A history of football’s dark arts

A history of football’s dark arts

Somewhere along the line, the beautiful game was corrupted. Perhaps it happened early on, the result of a collective realisation of just how much people cared about football. Or perhaps it was the introduction of league tables that compromised the sport’s purity. Maybe the change occurred when rampant commercialism got its greedy paws on the game. Regardless of the how, the why or the when, football once met with pragmatism and was never the same again.

Teams, coaches and players now face an ethical dilemma: should they accept some notion of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ play and angle towards identifying and practising the good, or should they reject this entirely and compete with the sole objective of winning? These are the two commonly accepted opposite ends of football’s philosophical spectrum.

Most involved in the sport, even many of its idealists, accept the need to win. In so doing they reinforce football as competition, veering dangerously away from the game’s origins. Nowadays, the spectacle often subordinates itself to the result. The victory as an objective is ingrained, the only remaining uncertainty being how far is too far in pursuit of it.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side were perhaps one of the most stunningly indulgent football sides of all time. Their ability to win impressed, but their ability to win beautifully made fans out of almost everyone outside of Madrid. They passed, they moved and they scored with an unerring synchronicity. Apart from those that exist only in comic strips, no other team has entered each game with such palpable expectancy surrounding them.

That expectancy was present on 28 April 2010 when they welcomed Inter Milan to the Camp Nou for the second leg of a Champions League semi-final tie. Inter were almost comically opposite to their hosts; managed by José Mourinho and stuffed full of relentless battlers, dogged ball-winners and unfussy distributors, they were an image of pragmatism. Their clash with Guardiola’s Barcelona was one of football’s great juxtapositions.

The Italian outfit had won the first leg 3-1 but there was a sense of inevitability about proceedings, a feeling that this Barcelona, at home, with the odds ever-so-slightly against them, with a Champions League final up for grabs, with 90 minutes to settle matters, with Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, would, eventually, win.

Almost 30 minutes went by and the scoreline remained at 0-0. Then, something curious happened. Inter’s Thiago Motta, attempting to shield the ball from his marker Sergio Busquets, raised his right arm, his hand brushing the Barcelona midfielder’s face. Down went Busquets, and there was Xavi, consulting immediately with the referee, Franck de Bleeckere. Off went Motta. Straight red. Busquets, who had gone down quicker than Liston in his rematch with Ali, audaciously peeked through his hands, seeking confirmation of his opponent’s expulsion.

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“In football the result is an impostor,” Xavi once declared. But against Inter on that dark Champions League night, his actions had been, if temporarily, absolutely resultist. The end justified the means and Barcelona had a one-man advantage. The action on that night declared that, when discussing whether football is to be played or won, it is vital to separate the tactical from the mental.

Tactically there are coaches and players with ideas on how to play ‘correctly’ and, in Xavi’s case, they have great success implementing these ideas. But, psychologically, their impulse is still to win every single individual moment the match encompasses. In these individual moments, at the flail of an arm, at the slightest hint of an advantage to be gained, even Xavi will wave imaginary cards.

Football referees are not yet robots. They are humans, and they are put on a football pitch to be manipulated. Just as Busquets and Xavi played Franck de Bleeckere, footballers try to influence officials on a weekly basis in order to obtain an advantage. Those who win the tactical battle might win the game; those who win the referee will almost certainly win the game.

There is immense psychological pressure on the referee, this poor, isolated individual, in the midst of a game of football. Pressure from a baying crowd, pressure from an angry manager, pressure from overly inquisitive players, pressure from the laws they are expected to follow to the letter. Furthermore, attempts to understand or help them are rare.

Not all footballers are prone to such manipulation, however.

Miroslav Klose, ironically a clinical striker whose career was built on opportunism, made a concerted effort to help referees reach correct decisions. The German was a born finisher who regularly rejected clear chances to finish. While playing for Werder Bremen he once explained that a penalty he had been awarded was not a penalty because, contrary to the referee’s initial opinion, he hadn’t actually been fouled, and at Lazio he disallowed one of his own goals having bundled the ball into Napoli’s net with his right hand.

Unfortunately, counteracting Klose’s honest gestures are a thousand instances of blatant deception. Diving is one of the most open manifestations of resultism seen within the game and it frequents every pitch. It has become so commonplace that there are now different types of dive. There are the ones where the action ridiculously precedes the imaginary contact – these are the easiest ones for the referee to punish. Then are the ones where the player dives in a motion that, had contact been made, would not have been physically possible – again, these are easy to identify and reprimand.

Tougher challenges face the referee when a quality diver finds a chance to hit the deck. The quality diver teases the opponent, draws the challenge and goes down smoothly, perhaps topping it off with a look of mild exasperation and a sock re-arrangement. The lines become blurry here, however, as to whether the diver is truly in the wrong at all.

Drawing a foul in this manner is more to do with wrong-footing the opponent than the referee. Its objective is to manipulate the other team through skill as opposed to tricking the individual enforcing the rules into enforcing them wrongly and, as such, is less blatant and thus far more tolerable.

Sometimes the referee simply needs some encouragement to make the right decision, and a swift drop to the floor can achieve this. Diego Simeone’s roughhousing of David Beckham when Argentina met England at World Cup 1998 was both intelligent and inflammatory; Beckham reacted by lashing out with a petulant kick, Simeone tumbled and the Englishman was sent off. On this occasion, the fall did nothing but encourage the referee, Kim Milton Nielsen, to make the correct call.

British footballing culture at times appears slightly confused as to what constitutes sportsmanship and gamesmanship. The home of the ‘let-him-know-you’re-there’ tackle, here there exists a preference for physical aggression and, so long as it’s done on the sly and nice and early on in the game, a bit of intimidation. At the same time, diving is frowned upon regardless of the situation. Whether contact is or isn’t coming, whether the decision is won through skill or deception, the notion of going to ground without receiving direct physical contact is treated with general disdain.

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This attitude is rooted in the anti-intellectualism that continues to grip the domestic game. Hardness – a vague characteristic at best – is preferred to intelligence. Taking the kick, staying on your feet and failing to score is preferred to avoiding the kick, going to ground and winning the penalty. Elsewhere, this preference would be considered senseless.

In The Italian Job, Gianluca Vialli wrote the following about his experience of simulation and the reactions to it within Italian football culture: “When an opponent won a penalty against us by diving or making a meal of slight contact, the attitude among players and coaches wasn’t to condemn him for cheating but to point the finger at our own defenders for allowing it to happen.”

Within British football there remains a yearning for a time which no longer exists, a time when honesty (apparently) ruled and going in hard with intent to make the opponent aware of one’s presence was considered honest. In this sense, it could not contrast more with the Italian football culture described by Vialli, where the onus is on the defender proactively not to give the attacker an opportunity to dive in the first place.

Those attackers who choose not to make a fuss about the endless swipes they receive are generally admired across the board, though. Lionel Messi has won the hearts of fans worldwide not just for his childlike enthusiasm and footballing genius, but for his willingness to tolerate the opponents’ fouling. It would have been easy for the little Argentine to resort to simulation. Such is his speed and close control, he could win a free-kick or a penalty with almost every touch, but he has chosen not to go down this road.

As such, there is a perceived nobility about Messi, like the fighter who never goes down easily and, when put on the canvas, opts not to stay there. Yet there is also a savage desire to dominate in his quiet acceptance of the constant harassment. With every kick taken, superiority over his marker is once again validated. Rather than become the villain by looking for the fouls, Messi allows them to come naturally and, in so doing, secures a series of moral victories. The opponent becomes the bully and Messi takes on the role of saviour of the beautiful game, a liberator of the pitch.

Diving may not look nice but it is exceeded by the tactical foul for sheer flagrance. There is an art to simulation. Doing it properly requires imagination and flair. The tactical foul, on the other hand, opposes all that is creative.

Osvaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes were world-class purveyors of anti-fútbol, and they knew their way around a tactical foul, a concept that lacks for subtlety but beats organised counter-pressing when it comes to quashing potentially dangerous attacking transitions at source. One kick, one shirt-pull, one overly abrasive shoulder-barge, and the opposition’s hopes are instantly ruined. Zubeldia knew of the tactical foul’s true value and his Estudiantes won three consecutive Copa Libertadores.

There is an underlying lack of self-respect about the tactical foul, though. To commit one, several things need to happen. Firstly, the defender will accept his inferiority to the attacker. He must be beaten with skill, speed or some combination of the two. Secondly, the defender will assess exactly how much has been gained by the attacking side bypassing him in the process. Thirdly, the defender will formulate a method regarding how best to haul down the opponent and execute the action.

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Essentially, the tactical foul is as pure and undignified an image of resultism as it is possible to witness in football. The three steps to committing one involve both an awareness of inferiority and an unwillingness to accept it, calculation and a good dose of cynicism. It is the recognition and nonchalant destruction of opportunity, an offence to most people’s ideas of what ‘good’ football is. Beyond other forms of gamesmanship, which can be spur of the moment or can involve rushes of blood to the head, it is thought through and incorporated.

While it stands against most people’s concept of good football, it must be said that there is also a great deal of character in the act of tactical fouling. It requires the collective good of the team to be prioritised ahead of individual pride, to look a fool so the team might win. Football is, after all, a team sport, and the willingness to go through with the tactical foul suggests genuine humility on the part of the offender.

You’re wearing the colours of your favourite team, playing your idea of good football, but you’re also drawing 0-0. Time in football is precious and the seconds are running out. You and your team-mates are on the verge of relegation; the league table, surreal as it appears, states that anything other than a win will condemn this beloved club of yours to life in the second tier.

The fans are getting restless, the groans are amplifying with every unfinished move. No doubt the pundits are beginning to put together the post-mortem: ‘nice to watch but ultimately ineffective’. The opposition are timewasting and fouling and play-acting and they don’t care a jot: they’re staying up for another season.

You begin to ruminate. The contracts aren’t going to be the same from now on. Or the sponsorship deals. There’s no guarantee of another move at this late stage in your career, certainly not one of the upwardly mobile variety. Is this your last game of top-level football? Probably.

Another tactical foul. Another move disrupted. Perhaps this is the price to pay for purity. Some of football’s most iconic teams were losers, after all. But it still hurts. Chasing the ideal is ambitious and fulfilling, but it’s also extremely painful, never more so than right at this very moment.

As your melancholy sets in the free-kick is taken. You find yourself in space. You lollop forward on tired legs, maybe for the last time. The opponent stands off; they’re inviting you on. Suddenly, a flicker of movement in the old legs and you’re on the cusp of the penalty area. You feign to shoot while looking to pass. Time is running away. Now the opponent comes to you with greater urgency. You shimmy beyond your marker, who timidly moves toward you, brushing your leg with the gentlest of touches, a caress, if that. There it is.

Footballing principles have always been vague things. With victory there is at least certainty. But how far is too far?

The dive is on. The crowd breathes in. The clock is ticking.

By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman

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