By Paul Gardner
The eternal question in soccer -- I suppose in any sport, for that matter -- is: what do the fans want to see?
Very easy to answer on a shallow, short-term basis. They want to see their team win.
Looked at with more thought, and taking a wider view of the sport, that answer is obviously unsatisfactory. Carlos Alberto Parreira, former World-Cup-winning coach of Brazil, and coach of a whole slew of other clubs and countries, the coach who has just presided over South Africa’s early exit from the current tournament, believes there is more to it than blind fan loyalty.
He has been talking about the soccer played in this tournament. Commenting on the success of the South American countries, all five of which advanced to the second round, he said that these teams were dominating “with their technique and quality, which is what people want to see.”
A nice thought, one that I certainly want to believe -- but is it true? Are fans interested in “good” soccer? I suppose that needs to be defined, but that’s not difficult.
There is general agreement that good soccer is flowing, attacking, goalscoring soccer, with plenty of opportunities for individual skills to be used, for soccer artistry to shine. Opposed to that is not “bad” soccer, but something a good deal less elaborate. A pragmatic version of the sport that shuns the artistry, elevates the physical side of the game and proudly proclaims that winning is all that matters, that style is irrelevant.
Somewhere along the line it has become the accepted wisdom that those two versions of soccer are opposed. Good soccer cannot be winning soccer. If you want to win, you have to be prepared to play ugly.
Just before this World Cup started, we got this: “If it is necessary to play dirty to win, we will do it. All that counts at the World Cup is to win and we are ready to do whatever it takes to go far.” Not encouraging, and downright depressing when you know that was Luis Fabiano speaking, Brazil’s chief goalscorer.
If Brazil, the country that gave birth to the idea of soccer as “the beautiful game” doesn’t care about playing “good” soccer, then who will? One watches Brazil, always with hope, but now with some apprehension. Will the reliance on jogo bonito be jettisoned?
Brazil has played four games so far, three wins and a tie, eight goals scored, two conceded. But sightings of the beautiful game have been few. The intricate soccer is played only fitfully, almost, it seems, reluctantly -- called into action when the more straightforward stuff isn’t working.
I find it frustrating to watch. To see the beauty of Elano’s goal against Ivory Coast, to relish the swift beauty of the buildup to Luis Fabiano’s score against Chile is to see the sport at its best. I crave more of that, and I feel that I’m being cheated out of it by a Brazil that is quite content to spend great chunks of each game playing defense. Intimidating defense.
I fear Coach Dunga and his “effective soccer” approach. If his Brazil wins the World Cup, what will that mean as far as the future direction of Brazilian soccer goes? Which means the future direction of the world game?
The trend toward a more physical game, toward a more tactics-dominated game, toward a more defensive game dominated by, of all people, the non-soccer-playing goalkeeper, has been noticeable for years now.
Always it has been Brazil that has resisted, Brazil that has tried to play the beautiful game. Brazil has been the hope for a triumph of skill over muscle. Now comes Dunga, and Brazil becomes a rather different sort of Brazil.
In this tournament, it is not Brazil that holds out the hope of brilliant, exciting, memorable soccer. Does any of us any longer expect that from Dunga’s men? In flashes, yes -- but as a style? I don’t think so.
We’ve got the Netherlands and Germany -- European teams, both capable of skillful soccer, but neither in the real Brazil class. And we’ve got Argentina and Spain -- and those are the two teams most likely to turn on the style.
Spain, the current European champion is a serial failure at the World Cup. Its record, given its talent, is abysmal. So it is encouraging to find a team taking the opposite direction to Brazil. A team that insists it will not change its on-the-ground, quick-passing, short-passing, game, a team that has faith in the ideals of the beautiful game.
As for Argentina -- well, we really do run into something quite different here. Namely, Diego Maradona, a coach who doesn’t seem to have the proper coachy-type qualifications or attitudes. Well, so much the better, as far as I’m concerned.
Can Diego take his Argentina to the world championship when, so far as I can see, he has only one reliable central defender? I mean Walter Samuel. But Samuel has only played one full game so far, and the Argentines are riding high with four wins out of four!
Can it be that a team, suspect in defense, but brimming with attacking talent, both up front and in midfield, can ride roughshod over the drearily cautious coaching maxims of the modern game? Can Maradona’s Argentina show us that the “offense is the best form of defense” is not just another silly slogan, but a mentality that can inject life and excitement into the often moribund soccer that we’re seeing at the World Cup?
I hope so. Because besides the impertinently unorthodox Maradona, Argentina has Lionel Messi -- everything as a player that Maradona was, back in 1986 when he led Argentina to a memorable World Cup victory.
Talking of all that talent - just consider: during the 3-1 win over Mexico, Diego Milito, Sergio Aguero and Martin Palermo didn’t get on the field at all, while Javier Pastore, surely one of the most promising youngsters in this World Cup, managed about five minutes.
So far Argentina has been the fun team to watch. Maradona is overtly enjoying things on the sideline, and, in totally un-, almost anti-, technical terms, he has this to say about his players: “All I can do is congratulate the players because they're doing things well, playing the ball around and enjoying themselves.”
Well, good heavens Diego, what about being well-organized and keeping its shape, and what about the diagonal runs and the midfield pressure and tracking back and the set pieces and all the rest of that stuff? Not a word from Diego -- just a comment that his players “look comfortable out there.”
Having fun and looking comfortable? What the hell kind of coaching is that? The kind that has worked brilliantly so far. All those wonderful attacking talents have produced 10 goals, while that defense that I have been busy trashing has so far conceded only two goals.
In the quarterfinals the Argentines face Germany -- another team that has been playing adventurous soccer, with a similar 9-2 goals record. I’m not given to predicting goalscoring, but put a gun to my head, and I’d pretty quickly choose this game as the one most likely to give us a sniff of the real, attacking game!
And I’d like to think that it will be the sort of game that most fans will want to see. Because soccer skills will be on display.
Returning to Carlos Alberto Parreira, who says: “Soccer is a game where skill and technique are especially important. Strength and speed are necessary too, but they’re not fundamental. If they were, then you’d just have runners and powerful athletes playing the game.”
Right. But some of us fear we have already reached that stage. Here’s hoping Argentina and Germany can rout those fears.