My World Cup: The Beautiful Game -- from Argentina, not Brazil

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.

7 comments about "My World Cup: The Beautiful Game -- from Argentina, not Brazil".
  1. Walt Pericciuoli, July 1, 2010 at 8:15 a.m.

    Fans want their team to win no matter how, but care about beautiful soccer when watching everyone else. Is it a wonder that the Brazilian game has changed with so many players now playing in Europe? Carlos Parreira might be just as easily describing USA soccer "you'd just have runners and powerful athletes playing the game"

  2. Joe Hosack, July 1, 2010 at 9:29 a.m.

    I could not agree more with Paul but am left shaking my head when I realize that Italy has been quite successful?
    How do we reconcile that anomaly?
    Technique + quality + Theatrics = Italy
    = Success (often time)?
    Would love to read more comments.

  3. Hal Conen, July 1, 2010 at 10:14 a.m.

    I always enjoy Gardner's writings and insights more than that of any other soccer writer. I think he is flat out mistaken about Argentina's defensive talent. Just considering the full backs I think the only teams that are more talented than Argentina right now are Brazil and Inter Milan.

    It certainly would not be very exciting (even for a defender) to see two teams play each other with both teams only counter-attacking. What is missing from Gardner's observations IMO is that merely wanting to play counter-attacking football does not mean you are able to. Not all teams are talented enough at fullback and keeper to play the counter-attacking style and win. There have been several examples of Italian national teams, Serie A teams, and others since the 60's who have tried to do this or partially do this (like sit on a lead) and succeeded sometimes and failed sometimes. Inter Milan was able to do this with 10 men against Barcelona but I doubt they would have been able to with a lesser keep than Julio Cesar in goal.

    I noticed the game commentators don't realize how good Brazil's full backs are and didn't hear Dunga on the record a couple of weeks before the cup that he planned to play a counter-attacking game. I heard one of them comment that he expected a high scoring game with lots of fireworks minutes into Brazil 0 Portugal 0.

  4. Luis P. KIFUTSAL, July 1, 2010 at 11:24 a.m.

    Mr. Soccer Guru, call your local cable provider and find PFC, the only 24 hour soccer channel just Brazilian Soccer and you will see everything you say you can't see the Brazilian National Team doing. The time you had a Brazilian National Team 100% with players out of Brazil is way gone. Our national team is now European based-Brazilians. You don't see the skills as they play, touch and shoot the ball, you are just blind. Team possession requires skills. Penetration and finishing requires skills. Crossing great balls into the box requires skills. Overall we are still the most skillful players of all teams you see in the WC. That goal from Luis Fabiano or even Robinho against Chile requires skills and the play was just beautiful. The game has changed. The players have been living in Europe for long years. The championships and trophies are way more valuable than they were in the past. Play ugly and win today is way more valuable than play beautiful and go home earlier with no title...Uruguay was never beautiful in 1950. England was never beautiful in 66. Argentina was never beautiful in 78. France looked beautiful in 98 after that fatidic after lunch weird episode involving the greatest player Ronaldo right before the final game. Italy was never beautiful in 2006...what in the heck you are crying and care if Brazil plays beautiful or doesn't. You are not even a Brazilian...Nobody will ever remember the most beautiful team when they went home earlier. Brazil 74,78,82 (the most beautiful of all),86, 90 (horrible) and 98 was way more beautiful than 94 and 2002 and they all did not take anything back home! Today, a title brings way more revenues than the past, way more exposure, and on top of that the today's Brazilian National team is the richest of all, but our today's #10s, #11s, #8s, #2s...despite the fact they all make way more money than Pele ever put together while playing the beautiful game you cry about, they will never be nor look as the beautiful players from the past were able to be and look.

  5. Scott Rocha, July 1, 2010 at 12:31 p.m.

    Garder is certainly always entertaining to read. But the tenor of his articles begin to chafe after awhile because they predominantly follow the same formula: "soccer has it all wrong, and I know how to fix it --by harkening back to the golden age of 'the beautiful game.'"
    Perhaps if more of his articles were just a bit less condemning, I would have a much higher opinion of him. As it is, that opinion is still substantial.
    But this article in particular most demonstrably shows his bias. His contention that soccer needs to be more attractive and higher scoring, doesn't make sense to the people who actually play the game. The fans, I'm sure would like to see more skillful ballplay, but the aim of every game that I've ever been a part of is simple: win.
    To insist that that should take a backseat to "beauty" is pretty ridiculous if you take that line of thinking to its endpoint.
    Somewhere around half of a soccer game is played on defense. Therefore shouldn't at least half of your team's focus be on defense?
    Soccer is not a high scoring game. Therefore shouldn't teams' tactics be organized to limit the goals scored against them to a bare minimum, while at the same time, balanced to create a half dozen or so better goal-scoring opportunites than one's opponents?
    That's the way it usually works in every top-level competition that I've ever seen: the team with the best combination of offense and defense most often wins.
    And soccer above all the other major sports MUST maintain a commitment to that balance for two reasons: 1) the transition from offense into defense can occur in a split second --the team unprepared for that transition will pay the price of a goal conceded; 2) sometimes a team's skill or coordination has a "down day" and they must rely on other qualities to claim the day --qualities like toughness, organization, counter-attacking, set plays. I guess Gardner and others call that "winning ugly."
    Which I guess is the bottom line in all of this. Not only do the players not care how they win, the fans don't either. Both players and fans will get behind any style of play if it yields results. Has there not been a number of teams who have in fact been PROUD of their team's defensive capabilities? Even when their offense doesn't enjoy the same level of effectiveness?
    I guess what Gardner is proposing is to go against the basis of all competition: don't play the game to win it; play it to look good. I'm glad Garder's not on my team. I can't tell you how many times a teammate of mine tried some flamboyant move, lost possession and stood and watched me hustle back to protect our goal against his attempt at "beauty." I can't stand playing with or watching such players. They don't know what it takes to win.

  6. Miguel Estremera, July 1, 2010 at 2:19 p.m.

    I think people are missing Paul's point. It is not that he is advocating for all teams to do this but there are certain teams that have so much God given talent that to do otherwise would be a sin. Maradonna has given Messi the blessing to go anywhere on the field since he is one of those prodigy's that only come around once every few generations.The fact that Maradonna has such a great supporting cast certainly helps. To sum up Argentina, Vicente Panetta states that Maradonna needs "no stinkin tactics". The following is an example:
    "The players seem to be thriving.

    Martin Palermo, Argentina's 36-year-old fifth-choice striker, is a case in point.

    Many thought Maradona included him on his squad out of sentimentality — or as a lucky charm — after the Boca Juniors striker scored a last-gasp goal that more or less sealed Argentina's qualification for the 2010 World Cup.

    With Argentina struggling to break down Greece in the final group game, Maradona was told by his assistants to bring on Gonzalo Higuain.

    Instead, he chose Palermo, one of the nation's most beloved players, and a prolific scorer for his club. Within nine minutes, Palermo did what Messi and stars such as Diego Milito have failed to do in multiple games — get on the score sheet.

    The advice from Maradona as Palermo ran onto the field?

    "I said, Get out there. Finish this match for me."

    Few teams have the freedom to employ this style and it is a treat for soccer fans. I hope Argentina wins as well as many other fans, including English friends of mine! Argentina winning is good for for soccer the world over. In this world cup it is Argentina and Spain saying "si se puede".

  7. James Froehlich, July 1, 2010 at 3:15 p.m.

    Thank you Paul Gardner, as grumpy as you are, for articles like this. Its good to have your periodic reminders of what is UNIQUE to soccer, i.e., its claim to be the "beautiful game". I must confess to being one of a small minority for whom playing beautifully is more important than winning. That being said I still feel terrible when my team(Chicago Fire) loses. However, that disappointment is more than compensated by the entertainment they provided with their play (sometimes).
    Mr. Rocha I'm sure you are a fine gentleman but I'm afraid that I must disagree with your opinion of those who try "a flamboyant move" and fail, causing you to cover for the mistake. I wonder if Pique or Pujols from Barca share that feeling when Xavi or Iniesta mess up on an attempted "flamboyant move" ?? You obviously have a lot of company in your thinking in the US. But, I'm afraid I believe that that opinion is part of our problem. To develop skill in our youth, we need to be willing to tolerate mistakes. Unfortunately in our "win at all times", no matter how young, environment no one gets the opportunity to develop those "flamboyant" skills---and that ultimately is why we continue to bemoan the lack of skills in our national team skills.

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