The contours of the latest “Are Spain boring?” debate are a tad warped. In the absence of any actual earnest opposition to the way Spain play football—without a striker, with a paucity of clear chances and an emphasis on the defensive advantage wrought by near 70% possession—several writers have created a fictional composite of the “average” football fan who apparently wants Spain to really “go for it.”
This creation was sparked, as ever, by the accredited press who pestered various members of the Spanish national outfit over whether the way they play is “boring.” Journalists being journalists, they framed their questions in such a way as to play the part of messenger, rather than critic. ‘The public just wants to know,’ is the unspoken refrain.
Various writers have since breathed further life into this unhappy character. The fan bored by Spain “has an absurd sense of entitlement and demands to be entertained” (Wilson). They “wish the World Cup and European champions would shoot from absurd distances or shell the opposition’s penalty area with high balls” (Ruthven). They apparently have asked, “Where’s the action? Where are the goals? Why aren’t you even conceding goals? Where’s your Mario? Where’s your Zlatan?” (White).
These are talented writers to the last, but they’ve provided scant evidence there is in fact a growing movement of fans who want Spain to play like Kevin Keegan’s 1996 Newcastle. Yes—some football neutrals aren’t ready to pay fealty to the natural attraction of tiki-taka. However to therefore insinuate those who find tiki-taka boring therefore don’t “understand football,” that they want Spain to play in a way more befitting a Premier League side, or they’re demanding that Del Bosque to field a traditional centre-forward is unfair.
I’ve always appreciated the effectiveness of the Spanish approach, and the considerable skill involved. I am aware of its subtle aesthetic gifts, the positioning of Xavi and Iniesta, the discipline in the interchange, the shrinking of the pitch on those rare occasions when they lose possession. I can appreciate these things, but not enjoy them as much as I might enjoy the elements that constitute a messy, defensively sloppy 4-3 thriller. Does this mean I want Spain to play hammer-and-tongs football? Or for Del Bosque to develop a Spanish Messi so Spain really can be an international Barcelona, simply because I want to be entertained? Does anyone?
Having not had the time or resources to take a statistically sound poll, I’m going to take a risk and say no. As I wrote yesterday, I would cause irreparable harm to my digestive system for Canada to play the same way as Spain, but only insofar as it aids and abets the scoreline. Most fans of other teams would say the same thing.
As a neutral however, I will always root for the underdog, i.e. pretty much any team that faces Spain in competitive play, because the joy of all effective systems in football is waiting for the moment when the system is overthrown, whether by some as-of-yet unheard of beauty or the scything tackles of an angry Pepe. Neutrals don’t dislike Spain because the way they play is boring; they dislike Spain because they always win, and do so in a way so brilliantly effective it risks what seems like nothing in the winning. And unlike Barcelona, they don’t have a Messi figure onto which they can project their need to revel in the glory of gloriousness. All they get is the grim pass completion rates of the best midfield in the history of football.
But railing at these ingrates for not “getting” why tiki-taka is actually quite good and not as crushingly boring as it otherwise seems is like getting angry at people who don’t appreciate your favourite band. Aesthetic appreciation in football is entirely subjective, and shouldn’t really be a concern for those in positions of power to make decisions about how teams play football. The only aesthetic concern that matters is the one which positively affects the final score. That’s why there is nothing more goading in press conferences than players who tell us it’s good certain teams (i.e. theirs) win because they play football the way it “should” be played. We would all be better off if we could be spared this kind of deontological ethics, which should have no place in any competitive sport.
Which means the real issue isn’t whether Spanish football is boring or not; it’s the meaningless of the question. And because it is meaningless, fans therefore have the right to appreciate any goddamn form of football they like, because they have no say in it one way or another.