The Long Game – Trust

As much fun as Rugby Union can be, it can be a difficult sport to love. Growing up in England means I associate it with xenophobia, bullying, and the cheerful and casual destruction of other people’s property. On the pitch, the design of the field exposes mismatches more brutally than any other team sport.  In football, a weak team can overturn a palpably stronger one with good organisation and effective counter attacks. In rugby, if one team is significantly better than the other they will utterly crush their opponents because the scoring area is the entire width of the playing area, not a constantly guarded rectangle of less than 18m2. However there is one aspect of rugby as it is played on the field that makes it an extremely useful tool for understanding aspects of football as both a sport and as a cultural institution. Whether you are watching the best in the world or a school team, rugby is defined by trust.

In an attacking sense, the aim of the game is to break the opponents’ line, but a single player will only score from a line break if they are either very close to the try line or the quickest player on the pitch. Most of the time a line break will only lead to a try if support is given. When the All Blacks play this looks effortless, and a try seems to be the natural consequence. Watch a side like Italy, however, and you notice that similar breaks do not end the same way. The player might be looking to offload the ball, but will invariably end up kicking on or taking the ball into contact because he has no passing option.

Why is that support not there? In football (to which I promise to return) we call this anticipation, but in rugby it is not. The support is not there because the players do not have the trust required to think in such an attacking way. Firstly, they are not sure that the player who made the break will receive a clean pass, nor whether that pass will even be caught. They worry their teammate might knock on or get stripped in the tackle. The positions they adopt when running at the line are defensive, even when they are in possession. This mindset is infectious in the worst possible sense, so even when a player does offer support to a break, there is a chance that the player in possession will not be looking for them.

Once you start to interact with rugby through the prism of trust, you start seeing it absolutely everywhere[1]. Football is as totally dependent on trust as rugby, even if it is not as obvious, and this applies both on the pitch and off it. Clubs whose members (playing and non-playing) trust each other will win, while those that do not will lose. But saying “you have to trust each other” is so facile as to be pointless. What is worth exploring is where that trust comes from, how it develops, and what effect it can have both within football as well as in society at large.

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Trust is relevant to sport because it is relevant to the world around us. It is universally taken for granted when present, but when it fails the results are inescapable, ranging from the annoying to the terrifying. Consider a day in your life through the prism of trust. Can you drink the water? Will the food you eat for breakfast poison you if it is not boiled first? Do you carry enough money to bribe an official who is not sure they will actually get paid this month and knows they will get away with making your life complicated? Does your boss to act in an ethical way? Does that boss pay you in full, and on time? Do the shops have the things you need to buy? Are the prices roughly the same as they were last week? Feel free to add to this list with the minutiae of your daily life.

Now consider the mechanics of a football game the same way. When the centre back is on the ball, watch what the midfielders and forwards on his own team do – do they take up conservative, defensive positions? Or are they aggressive in their positioning and trust the man on the ball to find them in space higher up the pitch? When a pass is made, do not look at the passer or the man receiving the ball, look at the other teammates around the receiver. Are they moving aggressively or cautiously? Are they expecting that player to need immediate close support, or do they trust them to control, hold and release the ball again accurately?

From this perspective, off the ball movement is less a measure of a player’s ability to read the game, and more a gauge of the level of trust they have in specific teammates, and of the level of trust within the team as a whole. Looking at football in this way also provokes a rather intriguing chicken-or-egg question about trust with regards to the other pillars upon which football is built. Technique, decision making, tactics and fitness matter, but does any one of them come before trust?

One can attempt an answer by examining instances where trust does not develop, and the England men’s national team is an interesting case study. The match against Iceland in 2016 was perhaps the apotheosis of their biannual catastrophic exit from a major tournament, and the usual arguments were trotted out: one side blamed the players’ lack of desire or loyalty to the shirt, with the counter argument being that their footballing educations failed to equip them with proper technique and game intelligence.

Neither point stands up to scrutiny. One need only look at the reactions of the players upon hearing the final whistle (Jack Wilshire’s thousand yard stare in particular) to know that this mattered. One need only look at some of England’s play in the run up to the tournament, or in the first 70 minutes of their match against Russia, or the level the players are able to maintain at their clubs on a regular basis, to see that these are not bad players. But it seems their trust in one another is not sufficient to withstand playing under pressure.

Watch the game again and notice how often the players fail to read each other’s passes, fail to move collectively, fail to demonstrate any trust in or mutual understanding with one another. People laugh at them and call them incompetent, but imagine yourself working in an organisation in which there is no attempt at coordination, with everyone fighting their own corner in a desperate attempt to avoid the sack. It must be utterly terrifying, however trivial the work itself might seem to an outsider. Could you honestly do your job to the best of your ability in such circumstances?

How to resolve this in England’s case is a question that no coach has been able to answer in twenty years[2], and the way in which each defeat saps at the belief in ever being able to overcome it means that only a radical new idea will ever work. As I have previously argued, it will ultimately come down to the will of those involved to try it and then persevere. History would suggest that that idea has to come from either within (the players themselves) or without (the manager).

As an example of the former, one could look at the Dutch and the propensity of their players to talk endlessly about the game. The football that the first great generation of Dutch players produced was more systematised than any that had preceded it, and was more based on collective understanding and mutual trust than any other. Endlessly swapping positions and executing a ludicrously high offside line could not have been achieved without it, which itself stemmed from their understanding of what it was they were trying to achieve. This idea of trust being derived from collective action and understanding would be instantly recognisable to social scientists. As Robert Putnam wrote in his seminal essay Bowling Alone, “networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the ‘I’ into the ‘we,’ or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants’ ‘taste’ for collective benefits”.

Of course, as has also been pointed out, this same predilection for discussion frequently leads to bitter personality clashes. One of the many paradoxes that make team sports so captivating is the dichotomy between the need for organisation, cooperation and teamwork, and the need for leadership and individual brilliance. The presence of trust at one moment does not mean it will not evaporate if the delicate balance between these two elements is upset[3]. I would urge anyone who doubts this to read the chapter on East German football in Uli Hesse’s Tor.

The most common source of playing philosophies, however, is from a manager or coach. Given how much time has passed since Arsène Wenger’s arrival in England, it is worth reiterating just how leftfield his appointment was at the time, and how absurd his ideas seemed to the players, fans, and media.  Yet before long Paul Merson was describing how Wenger had given his players “unbelievable belief”, a phrase that summed it up almost as well as Tony Adams’ goal to clinch the title at the end of Wenger’s first full season in charge. Despite his current reputation as the most intransigent of ideologues, this turnaround can be explained in large part by Wenger’s understanding of the psychology of players and his effort to meet them halfway, as Amy Lawrence explained in her piece in Christov Ruhn’s Le Foot:

… hardened British players responded to Wenger because he didn’t storm in and bombard them with orders. He listened, got to know everybody and built bridges across which to transport his ideas. The bonds he develops with his players tend to have more of the human touch than most of the working relationships found at football clubs. For example, when Arsenal reached the FA Cup final and the boys wanted to pop open champagne on the coach back to London, Wenger requested that they wait until they were back because Tony Adams, a recovering alcoholic, also deserved and enjoyable ride home.

In short, the manager came in with something new, the players were convinced to try, and the results were astonishing. But those results need not be so spectacular to demonstrate the role of trust.

The managerial merry-go-round regularly demonstrates this. These managers are fired almost as soon as they are hired, so they are not epoch-defining geniuses. But the short-term aims of the boards that do the firing and hiring, like avoiding relegation or qualifying for Europe, are often met. And even when they are not, the results almost always improve in the short term. The players buy into the ideas of the new manager, before either cynicism or empirical evidence of a lack of quality has entered the equation.

More leeway is given to some, due to the presence of a footballing equivalent of social capital. These could be managers with a very specific and positive reputation that precedes them, or legendary former players who are granted a level of respect that would take a manager decades to generate. Zinedine Zidane was probably not the first person to think that Cristiano Ronaldo could be an even more decisive player if he played less football, but he was just about the only person on the planet who was able to both make the argument and win, thanks to his status in footballing terms (he is seen as a living God by players of Ronaldo’s generation) and institutional terms (as a symbol of Real Madrid). David Squires’ point in the third panel here was very funny, but right on the money with regards to the idea of players – even the Ronaldos – setting ego aside and buying into the ideas of those around them, provided the ideas are coming from the ‘right’ people.

But who are the ‘right’ people? When it comes to the amount of trust accorded to someone at the outset, language is of vital importance, and it is here that the media has enormous influence in setting the terms under which the discussion is held. Obviously this applies to players and managers in a short term sense; a manager who is ridiculed in the press before having even set foot in the training complex is going to find their job much harder than it would or should have been. But more important is the way language the sports media uses reflect and, to an extent, direct, issues affecting society generally. The way we choose to describe people will come to define them much more than the personalities of the people themselves, because the latter is so much more complex than the former.

To give an example from football, there was a time in England when black players were only partially accepted as footballers. Ron Noades, then chairman of Crystal Palace, opined in 1991 that, “The black players at this club lend the side a lot of skill and flair, but you also need white players in there to balance things up and give the team some brains.”

Noades was pilloried, but at the time he was saying what a lot of people were privately thinking. Although variations on this view persist, it is nowhere near as prevalent as before. A black player can now captain England without comment, and in many countries, a black footballer is no longer a black footballer. He is merely a footballer. It has been argued that colour-blindness is not actually something that should be aimed for[4], but considering what has gone before it is not too hard to advance the case for this constituting an improvement.

Yet racism is still prevalent in other parts of English football; a black manager is still a black manager because some combination of players, supporters and boards of directors still appear to have great difficulty entrusting that particular job to someone who has a different skin colour to someone who normally does that job. Until it becomes as normal to see a non-white face in the dugout (or in the directors’ box) as it is on the pitch, that lack of trust will be evident in the fact that their race will be mentioned at all. The way the media choose their language to reflect that, crying tokenism or lauding progress, will play a major role in deciding future outcomes for those that follow in their wake.

The example above involved race, but it could just as easily have been about gender or sexuality. Football is distinct from women’s football, and, as far as the English language goes, a footballer is a man, unless otherwise stated. A female footballer is a female footballer seemingly regardless of sexual preference, but a gay male player will have the words “gay footballer” or “out footballer” hung around his neck for the entirety of his career. The fact that it should not matter (enough elite sportspeople have come out as gay after retiring for us to know that sexual preference and ability have nothing to link them) has not yet changed the language we still use to describe it.

Hopefully the world of football will be able to wake up and notice the increasing importance attached to the words we use to describe people, and include those people in a way that other major institutions have started to.

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We seem to be entering an age in which the social contract between populace and government is eroding to breaking point, and the disillusion felt with the institutions attempting reform is approaching the point at which none could ever succeed. Football clubs are tiny, can reinvent themselves in months, and can measure the success of their revolutions on a weekly updated league table. Societies are vast, lumbering behemoths, whose values take decades to evolve, and whose improvements can only be measured in ways that are so open to abuse as to be almost worthless. Nonetheless, football could still teach us something about trust and how we can harness it to make things better.

That trust is necessary at the outset to simply test ideas properly, before we even think about achieving their aims. That critiques or criticism should be prevented from turning into their toxic cousin, cynicism. That whatever trust is present will vanish if the balance between individuals and structures is lost. That once trust starts to disappear, it becomes exponentially harder to get back. That language matters when it comes to the trust we place in others, not just for telling us what is happening but to frame future debates.

Football can often act as a microcosm for the world at large, and the simplification behind such a notion does not alter basic tenets about what can be achieved when trust is permitted to develop, nor how underachievement and stagnation are the inevitable outcomes in situations where trust has either failed to take root, or been eroded.


[1] It is there in the running game as described above, but also when players offer quick support at rucks and in placement of the defensive line. If a centre has a prop inside him, the former will only be able to concentrate on the man he is supposed to be picking up if he trusts the latter to stop the outside back running at him. Do we trust our kicker to score from 40m on an angle or should we kick to touch? If we get a penalty in front of the posts do we trust the tight five to give us the ball from a scrum or should we eschew an unlikely 7 points for an easier 3?

[2] The teams of Robson, Venables, and Hoddle may have all lost, but none did so because they froze as subsequent teams have done.

[3] An interesting parallel in societal terms is the tension between Labour and Capital, the current imbalance between them having been cited as a major factor in the crises many capitalist democracies are struggling with. David Simon outlines this argument more eloquently than most.

[4] See this piece by Gary Younge – “In order to address a problem you must first acknowledge it. Most of those who run and recruit to British newspapers have failed to do that. They claim they are colour-blind. But blindness is a disability. If you cannot see race you will not see racism; nor will you notice that the majority of your staff is overwhelmingly white.”


The Long Game – Periodisation

Google “periodisation in football” and you will get a bunch of websites and articles about conditioning training, peaking at the right time, and a well-known book by football coach and pot-stirrer Raymond Verheijen. What you will not get, sadly, is a breakdown of the various ways you could compartmentalise the history of football, which is a shame. Like most sports, football is very proud of its history and is not afraid of using that history to defend itself when it feels threatened. For instance, when it is suggested (normally by nefarious Darth Vader wannabees) that the top European clubs break away to form a Super League of some sort, the stock responses refer to the long and illustrious histories of the leagues in which those clubs play, the equivalent of terrace chants slating clubs for having “no history”, and the question of whether or not you “know your history”.

The history of football matters for all sorts of reasons. For people like me, it is a window into the societies in which it is played. For football fans of a different bent, history is almost synonymous with trivia. I personally might not care who scored the winner of the 1947 FA Cup Final (Charlton’s Chris Duffy, before you look it up), but this kind of knowledge is the foundation for debates about which team was best or which player was best. There are many people for whom these things matter, and if you doubt it, I can offer baseball as an example. A lot of anger was generated when steroid allegations ripped through the sport in the 1990s and 2000s. But little of that anger was directed at the outcomes of the individual seasons affected. What fans hated above all else was the fact that their stats, the way in which fans compared their idols with those of their parents and grandparents, were now worthless. Cheating to win the league was criminal, but cheating the batting and pitching averages in the process was downright heretical. Fans were furious that the greed of a few had, in their eyes, destroyed over 100 years of carefully documented comparative history.

Regardless of how you interact with football’s history, in order to understand what happened and why it happened, you need to understand the context in which it was happening. Knowing “when” something happened does not merely concern the date and time, but also the period. History is divided into periods so that it can be studied at all. As I explained in the introduction to this series, history is too vast a subject to deal with in its entirety. To understand the whole we must first understand the constituent parts, and to study the constituent parts in any depth we need to identify what those parts are.

So what are the frames of reference when we seek to chop the history of football into more manageable chunks? The most obvious place to start would be the way it is played on the field. We can examine changes to the laws of the game and the tactical developments that sought to exploit those laws.

We can consider eras in football administration. This would be particularly important given the current spate of crises at FIFA, to which many ignorant British commentators are essentially advocating a return to Stanley Rous’ way of operating, ignoring the fact that the arrogance of that era was a major contributing factor to how we got into this mess in the first place. Dividing football into pre-Havelange and post-Havelange eras would also be a helpful way of understanding the increasing commodification of football.

We can partition football by the way it was watched. In a world in which football is increasingly beholden to the whims of TV contracts and sponsorship deals predicated on TV exposure, it is worth seeing what occurred during previous times of transition, from radio to TV, from black and white to colour, and from occasional matches to the smorgasbord of options open to us today. Each had consequences for football’s marketability and the lives and experiences of those living in football’s bubble.

We can track periods of geographic supremacy. Those who believe European club football will never be superseded by its Chinese or American cousins would do well to read about post-war European superstars lured by the fantastical salaries, bigger crowds and better facilities on offer in Buenos Aires or Bogota. After all, like art during the renaissance, football is wonderful, enchanting, awe-inspiring, and an extremely efficient way to find out who had the most money at any given time.

When several of these factors converge we can draw a line. Consider one particularly well-known example: the early 1990s. In England there exists an understandable backlash against the trend of discussing historical records “in the Premier League Era”. However it is important that, while reinforcing the point that football was not invented in 1992, we still appreciate what a useful boundary the early 1990s are. In less than half a decade a series of massive changes took place both on and off the pitch that redefined football in the Northern hemisphere. Among them:

– The break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, leading to the creation of many new leagues and national teams, the latter contributing to the expansion of subsequent World Cups and European Championships.

– Other Eastern European leagues saw shifts in the balance of power both major and minor after the fall of communism – compare where league titles went in the 1980s with where they went in the 1990s. Russia and Poland provide the two most striking examples.

– Jimmy Hill’s 3-points-for-a-win rule, which had been used since the early eighties in England, was adopted in leagues worldwide. Regardless of the debate over the effects this did or did not have on the way football was played, it created a natural break point when comparing league seasons.

– The creation of a group stage in the latter stages of the European Cup in the 1991-92 season, and the competition’s rebranding as the Champions League the following year.

– In England there was the reconstruction of major stadia following the Taylor Report, the post-Italia’90 boom and the creation of the Premier League for the 1992-3 season.

– In playing terms, the early 1990s marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of the careers of a generation of superstars. It really is amazing just how many of the very best players to have played for the very best football nations were born between 1957 and 1964.

– The backpass rule was abolished in 1992, which had major repercussions, both on the way the game was played in general as well as on the careers of many important players.

– The early 1990s also saw the creation of professional leagues in Japan and the United States that, unlike their predecessors, were built to last. These two countries are now regular participants on international football’s biggest stage, and their players have gone from being curiosities to mainstays at Europe’s biggest clubs.

– Perhaps the most significant footballing event that occurred at this time began in the summer of 1990, when a little known former Belgian youth international tried to engineer a move from RFC Liege to Dunkerque. Five years later, Jean-Marc Bosman had won a court ruling that would turn the transfer market upside down and make a generation of footballers rich beyond their wildest fantasies.

So, which period are we in now? It is, of course, difficult to identify a historical period when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s clear that some major changes occurred between 2003 and 2006, not least of which was the acquisition of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, a move that ushered in the era of the Super Club.

I am not saying Chelsea ruined football, a charge their fans regularly feel provoked into refuting. What I am saying is that Abramovich’s arrival changed the rules of the game quite drastically. As I have previously argued, the way Chelsea bought players like Claude Makelele fundamentally changed the way major clubs built squads and raised the ceiling for the amount of money required to push a club into the Champions League and then keep them there. Between 1995/6 and 2002/3 the average points-per-game ratio for the league winners across England, Germany, Italy and Spain was 2.101. Thereafter it jumped over 10% to 2.38.

Crucially, this was not the only major change taking place, for around the same time, as noted by Jonathan Wilson, the powers that be finally got the offside law right after 140 years of trying. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the peak reached in May 2011 at Wembley by Barcelona was a direct consequence of the Abramovich takeover and the concurrent modifications made to the offside law. Barca’s team may have been shaped via slightly different means to Chelsea’s (or Manchester United’s or Milan’s), but the standards to which they were held were set by their competitors. After all, the phrase “you can only beat what’s put in front of you” has a positive connotation as well as a negative one – and if your task is to beat teams who were carefully constructed at a vast expense, the standards go up. Likewise, the brand of football they played was heavily influenced by the changes in the offside law that had enabled the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to remain relevant and prosper, whereas just a few years previously, articles were being written about how players of their ilk were being rendered obsolete.

While no team since has quite hit the heights of Pep Guardiola’s Barca, more and more money has poured into the game, with the entirely predictable effect of seeing transfer and wage inflation rising to preposterous levels. If nothing else, this proved Alan Sugar right when he said, while owner of Tottenham, that “it doesn’t matter whether the television company gives us £3m or £33m, we’ll piss it up the wall on wages.”

Where football goes from here very much depends on the potential effects of this inflation. For instance, we’ve reached an interesting crossroads in the endless power struggle between players and clubs. As well as pissing most of this TV money up the wall in wages, clubs are also able to invest in resources behind the scenes that were previously unthinkable, with the result that football is more systematised than at any point in the past, and unstructured individual brilliance finds it harder to shine than ever before. Yet at the same time, players now have so much money and bargaining power that this is now reflected in the aims of those at the top of the sport. Players once dreamed of winning the World Cup for their countries, then they dreamed of winning the Champions League for their clubs, and now, it would seem, they dream of winning the Balon D’Or for themselves.

Meanwhile, in the other endless power struggle between clubs and football administrators, the rise of Super Clubs means that demands for breakaway leagues might become ever more compelling to the people that really matter, namely the TV bosses upon whose generosity both groups depend. No sport lasts if it is uncompetitive, and while things might not be as bleak as they were in East Germany in the 1980s during Dynamo Berlin’s government-sponsored dominance, if the current era continues to be defined by the Super Clubs, then the wealth they accumulate and the points-per-game ratios they attain might make the argument for a super league sufficiently compelling. The only thing that could get in their way is increased competition, which could come from a variety of sources:

– Weaknesses inherent to the Super Clubs. This could mean instability wrought by the constant, unquenchable need for success, squabbles between players whose increasingly monstrous egos prevent them from working together effectively both on and off the field, and the difficulties in integrating new players or managers into the setup without the necessary time to allow them to settle in place, institution, or team.

– Other clubs taking advantage of whatever money is available to acquire and, crucially, retain, the best talent available. This money could come from TV, sub-oligarch level investment, increased gate receipts, international marketability or some combination of the above.

– Those clubs taking advantage of the relative flexibility they have compared to the Super Clubs to experiment with styles of play that exploit further changes in the laws of the game. This could mean a radical press or it could mean finding new ways to present teams with problems that existing tactical responses to the offside changes had all but eliminated, like two-striker formations.

Whence has the challenge come in recent years? From clubs who can offer some combination of the above: Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid, Leicester City, and Napoli, among others. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, if you do not wish to see a new period of football history that will be defined by a European Super League, you know who to support.



Being a footballer has always meant being something of a globetrotter. Football exists in the way that it does because people left their own countries to make new lives for themselves all over the world, and they took their pastime with them. Later, the nations to which those railway workers and factory owners had voyaged sent youngsters of their own back in the opposite direction. In the meantime, football went global, inspired by human migration as much as human migration was inspired by it.

The annals of football are littered with stories that are variations on the many standard expat tales. Those who went native (Cantona), those who had their eyes opened (Waddle), those who seemed to change the fabric of the footballing cultures they encountered, as if by sheer force of will (Cruyff). Those tales constitute one end of the spectrum. At the other, you have Brazilians moored in Tórshavn, Brits struggling to find Rice Krispies in Milan and Nicolas Anelka lost in Madrid.

The amount of information available to us means that we probably know more about the lives of the current crop of footballers than any before; they are more rounded, more human. Yet in a context in which footballers are increasingly being commodified, and as the universe they inhabit gets further and further away from our own, the risk of their being seen not as people but as objects increases. No-one benefits from such a situation, but the globetrotters are among those who have the most to fear.

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People have many identities. We often define ourselves by what we do – journalist, teacher, IT consultant or even footballer – but we are never just that. We are spouses, children, parents, friends, lovers, colleagues. We are also characteristics; the funny one, the one who offers the best advice, the one who introduces their friends to new, interesting people or new, interesting music. Much of the stigma unemployed people feel is that they might struggle to answer the question “so what do you do?”, but they can at least fall back on the other identities they have within their family or among their friends. They still have value.

In a new country, especially when stripped of the ability to communicate, your identity and the things that define you change. No-one knows you as the funny one or the guy who gives good advice so, in a sense, you cease to be those things. Even if, before leaving, you had planned and prepared mentally for many possible outcomes, automatically being rendered the stupidest person in whatever room you happen to be in will be a shock to the system. Without the things that defined your past life, you must then devote the energy that would ordinarily be directed at them and repurpose it towards whatever might be at hand. The logical response to such a crisis might be to throw yourself into the one part of your identity that remains: your job. So you stop doing the things that matter to you. You might even stop sleeping. All in a vain attempt to keep the wheels turning on the last remaining thing available to you that reminds you that you do, in fact, have value.

This does not work, because the mindset required is utterly all-consuming. The best case scenario involves becoming a semi-sentient automaton. The worst case scenario is mental disintegration. The latter is more likely because few brains can handle being operated in this way. No time truly counts as relaxation time, such are the self-imposed mental strains, and without the ability to relax, any ability to work efficiently is lost. When unable to work efficiently, the quality of the work that is turned in becomes subject to doubt. Eventually, you start to perceive that you are not doing very well at your job. You start to be sure of it.

What then defines you is not who you are, because the people who understand that identity are too far away. Nor is it what you do, because as far as you are concerned, you are not doing it well enough. What defines you is the fact that, both socially and professionally, you are failing. Your identity is that of a failure, nothing more.

Unless the personal or professional situations change, the internalisation of such a message becomes inevitable. You are incompetent. Worse, you are a scumbag, a thief, your salary the stolen money of the very people who are depending on you. You are worse than incompetent, you are a hindrance, actively preventing the people around you from succeeding. Your colleagues know this. They look at you like some excremental disappointment. What the fuck is this entity doing here? Hey, you, what the fuck are you doing here? You do not belong here. You are worthless. You do not deserve what you have. You deserve to die.

Many people are propelled into the depths of depression by their own paranoia about their own poor performance, the imagined hatred of colleagues or acquaintances. Imagine for a moment how much worse it must be to have that hatred rendered real, audible and visceral in the booing and whistling all about your ears upon being substituted off after another poor performance. How could anyone survive such an experience on a weekly basis?

Imagine a footballer. Imagine him moving abroad to a country whose language he does not speak and in which he has no contacts. The layers of his personality are stripped away, and he ceases to be a complete, rounded human being. He becomes a footballer, a commodity, and nothing more. Shorn of alternative ways to exist or express himself, he devotes himself to his work, but confidence will not come because he still cannot speak to nor form any real connections with anyone. Shorn of confidence, he struggles to play well. Fans of his team, as impatient as fans tend to be, were expecting more. And they do not hide their disappointment, irritation or anger. He has to undergo the weekly humiliation of being yelled at by people who are supposedly on his side, without even knowing what exactly it is that those people are yelling.

Consider the likes of Robert Pirès or Didier Drogba, who overcame the doubts and whistles of their own fans to become legends at those same clubs. How possessed of some other-worldly self-confidence they must be. Conversely, consider the fate and quite probable anguish of Albert Luque, prince of SuperDepor’s left wing, reduced to a punchline on Tyneside. Or Mateja Kezman, who tried and tried and tried some more but never recovered his PSV form, either in London or Paris. Some of the actions of the latter group, seen from this perspective, suddenly make much more sense.

The slightly-too-candid interviews homesick footballers give to press outlets from their native countries come to mind, first amongst them the notorious interview Nicolas Anelka gave to France Football that earned him a month-long ban from Real Madrid. When a person is stripped, so to speak, of the constituent parts of a personality that defines them, it is logical to experience an incredibly strong desire to reconnect with an environment where they do make sense. Sentiments that do not get or cannot be expressed in the new environment flow freely once plugged back into a world where these individuals have not only an identity but also value, as someone whose opinion is sought at all.

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Football is not as physically dangerous as it once was, for players or fans. Players are better protected and, for the most part, the more homicidal tendencies of their fans have been checked. But other risks remain, especially in a context in which human beings are increasingly being seen by managers and supporters as commodities. Neither fame, nor money, nor any other material benefits that being a footballer offer, will protect them when standing on the edge of an abyss. The only safeguard is support.



Given the absurd levels of staff turnover, the very concept of player loyalty in modern football has frayed to breaking point. Moments of genuine affection between player, club and fans can still be seen, but the irony is that this is probably clearest when that player leaves the club in question. Such a moment occurred in early July, when Valère Germain moved on loan from Monaco to Nice.

Monaco fans’ unreserved adoration for their sometime captain needed little explanation. He was the promising youngster who, having joined the club at the age of 15, was left disconsolate on the pitch at the end of just his second appearance for the first team when it was confirmed that they would be getting relegated. He was the player who stuck around and kept scoring goals in his first full season as a professional despite Monaco teetering to the brink of non-existence.

He was the player who, after Dimitry Rybolovlev’s buyout and despite an influx of new arrivals, was utterly instrumental to Monaco’s 2012-13 Ligue 2 triumph. He was the player who, during a crucial spell after the Christmas break that season, was central to almost every goal Monaco scored. He was the player who, by the season’s end, had accounted for over a third of Monaco’s points with his goals and assists.

Upon promotion Monaco went out and acquired a new strike force. Only once in the two years since was Germain given an extended run in the first team – after Falcao’s season-ending injury back in January 2014. In the nine consecutive matches he started thereafter, Germain scored four, notched two assists and generally played like someone at ease at this level. He may have been starved of minutes during the second half of last season, but the fact that several clubs in France as well as others from Spain, Italy, England and Belgium showed an interest over the summer suggests that his qualities are not in doubt.

Jorge Valdano once said of Raúl that while he might not be a 10/10 in anything, he was a 9/10 in absolutely everything. Although Valère Germain may not be in the same class, he fits the same profile, boasting no significant weaknesses. His technique won’t draw gasps from the crowd, but neither does it let him down, and while his shots lack power, they find the corners with remarkable regularity. He is most effective at centre forward, but he will play capably in any attacking role and at his best he is a remarkable fusion of playmaker and goal poacher.

Amongst other attributes, and despite not being noticeably tall or strong, Germain is very good in the air – mostly because he’s good with his head in another sense: this is a very smart footballer, all intelligent movement and quick anticipation. He’s not the quickest, but he knows when and where to run, both to open up spaces for others and to create chances for himself. It’s easier to plant headers into the top corner when your movement has separated you from whoever was supposed to be getting in your way.

Above all else Germain is a brilliant team player, always seeking the open man, always willing to run himself down, and always content to play whatever role the coach demands of him to the best of his ability without fuss. In this light, his close connection to Monaco’s fans makes more sense. Just as his loyalty to ASM was a throwback to an age when more footballers felt a sense of belonging at any given club, so his lack of pretence is a throwback to a time when fewer footballers had monstrous egos.

As good and as smart as the player may be though, he is just one part of this equation. In a loan deal, like with any transaction, consideration must be paid to where he’s going. Germain was adored by Monaco’s fans but at Nice he’s effectively replacing Alexey Bosetti, the Nice ultras’ on-pitch representative. He might be living and working in the same region, but there is still a change in environment to deal with.

The loan does not have a purchase option, which might suggest that Monaco’s long term plans still have a place in them for Valère Germain. However it is more likely that, for Rybolovlev and company, Nice is merely a shop window. A place where their asset is guaranteed to play games, likely to score goals, and has a chance of increasing in value beyond what Le Gym could ever afford.

Before we get to that stage, however, there is a season to play, and the early signs are promising: Germain told France Football last week that he feels valued in Nice and has settled quickly. Partly this is because some of his new teammates are players he met during his time as a French youth international, but he also expressed pleasure at finding a dressing room where, in contrast to Monaco, everyone speaks French. Events on the pitch seem to reflect this sense of contentment, with Germain scoring three goals in Nice’s first two warm up matches, and the winner in their gala friendly against Napoli last weekend. Nice on the whole have had a strong pre-season, mostly due to the burgeoning on-field relationship between Germain and his colleagues in Nice’s front 3, Alessane Pléa and fellow new recruit Hatem Ben Arfa.

The real test will come when the season starts. For both Nice and Valère Germain that first match promises to be a rather awkward encounter: August the 8th, Allianz Riviera, OGC Nice vs… AS Monaco.


The Long Game – The Coming Drugs Crash

It is currently the height of the sporting summer. The first Ashes Test. The Tour de France. And Wimbledon, which some people associate with strawberries and cream, and which I associate with doping.

It is a source of curiosity to me that when I come across tennis on TV, I always end up watching rather than switching the channel, at least for a few minutes. As fraudulent as the players may be, and as complicit as the commentators are, I cannot help but be drawn in by the drama, which is gripping. I do not care for Professional Wrestling, but I imagine aficionados of that interact with it in the same way. We know it is not real. We know it is a lie. But, for the sake of entertainment, we get drawn in and indulge ourselves.

Tennis has (apologies) an ace up its sleeve in this regard. The genius of tennis lies not in the players, but in the game itself. Five vertical lines, four horizontal lines, a net, and the greatest scoring system in sport. Describing it as a sport might be disingenuous, but as entertainment it is unparalleled, and it is massively successful. This dichotomy, the fact that tennis can be both an utter fraud and staggeringly successful raises questions about the only other sport (or “sport”) that can beat it for worldwide appeal and the concurrent riches.

Is football as infected by doping? What does that mean for the way we interact with football? Will a crash come, as it did in cycling? If so, when? What will the effect be?

For starters, because there will doubtless be some idiots in the audience, I feel I should establish that doping must be fought. The “anything goes” policy advocated by some incorrigibles would be reprehensible for many reasons, but two in particular stand out.

Firstly, not all drugs are equal. As has been proven many times, sport cannot be separated from the societies from which it comes. Rich countries do better at sport. What doping does is load the dice even further. A player or team from a poor country does not have access to the kinds of drugs that are as effective as those of their richer rivals. Thus doping turns the probable success of the rich into a cast-iron guarantee. Such imbalance runs counter to the very essence of sport.

Secondly, it is absurdly dangerous. In a fair competition between two rivals, one might get exhausted, run themselves into the ground and still lose. But they will probably go home. The chances of them dying or getting seriously injured are linked only to the inherent dangers associated with the sport itself. With doping, either the drugs themselves can do serious damage, or they can push a body beyond its capabilities, sometimes fatally.

The question of how we evaluate the prevalence of doping in football itself is complicated, not least because it sets us off down so many paths. There exists both concrete evidence and also instances where, as is so common in tennis, there is such a vast weight of circumstantial evidence that guilt must be the presumption. The majority of these cases are well known. The fact that such a staggeringly small number of players are ever caught doping (and, of those, so few ever serve bans) thus becomes evidence for the prosecution, not for the defence.

More generally, football should invite the same scepticism that other sports are subjected to. In cycling, no-one genuinely believes a mere switch in diet can turn a one day competitor into a Grand Tour GC contender in 12 months. In tennis, if a player hires a new coach late in his career and suddenly starts playing harder, faster and more consistently, that is understood for the deception that it is. In football by contrast, we fail to view radical improvements in performance in such a manner. The new tactical system is working. The new coach has got inside the players’ heads, not their veins. Even when the story is specifically about a new fitness coach, which should set off all sorts of alarm bells, the default setting is not one of disbelief or outright anger.

More long term trends are also seen under a benign gaze. We know, for instance, that the two original exponents of total football needed amphetamines. Despite all the improvements in diet, conditioning and training in the decades since then, the radical styles that are increasingly prevalent in modern club football should still be inviting questions. It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether pressing football is even possible without pharmacological assistance. Yet the attitude required to ask such a question is almost never encountered.

When Marcelo Bielsa takes charge at a new club and the players are suddenly transformed, people talk about his video collection and touchline idiosyncrasies. At international tournaments, where so many players seem to be running on empty, the explanation given is that the players are tired at the end of a long season, not the fact that they are suddenly without their club or personal doctors. I am not saying that Marcelo Bielsa dopes his players. I am not saying that the slower pace of football at international level is down to the fact that he players suddenly no longer have access to the same drugs. My point is simply that no-one even asks these questions. Occurrences that would provoke outrage or at least a raised eyebrow in any other sport, even tennis, are just accepted as truth.

At this point the role of the media, especially TV, becomes problematic. TV pays the bills, so the clubs grant them access, and the balance of power would appear to lie with the people behind the camera, not in front of it. But these TV executives have paid a fortune for football, and they have to recoup their investment. Asking difficult questions, even ones as obviously legitimate as those about doping, is simply not part of the equation; the validity of their product cannot be disputed. The commentators duly oblige. Thus the vast majority of fans interact with the sport via a medium that sees no evil, hears no evil and speaks no evil, which is not exactly conducive to the development of a sceptical mindset.

We saw this in cycling. Many print journalists laughed out loud when Lance Armstrong attacked on the climb to Sestriere in 1999, so obvious was it that the American was juiced to the gills. But only a handful ever aired their doubts, and only one had the heart to keep chasing come what may. The TV coverage, more widely disseminated than any of David Walsh’s output, adopted a tone that could at best be described as reverential, at worst sycophantic. And this was a year after Festina. The omertà, within the peloton and without, was still firmly in place.

TV coverage of tennis is similar. It is farcical enough to watch players engage in high intensity sprints with no lapse in hand-eye co-ordination nor any loss of speed after matches of five or six hours, matches at the end of two-week long tournaments, tournaments in the middle of a gruelling season. But to hear the commentators fawning over their winter training regimens and special diets? Perhaps only boxing shows such open disdain for the intelligence of its audience, those who via their TV subscriptions pay for the whole thing in the first place.

For the moment, that audience happily parts with its cash. But neither tennis nor football has had a Festina yet. A video here (Parma), an ex-pro’s autobiography there (Cascarino), and an absolute mountain of circumstantial evidence is one thing. But we have yet to have hotel rooms raided or current players caught in the act. What cycling shows us is that such a moment will come.

Neither the UCI (by choice) nor the anti-doping organisations (by circumstance) were doing enough about doping in cycling, but as drugs proliferate through a sport, the probability of it crossing paths with the law approaches 1. Festina subsequently popularised, for want of a better word, the sceptical attitude that these days is required to interact with sport honestly. One effect of an unknown customs official opening the trunk of a car in 1998 was that over a decade later Lance Armstrong, who had acquired a position of seemingly total control and dominance over his story, could still fall, because enough people had the mindset and critical approach required to know that, deep down, that story was a lie.

What we do not yet know is what the long term consequences of the Festina and Armstrong cases will be for cycling in general. A generation of future cyclists is growing up seeing the Achilles of their sport being tarred and feathered. Will they still want to go into professional cycling? If they do, will their attitude to doping change given the level of hatred they now know such actions may attract? For the sport itself, will participation numbers and viewing figures fluctuate, and if they do what effect will this have on sponsorship and TV money? These are questions that will take at least fifteen years to answer. But the answers will be instructive for tennis, which is very likely to be the next major sport after athletics, cycling and baseball to have its image and legends dragged through the mud in the most public way possible. Subsequently, the way tennis deals with the fall out of its own inevitable scandal will be instructive for football.

How the administrators, players, and sponsors react will be of serious significance for football’s future. More than anything, the fan reaction will be crucial. It could be that the game is abandoned en masse, with no-one willing to put up with such a charade. That would be bad. But the outcome might be even worse. They might decide, en masse, that sportspeople sticking needles in their arms and having extra blood and hormones fed into them is just fine. They want to be entertained, the players need these products to play to the level to which the fans are accustomed, so… well, so be it.

It is too awful to contemplate.


Read all about it

Is it possible to follow a sport without watching it? In the current climate this might seem a strange question. The Premier League recently signed a new TV contract, the size of which stretches the boundaries of credibility. Players, clubs, leagues, even entire sports are beholden to the whims of the TV market. TV has decreed that the average Premier League player earn more than his Serie A counterpart, just as it has decreed that fewer snooker players can earn a living from that sport than was the case in the 1990s. As for me, I have spent many a weekend hunched over my computer watching pixelated feeds from matches from France, and I am frustrated that I do not have as much free time to do this as I did in the past.

Yet the majority of my interaction with football has not been via the moving image, but via the written word. I have been watching football matches for as long as I can remember. But the amount of time spent watching matches take place is nothing compared to the amount of time spent reading about the game and writing about it. This is, in fact, entirely logical. Football is the most popular sport on earth because it means so much more than 22 players running around a field. Matches themselves cannot tell you anything about the political ramifications of one team winning title after title, or about the way fans interact with the communities around them for better or worse.

You can watch a match and see fans going crazy when their team scores, but the image alone will not explain why that particular goal against that particular team at that particular stadium means more than any other goal scored that year. It is the written word which enables us to connect to the emotional content of the game beyond the touchline. Sometimes we can extend this to the pitch itself. A few years ago Rob Smyth wrote a beautiful entry in the guardian’s Joy of Six article about passes. I took so much pleasure from these words that I will take the liberty of quoting it in full.

6) Roberto Rivelino, BRAZIL 0-0 England, Friendly, Rio de Janeiro, 8 June 1977

Some things are best left to the imagination. The future; the physical act of love; and this pass by Rivelino. During a trawl through every single Rivelino clip on YouTube, there was a secret wish that this 80-yard wonder would not turn up – because it could never be quite as good as it is in our mind’s eye. Or, indeed, in Kevin Keegan’s mind’s eye.

“I’ll never forget one of his passes in Rio, it was every inch of 80 yards,” wrote Keegan in his excellent 1979 book, Against The World. “I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to strike a ball so hard, so far, so accurately, until I saw Rivelino do it from the edge of his penalty area.

“The target man was 20-yards inside England’s half and starting a full diagonal sprint to get behind Dave Watson and Emlyn Hughes. Yet the ball pinpointed him, it fell in his stride. He didn’t need to change direction. I was about three yards away from Rivelino and I felt the wind as the ball passed me at shoulder height. The astonishing thing is that it stayed at the same height all the way. I watched wide-eyed as it flew on and on; that’s one of the rare times when I’ve felt outclassed.”

Keegan’s punditry is often unfairly derided because of the occasional Colemanball, yet he can be perceptive and eloquent, especially on the subject of greatness – which is no surprise, given that few players have ever worked so hard to attain it.

You can’t attain the sort of genius exhibited by Rivelino, whose silken sledgehammer of a left foot was without compare, but then there’s no shame in that. If you thought Frank de Boer’s elegant reacher for Dennis Bergkamp in 1998, wonderfully described as a “stretch limo of a pass” in Cris Freddi’s history of the World Cup, was good, try to imagine this.

And then be thankful that your imagination is where it will stay.

I agree with Smyth. I am so, so happy I have never seen footage of that pass. I never want to. I want only to imagine it from Keegan’s point of view and attempt to feel what he felt at that moment; the sense of awe, of respect, of adulation that no one could have perceived from the raw footage alone without him going on to tell us how it felt.

Thinking about the way I interact with the only other sport to which I still devote any serious headspace, I now realise how our ability to connect with the emotional content of what sport can provide is in no way linked to our ability to see the events on the field.

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I rarely watch cricket. Partly this is due to the fact that, since 2005, test matches can only be found on Sky, which I neither want nor can afford. But days spent on the sofa following tests on Channel 4 were a staple feature of the summer holidays when I was young, so I already had the framework around which I could attach my emotions to the sport as I matured. Thus the sport has remained in my head and I still care about what happens. Very few people are responsible for this. For football I trawl through writer after writer, article after article, book after book. I pass hours on twitter, scrolling away in search of more information I shall never actually need.

For cricket, by contrast, I simply read the guardian. There is so much to admire about the content you can find on their cricket coverage that it is worth exploring it in detail.

For starters, the blogs they publish are among the few places where the maxim “never read the comments” does not apply. Back when the guardian sportblog started, around the time of the 2006 World Cup, you could find a similar level of knowledge and debate on the football articles, but this withered away within a year or two. On the cricket blogs, it has survived. You find behaviour that makes you forget you are online, where people so regularly dispense with reason, intelligence and subtlety. Take this article about the strange, sad case of Maurice Holmes, which featured one regular contributor taking up a more contrary position than the one he actually held simply to inject balance into what he felt was becoming a one-sided debate. The civility on show means that writers are far more content than those on other sections of the paper to join in below the line.

I do not think I have ever actually commented on a cricket article – if I have it certainly has not happened for many years – mostly out of respect for those that do. I do not feel that my participation would improve the level of debate, so I content myself with seeing what everyone else has to say until such a time actually arrives. I like the fact that there is a place on the internet which can both make me feel welcome visiting due to its convivial atmosphere and compel a loudmouth like me to shut up for once.

Perhaps the most notable thing about reading other people talking about cricket, especially in contrast to football, is how so lacking in a tribal mentality it seems to be. Just as we often fail to appreciate people around us until we are reminded of their mortality, so fans of a sport probably have to come to realise that their sport is dying before they can be civil to one another. Test cricket will probably not last much longer, for reasons I will touch upon later, but in this context decline is has a beauty of is own because of the attitudes it inspires. In this environment, people are more likely to identify as fans of the sport first, and fans of their own teams second. An England fan can appreciate, even cheer, the late blooming of Chris Rogers or the resurrection of Mitchell Johnson because of what it means for the sport as a whole, even when those players are taking their own side to the cleaners. Many fans would probably quite like to see their teams blackwashed by the West Indies, for that would mean that the latter had re-established themselves as a test side to be reckoned with.

Normally we would feel the need to see these events unfold, but in cricket, for me at least, this does not apply. I do not need to see the action to feel the excitement which it inspires. This brings us to the peculiar joys of the OBO, or over-by-over report. As a format it reflects rather beautifully the way you can interact with cricket at the ground. During the lulls you can pass the time discussing hilarious inanities, but when the drama returns it is exhilarating. Many of my most powerful memories of the sport come not from the sight of seeing a stump flying out of the ground, but by reading someone else’s description of it. Rob Smyth’s description of England’s farcical, Jerome Taylor-inspired batting collapse at Sabina Park in 2009 being a particularly notable example. When the guardian published their ode to the OBO, they got the tone spot on, as did those below the line. To quote just one reader, the OBO is

Almost the last place of discussion on the internet where people leave their rancid opinions at the door and just behave like nice people and have a good time (even if they are talking about their relationship inadequacies and career failures). Humour, generosity, modesty and a shared love of the world’s most civilised game. That’s the OBO to me.

For the blogs and the OBO to function properly you need people who have a feeling for the game and its history as well as the ability to write, and the guardian does not lack such talent. Through them I get the impression that, unlike many sports, cricket writing still seems to be dominated by people who, even when railing against the incompetent bluster of national associations and governing bodies (it is nice to know some things in sport are truly universal), are capable of demonstrating a most profound love for their sport. No-one encapsulates this better than Andy Bull, whose output is consistently excellent. No other sports writer I am aware of even comes close to him in terms of the quality of his prose or the affinity he displays for the sport he covers. It is worth following cricket as a whole for his work alone. For those who want to explore his archive you could start anywhere, but two pieces I am particularly fond of are his personal reflections on the Allen Stanford case and a beautiful piece following the epic World Cup semi-final between South Africa and New Zealand.

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Test cricket does not lend itself well to TV, which is what will probably kill the sport in the long term. Partly this is because test cricket takes a long time. Most people are not able to watch over 35 hours’ worth of coverage over five days. And, unlike football, the majority of the most important matches do not take place in adjacent time zones. But these are not the main reasons why test cricket and TV make such uneasy bedfellows. Football, for instance, is based on moments. As much as we not like this method of analysis, we can still discern a fair amount about the overall pattern of a game from the goals and key incidents. Cricket, however, does not work because of moments. The joy of cricket, for me, is derived from the way the match ebbs and flows over five days. A single test match can be like a whole season when it comes to the emotional rollercoaster ride that players and spectators experience.

That is something that TV cannot simplify or boil down into a highlights package. You can watch the last episode of a 10-part drama series and know how it ends, but the joy of the experience comes from knowing what went before and how it unfolded. Test cricket is the same in that you have to experience the match in full (via TV or an OBO) to get the pay-off at the end. But who has the time to watch it all, and which TV companies have the patience to devote such vast chunks of their schedule for little more than an outside chance of high drama on Sunday or Monday evening?

Due to the power that TV holds over sport, some examples of which I gave at the top of this piece, someone will either have to find a way to square that circle, or test cricket will fall by the wayside. Even if it does survive, it will probably function only as an antiquated cousin of the dominant, TV-friendly Twenty20 format. But this same trend is what makes us fully appreciate all that the game can offer us. For some it might be Kumar Sangakkara finally getting a century at Lord’s or Sachin Tendulkar’s ton completing a mammoth run-chase barely three weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks. For me it was and continues to be the realisation of the depth with which sport speaks to us and the variety of ways in which it does so.

On that note I should add two important points. Firstly, I am well aware that I might be totally wrong about all of the above. My interaction with cricket comes from a single source where, somehow, the tribal and abusive excesses of the internet are largely curbed. I am not so naïve to assume that all cricket-related discussion operates along identical lines. Secondly, I am not interested in point scoring between sports. Just as the arguments about which league are the best are completely pointless, so are similar arguments between sports. One is not better or worse than the other. What they are is different. They have different cultures, different norms, different histories and they make us react in different ways.

When I get home from work having missed a football match I really wanted to see, I find out what the score was and immediately hunt down video highlights. It is not enough for me to know that a particular player scored, I want to see how it happened, and I delight (or despair) in the emotion it inspires in me. Only then do I go in search of written reactions.

When I get home from work having missed the last day of a close-run test, I head straight for the OBO. I want to see who got out and when, and I delight in seeing the emotion it inspires in other people within the context of the game.

In both cases, we are able to connect with the only thing that matters: the emotional content of sport.


The Long Game – The Future of Football’s Truest Test

“Single nationalities are so 20th century!”

As the closest thing to a truly global game that exists, issues in football can provide a neat way of understanding and exploring wider developments in the world. Population movement and the effect it has on both the concept of nationality generally and the evolution of people’s sense of belonging specifically are subjects that utterly fascinate me. The quote above comes from a conversation I had on twitter with the excellent Maher Mezahi. While France’s team will always have a smattering of Algerian or Congolese surnames, we are starting to see the same process in reverse, with the likes of Michaël Fabre and Michaël Chrétien turning out for Algeria and Morocco respectively. Just as history is an ongoing conversation between the past and the present, population movement creates an ongoing conversation between where these people are and where they or their ancestors came from. This particular conversation – which applies to a greater proportion of the world every year – is particularly visible through football, and thus constitutes one of the most interesting aspects of international football that we can track over the coming decades.

But international football will not continue to survive, despite its relevance on a social level, if it fails to remain relevant in sporting terms. International matches and tournaments are often derided for the supposedly poor quality of the football on offer, often with the refrain “wake me up when the league starts again”. But not only do I believe that international football is still important in sporting terms, I would further argue that it is – and will always be – the truest, hardest test of a footballer that we are able to set.

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To return to rather basic principles, humans move around rather a lot. They always have done, and much as some of Europe’s more reactionary citizens may complain, they always will. Sometimes they move to escape a threat, sometimes to take advantage of an opportunity, and sometimes, like our ancient ancestors, for no other reason than to garner an answer to the question, “What’s over there?”

Football reflects all of these, often in rather intricate ways and over vastly different time frames. The national teams of many countries in Western Europe have been strengthened, indirectly, by the fleeing of a whole generation from the Yugoslav civil war. Switzerland might not be at this World Cup were it not for the persecution in their homelands of Kosovars over the previous half a century.

Likewise, the opportunity to start new lives in new places meant a generation of people from all over the world could come to Western Europe to help the rebuilding operation in the aftermath of World War Two. These people brought with them manpower and intellect, but they also embodied the history of their origins. They brought that history in the form of culture, music, food and more besides that permanently changed the countries to which they moved. Some of their children ended up winning World Cups and European Championships for what was now their country.

Perhaps the ultimate example is David Trezeguet. Born in France to an Argentinian of French origin, he grew up in Argentina but matured as a player in France. He is currently playing out his career back in Argentina. Is this person French or Argentinian? Does it matter? More importantly (because in answer to the previous question I would say yes), is the question being asked with a smile on one’s face or a scowl?

For millions of people all over the world these are extremely important questions. It affects their day to day lives in curious ways, from what to call themselves on job applications to the relationships they can have with their parents. Football can both confuse the issue further for some and provide moments of clarity for others. “Who do you support?” can be a friendly question borne of genuine curiosity or it can be a loaded accusation of supposedly failed loyalty[1]. When it is the latter, it is often provoked by a combination of fear, anger and blind patriotism, the kind that extolls how great a country is and how much greater it is than every other nation without any hint of rational thought. Patriotism is a farce.

The idea of nationality, however, is not. Wherever I go I carry French and British passports. I also carry with me French and British sensibilities, French and British culture, and French and British history. I am what I am because France and Britain are what they are. Whether I like it or not (and mostly I do, regardless of any complaints you may hear from time to time), I represent the cultures from which I come, and in a much more specific way than I do as a citizen of Europe or of the World. It is logical, therefore that a football match involving these countries brings out incredibly strong feelings[2]. It is not patriotism that I feel, for patriotism has rather more aggressive, unthinking connotations such as the ones I described above. What I feel is the emotion derived from that ongoing conversation between what I am and what I come from in the happiest way I can imagine it. For want of a better term, it is the “party nationalism” that Simon Kuper described in issue five of The Blizzard. It allows you to feel good about yourself and your origins without feeling the need to belittle those from outside your circle.

Ridding the world of international football, one of the few outlets for this internal conversation and one of even fewer that can provoke such pleasure, would be a needless waste of something beautiful. My parents happened to be in Paris in 2009 when Algeria defeated Egypt to qualify for their first World Cup in over a quarter of a century. The joy they witnessed was something that only football, and then only the beautiful enormity of the World Cup, can provide. Watching your team win a League or a Champions League is one thing, but participating with other people who are what they are for the same reasons you are what you are – who share origins, in other words – in a moment of collective euphoria goes beyond what club football can offer. The end of a World Cup qualifying campaign is like nothing else in sport.

Given the explosion of talent coming out of Switzerland over the last ten years it is not unreasonable to think that they could mount a serious challenge at one of the next two European Championships (a World Cup might be beyond them, but you never know). After winning the Champions League with Bayern Munich, Xherdan Shaqiri took to the field with a dual Swiss-Kosovar flag. Were he to triumph in a European Championship final with Switzerland, Shaqiri might be tempted to repeat the trick. But even if he and his fellow Swiss-Kosovars in the team do not, you can be sure their equivalents on the streets will, just as Algerian flags came out in force to celebrate Zinedine Zidane winning a World Cup for France.

International football might, for some people, be the only way of marrying these diverse parts of their identity. International football is relevant because it can act as a way for an ever-increasing number fans and players to understand, project or play with their increasingly multifaceted sense of self. It is also, contrary to popular belief, the greatest test of a footballer that we can currently set.

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It is hard to argue with the oft-repeated statement that the highest level of football is no longer found in international matches, but in the Champions League – nor is that my intention. But international football is still, and probably always will be, the greatest test of a footballer for precisely the same reasons that explain why the best football is to be found in the Champions League.

International football used to be the highest level of the sport because it was the only arena where all of the best players could play together. Prior to and during the early part of the Champions League era, there was a more even distribution of talent throughout teams and throughout leagues. The rise of what Jonathan Wilson has labeled the super-clubs changed this[3].

The biggest, richest clubs have always collected most of the trophies on offer, but never has the gap between the good teams and the super-clubs been so great, something reflected in the absurd points-per-game ratios required to win the biggest national leagues[4]. The biggest teams have stockpiled all the best players. As if that was not enough, the impact of these players’ abilities is being multiplied by the fact that they are able to train and play together regularly, to build up the mutual understanding required to make lightning fast decisions in high-pressure situations.

Mutual understanding seems to be underplayed as a topic generally within the wider discourse of football as it is played on the field. Perhaps this is because it lies in a halfway house between the often ridiculous dichotomy of individuals vs tactics, so it only gets a passing mention. For instance, I have read articles about David Silva and I have read articles about James Milner, but I have yet to see a piece specifically devoted to detailing the astonishing transformation Milner undergoes in Silva’s presence from a decent player to a dangerous, creative and much more versatile attacking threat[5], a “space-explorer” not dissimilar to Thomas Mueller. This is not a one-way process of the genial Spaniard getting the best out of the willing but limited Englishman. Milner displays his creativity and intelligence in the runs that he makes for Silva’s passes, just as Silva displays his creativity and intelligence in finding Milner. The mutual understanding between them multiplies their abilities, often with spectacular results.

You do occasionally find pieces devoted to the subject, such as this marvelous tale of the history behind Dunga’s Brazil, an infernal machine which could have won the 2010 World Cup. That team was filled with players who understood precisely what their teammates would do based on the mutual understanding built up in different environments over the course of a decade. Sadly articles like this are few and far between. It is a curiously and sadly under-explored aspect of the way football is played, one that is crucial to understanding the importance of international football as a test quite apart from anything club football provides.

The lack of time to build mutual understanding between players means that only those who have the greatest sporting intelligence are able to play at or near to the level they reach for their clubs. Only those who have the greatest understanding of the intricacies of football[6] can truly shine in both environments.

This presents rather different criteria by which to judge who the best players are: rather than those who win the most trophies, they are those who are able to play consistently at their best regardless of who they play with, who they play for and the context in which they play. Those players who can adapt to the shifting sands of different teammates, coaches, tactical systems, and the slightly more reserved style of football one tends to find at international level must surely be seen as superior to those who perform at a high level for their club simply through constant practice with the same team mates in the same systems. Think of it as being akin to the difference between a student getting good marks through rote learning and a student getting good marks through their ability to think critically and understand at a much deeper level. One of the reasons football exists is as a form of the question, “who’s better?” This applies to clubs, and also to nations when there’s a tournament on. We also ask the question, endlessly, about individual players. If we want to answer that question accurately, we need a true test.


[1] An accusation known as the Tebbit Test after that particularly nasty individual

[2] The question of why I support France and never support England is one I may return to at a later date.

[3] As an aside I might as well add here my own take on the ‘Makelele role’. There have always been defensive midfielders whose jobs included protecting their defenders, committing tactical fouls, telling the referee how to do his job, recycling possession and letting more creative players do their jobs with greater freedom. Describing these players as playing in ‘the Makelele role’ is as heretical as saying that Cristiano Ronaldo invented scoring goals from free-kicks. Makelele’s true role in the history of the game is as a watershed between old and new trends in squad-building. The biggest, richest clubs always bought the best players. But Chelsea’s acquisition of Makelele heralded the moment where the biggest clubs accepted the need to pay fortunes for players regardless of their position or marketability and, crucially, paid them as much (or almost as much) as the team’s biggest stars.

[4] This, as much as anything else, was the main reason why I feel Sid Lowe had a point when suggesting that Diego Simeone’s achievements at Atletico Madrid eclipse those of any other club manager ever, including Brian Clough at Derby and Nottingham Forest. Clough was operating at a time when the gaps he was bridging were great, but nothing compared to that between La Liga’s Big Two and the rest during the Superclub era to this point.

[5] If someone has written this article, please send it to me. I would love to read it. The closest I could find was this and this but these illustrate the point I made earlier: a discussion of an individual’s qualities (BR’s article) or a tactical analysis (from Michael Cox) but nothing devoted specifically and in much more detail to their on-field relationship.

[6] They need not be able to express this in words. It is enough that they can express it with their feet.