I am still finding it difficult to come to terms with the extraordinary way in which coaches have come to dominate our game. Have hijacked it, in fact.
Going back many eons, to my dim and distant high school days, of course we boys all had our favorite teams, and of course we all knew a lot about them -- their history, their stadiums, their achievements. And of course, and particularly, we knew all about their current players.
But we were highly unlikely to know the names of the coaches. I cannot recall any discussions or frantic arguments over coaches and coaching. Admittedly, this was England. Coaching was regarded as something you needed if you didn’t have good players. It was something the inferior foreigners relied upon. In that Neanderthal era, tactics was not even a dirty word, it was simply something that didn’t enter the soccer equation.
So we got along just fine without all the coaching and tactical talk and theories and bullshit that prevail today. I think the real essentials of the sport -- the drama, the excitement, the skills, the thrills, the disappointments and so on -- were all there.
In particular, the goals were there -- we had plenty of those, between three and four per game. The current English Premier League, in its 24 seasons of existence, has averaged 2.6 goals per game, never getting higher than 2.8.
I’m not about to claim that the game was better in the old days. Today’s game is certainly faster and more sophisticated. Faster because the players are better trained and fitter, more sophisticated because of the rise of coaching.
The problem I still have with that last factor is that the increasing importance of coaches has been accompanied by two trends that I see as entirely negative.
Firstly: parallel with the rise of coaches has come the decline of goalscoring. Cause and effect? I believe so. Not that coaches set out to banish goals, but they know that defensive play is easier to control than attacking play, so defensive tactics are widely employed.
Secondly: the growing importance of coaches has come, inevitably, at the expense of the players’ importance. Coaching was originally understood as something that was done during practice sessions, as preparation for games. Nowadays, you could be excused for thinking that all the coaching is done during the game, that the players weren’t listening during the practice sessions. Watching exasperated coaches yelling and gesticulating on the sidelines has become a standard feature of modern games.
Something I, for one, could do without. We can thank FIFA for this. Up until 1993, the FIFA rules of the game included a strict ban on coaching from “the boundary lines.” But the 1993 rules reversed that, telling us that “the coach may convey tactical instructions to players during the match.”
Thus was the way opened up for the appearance of the celebrity coach, the sideline madman who seems to be trying to control every moment of the game.
FIFA allowed this development, television turned it into a comedy routine, and the nonsense continues. I was referring just now to the EPL -- and this is a good league to study for appreciating (hardly the right word, certainly not for me) the now overweening presence of the coach.
Back in those high school days we had tasty games to watch out for. ManCity vs. ManU was one of them. As it still, very much, is. We knew it as Manchester City vs. Manchester United. A week or two back, the most recent version was played. Its name, apparently, has changed. This time around it was frequently referred to as Guardiola vs. Mourinho.
Such is the stature of those two guys, the world’s most well-known celebrity coaches, that their names can be used instead of their club names in the confidence that everyone will understand the connection.
No doubt that’s true. I can’t say I like it, but does it really matter? I’d say no, it doesn’t -- after all it’s only yet another example of dopey marketing minds at work.
In practice, it should be a good development. The world’s two top coaches must surely give us a classic game, no?
This time they didn’t even come close. In fact, it soon became obvious they weren’t even trying. What they gave us -- these two wonder-coaches, in charge of teams loaded with brilliant players -- was a crock of you-know-what -- a vapid 0-0 tie. A thoroughly lousy game -- simulacrum soccer at its plodding, pitiful, pedestrian worst.
The reasons were clear enough. Neither coach wanted to lose the game, and along with it the chance to play in Europe next year. Fair enough. But how utterly sad and, really, repellant that the way to success in that aim is to reduce the world’s greatest sport to a relentless bore.
The game looked all the worse because a few days earlier we had watched the Spanish clasico in which Real Madrid and Barcelona -- also playing a key game -- had given us a wonderful display of attacking soccer and a superb game to remember.
It can be argued that both coaches -- Zinedine Zidane for Real and Barca’s Luis Enrique -- were foolish, and that Zidane paid the penalty by losing the game, 3-2, to a stoppage time goal to Lionel Messi. The logic of that argument is that caution and negativity are always the sensible options.
In which case, the sport would be a hell of a lot better off without the celebrity coaches. Maybe we’d miss the sideline antics, but no one is going to lament the passing of games that are stinkers -- terrible games not because that’s the way things turned out, but because the coaches have emasculated their own players and ordered them to perform negatively.
Are Guardiola and Mourinho -- whose teams have not exactly set the EPL afire this season -- justifying their huge salaries by setting before us a game that could have been the work of an average fourth-division coach?
Yet ... and I have made this point before -- the ultimate responsibility for this disgrace, for this slur on the good name of the sport, lies with the sport’s controlling bodies, particularly with IFAB and FIFA. They know what is going on, they also know what coaches know -- that the sport’s stats clearly support the belief that defensive play is the way to keep their jobs -- yet they do absolutely nothing to alter the structure of the sport, to reverse the defensive trend, and replace it with an attacking outlook in which scoring goals becomes the most important part of the sport.
Is that possible? Why not? Soccer’s rules are whatever we decide we want them to be. They can be changed, should be changed, if the sport is losing its way.
That is an argument for another day. But anyone who thinks that nothing can -- or needs to be -- changed is going to have to tell me why it makes sense for two of the world’s best coaches, plus some two dozen of the world’s best players, to combine to lay on 90 minutes of high-priced boredom.