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 – 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.


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.

The Long Game – Mourinho

“That strikes me as normal in a society that is ill”[1]

“Not every win is a gain.”[2]

It is one of the central paradoxes of sport, and football in particular: the nature of football as a contest means that we want to win, either as participants or as supporters. Yet there is a great sense of unease when the focus on the end rather than the means becomes too strong, and the higher up in football one goes the greater that unease becomes.

The case for the importance on winning above all else is often made by stressing how people “just want their names in the record books”. But this is illogical nonsense. The pure data of the results obtained in competition, even at its most detailed, is nothing next to the tomes of articles and books written about how these results were obtained and how the football in question made people feel. Once a certain threshold of achievement has been surpassed, history does not concern itself with what you won, but how you won it.

Which brings us to José Mourinho. For the first time in his career Mourinho has failed and his career trajectory, until recently rather straight, now has a noticeable kink in it. More than anyone else in the modern game, Mourinho focused on the end rather than the means. This is not a commentary on his tactics, simply a manner of highlighting the fact that Mourinho defined himself not by the kind of football he offered to the public but by the fact that he won. But as several people found themselves asking during his third year in Madrid, what does one call a winner when he does not win? This question, combined with a view of football encapsulated by those quotes at the top of the page, provokes a certain disquiet about Mourinho’s methods, all the more so when you view the situation not from the present, but from the future. How will Mourinho be remembered? How will his achievements be assessed when his career ends and in the decades that follow? Will coaches of the future cite him as a reference the way Jurgen Klopp did Arrigo Sacchi after Borussia Dortmund’s triumph over Real Madrid, or will his legacy be that of someone who took from football in the form of trophies, but did not give in terms of a significant positive contribution, tactical or otherwise. To answer a question concerning the future, we can revisit the past.

Mourinho had historical baggage from the very start of his career. His rapid ascent to the very top of European club management meant that there was an awareness very early on that this was someone who would enter the pantheon of the most successful managers, certainly of his own time and perhaps of all time. The desire to profit from Mourinho’s media-magnetism provoked countless biographies, documentaries and opinion pieces that have given us a wide range of attempts to place the Portuguese in a historical context, often by comparing him to greats of the past.

We have had Mourinho as Arrigo Sacchi, someone who had no career as a player but whose obsession with the game and desire to control the playing area allowed him to become arguably the dominant manager of his time.

We have had Mourinho as Brian Clough, a quick-witted and brilliant talker, as effective at getting the press hanging on his every word as he was at extracting the maximum from players who came to see him as a father figure.

We have had Mourinho as Helenio Herrera, a master of psychology who felt that he was wrongly accused of playing defensively by people who did not understand his system and erroneously associated his football with lesser imitations.

Most notably, we have had Mourinho as Béla Guttmann, the restless genius whose capacity for winning trophies was only matched by his ability to fall out with club administrators.

My personal favourite is Mourinho as Alf Ramsey, a formidably confident and determined individual, but overly keen on turning football into a battle and whose methods were questioned even while he was successful. The great Hugh McIlvanney, long-time sports writer for the Observer and the Sunday Times, wrote a fascinating report in response to West Germany’s 3-1 win over England in the first leg of the quarter final of the 1972 European Championship, the beginning of the end for Ramsay’s England team. Change the names and the parallels are frighteningly prescient of Mourinho’s current position and reputation in football:

“The greatest criticism to be made of Mourinho’s teams is that their really memorable performances, the days on which they overwhelmed the opposition with brilliance rather than grinding them down with dour efficiency, could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.

It is that truth that is behind the wave of resentment which has risen from Mourinho’s failure with Real Madrid. Cautious joyless football was scarcely bearable even while it was bringing victories. When it brings defeat there can be only one reaction. Obviously, some of those who are offering the noisiest condemnation of Mourinho are being hypocritical, for they were happy enough to ride with him while the results were good.

Those of us who have always had serious misgivings about his approach have neither the need nor the desire to gloat. What is happening now we always felt to be inevitable, because anyone who sets out to prove that football is about sweat rather than inspiration, about winning rather than glory, is sure to be found out in the end.

It is as true as it is unrewarding to say that what Mourinho requires now is not a different team but a different philosophy. His method was, to be fair, justifiable with Porto, when he had more limited resources, but since then it has become an embarrassment.

Mourinho should stop sending his teams on to the football field as if they are going to war. They should start playing the game again.”

With the exception of Clough[3] all of the coaches put forward as historical equivalents of Mourinho have something in common with each other besides an impressive Palmarès: Within a few years of their greatest achievements as managers, they were considered obsolete. Either out of management entirely, no longer desired by major clubs or no longer capable of achieving results.

Just as great teams fall having become parodies of themselves, so do great managers. When taken beyond the elastic limits, the very characteristics that allow them to get to the top either lose their effectiveness or become serious flaws.

The attributes that make Mourinho the winner he is when he wins are also what make him the failure he is when he fails. These attributes were also to be found in the great managers of the past with whom Mourinho has been compared, but having seen what befell them it would not be a surprise if Mourinho’s career from this point is marked more by failures than wins.

But whether he wins or not is, in my opinion, irrelevant. It is the manner in which Mourinho wins or loses, and the football that his teams play in doing so, that will determine his long-term reputation. More significant than the trophies Mourinho takes from football, however many, is the legacy, however small, that he gives to football. Will he be a reference for the coaches of the future? Will he be held up as someone to emulate, or as a warning? The answer will probably be a bit of both. Perhaps they will possess the same drive and attention to detail, but without the abrasiveness that so defines Mourinho. And perhaps, as McIlvanney hoped, they will send their teams onto the field not to do battle, but to play football.


[1] The response of Juanma Lillo to Sid Lowe’s suggestion that it could be considered normal to analyse football matches by taking the result and then explaining it.

[2] Norbert Seitz’s summation of Jupp Derwall’s phenomenally successful yet widely despised West Germany side of the late 70s and early 80s, as quoted by Uli Hesse in Tor.

[3] And even Clough got nowhere near the heights of his achievements with Derby and Forest after 1981. A UEFA Cup Semi-Final, some third place League finishes and a pair of League Cups is hardly a poor return, but having set the bar so high Clough still fits the trend of (relative) decline.

The Long Game – Introduction

Football was never merely a sport to be enjoyed for its own sake, either for me or for anyone else, and I am fascinated by the minutiae of why we follow football and how we interact with it. For me, football has been first and foremost a learning tool; for geography, politics, religions, languages, human nature and above all for history.

History is an impossibly vast subject. My favourite metaphor for history is that of a building the size of a continent. This building is filled with rooms, some bigger, some smaller, most visible through the windows on the exterior, a few completely hidden deep inside. There are no doors. All you can do is look through the window or windows you think show you best what it is you want to find out about the rooms you want to look at. The size of our building means that one only has time to truly gain expertise in what is visible through two or three windows. The rooms contain the events of the past. The windows are the types of historical investigation that are open to us.

Football is my favourite of the windows through which I choose to look at history. But in the same way that one’s hobbies can provoke or aid an interest in formal study, so those studies can influence the ways in which we interact with our hobbies. My fascination with history, and the history of football in particular, has a huge influence on my attitude as a fan of the sport[1]. My desire to understand where the sport came from, and how the society in which the sport resides came to take shape, provokes a fascination on where this society and the sport within it are going. My happiness or sadness at the outcomes of matches, tournaments or seasons take up relatively little of the time I devote to thinking about football, such is my interest in the more long term developments.

These pieces are thoughts on – and hopefully in some cases answers to – some of the questions I have asked myself over the last few years. In most cases I am simply writing, from a starting point of relative ignorance, articles that I would prefer to read. Where I have strayed unknowingly into ground that has previously been explored in greater depth, further contributions and corrections are of course welcome.

The issues I will deal with in this series will be fairly specific, but the underlying questions that provoke them are much broader. What state is football in? How did it get to that state? Where is it going? Are there lessons from history generally or the history of football in particular that can help us to understand the sport today and in the future? This is the brief; to study the game as one that lasts longer than 90 minutes.


[1] Especially as someone who no longer follows a club side and who never felt particularly comfortable in the world of partisan support.