May 27, 2011 § 19 Comments

Talking About Art by Howard Hodgkin

Football is a dialogic pastime, and a game closely resembles a conversation. It is, looked at one way, an argument between two teams, which either ends in a handshake and acknowledged parity (a draw), or with one side destroying the others proposals (scoring more goals), and claiming the disputational prize (the win).

And, like argument, or conversation, everyone has a different style. José Mourinho’s Inter side simply retorted “And your mum”, “And your mum”, “And your mum” for hours, until their opponents got overheated and exasperated and the nerazzuri were able to do a devastating impression of them losing their cool and so claim the points. Wenger’s great Arsenal teams waited until their opponents made a claim that didn’t quite have a sound factual basis, then exposed this with a clinical and classy retort; Wenger’s modern sides attempt to do the same but end up mispronouncing “banal” to rhyme with “anal” and get laughed at. Stoke simply stand on the far side of the room shouting “FUCK!”

It’s a fun game, this, and I urge you to try it. Cruyff’s Holland made their arguments in a louche, beat kind of way, flinging around wild cross-disciplinary references with abandon and a faintly sarcastic tone that, while intensely admirable and entertaining, couldn’t quite outdo the bustling, fact-checking, “one more thing” approach of the Germans in 1974. Ramsey’s England were dour, pedantic miserablists with an occasional propensity for violence, and were at their best when allowed to sit in a slightly taller chair. Lobanovskyi’s Kiev teams were well-drilled, well-rehearsed, hot-housed debaters, always looking for a chance to roll out a pre-prepared answer in an off-the-cuff style. Keegan’s Newcastle had spent their youth memorising cracker jokes.

Alright, I’ll stop. But just one more: Barcelona. This Saturday’s Barcelona. Because if you were to talk to this Barcelona team, well, you wouldn’t be able to. You’d say something like “I quite like The Boatman’s Call” and, immediately, they’d be off:

Well, of course, the most striking thing about The Boatman’s Call is the almost extreme space in which the songs are allowed to breathe, as the production is pared down almost to nothing; indeed, the whole album has a minimalist aesthetic that at times reflects the earlier, post-punky constructions of the late Birthday Party/early Bad Seeds stuff, except, of course, that here the violence is replaced by melancholy, and the terror-at-the-state-of-the-universe is replaced by a terror-at-the-state-of-the-self …

and if you attempted to interject they’d scream “NO! NO! NO! NO!” until you were quiet again, and then they’d carry on in the same sing-song, lullaby voice, until you’d quite lost the thread and had begun to drift off, and then they’d finish with a sudden flourish: “… and so you see, that’s why you really have to say that Let Love In is the superior record, else your own point is invalid and you’ll need a new hat. Ah hah!”

And then they’d jog back to the halfway line, turn around, and wait for you to say something else, before starting all over again.

Going back to the football, my point (and I do have one, I promise) is that this approach — the relentless cycle of patient possession — is clearly and obviously effective when it comes to winning games. We know that. And it’s also undeniably admirable, in that it’s very difficult to do, it’s unique, it requires intense concentration, training and understanding, and you can look a right plum if it goes wrong.

In his tactical preview of the European Cup final, Jonathan Wilson makes the point that Barcelona, since last they met Manchester United in a European Cup final, have become even more themselves; their average share of possession in Europe has increased, from 65.6% in 2009, through 70.6% in 2010, to 73.3% this campaign. But, he notes, they are also scoring and conceding less: scoring 2.25 goals per game this season vs. 2.46/game in 2009, and conceding 0.67 and 1.00 respectively. This is probably partly due to teams recognising that the Catalans are going to have the ball whatever, and concentrating more on their own organisation, but it’s also, Wilson suggests, in part due to Barcelona’s increasing prioritisation of possession over penetration; ball retention as an increasingly defensive technique.

This is not new, of course; it’s received wisdom that if you have the ball, the opposition probably aren’t going to score, and Sid Lowe has been pointing out the defensive aspects of the tiki-taka for a while. But what it does is alter the dynamic of the game from an experiential perspective. If you don’t have the ball, you’re defending. And if the other team have the ball, and they’re defending as well, then both teams are defending. As such, there is often a flatness about Barcelona’s possession, a sense that while the game probably can’t be played any better, it can be played more thrillingly. This is the “sterile domination” that Arsène Wenger referred to, and just because a bad loser says something snippy after losing, badly, doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain amount of truth in it.

I wrote a piece about Barcelona and arrogance a while back, and, commenting on their play, said that the “characteristics of the style are, at heart, almost anti-football”. I only quote myself because this was picked up and gently derided on a forum, by a commenter who perceived this sentiment as arising from a “typically English” idea of fair play: the expectation that at some point, the other team should be allowed to have a go.

This, of course, is the classic lament of the technically inferior team — we need another ball, ref; the Brazilians are playing with that one — and Barcelona overshadow everyone in that regard. But it’s also, I think, reflective of the wish on the part of football fans to see a good game, which is very different from seeing a good team.

To return to the conversation metaphor — sorry — let’s look at probably Barcelona’s best performance of the season, the 5-0 shellacking of Real Madrid, and what might be the best game I saw all season, which was Napoli beating Lazio 4-3. The first, conversationally characterised, saw Real Madrid turn up, Barcelona take the piss out of their trousers for two hours, and then Real leave again; it was funny, it was entertaining, but it wasn’t a great game. The second, by contrast was an argument for the ages, a no-holds-barred ding-dong of such intensity, lunacy and sheer fuck-you-no-fuck-YOU madness that you wouldn’t have been too surprised to find the teams having furious make-up sex in the dressing rooms afterwards.

Alright, you probably would have been quite surprised. But I hope you take my point.

So this is why, I think, that Barcelona play a kind of anti-football. Not “anti-” the spirit of the game, as the phrase is usually interpreted: while they do dive, and waste time, and harangue the referee, that’s not a fundamental part of their game so much as a bonus, however much they may do it. But, perhaps, “anti-” the character of the game viewed in the abstract; opposed to the wishes of the disinterested observer, which is always to see as good a game of football as possible.

Of course, football is not about entertainment. Or rather, it is not just about entertainment; it’s about winning, and it’s about identity, and self-expression, and community, all things that Barcelona do and have in grand style. Being a Barcelona fan must be an exhilarating and constant joy. But football is also about great games, and a great game, like a great conversation (and indeed all great dialogic things, like a chess game, or a tennis match, or the tango) needs both sides in the mix. Perhaps it needs both sides to show a certain vulnerability; certainly, it needs both sides to show the best of themselves, which is what Barcelona try and usually manage to prevent.

Barcelona’s style of football is as anaesthetic as it is admirable, and their superiority is contingent upon the smother to an almost neurotic extent. By working so hard to eliminate the other team from the conversation, Barcelona are essentially attempting to undermine the dualistic nature of a football match, preferring instead to present a series of monologues on the importance of possession, the value of short people, and the attractiveness of Qatar as a destination for your business or pleasure needs. They’re brilliant, they’re accomplished, and they’re very hard to talk to. You just can’t get a word in edgeways.

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