17 Dec 2013 | Football

The Language of Football| Blog 2012

This is a partially edited compendium of the blogs I wrote during the 2012 Euro Championship.

Euro 2012 Coming Soon

Continuing the theme of blogging during big international football competitions, Euro 2012 is days away. The build-up (sounds like scum around a bath tub) begins here (amongst hundreds of other places). The sub-subjects will be taken from;

1. How on earth did UEFA grant the tournament to a pair of countries that are paradigms of intolerance & open racism?

2. Which player will behave most obnoxiously?

3. Which team might leave the competition before it starts (Italy)

There will be more…

3/4 of the first 8 (matches)

Having seen the 3 favourites of Spain, Holland and Germany plus various others the general feeling appears to be:

1) Off the field; that the negative stuff is definitely there, but bubbling under

2) On the field; that football can bring surprises (surprise surprise). Denmark second guessed the Dutch, Greece’s football is stronger than their economy and Italy can match Spain for the passing game.

The final quarter or the first quarter, to come tomorrow, is by no means the least interesting. We’ll be treated to a dodgy host nation with is hordes of thugs playing what looks to be a viable Sweden side (including mixed race and naturalised stars), while France and England vie for the modesty prize of being the truest underdog. This latter observation is vraiment tres amusant. Neither England nor France does humility too well, yet both are determined, before the first encounter, to dampen expectations. So far I feel England are just ahead, but I base this on Steven Gerrard’s super low key interview with Gaby Logan. Laurent  Blanc, the France manager meanwhile said,  ’J’entends dire que dans ce groupe, on est favori, mais je ne suis pas d’accord avec ça. Lors du tirage au sort, on était dans le quatrième chapeau, ça veut dire quelque chose.’ He’s trying to crush that optimism as best he can. One can only hope he succeeds!

At this early stage the winner hardly ever takes it all, but the likes of Russia and Croatia, each with more than a one-goal margin must feel something of an East of Euro optimism with their impressive beginnings. Let’s see how the mood takes them in the next few days. Early results are frequently overturned.

Don’t watch this space for the football news, you’ll see that on  a hundred other sites.

Do, however, watch this space for more FOOTBALL EQUALS LIFE comparisons.

Seen them all

So now we’ve seen every side. Great to see the overarching style is progressive and creative. Tonight though was a clash of AC MILAN past and present. Former king pin Scheva Vs Mr Zlatan. Both scored, Andrei won.

I’ve been struck by how many ‘forgotten’ players have come back and done (quite) well; Portugal’s Postiga, the Czech’s Baros, Ukraine’s Voronin and Germany’s Klose among others and of course, Schevchenko himself. It makes me think, how often do we dismiss someone or something because they’ve apparently failed in the short term or have simply moved under another radar?

I guess it’s a tough call to let someone move on and then to still monitor them (although social media makes this scarily easier – yes, I do mean StalkBook ) but it is somewhat comforting to know that there is still life after life.

Oh, and England drew with France.

Tortoises & Hares June 12th 2012

Football is cliche-ridden (and I don’t mean the Man City one who sat on France’s bench yesterday) I mean real classic, repeat year after year cliches. Today it’s all about the joy of a measured slow start Vs. a shooting of the bolt.

Now let’s take Russia. Four days ago they kind of thrashed the Czechs and today, after leading one nil at half time, limp/walked home to a one-one draw with their Polish hosts. Arshavin, who still showed skill, guile and an equine sixth sense, literally started to ‘walk this way’ with eight minutes to go. He’s the captain, and his team followed his example. I don’t think it was tactics or artifice, he was simply back to his usual knackered/indolent Emirates Stadium self. Although Russia have four points and play the bottom of the group Greeks next, you would bet money on them, but not much of it.

In the same group, the aforementioned Czechs beat Greece and so despite their initial loss, can still qualify. The same for Polska. It just goes, yet again, again, again that winning is great-so long as you keep it going. It also shows, that even if you lose, initial defeat can be turned around. Obvious stuff, but worth restating (as a matter of pure coincidence another blogger in my own house delivered a similar message just hours ago – huh)

Apparently, the Swedish cowards (their coach’s phrase not mine) have branded their football as bounce and go. I like it, it feels very…unfootball. Seems that Zlat, the son of Ibrahim does too… If all else fails (and with 7? 8? championship medals it hardly matters now) he can still pose for the same shampoo that Robert Pires once did.

I was at Wembley in 1973.

Dear reader

A weeks’ gone by and you’re still here. So, to cut a long story short.

Big Surprise; Holland going out

Medium Surprise: Russia going out

Weird Surprise: England winning group

No Surprise: Spain’s acquisition of France’s attitude (moderated by editor). The host nations being evicted. Germany being good, very good.

Funny Surprise; Bendtner’s underpants

Nuff said.

I went AWOL for a week because I tried to disinterest myself in #EURO2012. I thought if I kept a low profile I’d start to care less and wouldn’t get hurt when Italy eventually lose. Now I’m rewarded with having to endure my team playing the land of my mother; England.

I was there in 1973

I was at Wembley when Italy won 1-0 with a goal by Fabio Capello. England was like Barca, full of passing, full of possession, full of yabber yabber. All the 2nd half was played in Dino Zoff’s penalty area until the ball broke away and the late G.Chinaglia crossed at pace  (I just checked on YouTube – I had forgotten) and Fab Cap jabbed it home. I was with all my mates in the middle of the English section and was the only one dancing. They jumped on me, swore at me and then (kindly) suggested I shut up in order to maintain my limb configuration.

Another time I saw Italy beat England was in June 1985 when I was in a London hospital, my mates (including @DavidfromBarnet ) came to keep me company. I probably would have rather watched it alone as I was post-op doped. My friends were so unhappy at the way Italy won that they ate all the grapes they brought me, and they weren’t sour either. I recall that England once beat Italy in a World Cup qualifier, the Azzurri must have been bad because Hoddle was the England manager (I have a personal issue with the man, it’s more to do with manners than football…save it for another day) and if he could take a team to victory….

The point is that the Italy England fixture, more than any other is the one that cuts through me. In The Beautiful Mind Game, I wrote about rivalry and how when a child selects a team he/she automatically selects a rival. It cannot be helped, as a constituent part of loving one team is hating their rival. “It is not enough for me to win. My enemies must lose.”

What is odd about my Italy V England ‘thing’ is that I have never been in the slightest bit interested in England’s progress. My ‘normal’ Premiership team is very English (well not the playing stock you understand -but the club sort of is) and when they play Italian sides I always support them from the base of my heart. However, when it comes to national teams I just don’t care about England. I certainly don’t hate or dislike them – it’s even worse, I just do not care. I can watch them play and remain detached and objective. I can leave the room, do the washing up and come back again – they leave me cold.

This is weird. I was raised in London, I think quite Englishly and hey, I write in English too. I’ve taught English to Italian students, I go to Italy and get mocked about my English accent (a clue?) but yet have always wanted to be thought of as an Italian. When I’m in Italy I like to blend in but since I was 8 years old and was ridiculed in England for my long Italian shorts (summer) and yellow duffle coat (winter -I’d kill for one now) I opted to embrace the difference despite the frequent pain it brings.

This is an old debate. A Conservative politician, Norman Tebbit, pointed out in 1990 that many immigrants failed (his) Cricket Test by supporting the land of their (and their parents’) origin and not the UK, the nation that took them in. I suspect I am one of these ingrates and will work out in the next few days what’s behind it. I might even let you know.

Reservedly Happy

I was really quite pleased that Italy beat England in the 1/4 finals.

I was less pleased by my own rather weak livered performance. I took my eldest daughter to my father’s house to watch the game. My brother, with whom I’ve shared many painful football moments over the years turned up too. I have to confess that once the game went into the second phase of extra time I insisted my daughter got up so I could take her home. I know the game wouldn’t resolve itself through the normal kick-ball process, and after the 12-minute drive, we were home in time for penalties. I then volunteered to attended another child while the spot-kicks played out and I contrived to turn up for Diamante’s final kick. The truth is that I drove with the radio OFF and chatted with Emilia simply to avoid the game. I even missed Nocerino’s ‘offside’ goal.

After watching the sport for years, I just cannot bear the stress any more. Weird huh? You’d think  one would grow more immune with age. But no.

Having spent much of today in the car, I listened a lot to Talk Sport radio. It was interesting yet repetitive to hear the usual spectrum of opinions. Nothing changes, they filled a whole day’s broadcasting with cliches – the whole post-mortem (cliche Number 1) was so predictable. If we could speak Portuguese, Italian, Spanish or German- we’d hear the same again in two of these tongues on Thursday and Friday morning respectively.

One final thing before Italy next plays.

PIRLO is pronounced in two syllables;

1. PIR – pronounced like the Brighton, Wigan or Margate PIER

2. LO – pronounced as the first 2 letters in LOBSTER


The Beautiful Mind Game – My Doppelganger is found and HOW TO SAVE A PENALTY

Yesterday afternoon I was driving a car. Having grown tired of listening to Talk Sport Radio’s marathon post mortem of England’s #Euro2012 exit and Italy’s nil-nil thrashing of them, I turned to Radio 4.  At 5.52 p.m I found myself listening to another show. I was amused to hear that having turned to Eddie Mair to avoid the football, he was at once talking about that same subject. I was, however, transfixed by his guest Ian Leslie discussing the intricacies of penalty kicks in a way that was perfect for a non-football audience. At last – somebody was bringing the game to the listening classes.

The context was that the previous night, Italy’s Andrea Pirlo scored an extraordinary penalty by gently chipping the ball ‘down the middle’ to hit the spot that Joe Hart had dived away from. Although this was not the winning kick, it felt that it had enough of a devastating effect to influence the subsequent England penalty taker to hit the ball weakly (and thereby not score) and to give Mr Hart the jitters ahead of the next and winning Italian kick.

Leslie pointed out:

1. That this ‘audacious’ kick was made in the service of elegance, cheek and fun. As it was taken under such tremendous pressure, Pirlo’s self-confidence would have been very high. He took a risk, and in the spirit of Game Theory, felt it was a risk worth taking.

2. From the goalkeeper’s point of view –  studies have shown that more penalties would be saved if instead of diving left or right, he were to stand stock still and central. It would certainly have helped Joe Hart, but somehow Pirlo just knew he would move.

3. 93% of the time, the goalkeepers move.

Q. Why?

A. To avoid humiliation

During a penalty shoot-out, this avoidance takes precedence over everything else. National fervour and pride, the sheer animalism of winning, the belief in your teammates all step aside because all the ‘keeper really wants is not to blush.  In order therefore to avoid this horrid feeling he feels obliged to move despite the empirical evidence because even if he still misses the ball, the flailing arms and his cat-like failing reach make it appear as if he was trying to do something.

Doing something looks better than doing nothing. But doing nothing can be better than doing something.

Here is an article on the subject and here is a more academic article that provides a direct (yet tenuous) link between my own Beautiful Mind Game with the original Beautiful Mind.

Want more? Here is a Norwegian academic view. The English is perfect, but if you have any trouble, call Roy Hodgson, he manages England and speaks Norwegian.

Blue Dawn Rising?

Pronunciation lesson 2

Montolivo  is not the margarine MontolIVio

1. Mont as in mont

2. Olivo is in Olly (as in brolly) + o as in ‘trOd’ or ‘Odd’

Simple really.

The Lull Before

Twenty-four hours before the denouement of Euro 2012 we find ourselves in the strangest of strange lands, the misty patch of earth called ‘mutual respect’.

It often happens before a big football match – both managers, fearful of motivating their opponents by creating angry motivation through insult tread with care. ‘Pussy-footing’ they call it in Cat World. Currently, we have Vincent of the Woods telling us how Italy deserve to be in the final and even Xavier Hernandez demeans himself to say how similar Italy are to Spain. I suppose it’s more mature than slagging each other off – but also a bit boring.

What is interesting however is the setting in which we have a triple-chasing champion that is losing admiration (despite their amazing run of results) against a team whose predecessors have often drawn criticism for being cynical/underhand/professional (in an unimpressed way) and inventors of defence i.e. ennui itself. Winning friends these days is not a straightforward matter.

Another pre-match contrast is the Spanish team’s angst over having to ‘get the job done’ against Italy’s half feigned ‘I cannot believe we’re here -we’re happy whatever the outcome’ posture. Certainly, Spain as champions are under tremendous pressure to retain the trophy, but Italy must remember that this is only their third ever Euro final, and the last one was a defeat to the ‘golden goal’ of 2000. They too have to achieve something as these chances don’t come very often (I say that, but I’ve been lucky enough to see Italy in many football finals over my lifetime {so far it’s three wins; 1968, 1982, 2006 and three defeats; 1970, 1994, 2000} so tomorrow is the decider. For now.

In The Beautiful Mind Game, I wrote about the pressure of keeping what we have against the relative liberation of being a challenger. It’s not a new concept, it happens in all sports and is happening all the time. Last night Usain Bolt was beaten by his training partner Yohan Blake in Jamaica’s Olympic trials. Hitherto unassailable, the World 100 Metres champion is literally looking over his shoulder because he knows that his position, weeks before London 2012, is coveted by another. Meanwhile at Wimbledon, that son-of-a butcher Nadal – seeded number two – was knocked out meaning that Britain’s own Andy Murray has a clear run at qualifying for the final, so long as he does not suddenly succumb to the pressure of new and possibly a one-off heightened expectation.

Platitude Dawn

Having made a quick and non-scientific scan of the key Sunday sports pages I can reveal, with no great surprise that nothing new has come to the fore ahead of tonight’s final. Once again there’s a lot of mutual respect and slagging off. Spain say they are not boring, but considering nobody from Italy has called them boring all they are doing is shouting back at the universe. I heard on Talk Sport radio yesterday that Kiev, Warsaw and all the host towns between have seen their stray dogs and vagrants return to the streets. Nothing was said about suppliers of vice, but then again I suppose that sportswriters wouldn’t want to bring attention to that – just in case their wives read their columns (according to my mate @DavidfromBarnet they are the main client base). 

Anyhow, onto the football overview. Marca.es carries a poll of who will win and to date, a mere 190 have entered and 59.5% say Spain will. So no great shakes there. Oh, I just voted for Spain and moved their chances up to 59.7% – so much for democracy. Gazzetta.it has not to my knowledge published a poll, but blandly states that the winner of the total challenge will take it all. It’s sweet that they feel a need to bring Sweden back to the fray by half-quoting Abba, but considering their stupid cartoon earlier this week does little to retrieve their image as a serious daily sports paper. So that’s the legit press. I have even peered down Murdoc$ gutter and not even the Sun has anything irrelevant or scandalous to say other than more people than ever will watch tonight’s final – so I can only hope it’s not too humiliating.

I have just been listening to more build-up. I cannot believe that experienced journalists seem to think that entertaining the world is more important than winning. As an Italia supporter, it is hard to find anything to dislike about Spain, both as a country and as a football team. Really any negative thoughts are jealousy in disguise. I criticised Cesc, but that’s just ‘cos he jilted my club, I don’t applaud IniestXavi -but that’s because they always slaughter the same. Torres, I can tolerate because he’s often bad – but really all the crit is because they don’t play for ‘us’ -whoever ‘we’ happen to be.

So here we go, blog over. Next time we meet it’ll be tempered sadness or the diluted joy you experience in your fifties and know that whoever wins misrepresents a nation that has crisis, potential for poverty and some real ‘food on the table’ issues to deal with.

Pass the Tramadol.

Wipe Out.

Fortunately, my pre-final blog was downbeat and pessimistic! Thankfully I was humble before defeat meaning my humility after it feels much less embarrassing than if I had exaggerated Italy’s chances beforehand. I even got the bit about ‘tempered sadness’ right. It was sad to lose, in fact, one of my daughters was distraught, but quite frankly – I’ve been through worse as a football follower.

An odd thing is that it feels much less bad to have been drubbed 4-0 than to have lost by the odd goal, a golden goal or a failed penalty shoot-out. When you’re beaten fairly and with a square, all one can do is that Swedish thing again, ‘Bounce and Go’.

I wrote a few days ago that humiliation is the worst feeling, but I can truly say in this instance that it is not. In 1970 Italy lost the World Cup final 4-1 to Brazil (also after beating Germany in the semi). Brazil are the yardstick by which Spain are now being measured. Since 1970 Italy lost a further WC final (1994) but won it twice (‘82 & ‘06). Losing to the best need not be the end of it all. It’s horrid at the time, but the key learning points are clearer and more obvious to learn from.

So, by a whisker, I didn’t call Spain boring (check the timeline -it’s true!). I do know however what people like Arsene Wenger mean when he says that Spain (before the final) used their skills to avoid losing rather than winning -but is it not the same thing? Surely Wenger remembers that the pressures of chasing a trophy are very different from those of defending it. The chase/protect thing is deeply rooted in nature, animal and human. Have you seen our cat Dennis catch a mouse? No probably not, but we have. He’ll stalk, waggle his hefty rear and then pounce. All elegant, tiki-taka, aggressive and productive. Once he’s got the thing and before he halves it (yes, I know yeuch) he’ll offer it as a gift, then defend it from you as you try to take it from him to whizz over the neighbour’s fence. Spain and all other defending champions feel the same.

Don’t be fooled, this beast will play tiki-taka with your mouse, your fingers dangling out of your bed and your daughters’ bare legs

To end, I think it’s also worth acknowledging how Spain have raised the bar and/or changed the game. Xavi points out above how the game was until very recently, physical (e.g. the Champions League Final) and now we can see there is another way forward – provided you have the ability. Germany began this progress in 2006 when they turned their back on several years of negativity and got as far as the semi-final (before losing to…Italy) by playing a brand of ‘nicer’ football.

So, will football become more Barcelonesque now? I suspect not. The Brazil of 1970 did not change the way the rest of the world played. In fact, they came (down) to everyone else’s level. Their ‘great’ world-beaters of ‘82 were beaten by a clever and counter-attacking Italy and Brazil didn’t win the WC again until 1994. Even then it was on penalties when Roberto Baggio (Italy again-getting the theme?) skied his shot. I’m sure it’s good for young players to emulate the Spanish and learn their attributes, but quite frankly I cannot see it happening.

Back in 1980, I was playing in a Roman park on a Saturday afternoon and a real 100% Italian ran past me (I’m just 50%). I turned, kicked him, he fell. My teammates loved it – I was the heroic British centre back. When there’s no referee, there’s always the cynical foul.


Wrapping up

And moving forwards.

The dust has settled, the parade is finished and the whole of soccer immediately refocuses on domestic issues. Transfers begin, speculation about further moves rises goes from 1 out of 10 to 9 out of 10 and the normality of club led football takes over the back pages.

The tone of what the clubs do sets this, the final summary of  #Euro2012 because what essentially Spain achieved was to take the one-offness out of tournament football and replace it with the consistency required by clubs who win championships. Tournaments have always been about random possibilities and the opportunity for surprise.  Spain have not robbed the world of good football but turned it into a matter of the best team winning.

The Spanish also soaked up thousands of column inches with their use of the so-called ‘false-forward’. Circumstances led them appearing to have reconfigured what a football team looks like. All they have really done is to ensure each player in the team is capable of multi-tasking to an extremely high level. Again, I argue this is not negative or a sign of downgrading, just an understanding that homogeneity of excellence creates success.

The Spanish system worked no matter who was playing or where he played. I suppose this does reduce the randomness (and to some the excitement) but the until an opponent disproves their method, it has to become the prevailing blueprint.

This team that is strong in all departments and filled with players of high intelligence, technical skills, communication and intuition has also played without cynicism or dirty tactics. It is churlish and irrelevant to be critical. Dissenters need simply arm themselves with patience because one day, Spain will have a bad day and everyone else will have a chance. Until then, however, it’s advisable to watch and learn.