Fútbol Culture: The World Cup Final and The Not So Beautiful Game

There are two types of football, prose and poetry. European teams are prose, tough, premeditated, systematic, collective. Latin American ones are poetry, ductile, spontaneous, individual, erotic.

-Italian artist and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini

What a World Cup final! Remarkable in its dullness. Intense in the sense that we kept waiting for the intensity to pick up and it never did. It was like waiting for the beat to drop in an EDM song and you’re waiting and waiting and waiting, and this time it never comes. I’ve actually always thought that could make a cool song—the sort of agony of almost getting the insanely perfect moment but it never arrives, capturing perhaps the imperfection of life, the way we often wait for that incredible break or happy ending and sometimes it’s just not in the cards. But that’s not what I want in a soccer match. Not in a World Cup final.

The match gave us our expected, overemphasized storyline of Messi vs. The Machine—with refined German mechanics and darting Messi brilliance. It gave us everything we expected and less, not living up to the incredible quality of the tournament that preceded it. Messi was very good, maybe even great, but–using a Bill Simmons distinction–he was not GREAT, prompting Argentine legend Diego Maradonna to say that Messi didn’t deserve to win the Golden Ball award at game’s end. The players appeared (and it was only an appearance) to care about the match as little as the nonpartisan viewer in the U.S. did: There was no Brazilian pre-match weeping or James Rodriguez desperation. There were moments where the storyline was almost shattered or enhanced but the beat of the match never did drop, staying consistent and bland like the melody and lyrics of Germany’s national anthem, since between the two World Wars, the Deutschlandlied.

Championship Teamwork, but…

Staying true to their song, the German players took “a brotherly stand together,” choosing to not take on any Argentine defender one on one because, well, to put it perhaps extremely but evidently accurately, they are incapable of individuality or at least unwilling to reach for its creative fruit. They played calmly and cohesively as a team of useful, calculated pieces, which is often uninteresting to watch in soccer unlike in basketball where the San Antonio Spurs can capture fans’ imaginations playing seamlessly as a unit. In soccer, the individual matters more. We expect moments of brilliance and take-ons, heroes and personalities. The Germans had little of that on Sunday. Unfortunately, the Argentinians weren’t much better.

Neither the team as a unit nor any individual German player was able to capture fans’ collective imagination during the tournament. That kind of goose-bump excitement in the presence of genius artistry was reserved for individual stars such as  Messi, Robben, Neymar, James, (Tim Howard,) and perhaps a few teams like Colombia and Costa Rica. But the Germans won.  They passed excellently as usual in the classical European fashion and sent crosses into the middle, one of which Mario Goëtze expertly graced into the empty right side of the Argentine net. There was nothing goalie Sergio Romero could do.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also very efficient, with her winners.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is also very efficient, with her winners.

The Game That Happened

The Germans scored late enough in the second period of overtime that the Argentinians couldn’t generate a response, and the game, as expected, finished calmly and predictably in Germany’s favor. Luckily this simple story does not completely capture this final. It still was…a final. And that in itself means that the match wasn’t completely devoid of intrigue. Pity points really, though. There were moments where we really thought the beat was about to drop. Goals were almost scored and more importantly for soccer matches, rising tides of momentum almost struck up each team into a fury of aggressive, fearless, attacking soccer, the best kind to watch and bask in as a neutral fan. Almost.

To Read More about aggressive, fearless, attacking soccer in the 2014 World Cup click Here.

The first half saw a few brilliant runs by Messi, the kind where you’re sure the defender has stopped him because he pauses, but then he smacks the ball out into open space knowing that he is faster and more nimble than any hulking German defender. The Flea, as he is affectionately called, had one such run all the way to the German end line and was almost able to chip the ball into the middle for an opportunity in front of goal. The run prompted my German friend to turn to me and say, “He’s ballsy.” I agreed. I quickly realized that he had been talking about German goalie Manuel Neuer, but we decided that both Neueur and Messi were turning in fairly gutsy performances. As for the rest of the players on the pitch…gutsy doesn’t seem to be the right word. Efficient, careful, disciplined perhaps.

The Argentinians seemed to be so surprised every time they got a chance in front of net that they couldn’t finish anything. The monotony of the German anthem was in their heads, and they couldn’t get it out. It all goes back to the German Complex that did in France even more passively and comfortably than Argentina. Forward Gonzalo Higuaìn had an open opportunity in front of Germany’s goal—on a bouncing ball in fairness—and he missed badly. Rodrigo Palacio missed another. Germany was inches away from scoring on a corner kick at the end of the first half, but the goalpost apparently didn’t want the final to get too interesting.

Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuaìn will regret missing an easy chance in the first half against the Germans. Soccer fans watching the game regret it too.
Argentine forward Gonzalo Higuaìn will regret missing an easy chance in the first half against the Germans. Soccer fans watching the game regret it too.

Any of these chances converted into a goal would have immensely enhanced the match. A goal could have been that beat drop, that momentum swing that would have caused the opposing squad to raise their intensity and think only about scoring. Push forward. Get to goal. Score a goal. Put one in to tie this up. Maybe down a goal the Germans would have even been willing to act as individual players and take an Argentine on once in a while. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Goals were not scored, and as the game progressed each team hunkered down, closed up shop, and played a more petrified, careful European style of soccer.

The Latin American Way

Historically, the Argentine teams and other South American peoples have looked down on the type of soccer played in this year’s final, held of course in South America. The longstanding Argentine sports journal El Grafico wrote in 1928:

Inspired in the same school as the British, the Latins soon began modifying the science of the game and fashioning one of their own, which is now widely recognized…it is different from the British in that it is less monochrome, less disciplined and methodical, because it does not sacrifice individualism for the honor of collective values.

This quote could have been made about the 2014 German team who have clearly adopted the classical British philosophy of soccer. The Germans were excellent at playing together in Brazil—disciplined, methodical, monochrome are perfect words to describe them, and it worked. Traditionally, Argentina and other nations of the Rìo de la Plata in South America–Uruguay and Chile (though Chile is not actually on the river)–have embraced a completely different style of soccer that emphasizes speed, dribbling, and a collection of individual playmaking ability, an aspect first of criollo and then Latin fútbol identity.

Criollo originally signified the class of people in Latin America who were born locally of Spanish heritage, language, and culture. In the 19th and early 20th century, the distinction was often used to separate people of “pure” Spanish heritage from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. As South American countries became more inclusive in the 20th century, the concept of Latin-ness that included those left out of the criollo identity–people of Amerindian and African descent and mulattos of mixed backgrounds–flourished, often around football and the region’s unique style of play. In 1926, El Grafico wrote of Latin football (soccer) that:

the football that the Argentines, and by extension the Uruguayans, play is more beautiful, more artistic, and more precise because…[it involves] skilful dribbling and very delicate passes.

The magazine believed that the European version of soccer–the style we saw played by both Germany and Argentina in this year’s final–was inferior to Latin football because, “it perhaps lacks effectiveness due to the individual actions of our great players.” While the Germans were undoubtedly effective at everything they did in this tournament, the Argentinians were not. They scored only 7 goals for (excluding one own-goal) in 7 games. That is weak. Eleven goals less than Germany, 8 goals less than the Netherlands. They scored the same number of goals in the tournament as Switzerland and Algeria, each of whom played 3 less games than the Albiceleste.

The reason for Argentina’s dismal offensive performance may be attributable to their less than perfect emulation of the efficient German machine, run less effectively with an even greater emphasis on being conservative. The strategy may have helped them reach the final but it made for relatively mundane play, uninspiring television throughout their run, and an overall boring World Cup final. It may have also smothered Messi at times although Germany’s defense must be given credit for the superstar’s periods of disappearance in the final. Star Argentine players such as Higuaìn, forward Sergio Aguëro, and even superstar midfielders Àngel di Marìa (who did not play against Germany due to injury) and Messi at times seemed subdued within Argentina’s team- and defense-oriented approach.

It is a question that many nations will have to answer: Is it worth sacrificing a team’s and nation’s cultural identity on the field to get a better shot at winning? What if it just takes you a little further in the tournament? The one team that looked poised to actually beat the Germans in Brazil was Ghana who played with a seemingly “Latin,” non-rigid, poetic, free attacking style that allowed individual players to be creative and make chances for themselves and teammates. Ghana’s two goals were the most scored in any match against the Germans in the tournament. Thus there may be a practical, rational argument against Argentina’s choice of playing style in addition to the cultural, emotional argument.

Recent History of Mechanical Football

After seeing the success of methodical teams like Italy, Spain, and now Germany in the last three World Cups, many countries are focusing more on playing a conservative, highly structured, passing-oriented game in order to bolster defense and maintain a machine-like formation that can’t break down.

In these last three World Cups, the runners up have each played with more aggression, dribbling, and individual spark than the winners but even these second-place teams seem to be migrating over to the conservative style. From Zinedine Zidane’s 2006 French side to 2010’s Dutch squad, and then surprisingly to this year’s Argentinian squad, the trend seems to strengthen.

All tournament long, the importance of Argentinian holding midfielder Javier Mascherano was talked about, not because his dominance in the middle of the pitch allowed Argentina to attack at will—they never did—but because this was a defense-oriented, conservative team. The approach was strikingly different from past great Argentine teams such as those of Maradonna. Barrilete Cósmico, or “the Cosmic Kite,” as Maradonna is admiringly called in Argentina, said before Argentina’s quarterfinal match against Belgium that the “team leaves a lot to be desired on the overall front.” He was likely talking about their lack of individual confidence and flair, their lack of Latin-ness, the way they didn’t play el fùtbol rioplatense. They tried something else. And in the end it worked to an extent–Argentina made it to the final match–but at what cost?

The Argentine players celebrating their penalty kick victory over the Netherlands.
The Argentine players celebrating their penalty kick victory over the Netherlands.

Nothing can be taken away from Germany’s great run. They ran the “Machine Strategy” perfectly, never losing a match and only once looking out of their wits in the draw with Ghana. Rather than this World Cup being about Messi or Neymar or any other individual player or players, it has been about the “Machine Strategy” working to the fullest. There were no tweaks or major weaknesses in the German side. Casual soccer fans will also never remember any of the German players’ names. But does that really matter? For the team they created and for winning their first World Cup in 24 years, the German players along with coach Joachim Löw deserve praise and admiration. They proved true the proud chorus of their national anthem:

Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der welt!

Germany, Germany above everything, above everything in the world!

Even above their own individual players. And above perhaps the most dynamic version of the game of soccer. The Germans performed expertly, and lovers of O jogo bonito can only nod in respect and pray to the soccer Gods that the next World Cup will be different.

 

 

 

[Quotes from Pier Paolo Pasolini and El Grafico cited in Andreas Campomar (2014) Golazo!, p. 89, 115, 345]

by Jake Montgomery

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