Jonathan Wilson wrote a short but intriguing article just over a week ago for the New Statesman (of all publications). On initial reading, it appears to cover familiar ground for an unfamiliar audience. With the infamous 6-3 victory by Hungary over England in 1953 as its fulcrum, Wilson argues that international football was once a festival of contrasting styles, approaches and national visions of the “Beautiful Game.”
Normally at this point, conventional wisdom dicates that the pundit shall write that the proliferation of club football on television has led to a homogenization of style, so that a nation (like England) won’t ever be caught off guard by a hitherto unknown tactical innovation again. But Wilson goes on to make a more sophisticated argument for why the club version has superseded international football in aesthetic quality:
But it’s also because international football, since the early 1970s, has lagged behind the club game, both in terms of quality and tactical evolution, precisely because of the latter’s systematisation. Just how systematised is perhaps best explained by the Guardian’s “Secret Footballer”, an unnamed Premier League player, who, from behind his anonymity, speaks with unusual openness about the professional game. “We memorise every single set piece,” he wrote.
We even memorise this for the other players so we know where everyone else will be at any given time. You know that pass when you say to yourself: “How did he spot that?” Often he didn’t need to; he knew the player would be there because, the night before in the hotel, he read about the runs he would be making.
Wilson goes on to argue that players are so well-drilled at the club level, what seem like instinctual passes to team mates to the observer are in fact the result of intentional, drilled practice. Hence, the common viewer refrain of “Who was that pass for?” when a teammate is unexpectedly taken out of the play. The player is just following a routine.
In other words, what was once thought to be improvised artistry is now a complex form of rote memorization (if Wilson’s Secret Footballer is to be believed).
The problem is, when players convene for international football they don’t have the time to practice at the same level of complexity. So the next best thing for managers is to employ simple, reactive formations (England’s two banks of four for example, or the go-to 4-2-3-1 approach). At best, this leads to exciting if error-strewn hammer-and-tongs football. At worst, well, you get England v France.
This got me thinking of Bobby Fischer’s famous remarks about chess. The late American Grandmaster, who achieved international fame for his lifelong rivalry with Soviet prodigy Boris Spassky (and being an antisemetic prick), famously distanced himself from the “old chess” toward the end of his life, which he said was “dead” and “played out”. Why?
At the highest level it is all pre-arranged, move by move. You have very interesting, beautiful pre-arranged games being created by very intelligent players, working with computers, working in teams. I have no objections to people creating such games, but they must say these are pre-arranged games, but they must not claim that they are finding the moves over the board. I have learned so much from these pre-arranged matches and all these cooked-up notes, they’re wonderful. But they are fake, they are flawed.
Fischer used the phrase “old chess” because he’d come up with a new form of the game known as Chess960, also known as Fischer Random Chess, in which the major pieces (those behind the pawns) are arranged in random order. This forces the players to use their instincts rather than memorize a long set of conventional chess openings which yield statistically-measurable win probability percentages, as almost all the contemporary Grandmasters do today.
The variation hasn’t quite caught on yet in mainstream chess circles, although it’s growing in popularity among those convinced memorization has taken the joy and artistry out of the game.
Might we eventually reach the point where those fed-up with the bland, across-the-board mechanical sameness of modern football tactics will develop a groundbreaking innovation that maintains the spirit of football, while forcing players to rely on their instincts and creativity in addition to their physical training?
If so, what would that innovation look like? A small rule tweak? An added player on each side? Football is a notoriously conservative sport, so the likelihood that any changes—even minor ones—would be met with mainstream acceptance is impossibly small.
But there’s another way of looking at the problem. Perhaps international football itself could one day become the locus of football qua sport, in the old sense of the word: a pastime, something to be enjoyed.
Much in the same way cup competitions no one much cares about are often the source of the most entertaining football (see the Carling Cup), perhaps over the (very) long term, as international football loses its lustre in the public eye, teams may no longer resort to reactive, negative tactics but instead use the tournaments as a means to showboat their skill, to experiment, to take risks.
If this seems far-fetched, think of the damage a poor World Cup in Qatar could do to international football’s image—exhausted players, fan boycotts, empty stadia. Add to that yawning boredom that could greet the Euros with its expansion to 24 teams in 2016. Maybe the European Club Association follows through on its threat to split from UEFA, and refuses to allow its brightest stars to play in international tournaments.
Maybe, in the end, the best way toward FIFA reform would be for people to stop caring as much about international football. Perhaps through its own greed and political hubris, the organization loses piles of money and the corrupt profiteers move on to something else.
In this scenario, the World Cup has no choice to shrink. Fewer fans go because the best players no longer play. Instead, young prospects might choose to play for their country just to get the minutes. As the international trophies lose their lustre, perhaps coaches and players will be more willing to take risks, to improvise, to break away from the monotony of a rehearsed club formation.
Of course none of this might happen, but rather than suffering from the homogenization and memorization of club football, perhaps the international game might one day help revive it.