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Who’s Playing on the Left Wing?

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It’s one of those ‘World Cup moments’, a clip the networks might show before cutting to an ad-break in a pre-game show: Argentina’s second goal in their 6-0 slaughter of a promising Serbia & Montenegro team in 2006. Esteban Cambiasso scores as the culmination of a 25-pass move that weaves gently and carefully around the pitch before the metaphorical stiletto makes its brief and decisive appearance.

That goal is arguably the purest distillation in recent World Cup history of left-wing football — and no, that’s not because the ball never moves to the right side of Argentina’s attack. What’s left-wing about it? Tactically, it draws clearly on Argentina’s leftist tradition of 1978 coach and philosopher César Luis Menotti, which affirms the ability of good players to create in the moment, to take risks when the time is right, to take pleasure in improvisation, to trust each other beyond the rigidities of any system: the scorer, Cambiasso, was not a striker but a hard-grafting defensive midfielder who seized the moment to attack.

As manager Pep Guardiola said of his magnificent Barcelona side: “We play leftist football. Everyone does everything.”

Menotti famously summarised the other sort of football, the ideological enemy, in evocative terms: “Right-wing football wants to suggest that life is struggle. It demands sacrifices. We have to become of steel and win by any method … obey and function, that’s what those with power want from the players.” (Apply this description as you see fit to recent events….)

The other thing that marks Argentina’s wonderful 2006 goal as ‘left-wing football’ is the role of Juan Román Riquelme in it. He passes, instantly, four times: three easy balls that punctuate and spread the play, then one quick, devastating return pass to Javier Saviola that opens up the defence to create the space for the final flourish. Clever and simple, but it came in the midst of raging debate — seen in Argentina through the prism of the traditional left-right divide of its schools of football — about whether there was room in 21st-century football for a classic, creative playmaking number 10 like Riquelme. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his great 2008 history of football tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, “Riquelme has become less a player than a cipher for an ideology.”

No single goal can settle such a debate, and exactly two weeks later in that 2006 World Cup Riquelme was substituted as Argentina tried to protect a lead against Germany in the quarterfinal. He was replaced not by another creator (Saviola and teen prodigy Lionel Messi were on the bench) but by Cambiasso. Argentina, a team with perhaps more great players then than now, blew their lead against the hosts and went home after a penalty shootout.

The manager who lacked the courage of his Menotti-inflected convictions in 2006 was Jose Pekerman. This year, Pekerman has been managing Colombia, who until last Friday had been playing the most flexible, progressive, player-trusting football of this World Cup. His new Saviola and Riquelme, roughly speaking, were called Cuadrado and Rodriguez. And again, Pekerman’s team went home at the quarterfinal stage because they were not allowed to play their ‘natural’ brand of leftish football.

This time Pekerman’s share of the blame is less clear: Brazil’s brutal tactics and the unbelievable (though explicable) tolerance of the Spanish referee surely take the lion’s share. Cuadrado wasn’t great and for the second consecutive game opponents demonstrated that James Rodriguez can occasionally be marginalised by a high-pressure midfield. (His goals against Uruguay blinded most pundits to how little he did in the second-round match.) For me, a telling moment occurred early in the Brazil-Colombia game, before the much-admired number 10 had been creased and battered at all, when Fernandinho and Rodriguez chased a loose ball and the Brazilian, the very model of the busy modern midfielder, seemed to cover two yards for every one the Colombian traversed. Across a continent, viewers nodded: Ah, James is slow like Riquelme…

Late in the game, when Brazil tired and the ref located his card-pocket, Rodriguez showed his mobility across the width of the pitch and Colombia finally started to play, but it was too little, too late. For most of the match they spurned playing in favour of whining and kicking the Brazilians in return for the lumps they were getting; this eventually led to the tournament being deprived by a thrillingly rotten match of not one but two great 10s. Juan Zuniga is an enthusiastic, talented but ultimately dopey player who allowed himself to partake too much of the spirit of this contest when he broke Neymar’s back. Long before that late, fateful moment, someone on the field or the bench should have tried to lead Colombia to the higher ground, morally and in terms of playing football. They might well have won the game.

What a relief it was after the French surrender-monkeying and the Brazilian assault-and-battery when, on Saturday, a football game broke out at the World Cup. For 30 or 40 minutes, Argentina played a crisp, accurate, attractive and imaginative brand of football that has only been equaled by a similar period played by Germany against Portugal — i.e. the best football of the tournament so far. (The Dutch explosion against Spain was more impressive but less deliberately constructive.) And the centre of the play was a proper Argentine number 10, Lionel Messi.

Much has been made of Messi’s teammates stepping up on Saturday to show that Argentina aren’t a one-man team. Fair enough, they did. But Messi stepped up too, in a way that clearly encouraged the likes of Gonzalo Higuain. Without entirely abandoning the air of efficiency that generally sees him at the bottom of the ‘distance covered’ chart, Messi seemed to get in the game, make tackles and use the ball constructively from deep positions more than he has done in the previous four games. At one point in the second half, Belgium had a chance to break and Messi could be seen sprinting back to join the defence — a common-enough sight a few years ago but rare in more recent times.

Messi was by no means stuck in a number 10 ‘hole’: one of the main tactical developments in the last few seasons across the top European club teams is that forward players are expected to be able to swap positions frequently on the fly, and the Argentines were doing some of this. But throughout the first hour of the game, and especially after Angel Di Maria went off injured, Messi took the responsibility of linking midfield and attack. From there he might not get as many goals as he did in round 1, or for Barcelona, but he’ll contribute more to the team’s play than he would waiting around up front for something to happen. His pre-assist pass for Higuain’s goal, like the gorgeous later one that Di Maria hurt himself chasing, was straight from a Riquelme YouTube video.

Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella makes no pretence of being a Menottista, so it was no surprise when he, like Pekerman eight years earlier, pushed his team toward a tactical retreat into a mostly solid defensive shell. (At least he didn’t sub-off Messi.) But it was disappointing nonetheless, and if Belgium were a little sharper it could quite conceivably have led to a repeat of the awful 2006 outcome. (The Belgians, you felt, spent much of the game like France a day previously, idly contemplating how promising they look for the 2016 European championships.)

Argentina will not want to make the mistake of retreat when they’re faced on Wednesday with the extraordinary Dutch, ahem, right-winger, Arjen Robben. Here we have a rather different tactical expression of creativity: Robben’s resemblance to Riquelme begins and ends, more or less, with their shared status as bipedal primates whose surname starts with R. Robben’s strength is not cute through-balls from deep positions: if he’s going to feed Robin Van Persie it’s going to be after he’s sprinted tirelessly and at ludicrous speed past two or three men, or won a free-kick trying. It’s plenty for Argentina to worry about, and there may be more: if the slight whiff of revival around the actual number 10, Wesley Sneijder, lingers, then Argentina could have problems.

Certainly Costa Rica had problems against the Dutch, though they masked them thanks to a better goalkeeper than Argentina enjoy. Little in their play (with, e.g., their first corner and shot on goal coming in extra time) warmed me greatly to Costa Rica; nor would the country’s status as a sort of Sweden of the south — constantly coming tops in all sorts of eco-happiness surveys — heighten my sympathy for the Ticos. Give me a war-torn impoverished country where the authoritarian regime and the leftist rebels unite in support for the national football team, every time. (Yes, Colombia, I’m talking about you again.) I mean, in what sort of Latin American country would parents in March 1992 have named their child ‘Yeltsin’? Not in a country that needs or deserves to win the World Cup, that’s for sure — though it’ll be fun to see how Yeltsin Tejeda is received if he and Costa Rica reach Russia 2018.

Meanwhile, the razor-sharp turn in global public opinion against Brazil as worthy or desirable winners of this World Cup has been startling to behold, Even Neymar’s injury is widely viewed as karmic justice rather than the football catastrophe it is, even if he was already unfit and underperforming. Notwithstanding the general uptick in affection for the slightly sweet German team over the last few years, it’s incredible that this Brazilian World Cup will see fans everywhere cheering for Deutschland über alles, with alles undoubtedly including the, er, boys from Brazil.

It’s not like Germany, such an exciting young team four years ago, have given us much pleasure over the last three weeks: and the sight of Angela Merkel masks on their fans in the crowd might help to clarify some minds. Maybe, just maybe, it’s too much to expect expansive left-wing football from anyone in this age of scarcity-for-the-99%, but — without being over-literal about the identification of the team and the state that share the name ‘Germany’ — surely it’s astonishing to see so much support for the team representing the Euro-masters of austerity?

It just goes to show what Menotti has been insisting ever since his team won the World Cup for the apparent benefit of the fascist generals in 1978: the real politics of football happen within the white lines, at best transcending or at least escaping those of the real world. The irony is that this ugly, brutal Brazil, representatives of such a beautiful, humane country, could turn out to be the most unpopular winners ever.

Harry Browne is writing for Counterpunch throughout the World Cup. He lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author ofThe Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter@harrybrowne

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

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