Mike Ticher acknowledges that there are several ways in which to appreciate football. But if we concentrate too much on the view of professionals, we risk missing the point altogether
I was a bit shocked to find out I didn’t know how to watch football, despite years of practice. At least that was the impression I got from Jonathan Wilson’s excellent book on tactics, Inverting the Pyramid. Perhaps a better way to put it is that the book exposes the gulf between two ways of watching: the fan’s way, in which you care about the result and the entertainment; and the coach’s or analyst’s, in which you study patterns and work out what each team is trying to do. The book’s genius is that it successfully explains the second way of thinking to the first group of people.
True, there are moments when you are tempted to agree with Wilson’s Guardian colleague, Barry Glendenning, who suggested during the World Cup that occasionally Wilson read a little too much into the movement of a player five metres in a particular direction. But if the details of the systems used at the top level baffle some of us, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or are unimportant.
So far, so good. My horizons were expanded, even if I couldn’t explain exactly why 4-2-3-1 was likely to impose itself on 3-1-3-3. But a second book published this year, which deals with some of the same themes, drove me to a fury in a way Wilson’s did not. Fozz on Football, by Australia’s best-known commentator, Craig Foster, sounds like a knockabout autobiography. In fact it is a deadly serious polemic about the way Australians – and everyone else – should think about football. That way is to reach the same plane as Wilson.
The former Crystal Palace midfielder and Socceroos captain is a divisive figure. He is passionate about all the right things: better education for coaches, small-sided games for children, attacking football based on passing, technique over strength and stamina, learning from the right countries (not England). Who could disagree?
But Foster is not just an advocate, he is a zealot (tellingly prone to imagery such as "the sacred heart of football" and "another football soul saved"). It is easy to understand why fans of Australian rules and the rugby codes dismiss him, as he pours contempt on their brands of football. He refuses even to recognise them as football. The loathsome word "soccer" never passes his lips, except in unfortunate contexts such as the nickname of his national team, or the stadium the World Cup final was held in. His game is "the real football" or "the only football".
But this goes beyond parochial Australian debates. It is also about how the drive for technical improvement and more advanced systems can make us lose sight of what is really important about football. The key part of Foster’s book compares it to The Matrix: "There are essentially two levels to football; a superficial layer that focuses on the incidents, the goals, the tackles, a great piece of skill or a debatable refereeing decision, and a deeper level which requires an entirely different sensibility to view and which takes years, usually decades, to master."
This is true. It is more or less the difference between the way I watch a match and the way Wilson or Foster does. But is one necessarily better than the other? Naturally, Foster thinks so. He acknowledges that fans are "emotionally connected", but urges them to learn how "the masters" (such as himself) become more detached as they move towards "the correct reading of the game". This also leads you to "the real football" – the way it is played at elite level in certain countries.
In this view, football's global appeal is due to its beauty, which becomes clearer as the game becomes more sophisticated. This is deeply misguided for two reasons. First, it holds true only if you find games at the highest level intrinsically fascinating. Foster does, but many people don't. I watched Spain’s World Cup win with a mixture of admiration and frustration. Yes, it was technically and tactically brilliant, and sometimes "beautiful". But was it gripping? Were those four 1-0 wins in a row the best football can be?
To me there was something repressed and clinical about Spain that sucked drama from their matches. Contrast that with the first half of England v Germany, which showcased recklessness, daring, incompetence and stupidity. Less advanced, certainly, but much more fun.
Second, of all the cliches that attach themselves to football, the idea that it is the "beautiful game" is the most ludicrous. There is very little beauty about 99.99 per cent of matches. In fact its appeal is almost the opposite – that even the ugliest game can be thrilling and the least accomplished footballer can enjoy playing. Fields populated by seven-year-old girls, 60-year-old men and everyone in between bear witness to that every weekend.
That doesn’t mean we should be content if England (or Australia) produces cruder and more ignorant players than other countries. We should all aspire to play like Barcelona and to understand how they do it. But don’t let snobs tell you that’s the only valid kind of football. Take away the superficial and emotional, and the stadiums and parks would be empty.
From WSC 284 November 2010