29 September ~ The abuse that rained down after Rangers' recent 0-0 Champions League draw at Old Trafford was peppered with one particular phrase: "anti-football". This was Lionel Messi's post-match jibe about Rangers' defensive style after a goalless draw with Barcelona at Ibrox in 2007. Considering we'd concede 13 goals in our next four Champions League home games, and that Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta – part of that tamed visiting side – would soon form the fulcrum of Spain's World Cup-winning team, it's a night which should glow even warmer in retrospect than it did when 50,000 wildly celebrated keeping Barça at bay. Yet Messi's frustrated outburst has been afforded far more credence than that result ever has.

Not objective, educated credence but the kind which counts – punter credence. In a country where every Rangers success inspires fear and hysteria among many rival supporters Messi's misinformed words were a godsend. It's inverted flattery, of course, but the disappointment is that no one could come up with anything more imaginative or even accurate. For me, defence is one third of football's key disciplines. A failure to appreciate it done well – particularly by fans of clubs who concede five to Sigma Olomuc or Artmedia Bratislava (erm, Aberdeen and Celtic!) – is to have no understanding of the game. Defence is football as much as midfield or attack.

"Anti-football" should surely be anything which involves sustained, nefarious acts of cheating or disrespect for your opponent. The kind perpetrated, say, by Estudiantes de La Plata in the 1960s and 70s which stopped European teams wanting to play in the World Club Championship. Or by the Argentine national team when they've just lost a World Cup quarter-final in Berlin and decide, instead of shaking their hands, to kick, punch and butt the shit out the German players. You'd think Messi would be familiar with this stuff.
Rangers had three players booked the night Lionel spat the dummy – just one more than Barcelona. Even in defence we never get too "anti". We conceded three goals in each of our last two games to drop into third in the group. Suddenly defending seemed like our weak point. Yet no one ever mocked us at this stage with cries of "pro-football". We just looked incompetent and that sufficed. But as we parachuted into the UEFA Cup and proceeded to get to the final by keeping it tight and scoring on the break or waiting for penalties, "anti-football" was used and abused until it corroded the façade of Rangers' best European run in 36 years. No matter that an SPL side was ousting Serie A and Bundesliga clubs. No matter that we had just one player sent off en route to the final. If the riot in Manchester couldn't be used to recast a Rangers achievement as humiliating for Scottish football then a wanton misrepresentation of our heroically pragmatic style was ready to wear.
It was brought out to air again on "Match Day 1" this season. Reducing Manchester United to hopeful shots by Darron Gibson and leaving with our goal intact and an unexpected point on the board would seem like the kind of result no one could argue with. And for those who don't think the result is the only true arbiter of quality, we had just two players booked, committed six fewer fouls than United and enjoyed 46 per cent possession. Obviously, plenty of non-Rangers fans are going to begrudge us this or any result but that's their job. That's the price of success all Bluenoses are only too happy to pay. It's half the fun. And, yes, we'd all prefer to see our team constantly swarm forward with menace and guile and slap in four or five goals for a seismic result. However, Rangers have made just one big-money signing in the last two years – and he's cup-tied for Europe. Wayne Rooney's transfer would fetch the kind of money which could buy everyone at Rangers, including the cleaners and burger bar staff, and Ibrox stadium itself. For us to hold the third-biggest club on the planet, on their own patch, is a freakin' miracle.
When Rangers had real money, we beat the Champions of England home and away to qualify for the Champions League group stages then went through that group unbeaten, scoring in every game except the last when a desperate CSKA Moscow put ten men behind the ball. We blamed ourselves for poor finishing. Walter Smith was the manager then and although Rangers won the Cup-Winners Cup in 1972 he's masterminded the club's best-ever runs in the other two, more important, European competitions. He did it however he could, but he never did anything against the game itself. He wouldn't know how. It's interesting how "anti-Football" scans almost perfectly with "I hate Rangers". It's more obvious why I've started to think of the outgoing Rangers manager as "Uncle Football". And Lionel Messi remains a poor wee boy who couldn't score at Ibrox. Alex Anderson

Comments (19)
Comment by johntheface 2010-09-29 11:52:47

Hear, flippin' hear. Nothing does my head in more than the "anti-football" brigade. Wenger and Hansen are the worst. "Arsenal play football the right way". No they don't. The right way to play football is the way that wins without cheating. West Brom played the right way on Saturday. Arsenal didn't. "Spain winning the World Cup Final was a victory for football". No it wasn't. Would a football fairy have died if Holland had won? Shearer had a go at Man City for playing the wrong tactics against Chelsea on Saturday. They beat the best team in the world (apart from possibly Barcelona who, incidentally, go about signing players in completely the wrong way). Get off your high-horses and stop blaming the ref just cause the other team know how to tackle. A manager's job is simply to win football matches. Not entertain neutrals

Comment by scofmann 2010-09-29 15:45:21

You boys still in business up there?

I'd take the poor wee bhoy over Kenny Miller, to be quite honest...

Comment by Alex Anderson 2010-09-29 15:55:14

So woudl I - but it would need to be Messi. There's not many othes could replace Kenny just now ... and at least he doesnae talk shite.

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2010-09-29 16:30:18

You pay your money , you make your choice. I can't stand negative teams whose sole purpose is to stop the other team playing and if my team did that I would go to fewer matches.
No one is forcing anyone to watch Rangers but if they were my team I wouldn't bother going to watch them stifle the opposition.
that's my choice though and if you don't care how you win then that's your choice.

Personally I would rather sandpaper my testicles than watch Rangers in Europe.

Comment by Matei 2010-09-29 16:45:54

Right, more apologetics for ugly, cynical football - just what we need. God forbid that neutrals might be entertained.
Tell me this: once you're done "appreciating" your team's tremendous defensive prowess, how do you plan to score in order to win, say a UEFA cup? Kick the ball forward and reorganize the defense, right? If winning is so all-important.
"Heroically pragmatic style"? I hope you had a laugh when you wrote that.

Comment by bearsinbath 2010-09-29 22:56:24

Well said Alex, just on sky highlights now they were talking about it. i.e. Jose Mourhino - Master class of defending,but Walter Smith - Anti Football. The poster jertzeeAFCW, I am surmising is an Arsenal fan, if so short memories - anytime pre and early Wenger.

Comment by English Republic 2010-09-29 23:20:54

I wouldn't watch a Scottish game if it was taking place in my back garden. Of all the foreign leagues shown in this country it is the lowest in quality. That said, Rangers or anyone else have every right to play the way they want in order to get the result they need as long as it is within the rules of the game. As someone once said, if you want to be entertained, go and watch the clowns.

Comment by shoulderpads 2010-09-29 23:22:39

Presumably Arsenal were trying to win when they were embarassed almost single-handedly by Messi a few months back. It was entertaining for neutrals, right enough.

Comment by Cadete15 2010-09-30 07:11:44

I often can find it frustrating how some other supporters of my club place too much focus on the style of football being playing rather than the good actual results the side’s playing style is receiving on the pitch. I am a big believer for example in forwards being selected for their scoring rates despite how ugly and unfashionable they score compared to selecting other more charismatic and technically gifted forwards. So on these grounds despite other obvious differences I agree that the “Anti Football” comment is used way to often for a comment of little relevance in the game.

I think where you argument falls short is how up you open by mentioning defence is one third of the game and then glorifying a side playing a game with the mind in three thirds of defence in a opening match of First Group Stage of the Champions League. Many great sides have been built firmly on strong defences but that also have become great sides for taking their opportunities and making them count. Why can not a side like Rangers (Whose recent UEFA Cup victories you felt the need to highlight) not attempt to attack a opening Champions League tie with the vigour of a side placing some risk of pinching the goods of the Group’s obvious Top Qualifier. Imagine the confidence the side would receive, against opponent who they cannot compete with for the Group’s top spot.

Comment by jertzeeAFCW 2010-09-30 13:28:38

bearsinbath - no , I do not support Arsenal. I support AFC Wimbledon....

Comment by ZoltanBuchan 2010-09-30 13:39:45

So it's not good for 'the neutrals?' Aw, poor lambs. Surely Walter Smith should have recognised his duty to the armchair brigade and dutifully allowed his team to get slaughtered.

Walter Smith's (and for that matter Sam Allerdyce's) job is to get results, not put on show. That's what he did at Old Trafford, and fair play to him and his team. FWIW, I support Aberdeen, and was hoping Man Utd ran up a cricket score against them, but I can't fault the manner they approached the game.

Comment by tempestinaflathat 2010-09-30 15:08:26

'"Anti-football" should surely be anything which involves sustained, nefarious acts of cheating or disrespect for your opponent'

Spot on. The same old anti-football tripe got trotted out after Inter knocked Barcelona out of the European Cup last season. The fact that Inter had to defend because they spent most of the match playing with only ten men, and that they were reduced to that state by a Barcelona player cheating, seemed to pass most of the media by.

Unfortunately, there are many who think that nothing but attacking and tikitaka count, that all manner of cheating is legitimate but a team (whether it be Rangers, Stoke, Inter or whoever) playing to their strengths and covering their limitations is not. So presumably Arsenal, who got thumped by Barcelona, are better than Inter, who didn't. I'm sure all Inter fans are gutted about this.

Comment by kbmac 2010-09-30 15:50:54

Walter Smith is a pragmatist and did what he had to do to get a point at Old Trafford. Alex is correct, it's not anti-football. It is crap to watch though. Some fans like to watch their team win; some fans like to watch their team win in style; neutral fans want to watch a good game of football. Don't knock Rangers for playing to their strengths in a given situation - but don't waste your evening watching it.

Comment by Chicago 2010-09-30 16:11:13

I am probably one of the few Arsenal fans (American still kind of new to footie, been a fan since 2003) that tire from the "beautiful football", only because it does not always produce winning results and ZERO trophies in 5 years! It's like having a sports car with a 4 cylinder engine under the hood. It may look gorgeous, but can not deliver.

A football club and it's style is reflective of the manager that they hire. The manager builds the starting XI and entire club in his image. Wenger is a big, total football/beautiful game disciple. But some other managers do not believe they will get winning results with following that path of footballing mantra.

I was impressed that Rangers could visit Old Trafford, one of the most difficult venues to play at and against one of the best football clubs on Earth and hold Man Utd to a draw. WOW! On that night Rangers FC were equal to Man Utd, every manager in the world should strive for that lofty goal.

Comment by Alex Anderson 2010-09-30 18:16:15

Chicago - I've loved the Windy City ever since I visited in 2008. It's one of the few towns as sports mad as Glasgow, and as dedicated to unhealthy eating :-) but now I have an extra reason to love the place. Succinctly put, pal. Cheers.

My most pained expression used to come from the sand-papering of my testicles - how else are we supposed to get them so round and shiny??? - until I saw a Wimbledon fan slating Rangers for being defensive after his side (Who I saw, with pleasure, at Villa Park and Old Trafford back in the mid nineties)had their greatest achievements denegrated for outright thuggishness. The explanations for what Fashanu and Jones did to Gary Mabbut, for example, are perhaps a little more difficult to stomach but Wembley 88 was an example of how to "punch" above your weight to compete and has become the stuff of romantic legend. Rangers managed the same bridging of a financial gap at Old Trafford without having to take anyone out at waist height or threatening to bite off their ear and spit in the hole as they walked down the tunnel. But we're the bad guys? Can you see me scoff?

Generally though, I hope this thread shows it's slowly being appreciated that tactical acuity - as Jonathan Wilson says in Inverting The Pyramid - is about changing your style as the circumstance and opponent dictates. There are about 4 teams on the planet who can play all-out attacking football against anyone they meet and hope to win. Dismissing a team's right to defend deeply as and when that's the only way they'll achive a result is to dismiss the circumstances facing 99.9% of the clubs on Earth (that's the planet I was referring to) and to pretend we don't feel excitement when we see our club or our country pulling off a result against a more renowned opponent by sitting back.

Certainly when Rangers dismantle and thrash SPL teams at Ibrox I don't see anyone running up to say "well, done Rangers" - how stylish!!". It's usually just an invitation to a "debate" on how the Old Firm buy their trophies and bully their way through an boringly predictable league.

If you want to watch a team who attacks, ALWAYS, even Barcelona will be a bit dissapointing. Unless you support Heracles ...

Comment by bearsinbath 2010-09-30 20:33:04


Once again well said.


Sorry, never clicked.

Comment by LoTW 2010-10-01 13:11:14

Most Scottish clubs fail to do any of the key disciplines so it's nice to see a club at least focus on getting one of them right. It leads to the detriment to the others but when you trying to make a sandwich out of shit .......

Aye, 'Uncle Football' European record will be well airbrushed by the time he shuffles off. His 'heroically pragmatic style' has over seen more failures than the successes you're, quite rightly, proud off.

I agree, it's not anti football. It's boring, mundane football but it's needed as most clubs can no longer compete at the highest level. The gap between the haves and have not's is widening.

Nowadays being able to put together an athletic side, with enough brain cells not to be distracted by the flashing advertising boards is considered the only way to compete in Europe and even in some domestic leagues.

Comment by canarly 2010-10-01 21:22:58

that was a good article and i hate to say it but rangers are good at what they do in europe. will a rangers fan ever make or write a comment without using the word celtic in it?

Comment by donedmundo 2010-10-04 12:22:05

Unfortunately defensive football drives the fans away. Just look at the pathetic crowds in Italy. Danny Blanchflower summed it up. 'The game is about glory; about doing things in style.'

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