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To Hell with Oligarchs and Managers, Let’s Play Football
Ireland, where I have lived all my adult life, didn’t qualify for the World Cup finals that start this week. Such an absence is not uncommon, and this time it is incompetence rather than injustice that keeps us away. The country where I was born, Italy, and the one where I grew up, the USA, are going to be present and accounted for in the competition — but since Italy face a series of blistering tropical fixtures and the Americans a Group of Agonizing, Miserable Death, I’m not clinging to much hope on those fronts.
In the globalized, migratory world of and beyond football, my capacity to promiscuously choose a nation to support (or, when I was a kid, to imagine playing for) is increasingly commonplace. Players are doing all it the time. Fans in the large global majority of countries that are not represented in the tournament — a good 5 billion people worth of nations, in most of which the TV ratings will be huge — will choose and re-choose favourite teams for all sorts of fun and capricious reasons that have nothing to do with any of the blood-and-soil nationalisms we’re supposed to fear about these events.
But neither the eyes of the world, passionate and casual, nor the skills of the players, glorious and exaggerated, are the main reason I look forward to this month’s World Cup with more excitement than I have ever done before. The reason my cup of anticipation runneth over is Brazil — not the idealised nation of samba soccer, but the real home of people who may love the game but who have had enough of the injustice of their society, injustice heightened and thrown into sharp relief by the FIFA spectacle. The world’s attention will be on Brazil, and in this global age of upheaval and revolutions-made-in-the-street, Brazilians appear to be ready to show us how to kick out for real change.
Brazil’s World Cup has the capacity to create defining moments in the struggle for a better world, in which we begin to free ourselves from the clutches of neoliberalism. This capacity does not exist despite the conspicuous horrors of corruption and repression that accompany the World Cup. It exists because of them: ordinary Brazilians have watched FIFA bring a capitalist feeding frenzy to their country, and they have come to understand that they themselves are the prey upon which business and state elites have conspired to gorge themselves. But for that very reason, the people’s efforts to claim back their country, and their game, from those elites can teach a global lesson.
But, if it’s not too much to ask, it would great if Brazilians could both help spark a global revolution and, er, let the football matches continue! It would be one way of ensuring the revolution would be televised…
No one could mistake FIFA for anything other than a self-serving, disgusting and distinctly shady organisation. Even the latest revelations of corruption in the way Qatar was awarded the 2022 tournament are themselves evidence of shifty power-plays within the organisation; it is obvious many powerful people would prefer to go somewhere other than the Arabian desert for that year’s competition — and so they’re leaking accordingly.
But even the grim reality of FIFA does not change the sense that there is some strange residue of innocence that clings to the World Cup like the grime in Rio’s favelas. Partly it is the way international football partly defies the cash-driven realities of the club version of the sport that dominates the world between major tournaments. The world’s best players cluster at a few rich teams in a few rich leagues, almost exclusively in Europe. The list of those top teams changes only when a Russian oligarch or an Arab oil prince decides to invest in a previously less-fashionable club. The idea that league officials might intervene to ensure that, say, the best young players would at least start their professional careers at weaker clubs — the logic of the draft system that prevails in US professional sports — would be regarded as dangerous communism in Madrid, Manchester or Munich, where only total and permanent domination is tolerated.
Now, let’s face it, European national teams are not above using their superior resources and convenience to convince players who might qualify for the African, Asian and South American countries of their ancestry or birth to come play for them instead. Diego Costa, Brazilian-born but due to play for Spain in this tournament, is just the most prominent example. Nonetheless, Costa has lived in Spain for many years: players at this World Cup will almost all wear the colours of their original or adopted homelands, not of the wealthiest bidder. The fact that two of the world’s top players this year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Gareth Bale, are Swedish and Welsh means that they won’t be at the tournament, and no amount of money can change that.
Diego Costa’s club team is Atletico Madrid. Atléti’s success this season (winning the Spanish league and losing, late and heartbreakingly, in the final of the top club competition, the European Champions League) is sometimes said to prove that riches are not the only route to success. The club’s eye-watering levels of debt and heavy use of rather creepy third-party-ownership structures for players somewhat tempers any celebration of that sort.
And Atletico Madrid highlights another aspect of the club game that makes the World Cup look innocent in comparison: the cult of management. Diego Simeone is just the latest football coach to be hailed for his almost-magical transformative abilities. He is indeed an attractive character — the bullying machismo tempered by humour, as when he thanked his players’ mothers for giving birth to sons with such massive balls. But he is celebrated at those players’ expense.
Soccer coaches, the inspiring man-managers and the innovative tacticians, have been a big deal in football for many generations. But I cannot remember a time when media coverage of the game was as heavily focused as it is today on management personnel, to the detriment of actually talking about the players.
Again, the World Cup is different. Although most of the world’s best players will be there, the same doesn’t go for managers: by definition, a top manager is unlikely to be managing a national team when the big money and the most interesting work are concentrated in the club sphere. The managers at the World Cup are largely from the second-tier, at best, of proven excellence. So for a change we will hear little or nothing about Mourinho, Guardiola, Simeone, Ancelotti, etc.
It’s true that there are a handful of countries where the pay and prestige is enough to get a top coach for the national team; it’s also true that right now the national-team coaches are getting a long spell of preparation team with their teams, unbroken by any significant games — the sort of concentrated break most club managers would envy, and one that means players should be operating at a high level of fitness and tactical sophistication. (Although one fears that sophistication will, as so often in the past, really amount to tactical caution.)
Still, while the media are sure to make much of a few managerial characters — Holland’s Louis van Gaal, for example, soon to take over at Manchester United — we can hope to look at these World Cup matches through a less technocratic lens, as expressions of players’ spontaneous and developed thoughts and instincts about how to respond to game situations, rather than simply manifestations of their merciless drilling by one managerial ‘genius’ or another. If there are lessons to be learned, they won’t all be about formations.
Tactics and management are meaningful, of course. it’s not for nothing that for the last 32 years most key players in all the World-Cup-winning teams have played their club football in Spain and italy, homes of the best thinking about the game as well as the best playing.
There is a sort of hopeless romanticism that plays out a tactical battle with cynicism in the brain of virtually every football lover. That game never ends, but just now in my head the romantic is winning: it’s rather nice to think of a World Cup in Brazil where the players can, ya know, play — and where the real high-stakes confrontations are the ones happening out on the streets.
Harry Browne will be writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @harrybrowne