Honesty, or How to Lose Twitter Followers and Annoy People

This time last year, after the takeover of PSG by the Qatar Investment Authority, I voiced my concerns about how the steady and promising progress PSG had been making over the preceding two years could be blown out of the water by the wholesale upheaval that normally arrives with takeovers by the megarich.

I wasn’t worried that PSG would suffer in the fashion of Blackburn Rovers or Racing Santander. QIA are clearly a professional outfit with clear ideas about what they want and how to achieve it. This, specifically the fact that PSG are a small element in a much bigger game, became part of the problem – more on this later.

But there was something incredibly positive about the direction PSG were going in before QIA came in; no longer blindly throwing money at perceived underperformance and instead exploiting the considerable resources at their disposal, most notably their location atop the goldmine of young talent also known as the Île de France. This slow and quiet (by Parisian standards) evolution featured many aspects that I like to see in the club game. There was patience on the part of the directors, shown in the way that Kombouaré was retained after a tricky first season, a decision rewarded by much improved performances in 2010-2011. There was faith in youth embodied by Mamadou Sakho and Clément Chantôme, with more young players seemingly on the way towards the first team. There was an overall atmosphere of patience, being able to enjoy the skill of Nenê, the renaissance of Bodmer and the development of the players from the youth team without fretting if those players went off the boil for a few games.

The aesthetically pleasing and rapidly developing Chantôme has been forgotten. Sakho too has been dropped after a dip in form, something that is unacceptable in the brutality of the modern Champions League and the teams that inhabit its strange parallel universe. That is unfortunate. What is worse is that it looks increasingly likely that a brilliant generation of young players from the under-17 and under-19 youth sides, who won their respective titles last season, won’t even get the chance that Chantôme and Sakho did. In 2010-2011 some of the best from the under-19 side were knocking on the door of the first team. But Jean-Christophe Bahebeck has barely featured this term and Loick Landre and Neeskens Kebano have disappeared from sight. Alphonse Areola faces the prospect of being behind Salvatore Sirigu for the next decade or being forced to move if he is to have even a chance at fulfilling his vast potential.

All of those positives have vanished, or are at risk. All I’m left with is gripes.

The fact that this was, in many ways, unnecessary. The Qatari money could have been used to simply find, train and then retain the players PSG have on their doorstep (and when it comes to producing elite footballers, the Île de France is the gift that keeps on giving). The most successful teams often played football that was both successful and aesthetically pleasing because their players had been playing together for years before they even made the first team. Now, with PSG seemingly committed to buying in talent from wherever they can, how many of the best kids in Paris will want to join PSG in the first place? They already knew that the facilities are as good or better at Le Havre or Rennes or Sochaux. That was enough of an incentive without PSG putting up huge, expensive barriers to their first team too.

The fact that it was also unnecessary in the wider context of Ligue 1. Without wanting to riff on Jonathan Johnson’s pain any further, the Ligue 1 title last year was won by a relegation candidate, whose entire budget for 2010-11 was less than what PSG paid for Pastore alone. If you use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, you can at least enjoy the nut once you’re finished. If you use a Qatari-bought steamroller to crack one, all you’ll do is crush it into the burning tarmac. If winning Ligue 1 convincingly is the minimum requirement, what enjoyment can be gained from such a victory? And if the competitive balance of the league is destroyed, who benefits from this? There will be teams that manage to challenge PSG, but not very many of them. The last five years have shown us that almost anyone can mount a title push in Ligue 1. This balance, the extent of which is unique in Europe’s big leagues[1], is one of the best things about football in France today. PSG forcing the other teams with means to play catch-up might make French teams more competitive in European competition, but someone with outmoded views on this like myself won’t think that a price worth paying for what will be lost in return.

The fact that any titles won will be followed by nothing but discussions about money.

The fact that PSG will be expected to win every single game, that no pleasure can be taken in enjoying the performance of the team should they lose or draw[2].

The fact that Leonardo has gone from being one of the nice guys of football to just another hard-nosed businessman who not only thinks you have to act as mean as possible to succeed but boasts about his transformation.

The fact that PSG can (and as the case of Nicholas Douchez has shown, will) bring in players and then let them rot.

The fact that they fired a symbol of the club, Antoine Kombouaré, while they were top of the league.

The fact that this decision was, in the new context of PSG and the way football seems to be moving in the Champions League era, entirely logical.

Above all else, the fact that owning PSG is a fraction of Qatar’s PR offensive to ensure that they keep the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. That’s what really did it for me. The relationships that Louis Nicollin or Dave Whelan (or in less positive instances, Mike Ashley or Waldemar Kita) have with their clubs could be considered at worst vanity projects, but there is indisputably a link between owner and team, where the former has a genuine care for the latter. The worst that can happen is a megalomania that loses the owner his money[3]. At the other end of the extreme you have faceless holding corporations (like Colony Capital, for instance) that, theoretically, can administer the team free from the whims of an unhinged president[4].   The Qatari takeover means PSG fit neither model. Like their sponsoring of Barcelona, owning PSG is a marketing ploy among many others: turn a potential giant into a European power to show how their presence is good for football. For QIA, PSG is a stage that needs to be traversed, an asset that serves a strategic purpose but is itself of such little value in the bigger picture that it is almost worthless. A tiny pawn on a super-sized chessboard[5].

Before the takeover I felt that PSG could, with patience from the management, development of the talent in the youth teams and a bit of luck, go on to win a Ligue 1 title in the next few years. As it is they will probably win several. This will cost a great deal of money, but compare the price of that to the value of the under-17s and under-19s making good on their potential. If nothing else, that title would have been ours. And even if they had won nothing we could have enjoyed watching them develop. Trophies for PSG are now guaranteed but, for me[6], whatever they win now will be QIA’s first, and PSG’s second.

Bobeto


[1] I would say that only the Netherlands comes remotely close.

[2] See any La Liga messageboard if you are in any doubt about how depressing this type of fandom is.

[3] The club can lose out financially too but this is fairly rare.

[4] Of course some of these anonymous owners are not quite as anonymous as they’d like due to their incompetence.

[5] This situation, as almost all of you will be aware, is not too dissimilar from PSG’s situation when canal+ took over the team in the early 1990s. Their ownership of PSG also went beyond the club itself. So what’s the difference between now and then? Why kick up a fuss now? Well for a start I was three then, not a good age for critical reflection. When your extended family send you brightly-coloured things with mysterious, never-before-seen players wearing mysterious, never-before-seen strips, it’s hard not to be captivated by it.

It is worth stating at this point that criticising a club for being ‘artificial’ is pointless. No football clubs were created by God. Some of the most history and tradition-laden clubs were created because someone had a stadium and no team to put in it. PSG owe their existence to being in a similar position but on a larger scale: not just a stadium, an entire city (both in general terms in 1970 and then with a televisual bent in the late 80s). What came to define these teams was not how or why they came to be, but what they came to represent. Before the Qatari takeover it looked like PSG were finally moving beyond the canal+ era, away from the artificial stage that every club goes through in its early history and into a future with locals on the pitch as well as in the stands. This is the beating heart of club football, although these days it beats rather weakly. At PSG, the heartbeat is getting fainter and fainter.

[6] I’m expecting a lot of abuse for this piece, but I can only stress that this is my personal viewpoint. You may not agree with me, but if I don’t care anymore then I don’t care anymore, and arguing about it will change nothing. I’m not saying that other people should feel the same way. Watching football is an emotional activity, and people who continue to support PSG are simply being emotionally honest. In admitting that I no longer care when I watch them, so am I. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way things are.

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Some Thoughts on Football Analysis and the Emotional Content of the Game

For those who have not yet seen it, The Blizzard have very kindly posted a video of the Q&A session they hosted at Club Wembley in March of 2012.

I listened to it lying down, headphones on, at 3am, but there was a moment that made me sit bolt upright and let out an excessively loud ‘what?!’

It was the way in which Dave Farrar asked the question, “To what extent had Jonathan Wilson’s book ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ spawned a monster?” The way he implied that analysis these days is completely tactical is something I do not recognise at all.

The discussion starts at 26.30 in the video and lasts about 9 minutes. The general points that tactics are not the only thing that should be seen in football, and that other aspects are required to make them work are ones I agree with. But I was preoccupied with how Farrar asked that question and what Philippe Auclair said in agreeing with him.

Perhaps when limited to the press room, or the internet, Farrar is right. However for the majority of fans[1] most of our interaction with football, for better or for worse, occurs via television, where the analysis, at least in Britain, remains largely incident-based: goals, major chances and contentious refereeing decisions (at least one of which must be thoughtlessly labeled ‘the moment that changed the game’). As barely needs repeating, focusing on at most three minutes of action to analyse and explain the remaining 87 is an extremely ineffective way of doing things.

Incident-based analysis will always place the focus on individuals, and as a consequence the build up to games is mostly limited to who the key men are (normally the most famous players) with at best a brief explanation of why; that is to say how they fit into the system of their own team in order to damage the system of the opponent. Football analysis in Britain will probably never stray far from these individuals[2], so this aspect of the game does not need defending at this point in time. The tactical side of football continues to be underplayed, but whether we focus on incidents, individuals or systems, we must not forget the aspect that Philippe Auclair said should come before any of them: the emotional content of the game.

It is rather easy to forget when watching a sport as fluid as football that it is entirely mechanical, whether it is being viewed with incidents, individuals or systems in mind. The latter was very neatly expressed by Jonathan Wilson in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’. Football, for Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was

“A system of twenty-two elements – two sub-systems of eleven elements – moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two subsystems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.”[3]

One riposte to this way of thinking is to point out that sometimes the better team does not win, but then you have to start asking yourself what ‘the better team’ is. And we owe to the scientists of Kiev a good definition: “A team that makes errors in no more than 15 to 18% of its acts is unbeatable.” In other words, if you defend and attack more efficiently that the other team then you were by definition the better team, even if they have 80% of the ball.

On an individual level, the game is just as mechanical. Whether you are watching an amateur player shank a free kick into the stands, or Marco van Basten score a volley from an absurd angle, you are witnessing nothing more or less than the laws of physics in action. Barry Hulshoff, in an interview with David Winner, explains how defending can, and should, be done mathematically[4].

A very basic version of this mechanised football is what people who don’t believe in football[5] see when they see a man kicking a ball to another man who kicks the ball past another man into a net. They’re right; this is all that football is. We can see the finer details of these mechanical processes because we watch a lot more football, read a lot more about it and talk about it incessantly. But the real difference between us and them is that we have a connection to the emotional content of the game.

A failure to explain or even highlight systems and their importance is a major, often infuriating, drawback to watching football on television. But just as neglected in the age of bluster, hype and sheer volume, is the emotional aspect of football. Next time you watch a game that you don’t have a particular interest in, listen to how much of the time the commentators spend talking to each other as one might expect of two men in a pub, or repeating clearly pre-prepared lines that, even at their most apt, are not as effective as letting the game itself influence what they say (and at their worst are about as offensive as it gets, as those who have listened to Peter Drury will know). Neither idle conversation nor reheated gruel that was cooked up in a hotel room the previous evening benefits the viewer as much as silence.

Rob Smyth and the great Barry Davies discussed in Issue Two of the Blizzard how commentators should watch, but not talk over, the first replay of an incident so that they can analyse it and better explain what they have learned over the second replay. You can extrapolate that idea to commentary generally. If a colour commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot be watching the game and analysing the systems enough to explain them. By the same token if a lead commentator talks all the time (and they do talk ALL. THE. TIME) then they cannot immerse themselves in the game’s emotional progression, or even something as basic as how the game they are watching makes them feel.

The best commentators all let the game they were watching take charge of their emotions, from Herbert Zimmerman who “just described what he saw, and then – grippingly – what he felt”[6], to Thierry Roland, who peddled a fine line of appropriate expletives at highly charged moments, to Davies himself, who “rarely got overexcited, so when he did you knew it was the real thing”[7]

Without a good explanation of the systems at play we will not have a complete understanding of football as a process, of why team A were able to beat team B. But without a link to the game’s emotional content we simply will not care at all. When it comes to correcting the appalling state of televised football in Britain both deficiencies must be fixed urgently.

As if by the hand of fate, the question that followed the tactics one in that Blizzard Q&A session was about wealthy owners, and to what extent we care about our teams when they, in all senses, no longer belong to us. This is a very important question for me because, as I hope I have shown, football without emotion is nothing but a mechanical process, and a fairly dull one at that. A year ago when my team, PSG, were bought by QSI I voiced my concerns about what that would mean for the development of the club. What I had not anticipated was that my emotional connection, my caring, would be washed away by this torrent of money. How this happened will be the subject of my next essay.

Bobeto


[1] By fans I mean everyone who watches football, wherever they are and however they do so. I urge you to read Brian Phillips’ piece on the bogus concept of ‘The Real Fan’ in Issue Five of The Blizzard.

[2] See any number of articles and chapters about British football’s obsession with Roy Race characters, especially Scott Murray’s piece in Issue Zero of The Blizzard.

[3] Inverting the Pyramid p236 (Wilson)

[4] Brilliant Orange p67 (Winner)

[5] As I like to call them. My own missive on football-as-religion in which I explain this will appear later.

[6] Tor! p126 (Lichtenberger)