Sunday, 24 June 2012

Why is brilliant football so boring to watch?

Something awkward once happened to me in a pizza bar in Spain. It was a few years ago, in a small town on the Costa Brava, and I was reading an English-language newspaper that I'd managed to purchase in exchange for a million pounds in a nearby newsagent. The owner of the bar came over and clocked my reading material.

"Torres?" He said to me.

"Er... que?" (My Spanish is excellent.)

"Torres! My friend. Torres. MY friend."

And he wandered off, smiling and shaking his head at how stupid I was. Later I remembered that at this point, Torres was both Spanish and currently playing for Liverpool. The bar owner had obviously sought to make some kind of ethereal connection with me through the medium of Premier League strikers. 

It was sort of like that bit in Pocahontas where Pocahontas and John Smith don't speak each other's languages, but through the magic of love they can understand each other perfectly. Sort of like that, but with football. Anyway, it was a passionate, confusing and slightly aggressive encounter, like all good incidents in rural Spain.

Last night, as Spain destroyed France in their march towards the Euro 2012 final, Torres (my friend of a friend) and his gang of wandering goal-fanciers gave a masterclass in highly skilled and intricately strategised football. They were constantly in possession, denying every French chance and performing a kaleidoscopic pattern of eternal passing. It was brilliant, assertive football. But it was maddening.

It was the 'mine-all-mine' school of play. It was tiki-taka, constant short passing and never letting the other team have so much as a sniff of the ball. It was wanting to win, not wanting to play a great game. Granted, France were all over the place and seemed to have forgotten how to attack, but Spain didn't make many bold decisions and seemed desperate not to open up the game. 

Some pundits will try to tell you that this sort of football is exciting, that it keeps up the pace and showcases the skills of the players in charge. It's a privilege, they say, to watch such a team at the height of its powers.

They are wrong. It's the essence of moneyed football: tight, efficient and uninspiring. It's not in the spirit of the game (it's not generous, or reactive, or creative) and it just leads to one team kicking their heels for 90 minutes and waiting for it all to be over.

A caveat: not all world-beating teams play like this, and not all the ones that do make it so boring to watch. But the way Spain played last night, while it got them their win and let them dominate the game, was the dregs of international football. 

And what's more, actually, it doesn't showcase the real skills of the team using it. You catch glimpses of players' genius when you see them tackle, strike, take beautiful corners and lead a devastating attack from nowhere, not when you see them endlessly pass back and forth to their pals over tiny distances. We want to watch football, not piggy-in-the-middle.

All of which is exactly what I shall say when I next meet one of Torres' friends in a Spanish pizza bar, and you should too.

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