By Paul Gardner
There is a soccer version of Gresham's Law. It decrees not simply that bad soccer will drive out good soccer, but that the sport will play an active role in the banishment, apparently preferring bad, or just plain average soccer.
This distorted rule can be seen in action virtually every time that Spain plays. But it is not Spain that uses it. It is Spain’s opponents who try to take advantage of it.
It works like this. Spain is held to be too good, surreally good, it seems, so it’s just not possible to beat them by playing an open game -- one in which you try to dominate by gaining possession of the ball and then launch attacks. The fear has spread that “Spain will kill you” if you play that way.
The mentality was nicely spelled out by the Czech coach Michal Bilek in Euro 2012. As it happens he was talking about Portugal, but his comments apply even more aptly when to transferred to Spain: “If you open up against Portugal, they will punish you. It's very difficult to stop them.”
So the Czechs played super-defensively against Portugal, made it very difficult for the Portuguese, until Ronaldo scored. What the Czechs displayed you could call tactical canniness; or you could call it timidity or cowardice. Whatever, for 80 minutes the game was reduced to a turgid stalemate. And then the Czechs lost it anyway. A 1-0 win for Portugal.
1-0. That is the usual scoreline these days when Spain plays in a major tournament -- a 1-0 win for Spain. Spain won the 2010 World Cup after 1-0 wins in the round-of-16, the quarterfinal, the semifinal and the final. Spain’s four games so far played in Euro 2012, have included a 1-1 tie with Italy, a 1-0 win over Croatia, and a 2-0 win over France (this last game, with Spain’s second goal coming in the 92nd minute, can be considered a 1-0 game). All of Spain’s opponents in those 1-0 games adopted ultra-defensive tactics -- anti-soccer, many would call it. And all of them lost.
Which makes it look as though beating Spain is considered well nigh impossible, and that the sensible pride-saving or (as far as the coach is concerned) job-saving approach is to keep the score down.
Enter soccer’s Gresham’s Law. Play rotten soccer, make it difficult-to-impossible for the Spanish to play their superior game, drain the game of its entertainment value ... and hope for a lucky 1-0 win. No team -- since Switzerland did it in Spain’s first game at the 2010 World Cup - has come away with that elusive 1-0 win. But in the absence of any other solution to the Spanish superiority, the anti-soccer approach continues. Inevitably, the entertainment value of watching Spain has suffered badly.
And soccer being the perverse sport that it is, it is Spain that is getting the blame for that. Its opponents take the field determined to play ultra-defensive anti-soccer ... yet Spain gets blamed for the subsequent ennui?
Yes, Spain is under accusation of being too interested in merely retaining possession, which it is good at anyway, but becomes even better at when its opponents show little interest in challenging for the ball. Spain is not adventurous enough. Spain is now satisfied with the 1-0 win. And so on.
But no, Spain is not to be blamed. Nor, I think, should too much infamy be heaped on the practitioners of anti-soccer. They are doing what looks like the least risky way of getting a win against Spain. What they are doing, the anti-soccer they are playing, may be objectionable and a total bore, but it is something that the sport’s rules permit.
That is as far as I’m willing to go with that argument. At this point it becomes clear where the problem lies. With the sport itself. Because I think that the sport not only permits anti-soccer ... it encourages it.
There is throughout soccer’s rules a strong tendency, whenever there is a contentious issue, to favor the defensive side of the game. We have seen -- and I have recently written about -- three glaring examples of this bias in Euro 2012. Firstly, a minimal offside call that denied Greece a goal. Then another, this time almost microscopic, call that deprived Ukraine of a goal. And most grotesque of all, what should have been a penalty kick for Greece against Russia, was turned into diving call, and a yellow card, against Greece.
The anti-diving witchhunt is, of course, a totally anti-offense maneuver.
On penalty kick calls, which happens more frequently: that a clear PK foul is not called, or a PK is given when no foul exists? It’s not even close -- the denial of genuine PKs category is far larger.
One hears, from time to time, ponderous and apparently genuine talk about the need for referees to protect skilled players. The talk is always vitiated, in my view, by the obvious fact that there is one player on the field who gets protection almost to the point of mollycoddling -- and that is the most defensive player of the lot, the goalkeeper.
In short, playing defense -- the destructive, the least difficult, part of the game -- is made even easier by defense-friendly rules and decisions. The slide into playing ultra-defense -- i.e. anti-soccer -- is all too easy.
The origins of soccer’s version of Gresham’s Law, then, are self-inflicted. They are born of a disturbing bias to see defensive play triumphant, to make it easy for attacking play to be squelched. As I stated in my opening paragraph, a desire to have good soccer replaced by average or even poor soccer. That is the inevitable result of soccer’s Gresham’s Law. And that law is the direct result of the pro-defensive bias that permeates the rules.
That bias -- I suppose it must go back to the sport’s early Victorian days when, possibly, attacking play was thought to be too dominant -- could quite easily be corrected. Rules can be changed. But there is a formidable barrier to change: our old friend, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the torpid committee in charge of the sport’s rules.
It is under IFAB’s pro-inactive leadership that the sport has been allowed to reach the point where its most skillful, its most imaginative, its most attractive team is, in game after game, compelled to play in a way that makes the exhibition of those vibrant qualities very difficult indeed.
Yes, bad soccer will very likely drive out good soccer. But only when the rules allow it to do so.