Go with a smile!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Football is meh

Football is kinda pointless. I've said this before.

It was invented by the Victorian British, and as it gained popularity, it seemed to be really useful to give the working classes something to look forward to on the weekend, to distract themselves from all the tedium. Maybe that's why it became so popular near the Rio de la Plata, which had a lot of poor people (except for maybe a few decades in the early 20th century).

Like following football (and I probably stopped… I think it was a good thing that I was supporting Arsenal since 2007. It was a barren run, nothing of note accomplished, every year is average to good, but nothing to shout about. Even the FA cup wins are like 4th places - nothing more than consolations.)

World Cups are pretty meh after a while. Who are the really great teams? 1970 Brazil. 1974 Dutch (who didn’t win). 1982 Brazil (who also didn’t win). Maradona being a great player in a not so great side. The 80s and the 90s being littered with good but not great teams, the Swedes, the Danish, the Dutch (the 1988 side were great tho), the Romanians, the Bulgarians. France side at the turn of the century were great, Brazil 2002 was great. Italy 2006 won because nobody else was great. Spain 2010 was great. Germany 2014 won because they maintained a level of performance that got them to the semis time and again. And France won because nobody else was great. The Croatians…. Football was great for a while because it had so many great stories. But the problem with those great stories is that eventually you ran out of great stories to tell and you were back to square one.

Things in football are semi-ergodic. Stuff that has happened before will happen again. When Man City and Chelsea won the title, they broke 40, 50 year droughts. One of the most famous droughts in English football is Liverpool cos they haven’t won the league in almost 30 years, after being the most powerful football club for almost 20 years. But that might happen soon, especially after a few close calls. People thought they were getting close after Liverpool finished second in 2002. But they weren't the same after Houllier got that heart attack. Then Benitez came close in 2009, when Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Mascherano was at their best. It wasn't to be. Brendan Rodgers led Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge to a very close finish. If this team can hold their nerve, and if Man City doesn't get their act together, they may be in with a shout. Liverpool are different from Man City and Chelsea because it's not like some really wealthy benefactor turned up and pushed their team forward. But they are a well supported club with money and are perennial challengers. Liverpool's drought spanned almost the entirety of me paying attention to football so it will be quite an experience see them win the league since I was a kid.

Also, during 2002, you’ve had looked at the recent past and seen Argentina winning in 1986, reaching the finals of 1990, Brazil winning in 1994 and 2002 and reaching the final in 2006. You’d have thought that those two countries would have had a stranglehold on the World Cup, considering how strong the Argentina team of 2002 was (never mind that they never got out of the first round.) You’d have seen the Messi teams of 2006 to 2018, seen them reach the finals of WC 2014, Copa in 2015 and 2016. But as of 2018, Argentina has not won any major trophy for more than 20 years, and no World Cup for 30. Brazil is a second rate power. Pele was right in a way when he said that Africa would win the world cup by the early 21st century, but that’s because the French teams of 1998 and 2018 have had a heavy African diaspora component. In particular, 3 of the semi finalists in 2018 have a heavily migrant component, and at this moment, it seems that the council estates of Europe and the refugees from the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s are a great talent factory for football.

But there’s nothing really new in football. In the 1970s, there was the rise of the Brazilian flair players whose dazzling array of skills and tricks brought something truly new and exciting to the game. Then you had the Dutch innovations with total football, where all the players had overlapping multiple roles. And then football hit a bit of a snag with the defensive style dominating the 80s, most notably when the Brazil 1982 side, with plenty of players with dazzling skill being inexplicably knocked out by the second round. In the 90s, the game became faster and harder, and they tried to mix flair with well organised systems. In a bid to break up the ultra-defensive style, after a dismal 1990 world cup, the back pass rule was changed, and the goalkeepers were no longer allowed to trap and pick up the ball. In the 00s, the defensive style came back, but then in late 00s, Barcelona and Spain emerged with a style that had its roots in total football, where the ball was passed to death, and a strong team would try to utterly dominate and control a game without losing the ball: not only that, it would aggressively try to win the ball back from all the players, whether from the front or the back, this was the “pressing style”. Football was philosophised and analysed to death. Now, a lot of players would no longer have styles that were purely defensive, midfield or attacking. Forwards would cover the midfield and occasionally have defensive duties. They would no longer be waiting on the shoulders of the opposing defence to pounce on opportunities, but many of them would be playmaking as well. Midfielders had their duties blended with defence or attack. Defenders, especially wingers, might be occasionally tasked with bringing the ball forwards, maybe even . Most notably, in a role that was invented by Manuel Neuer (when he was still great), goalkeepers would occasionally perform a sweeper role, dribbling with the loose ball and playing it out, occasionally launching attacks in the process.

After all that, there's this sense of been there done that. Maybe there aren't that many more surprises in football. Maybe all the great ideas have already been articulated, and everybody else is just going through the same motions over and over again. Maybe I'm sick and tired of seeing the generations of great footballers go from hottest new thing to ageing has been with creaking knees. Maybe I'm old enough to have been alive when Maradona was a genuine football great rather than some sad sack doing lines on some party bus every World Cup and making a spectacle of himself.

If you were to view pre-war football in its context, there wouldn’t be much there. You couldn’t name any guy who was from before the war. You’d know a few funny stories, like the enmity between Arsenal and Tottenham, like Man City getting relegated the season after they won the league. Like the FA cup finals. We'd be looking at the old film reels of what existed, and we'd be wondering about the days gone by, and we'd be wondering why a lot of what we did see mattered. I still have this memory of the month before I took my "A" levels. For some reason, I spent half a day looking at a sticker book which happened to list the historical records of the premier league clubs. In some distant past, Newcastle, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield and Burnley were league champions. Some other clubs have never won championships before but they won FA cups. Aston Villa and Blackburn were actually really successful in the early days of the league. For some reason I was entranced. And yet today I struggle to think about why on earth that would matter, that I would give up half a day of trying to save my ass, in order to look at that particular hall of fame? Why did I care so much about that glory?

I made friends through football. There were people that I normally wouldn’t even have talked to if not for playing those football games on the court. I remember the stirring atmosphere at the old Kallang stadium, how exciting it was for Singapore to win its second Tiger Cup (never mind that our opponents Indonesia just got tsunami-ed in between the two legs of the final). But those memories aren’t going to last a lifetime. They’re just going to fade away eventually.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'd have had the same attitude towards football as I would have had 10 years ago, when I was still playing on the basketball court. I don't mind the times when we played street soccer, although maybe I did end it all by walking out on them. Maybe it would be more meaningful to me if I still thought of myself as some guy in central defence who was an immovable force against anything you could throw at it.