front, and makes virtually no effort to get him the ball with a playable pass? Of a team that was frequently seen in the first half with a line of six defenders at the back, or with eight defenders in its penalty area? A team that seemed to be interested only in thwarting Zenit attacks, and displayed little willingness to attack or any great proficiency in doing so on the rare occasions when it tried.
I imagine that Viacheslav Malafeev, the Zenit goalkeeper, must have touched the ball sometime in the first half, but I cannot remember him doing so. That could be due to the fact that I fell asleep. In the middle of the afternoon.
I'm sorry -- but with the best will in the world, this was a craven Rangers performance that deserved exactly what it got. Why would Rangers play that way? Well, the answer is so obvious that it is likely to be overlooked. Teams -- Greece and Rangers among many -- play that way because they believe that is the way to win. Greece did win, Rangers got to the final.
So there is some evident justification for the belief in cautious, negative soccer. Does it make sense to blame Greece's coach Otto Rehhagel or Walter Smith of Rangers for doing what, statistically, looks like translating into success?
Hardly. The fault is in the sport itself. Changes are needed, changes that will greatly increase the importance of goal-scoring. Changes that will make it clear that the way to win games is to concentrate on attack, rather than defense. Which means making defensive play a lot more difficult than it currently is.
I mentioned above that, against Rangers, the Zenit goalkeeper had very little work to do. But the Rangers goalkeeper Neil Alexander was not exactly over-employed, either -- simply because a team -- any team, a team with good players or a team with poor players -- can clog their defensive third of the field, and make it extremely difficult for opponents, however good they may be -- to break through. And so we got a final -- a final, mind you! -- with all the soporific certainty of an overdose of sleeping pills.
But Walter Smith must bear some blame for this travesty, for he is the one who chose to play this way, who chose to field two defensive midfielders and a lone, barely-used, forward.
A thoroughly tedious game, relieved by flashes of real soccer from Zenit, and two pretty good goals. Rangers offered nothing, and they got nothing in return. So be it.