So now what? 4 Clásicos down, and two more to go in August: have we learned anything? Start with The Run of Play‘s Brian Phillips. He posted an excellent set of reflections last week on some lessons learned:
For the Wengers, Mourinhos, Fergusons, et. al., it’s as if soccer itself, the entire system of the game, has splintered into fragments, and the fragments have somehow shifted in such a way that things no longer work the way they’re supposed to. From the outside, the system looks almost the same, but from the inside, there’s a subtle difference, a minor bias against earnest efforts that would succeed if the bias weren’t there. The referee may be the most obvious sign of that bias—its avatar, so to speak—but I think the apprehension itself points to something more vague and atmospheric than conscious and deliberate. That is, I don’t think that Mourinho really believes that real individuals within UEFA are involved in a concrete conspiracy against him. But he also isn’t making things up. He senses that something is wrong, even if it’s impossible to articulate exactly what it is. One of the reasons that the post-game complaints of managers seem so unhinged and rant-y, I think, is that coaches are driven to exaggeration and rage by the need to be specific and plausible about something that probably feels to them like magic.
Phillips doesn’t just diagnose this new brand of rage in coaches…because ultimately they’re not really worth our concern. They do this for a living, a GOOD living. They get paid really well to live and “suffer” this way. No, Phillips worries about us fans. He suspects
…that one of the reasons we’re so fascinated by, and so hard on, managerial rants is that they give us back grotesque versions of our own feelings. Especially in sports, which is deliberately designed to flood your brain with testosterone, we’ve all experienced that mind-snapping moment where some bit of bad luck or perceived unfairness sends you hurtling over the edge. As fans, we’ve lived through losses that made us think no—no—that can’t be right—this isn’t right, losses that made us feel utterly, metaphysically thwarted. And at those instants when your brain simply refuses to accept what’s happening, “the truth” is a concept that has no relevance to anything you think. You don’t believe or disbelieve, you just know in an overpowering way that the universe is somehow against you, and seize on whatever evidence comes to hand to give form to the feeling.
And this is definitely right. This is a childish impulse, but we never really outgrow it. I remember offering bargains to the universe as I fell asleep the night after Kordell Stewart beat Michigan on a 70 yard, last-second hail mary heave. “Hang on, wait a second,” I kept thinking, “Michigan are ‘The Champions of the West,’ the ‘Leaders and Best!’” For days, I wasn’t quite sure that it happened. I knew, deep down, that we were destined for better (yes, “we”—that tight emotional vinculum between fan and team is part of the problem). We’d beaten them. The clock had expired during the play, after all. Time had technically expired! We had a great defense! How could this have happened? Who LET this happen?
Every sports fan has a moment (or moments) like this. Some of us outgrow the impulse, but most can’t hem it in entirely. Phillips’ point is that “the truth about hyperpartisanship is that it is an absolutely miserable and unpleasant way to be a sports fan.” [emphasis added]**
See, this is the wrong way to be a fan. It’s not a different way, or a more authentic way, or a personal choice, or a measure of devotion. No—if you’ve gotten to the point where you can’t take a loss in stride, where you can’t imagine that a call against your team carried some justice, where you can’t admire a downright gorgeous goal scored against your team, or other such partisan nonsense, you’re doing it wrong. The prevalence of this attitude—”we never deserve to lose”—is ruining the game for too many fans.
It’s been a problem among managers in England for years among the biggest clubs. There, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger are the high priests of the cult of partisan victimhood…even if Mourinho has carried it to its highest, fullest conclusion.
Why? Because the narrowing competitive horizons shrink the number of relevant games every year. Any serious semblance of parity collapsed in England some years ago, even if the crowd of big clubs at the top is slightly broader than La Liga’s. The big games are becoming the only games.
It’s catching, and this isn’t an accident. This is where the best English-speaking journalist covering La Liga comes in—Sid Lowe (though Phillips is giving him a run for it). Parity in Spain has disappeared in the last few years (as most fútbol fans know).
Most people understand the contours: Beckham showed up and this kicked off a sort of buying war between the country’s two biggest clubs. Hundreds of millions of euros later, La Liga has joined the EPL as a two-tier league.
Life seems so easy easy for Madrid and Barcelona, but privately players admit it is hard. “Terrifying,” said one. “Overwhelming,” said another. From the outside, it is difficult to judge the colossal tension, to appreciate it. The pressure is bordering on the cruel. You feel like you cannot make a single mistake, ever. Football is a sport: You can win lose or draw. Or it was. Now you can only win. Every. Single. Week.
So while it’s true that there’s a value to the heightened spectacle, there are other consequences. I want to highlight TWO.
First of all, the ever-growing resources eventually raise the stakes to a point where they diminish the on-pitch activity. The pressure eventually gets so high to where the game can no longer bear the expectations.
Here’s an example: Last fall, Madrid got embarrassed, 0-5, in the Camp Nou. They snapped. They bought more players in the winter transfer window, and they surrendered decades of attacking tradition to avoid facing such a scoreline EVER again. For the return clásico, they locked tight at the back, with extra defenders in midfield roles. In short, they did everything possible to avoid losing big. In short(er), they completely abandoned any thoughts of fluidity.
It was a snoozefest. This is a game that included the top three finishers for this year’s Ballon d’Or, the all-time leading scorer for the Spanish national side, 2007 and 2008 Ballon d’Or winners, 13 members from Spain’s World Champion national squad, and otherwise star-studded rosters on both sides. On paper, it couldn’t look better. It should have been one of the most elite, top-notch, flowing games of soccer ever played. No matter. It was a risk-averse, grinding game…hardly worth watching.
Secondly, the increase in pressure feeds the mechanism that Phillips outlined. Madrid only turned to the full-scale defensive tactics because losing was unthinkable. In the same article, Lowe gestures to this: “Clubs and fans and the media look for someone to blame, someone to pay the price, someone [has] to take the bullet.”
That inchoate yearning for someone, for something to blame stems from the pressure. When one loss determines the outcome of the entire season, when all of the plans culminate in single moments, when three different titles are at stake over eighteen days, THIS is what happens. THIS is what happens. Coaches blame the refs, drugs, the media, the other coach, a lack of sportsmanship, and anything else they can grasp.
The game suffers. But as Phillips points out, YOU-the-fans also suffer.
It’s all linked. As the top of the league rises into the stratosphere, most games get less meaningful, but the few intra-elite games become impossibly important. They get more cautious, and the press conferences become more strained. Beautiful moments like this and this disappear into the ether. Fans hardly notice, because they’re all fixated on whether or not there was a malicious foul or a dive or a too-wet pitch or too-long grass or a pitch invasion or a crazy press conference or ultras attacking the opposition’s bus afterwards, etc, etc, etc. All of the season’s excitement and anticipation get packed into one or two games…because those are the only ones that actually matter. Sure, Madrid and Barcelona will lose the occasional match to one of the unwashed, plebeian squads out there, but it’s going to get more rare unless something is done to level the playing field a bit.
And this is why a recommitment to some sort of parity is so important. Today Madrid announced their first signing for next season. It won’t be their last. Barcelona will soon resume their attempt to recapture Cesc Fabregas. These moves might add talent to their squads, but they won’t improve the game, or your life. Somehow, some way, we need to lower the stakes of these games. Otherwise, truly classic clásicos will have become a thing of the past.
**Let me be entirely predictable and self-parodying and point out that this line reminds me of one of David Foster Wallace’s, which I quote at length here (about halfway down).