By Paul Gardner
... soccer scores always meant what they say. Far too frequently they don’t. Which is the fault of the current game, so structured as to allow virtually farcical results.
Case in the point: last week’s Chelsea 1 Barcelona 0 scoreline. Which ought to mean that Chelsea was the better team -- hell, they won the damn game, didn’t they? -- but in fact totally distorts what happened on the field. Which was that Chelsea was pretty thoroughly outplayed.
Well, that’s soccer for you. Barcelona had all the possession, and all the shots on goal, but failed to put the ball in the net. Chelsea had one shot, and scored the vital goal. Never mind whether that’s fair or not (it obviously isn’t, but a great deal of life seems to lack fairness), the more vital question, it seems to me, is whether such misleading scorelines are a plus or a minus to the sport.
Should it be possible for a team to demonstrate the sort of overpowering superiority that Barcelona displayed, yet end up losing? Well, probably it should ... once in a while. But not too often. And not -- very definitely not -- because the winning team had chosen to play in such a way that it would do little but defend and hope for a break at the other end. Which is what Chelsea did.
This raises a fascinating point. There was a time, not that long ago, when such tactics were widely referred to as “anti-soccer.” Playing “anti-soccer” was frowned upon as a blight on the game, an insult to the game, really.
The term anti-soccer is now out of fashion. It has faded from use, not because teams no longer play that way, but for the precisely opposite reason: Because far too many teams do play that way. It is superfluous to use the term when what it describes is all around us, when the anti-soccer competes with the true soccer as the standard way of playing the game.
Anti-soccer has become accepted as simply another way of playing what is, we’d probably all agree, a remarkably amoeboid sport, one that can present itself in many different styles.
Fine -- except that anti-soccer is not a style. It is what the term suggests: An attempt to play the sport in a way that subverts its own very nature, not just another style of play, but a deliberate attempt to desecrate the sport, to heavily overemphasize the defensive aspects of the sport while relying on a single moment of skill, or more likely luck, to win the game.
The fact that teams play in this essentially destructive way, that many of them now take the field proudly announcing their 4-5-1 lineup -- yep, just one forward, that’s enough these days -- says everything. Anti-soccer can work. Chelsea made it work.
I am not blaming Chelsea or its coach Roberto Di Matteo. They did what they decided would work. And they no doubt based their tactics on what the sport has been showing us for decades -- that defensive soccer (which is a form of negative soccer, which is another name for anti-soccer) is the safest, least risky way of coming out on top against skilled opponents.
It is also the surest way of squeezing the life out of a game, of depriving the sport of the flow and the movement, the rhythm and the grace that it naturally possesses, of reducing to a minimum the unique skills that makes it such a special sport -- I’m thinking here particularly of dribbling, the essential soccer skill -- of taking what can be, should be, a wonderful spectacle of athleticism and artistry and reducing it to a dour drabness.
Yes, I am exaggerating here. Chelsea was not as bad as that. Yet, in way, it was even worse. Because it had no excuse. This is not a small team looking for a way to survive against a vastly superior opponent. Chelsea is one of the richest teams in the world, with a roster -- virtually two teams -- of superb players. Yet it chose -- Coach Di Matteo chose -- the craven, defeatist tactics of hiding in a defensive bunker.
And of course he’s been praised for that. He’ll get even more praise if Chelsea survives Tuesday’s game at the Camp Nou and gets through to the final. That is to be expected -- the sport having reached the stage where anti-soccer is acceptable, it’s perfectly natural for praise to arrive for those who employ it successfully.
What Chelsea and Di Matteo deserve is relentless criticism, not praise. Even so, it is difficult to heap all the blame on them. The deeper fault lies within the game itself, and with its rule makers. The people on the International Board (responsible for the rules) and at FIFA have to be perfectly well aware of the problem: that negative soccer pays off. In its worst manifestation we see teams playing defensively for 120 minutes, maneuvering the game to a shootout.
We know that this shamelessly cowardly expedient can be made to work. We saw Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup final in 1986 in this way. It happened again in 1991 when Red Star Belgrade bored everyone catatonic for two hours while defending its way to a 0-0 tie against Olympique Marseille. “I told my players to hold out for penalties,” said Red Star coach Ljupko Petrovic. So Red Star duly won the shootout.
But no one on the International Board or at FIFA ever says unequivocally that we have to find a way of making changes in the game that will make it much more difficult for any team to win a major title by deliberately playing negative soccer.
I’m not given to quoting goalkeepers, who, from their negative, defensive position, usually have only negative, defensive things to say about the sport -- but this time I think former ManU keeper, Dutchman Edwin van der Sar has got it exactly right: “For the sake of the game and for football in general, I hope Barcelona win at Camp Nou. I love teams who attack. Chelsea did nothing but defend with nine players and kept lots of players in the middle of the park.”
There you have it ... for the sake of the game, may Barcelona win this one.