Sport is getting cleverer. Nate Silver, who made his name predicting American elections, honed his statistical modelling on baseball. Football’s backrooms are now a realm of extreme number crunching. Sporting leaders can match any industry with their charisma and acumen: Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho would stand out in any room. The editor of a leading political magazine recently confided to me that he believed managing a top football side was one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.
Football can look a simple game, but at its best it now presents a philosophical debate, a complex argument about style and pragmatism. The question “How can we get the ball into their net more often than they get it into ours?” has produced two wildly diverging answers. The first: by keeping the ball nearly all the time. The second: by keeping the ball very little of the time. Neither has emerged as the definitive winner. The sophistication of the disagreement confirms that football, not content with being the world’s biggest sport, is also the most evolved, and one of the most vivid expressions of global culture.
This debate has defined the Champions League for six or seven years. The possession principle, aka tiki-taka, was radicalised by the unwavering conviction of one man: Pep Guardiola. His teams, first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, have made the case for controlling the ball. The central tenets are simple: everyone can pass, everyone must pass. Size and physicality take a back seat, strikers are optional and defenders are often converted midfielders.
The answer to this approach came in a single match. In 2010, José Mourinho’s Inter Milan met Guardiola’s Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final. Inter seldom had the ball, yet Barça rarely ran the show. Mourinho perfected the art of non-possession football, luring Barça into overextended positions and then exploiting their lack of defensive structure on the break. Just as, in tennis, a genius returner might invite her opponent to serve first, so it can be better to yield possession in order to orchestrate vulnerability. “Sometimes in football”, Mourinho mused, “you do not need the ball to win.” This year, when Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool were poised to win the Premier League with their buccaneering brio, José did it again. Chelsea went to Anfield, parked the bus, stole the match and dashed Liverpool’s hopes.
Possession football is harder to execute and to teach. Both defence and attack rely on a mix of discipline and skill, but the mix varies: discipline gets you further in defence. That is why, at this summer’s World Cup, the possession principle will have few advocates. Spain, coached by Vincente del Bosque, will fly the flag for creative possession. It helps that their players mostly come from two clubs, Barça and Real Madrid, and that they grow up in the same nurseries; they play possession football at an age when English kids are still being yelled at to shoot by competitive dads. The passing game relies on trust and intuition, free movement and spatial awareness. You can’t just have a crack at it on the night.
In Brazil, most teams will take the easier path and set up to defend. Over a year, a national manager gets perhaps ten or 12 training sessions with his team to develop a new strategy (the rest will be focused on the next match, which tends to induce myopia). It’s not much time to weave subtle patterns of attack, and it shows on the scoresheet. The national teams at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa averaged 2.3 goals per match, whereas, in the Champions League, Europe’s best clubs manage 3. In the short term, it is more tempting to become a José than a Pep.
Many football fans relish this philosophical schism. A Guardian writer, Jonathan Wilson, recently posted an astute and unashamedly technical 2,000-word analysis of football’s ideological and strategic divisions. It was one of the five most-read pieces on the whole Guardian site. Not only is football vastly popular, thinking about football is too. Just as a book by Michael Lewis explores ideas through the stories of interesting people, so football elucidates ideas through the performance of skilful athletes. It is both drama and philosophical disquisition rolled into one: entertainment squared.
Roger Federer’s rivalry with Rafael Nadal was the same. At its peak, it was like seeing two systems of thought collide, one joyously expressive, the other relentlessly resilient. Such a symmetry cannot be faked; the contrast has to be authentic. But, when all the pieces are in place, sport ascends to the sublime.
One of the richest experiences of my life came about 13 years ago, when James Levine conducted Wagner’s “Die Walküre” at the Met in New York. As the final act unfolded, dominated by Wotan’s tussle with Brünnhilde, the music and the drama combined so you felt the complexity and the truthfulness of two characters locked in a disagreement that could not be resolved.
In the arts, we are used to being on both sides of an argument at once. We track the narrative drama, of course, but not with mere wish-fulfilment; the experience runs much deeper than wanting one particular outcome. Sport, more wedded to tribal belonging, is at least partly about taking sides. But at its most sophisticated it comes close to an artistic experience. And, at the World Cup, most of the world’s population won’t have skin in the game (or not for long). So we can sit back and enjoy the show.
The World Cup Brazil, June 12th to July 13th