‘Why are there so few Irish players in the Premier League?’ and more examples of great sportswriting:

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My article on the decline of elite Irish footballers was named the 32th best piece of sportswriting of 2014.

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The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

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Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

Enjoy watching Spain at the World Cup as you will miss them when they’re gone

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Originally published by The Guardian 13/06/2014.

Despite winning three international tournaments in a row, this Spain team are more respected than they are loved. We should savour their artistry and applaud their successes while we can

As TV becomes increasingly saturated by football coverage, there is a chance that fans might take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players was a rare treat for previous generations but it is now a weekly habit for many. Each weekend we can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence and then switch over to see Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain overexposure can extend to international teams, in particular world and European champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection or even adequate appreciation of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements and the road Spain took to reach such heights.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, the Telegraph conducted a poll on their website, asking: “Is watching Spain boring?” Of the 1,243 people who voted, 66% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter-attack. Games could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, Spain still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with in-from players such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, but Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown.

Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying: “It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain were crushed 3-0 by the hosts. After the 7-0 aggregate pummelling Bayern Munich doled out to Barcelona in the Champions League, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki-taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated Spain’s play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil were worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team.

Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of 30. Spain enter this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, this is probably the last World Cup for Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being “boring” return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything.” However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time Del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The team has boasted some of the most technically proficient players to have played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. His prime, like that of the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and managing his playing time effectively could be crucial in Brazil. He is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer with such technical ability and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them?

Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so: “Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past did not experience such exposure. Between 1951 and 1956, Hungary played 59 games and only lost once: the 1954 World Cup final, in which they were defeated by West Germany. Games at the time were more open, but this Hungary team are universally adored while Spain’s dominance in the modern era is greeted indifferently by some.

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is dominant and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now. This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

Perhaps this skews some fans’ enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. They have the mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer and keep winning.

This could be the last summer to watch some of their greatest players in action. In that 1981 interview Del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back.” Perhaps people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.

Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

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Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.

Cult of the Individual transcends all within Football

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Originally published by These Football Times 10/06/2014.

Football is a game where the strength of the collective is meant to prevail over the fallibility of the individual. However, some of the greatest teams, their widest victories, and slimiest losses, are defined by individual participants and their performances. The saying that ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan’ seemingly does not apply to international football.

Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1986 is widely regarded as the result of Maradona’s genius dragging a capable, but unspectacular, team to glory. Twenty years later France lost the final to Italy on penalties, however Zinedine Zidane’s sending off is seen as the game’s turning point. The 1998 World Cup final is remembered more for the mystery around the condition of Brazil’s prodigious forward Ronaldo, than France’s victory.

When the next month of football concludes, the summer passes and club football returns, the memories of the upcoming World Cup will, for many, start to fade and crystallise around certain key moments and performances. The narrative of football, despite being a team game, predominately centres on individual performances.

The cult of the individual is omnipresent. Players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez are considered the leaders of their teams. The estimation of their subsequent careers will be in part formed by their country’s performance in this month’s tournament.

This is the case for Messi perhaps more than his rivals. One would imagine that the Argentina captain has more than enough goals, trophies and broken records, at club level, to be remembered as perhaps football’s greatest, regardless of his national team’s fortunes in this World Cup. However, in his homeland, it will be the World Cup that ultimately defines his career. For the rest of the world, the World Cup could confirm his place as the sport’s greatest.

Everything seems to have fallen into place for Messi to lead his country to a third World Cup title in in Brazil, unlike the tournament four years ago. In that World Cup Maradona was the Argentina manager and the dominant figure, hoarding the spotlight as he lead his side to a crushing 4-0 defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals. Messi was somewhere in the team’s tactical muddle, but not the focal point and not among the goals. Maradona departed but Argentina and Messi continued to disappoint. A year later, on home soil, they lost to neighbours Uruguay on penalties in the Copa America semi-final. Change was needed.

Alejandro Sabella became manager, instantly made Messi captain and set about constructing a team that extracted the maximum from the world’s best player. There was no place for Carlos Tevez, a person rumoured not to be in Messi’s good books, and the team was set up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Sabella utilised his stunning striking riches to paper over the poverty of his defensive options. Messi was now the team’s captain, focal point and undisputed leader.

Argentina reaped the benefits during qualifying and, despite some stuttering performances, comfortably qualified for Brazil, with Messi scoring ten in the process. The team have a favourable draw for this month’s tournament, potentially avoiding any elite teams until the quarter-finals. While the advent of playing their games in the south of Brazil, avoiding the tropical drain of the northern climate, could prove very beneficial. Messi also turns 27 this month, entering the perceived peak years of an athlete’s career. Everything seems set up for him to lead Argentina to glory and firmly stake his place as the game’s greatest ever.

If Messi is to lead Argentina to victory it will be in his own way. He is, unlike Maradona or Ronaldo, an introvert, a style of leader that is perhaps alien to Argentinians. However, his talented teammates have bent their will to his genius. Whether it is correct to think so or not, the destiny of his country’s tournament is now at his feet. One may argue that Messi is the greatest player ever, that the need to cater to his genius must take precedent above all and for the team to flourish, Messi must flourish. There is undoubted merit in this argument. However, there is evidence to suggest placing sole emphasis on the performance of one player, no matter how great they are, can be risky. And such responsibility can be a double edged sword.

At the European Championships two years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo, after a shaky start, helped propel his country to a semi-final tie with Spain. After a scoreless 120 minutes, where Ronaldo’s threat had been effectively nullified by the Spanish defence, the game went to a penalty shootout. Portugal’s talisman chose to take the fifth, and potentially final, penalty.

However, his country did not get a fifth penalty as Spain wrapped up the contest before Ronaldo’s turn. It would be unfair to pin the sole responsibility for this loss on the Real Madrid superstar. Yet his choice, it could be argued, was one of seeking personal glory. He jeopardised his greater responsibility to make sure his team progressed, or at least got the opportunity to take the final penalty.

‘The Great Man’ theory of history became a popular ideal during the 19th century. Its proponents believed that history has been shaped by powerful, charismatic, influential men, such as Napoleon and Julius Caesar or Martin Luther. These ‘great’ men were considered to be predestined to change the world, and the history of the world was, in essence, a history of great men.

The theory would eventually become widely debunked. To consider one person to exist outside the complex vacuum of greater social, political or economic events is redundant. However it is still present within football. People still search for heroes and villains. The narrative is simplified and condensed to centre on the individual moment of magic or disaster.

In Dennis Bergkamp’s book, Stillness and Speed: My Story, written with journalist David Winner, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says: ‘It can sometimes become detrimental if one player is so strong that the team always goes through him, because the variety of your game can suffer’. This seems like sound logic as individuals will not always save the day. The past three European Championships, and two World Cups, won by Spain and Italy, have been victories for the collective. Each side had great players, but there was no one superstar who rose above all and drove the team to glory.

However, despite Argentina’s embarrassment of attacking riches, this is exactly their game plan. Former Brazil playmaker Zico, speaking about the country’s chances for this World Cup, said: ‘Of course Messi won’t play on his own and Argentina have an impressive “collection” in the form of Ángel di María, Sergio Agüero and Ezequiel Lavezzi. But these guys seem to know its Messi’s show, that 70% or 80% of the balls have to go to him’.

Messi’s genius seemingly transcends the collective. It could be argued that the fascination with the individual within a team sport would mean that the focus would be on Messi regardless of whether he was the team’s leader or not. Perhaps it is easier to focus on individual moments, than something more complex. People have created heroes and villains for centuries and individual acts have a universal quality.

Prior to the last World Cup France captain Thierry Henry was widely vilified for his handball against Ireland in the World Cu play-off. Henry had been deemed to send Ireland out and France to South Africa. However, while there is no denying the French player cheated and the officials failed to adequately perform their roles, very few had mentioned Ireland’s role in the act.

The awful defending by Paul McShane or the fact Henry was able to take the ball down in the opposition’s box. The goalkeeper not coming for the ball or the many chances Ireland missed to finish the game before that point. That estimation may seem as cruel as Henry’s act, but the hard truth was there were numerous other factors in the result. For the handball to be effective there needed to be mistakes made before and after the act.

However that was all forgotten as the footage of Henry handling the ball, twice, played on endless loop for days and weeks. Henry was a villain and that was that. The margins in football are slim, but become tighter through the condensing of events into individual moments or acts. The middle ground shrinks further and further.

So, if Messi can lead his country to glory, on enemy soil, he will be the proud father of success. If Argentina falls short, it will be his failure. Over to you Leo.

Spain: You’ll Miss Them When They’re Gone

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Praised by many for their modern style of play, yet criticized by others for their perceived boring tactics, I look at why we’ll miss this generation of Spain players when they’re gone.

Originally published by These Football Times 3/6/2014.

As televised football coverage becomes increasingly saturated, there is a chance that football fans may take for the granted the mortality of footballers’ professional careers and the lifespans of certain teams. Watching the game’s greatest players – a rare treat for previous generations – is now, for many, a weekly occurrence. Each week one can watch Liverpool’s Luiz Suárez bewitch a defence, before switching over to see either Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi score yet another hat-trick. After a while the extraordinary can seem ordinary and familiarity can breed, if not contempt, complacency.

A certain over-exposure can extend to international teams, in particular World and European Champions Spain. Watching Spain play, and win, in major tournaments has practically become a summer event for football fans. The upcoming World Cup in Brazil is the fifth time in the past six years they have featured in an international competition. Aiming for an unprecedented fourth consecutive title, the team, naturally, is widely respected. However, there is a sense that respect does not extend to affection, or even adequate appreciation, of the team’s style, the magnitude of their achievements, and the road Spain took to reach such heights playing in such a manner.

During Spain’s last major tournament, Euro 2012, The Daily Telegraph conducted a poll, on their website, asking: ‘Are you bored of Spain?’ Of the 1,243 people who voted, 65% said they were. Spain monopolised possession as opponents entrenched themselves at the edge of their penalty box, looking to spring a counter attack. Games, as a result, could quickly reach a sense of stalemate. However Spain, despite some nervy moments against Croatia and a penalty shoot-out victory over Portugal, still progressed comfortably to the final to face Italy.

The Azzurri were the only team to score against them, in the opening group game, a 1-1 draw, and with players in form such as Andrea Pirlo and Mario Ballotelli, combined with a strong defence, an upset appeared possible. Spain won 4-0. The final score may have been slightly skewed as Italy suffered injuries, yet Spain were truly imperious in clinching an historic third successive international crown. Midfielder Xavi recently acknowledged the popular labelling of his team as boring, saying:

“It’s true that we were criticised for being boring at Euro 2012, yet that boring team beat Italy 4-0 in the final.”

If such a dominant victory vindicated Spain’s style and rebuked any suggestions of sterile football, last summer’s defeat to Brazil in the Confederation’s Cup final seemingly had the reverse effect. Spain was crushed 3-0 by the hosts. Combined with the Champions League pummelling’s of Barcelona by Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate, the consensus was loud in proclaiming that tiki taka’s dominance was dead.

Spain struggled to cope with Brazil’s imposing tactics. The hosts, buoyed by a fervent crowd, played with manic aggression and intensity, repeatedly forcing their opponents into uncharacteristic errors. They suffocated their play, hunting in packs and preying on any sign of Spanish vulnerability. However, while the Spaniards were gracious in defeat and Brazil worthy winners, the margin of victory was slimmer than the final score suggests.

Yet La Furia Roja’s aura of invincibility, built up over so many summers, had been shattered. Serial winners such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta seemed fragile, unable to pass their way around the brute force of Brazil. The defeat could easily be construed as the beginning of the end of modern football’s greatest international team. Carles Puyol, the former defensive stalwart, is now retired. David Villa and Fernando Torres, previous lynchpins of success, are in decline, the latter terminally so. Other key protagonists like Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso are the wrong side of thirty. Spain enters this World Cup as relative outsiders to retain their title.

The country still has an incredibly talented squad, and, if fit, a more direct option in the form of striker Diego Costa. However, for players such as Xavi, Iniesta, Casillas, Alonso, Torres and Villa, this is, most likely, their final World Cup. If Spain can progress through a tough group and overcome the world’s best on the way to final, in the process effectively managing the challenges of the climate and the logistics of travelling across the best part of a continent, will the tag of being ‘boring’ return?

In all likelihood, the Spanish players could not care less. As Iniesta said, during Euro 2012, “Football’s so great because not everyone likes the same thing, we don’t have to all agree on everything”. However, should Spain’s brilliance override any questions of perceived boring play? And what does it say about society when people make such judgements in the face of sustained overt quality and success?

“I prefer to play football, not just to get the ball forward at the first opportunity. I try to wait for, or to create, the best opportunity for the right pass.” That is a quote from Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, speaking in 1981, taken from Graham Hunter’s book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. At the time del Bosque was a Real Madrid midfielder, in the mould of Sergio Busquets, and nearing the end of his career. The future national team manager was explaining his playing style to the Madrid fans, for whom he had become something of a boo-boy.

Del Bosque could just as easily be talking about the current Spain side’s philosophy. The recent Spanish teams have had some of the most technically proficient players to have ever played the game, playing in a style embodied by Xavi. The Barcelona midfielder’s prime, like the Spain team, is deemed to have passed, and effectively managing his playing time could be crucial in Brazil. However Xavi is still the brain of one of football’s most intelligent teams. Why would a footballer, with such technical ability, and who has been taught from childhood not to recklessly use the ball, play any other way?

Spain may place an imperative on ball retention, but if their opponents are unable to dispossess them, or chose not to, should the sole responsibility for the game reaching a stalemate lay with them? Former Liverpool midfielder, Graeme Souness, also speaking in Hunter’s book, does not believe so.

“Those who criticise Spain for their manner of winning now know nothing about football. We were hugely successful at Liverpool and we were taught, from day one, to keep the ball. Don’t try a pass through the eye of a needle; win the ball, circulate it, start again and again if you have to, but seek the right opportunity. That’s what Spain do excellently today.”

Perhaps it is over-familiarity that has made some football fans tire of Spain’s domineering style. The great international teams of the past would not have experienced such exposure. Hungary, from 1951 to ‘56, one of the most revered sides of all time, played 59 games and only lost one, the World Cup final in ’54 to West Germany. Granted games at the time were more open, but would such dominance in the modern era be greeted with the same indifference Spain seem to encounter?

Modern society is consumed by instant gratification. The church of consumerism is the dominant ethos and it promises and promotes the idea that satisfaction is just a shiny new product away. When the effect wears off, there is another product to fill the void. Everything seemingly relates to right now.

This obsession can extend to making judgements based only on the current, meaning appreciation of something more nuanced and greater can be difficult such as the popular advent of watching television dramas, when they have ended their run, in short bulks. Consuming shows like The Wire, The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, over a short period of time, is more appealing than following them week to week, month to month and year to year. The slow-burn is deemed boring, but the gorge is thrilling.

There is an argument to suggest that this ideal skews some fans enjoyment and appreciation of the current Spain side. In isolation, a succession of sideways passes do, admittedly, seem boring. However, when one considers more than just a few short passes, a different picture emerges. Consider the overall philosophy of Spain, to play such technical football with a genuine love and respect for the game.

Consider the technique required, the intelligence, the timing and the countless off the ball runs. The sustained harmony of a potentially divided squad, that has transcended provincial and club divides, a once vitriolic media, an expectant Spanish public and the manoeuvrings of the Machiavellian José Mourinho. The mental strength and physical stamina required to come back, season after season, summer after summer, when many would have rested on their laurels, to keep winning.

However, for many, Spain’s brilliance will still pale in recognition to their perceived sterile domination. For some of their greatest players this could be the last summer to watch them in action. In that 1981 interview, del Bosque also said: “I have been around for many years and I guess the fans tire of you, but that will change back”. Perhaps, like The Wire or Breaking Bad, people will learn to love Spain when the show finally ends.