Chile deserved its win over Argentina in the Copa America final. Well, just about. This was 120 minutes of parity, of total stalemate. So the grotesque mechanism of the shootout decided matters, and Chile was certainly the better team at that.
But now that the celebrations have passed, the fireworks have burned out, and the emotions are stilled, there arrives a quieter period when the Copa final can be seen for what it truly was -- in soccer terms, a total disaster.
That verdict has little to do with either Chile or Argentina. It is an accusation aimed at the sport itself.
How can it be that the two best teams of South America -- both loaded with world-class attacking talent -- can give us, in the grand final of one of sport’s greatest events -- two hours of goalless and considerably-less-than-riveting soccer?
For a start, it needs to be underlined that this 0-0 scoreline was not arrived at by tactical design. Neither Argentina nor Chile is a defensive team, neither took the field in Santiago locked into grim defensive formations. The attacking intention was discernible from both teams. But we know, from plenty of experience, that the road to the shootout can be paved with good intentions
How bad can things get for the sport when one of its great occasions fails to produce any goals, and the result has to be decided by an embarrassing rigmarole that settles matters with a series of fake goals?
Why does the sport itself put up with this? The warning lights have been flashing for some years. The 2010 and the 2014 World Cup finals were both mediocre games that finished 1-0. The 2006 final needed a shootout to sort out a winner, as did the Copa.
We have become familiar with -- almost inured to -- games in which one team, sometimes even both -- adopt relentlessly defensive tactics, determined at the very least not to lose the game. For most viewers, such games are best shunned, for they bring soccer at its worst, maybe a slight sprinkling of goalmouth action with a shot or two, maybe a couple of halfway decent saves ... for the rest, desultory midfield action, devoid of initiative, with neither team prepared to emerge from its canopy of caution.
Should a team happen to somehow score a goal and win the game, it will likely be praised for its ability to “grind out” a win. It doesn’t sound pretty, and it isn’t.
That sort of game, a travesty of the sport, is born from tactics , from coaches quite deliberately setting out to avoid risks, and not giving a damn about the quality of the soccer.
Blame the coaches, then? Tempting, but the problem lies deeper. Coaches behave logically -- they will do whatever they believe will help their team be successful ... which, of course, also means, whatever will help them keep their job. If they choose to play heavily defensive soccer, it is not because they want to be boring, rather that experience, tradition, history, and probably statistics -- all those things -- have shown that a concentration on defense is the most successful way to seek a win. Or the least unsuccessful way to avoid a loss.
What is a small club supposed to do when confronted by a rich club with a glittering array of attacking brilliance? In the 1960s the Italians found an answer in catenaccio . So successful was it, that all the Italian clubs soon took it up. Played by the big clubs, it was often worth watching. By the small clubs, it was tedium.
Catenaccio is rarely seen these days. There has to be a reason for that. Most likely, because the increasingly defensive nature of the sport has rendered it superfluous.
We are now watching a generation -- the first such generation -- of players who have come of age after a development phase that has stressed, with all the authority of the well-organized and influential coaching industry, the importance of defensive play. Not just for defenders -- but for all players .
The classic quote on this state of affairs came from the Brazilian striker Elber, after he had joined Bayern Munich in 1997 when the Italian Giovanni Trapattoni was in charge. Asked to define his role on the team, Elber replied sardonically “I am a defensive striker.”
And if a proven, experienced goalscorer like Elber can be told to add a defensive element to his attacking play, what chance do the young players stand of avoiding this requirement?
None, I would say. Young attacking players today are coached -- brainwashed is not too strong a word -- from a young age, to pay attention to their defensives duties. That is the onerous word that is used. Duty -- “conduct based on legal or moral obligation” says the dictionary. Quite a load for a young soccer player to bear. Who would dare refuse to do his duty?
Up next: How to blunt your own team's attacking power