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Ed Smith

Reading the Game

Intelligence tends to be regarded with deep suspicion in sport. But now it has won the World Cup

Ed Smith | September/October 2014

Science has yet to prove a definitive correlation, but the anecdotal evidence is mounting: tattoos are bad for your mind. Perhaps the ink seeps into the bloodstream and kills off a few brain cells.

In winning the World Cup, Germany—noticeably undamaged by the tattoo parlour—struck a blow for intelligence in sport. Two snapshots stood out from their triumph. First, in stark contrast to Brazil’s emotional volatility before the semi-final, the Germans wore a look of calm preparedness. They looked like a group of exceptional students who had done their homework before an exam. Anxious, slightly; stressed, not at all.

Even better, when they scored the cluster of first-half goals that sent Brazil spinning out of the tournament, they celebrated with understated control. They had enough emotional intelligence to grasp that they were crushing a nation’s dreams—an acknowledgment that tempered their exuberance without diminishing their ruthless play. They were able to feel and sustain two emotions in tandem.

German football has a gift for language—the English language. If you hear superb English spoken during a televised football match, you suspect the pundit is German.

Joachim Löw, the analytical head coach, has been rightly lauded. It was Löw, then deputy to Jürgen Klinsmann, who reasoned that Germany needed top-down reform of its football after their humiliation at Euro 2004. But some strands of Germany’s success predate Löw. They are cultural. When Germany’s ex-captain Thomas Hitzl­sperger met the head of a central bank, his first question was: should the government or the bank set the target for inflation?

The World Cup win has prompted admiration for the German model—strong emphasis on technique and long-term development, a domestic league committed to revenue sharing and affordable ticket-pricing. But there is something else, too. German footballers are cleverer than most—off the field and on it.

In the early days of building his team, Löw said he needed, above all, intelligent players. The fast-passing game, which the Dutch brought to Spain and the Germans have now copied, relies on an interchangeable crew of attacking players. Instead of one playmaker or creative midfielder, who can be shut down by organised defending, the fast-passing model requires all the front six to be able to spot opportunities for others. The goal scorer becomes incidental: the chance falls to the best-placed attacker. Everyone’s job is essentially the same—to keep the ball moving until the killer opportunity arrives. This requires not only high skill but also the evaluation of risk and superb judgment. Technique alone is not the point; it is technique directed by intelligence.

Thomas Müller, one of the stars of the World Cup, is neither a striker, a winger or a conventional midfielder. “What am I?” he once said to the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I am ‘an interpreter of space’. That’s a good title, isn’t it?” Müller, not coincidentally, passed the prestigious German Abitur exam.

Nor is that unusual. Academy coaches know that most footballers don’t make it, and feel it is unfair to make them abandon every other avenue. As the academy coach at SC Freiburg put it, “80% can’t go into the professional team, we have to look out for them. The majority of them go on to higher education. And we need intelligent players on the pitch anyway.”

There is a paradox about the role of intelligence within sport. In the early years of total professionalism, intelligence seemed to be on the wrong side of history. The cultivated amateur, for whom sport was only part of life, was supplanted by the narrower focus of ruthless dedication. Stuff your books, they said, I’m going to the gym. And it worked, in a way. It has proved impossible to play at the top level without committing to punishing levels of fitness and sacrifice.

The fatal mistake came later. This was the assumption that the accidental by-products of the amateur era—fun, perspective and the ability to function outside the sporting bubble—now needed to be eliminated on principle. Intelligence was regarded with deep suspicion, especially in English sport. After all, if you promote and empower someone who can string a sentence together, isn’t it a slippery slope towards blazered clubbability, boozy lunches and declining to practise? There was a sense that the articulate folk had had their moment. It was now time for monosyllabic grunts.

This false narrative explains why many intelligent sportsmen have been so determined to pretend that they are just ordinary Joes. They believe it seems modern, professional and progressive. In underplaying their strongest suit, they want to line up with the in-crowdto the detriment of their play and their sport.

Meanwhile, in the real world of sporting evolutionary advancement, intelligence is in the driving seat. When you’ve seen Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic give articulate press conferences in several languages, you better grasp their understanding of tennis. At the World Cup, a late injury led the Dutch coach Louis van Gaal to abandon his preferred shape, so his players had to learn a new way of defending. Outcome: a 5-1 rout in their opening match against the defending champions Spain.

In the early phases of professionalism, though the body was being trained to the limit, the mind was left to addle and wither. We are now entering a wiser era. Forget romanticism about there being more to life than winning and losing. The pursuit of victory, as an end in itself, needs to be recast.

An old cliché says that the game is played in your head. As Germany are showing, the way to get ahead is to have a brain.


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