Celebrating club football and shining the light on incompetent and biased journos indulging in stereotyping and negativity.
Aimé Jacquet is truly one of football’s coaching greats (and just greats, period), and in the course of a very, very belated catch-up with Albin Michel’s wonderfully compact and perfectly delicious “C’est quoi le foot”, I was again reminded that I had not sufficiently recognised this in the past. My very genevois and often very pig-headed opposition to all things French surely does not help – but I am aware of it and I change my mind (heck, I even drive a French car).
A short, light but highly informative and insightful read, it is essentially a long, interview-format conversation with one of football’s most intelligent and humble coaches, recorded back in 2000. A number of topics are covered through a series of some fairly basic – if not irritably naive – questions, but they serve as excellent bouncing boards for Aimé to expand on his vision and aspirations for the beautiful game. What is particularly endearing about him is the sense of passion for the game, but also balance in the way he discusses various challenging topics: even when commenting upon the odious hate campaign that was conducted against him by the influential dedicated sports magazine “L’Equipe” at the time, he shows no sign of personal bitterness or pettiness, instead managing to address the sense of injustice committed on his person in a factual and calm manner. He even manages to not make fun of rugby, while perfectly sensibly explaining why it and other sports such as basketball are not likely to be able to soon rival football for world dominance.
In this unassuming little treasure that has been gathering dust in my library for many years now, I also happened to find the following gem that perfectly resonates with the fundamental premise of this blog and that I just had to share, and which I especially dedicate to all my Barça brown-noising friends (Google translate for non-francophones, or write to me if you are really lazy, I might just feel like translating it for you):
Question: On a vu pas mal de scènes de violences ces dernières années. Croyez-vous que le foot devient trop violent?
Answer: Franchement, non. Il faut seulement avoir bien présent à l’esprit que les joueurs étant de mieux en mieux préparés, beaucoup plus athlétiques qu’il y a une vingtaine d’années, le jeu s’en ressent et devient plus engagé. Les duels sont plus rudes, plus impressionnants pour l’oeil extérieur. Mais, dans ce je plus dense, ce sont encore, et comme toujours, les techniciens qui vont faire la différence, hier un Platini, aujourd’hui un Zidane. L’erreur à ne pas commettre, c’est de croire qu’un Platini ou un Zidane sont décisifs par eux-mêmes et par eux seuls. Ils le sont parce qu’un incontournable, un considérable travail de conquête et de reconquête du ballon est accompli par toute l’équipe avant qu’ils puissent “entrer en scène”, si j’ose dire. Une certaine forme de perversité, voire de malhonnêteté, a longtemps consisté à nous convaincre qu’il fallait choisir entre un football physique, athlétique, bien sûr pas trop glorieux, et un football technique, léché, bien sûr plus noble. Faux débat! Discussion sans fondement! Il y a toujours eu dans le football. à toutes les époques, des duels à livrer, des défis physiques à relever, des “pressings” à assurer. On ne peut pas plus s’en dispenser aujourd’hui qu’hier et même plutôt moins, alors que les joueurs sont devenus de véritables athlètes. Si l’on refuse cette exigence, cette évidence, pas de salut! Après, place à l’imagination, place aux créateurs, et à tout ce que vous voulez.
As most of Europe, as well as (hopefully) a good part of the rest of the world, attempts to forget its present economic concerns by indulging in all sorts of football related debauchery (score guessing, animated arguing with family and random strangers, hair pulling, beer drinking and other less edifying activities such as flag waving, face painting, and the Mexican wave), it seems a good moment to share (edited sections of) the following piece by Mark Eltringham, published in Stephen Foster’s excellent “The Book Of Football”.
Far from me to give prominence to a competition involving national teams, but somehow the mounting sense of excitement at the prospect of a gourmet diet of two games per day, following a fairly dull period of three weeks after the end of the club seasons, deserves recognition and some reverence. The occasion may not be a perfect one, but this is about a bigger issue – the general role and place of football in modern society. Therefore while this piece should certainly rub true fans’ sensibilities the right way like Johnny Gill, it is also and maybe especially aimed at rugby, basketball, cricket and other minor sports followers and non-believers, certain FB smart alecks who like to pretend like they are above it all, and tourist fans compelled to tune in because of a sense of obligation to the rising nationalist fervor (1) and the fear of being unable to participate in office and pub conversations. A message for you suckers: if you don’t get it even after this, stay off our jocks for the next month or so.
The fact is that there is undoubtedly something about football that speaks to people in a universal language. No other sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has more to say about what makes us human. I know that followers of rugby and cricket like to think that they occupy the intellectual high ground, but that is mainly a class thing. The fact is that the only decent quotation about rugby is a comparison with football (2), as you’d expect from a sport burdened with the inferiority complex of an overshadowed little brother. And cricket appears to have inspired very little in the way of original thought…
The working man’s ballet can even claim the moral high ground, because it is (or was) the sport and cultural focus of the working class. And, as John Rose demonstrates in his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, the working autodidact is a much more attractive figure than his or her advantaged and educated middle-class contemporary. Self-taught or otherwise, rough, straight-talking and passionate about their football, this was the crowd depicted by LS Lowry in Going to the Match, his famous painting that fetched £2m at an auction in 2000. These people formed the bulk of the crowd when I first started going to games, in what we now think of as a Golden Age, in the mid-70’s. This was the England and the game I knew, a million miles from the cosy, mythical Darling Buds England of John Major, yet no less poetic for that. Sure, it was a dark poetry most of the time and you had to tolerate unromantic things like toilets that swam with piss (ndrl. that reminds me of les Charmilles), but it was magical nonetheless. Something was lost to the game at the same time they sorted out the toilets and Man United started winning things again (3).
So profound is football’s fascination for intellectuals, that individuals positions have their own canon. Inevitably the goalkeeper has attracted most interest. Albert Camus was himself a goalkeeper before taking the tiny step to become an existentialist. Nabokov spoke poetically about the goalie’s unique role in the game (4). Wim Wenders went one step further by making a whole film about the existential angst that grips the custodian, The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty Kick.
…. football’s place as a source of inspiration for observers of the human condition is assured. Now that the working man is an endangered species, its role as the working man’s ballet may be past, but it will continue to be the thinking man’s ballet.
(1) Though I am delighted that the so called nationalist fervor has been largely absent this time around, notably due to subdued expectations in both England and France, two very dominant media BS generators, as well as merciful absence of Switzerland this time around (I know I will get heat for that, but I stand by it).
(2) Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen; soccer is a gentleman’s game played by beasts. Henry Blaha, rugby player, 1972.
(3) This section is very UK-centric, but easily adapted to any other setting. For example, the very fact that most Americans (but not all – more of them are getting wiser with each Clint Dempsey goal) don’t even get what the fuss is about even when the World Cup is on, says it all.
(4) The goalkeeper is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Less the keeper of a goal than the keeper of a dream. Vladimir Nabokov, autobiography, Speak, Memory, 1951.
(5) In a sublime yet totally unconscious (true dat) effort to sidestep any hint of Euro-centrism, the photos of two Latin American greats grace this extract. However, feel free to suggest other European greats that have been just as inspirational (except Cruyff please: not tolerated in these pages, in line with KGB Mou strict code of ethics).
While visiting the Centre de la Vallée de la Jeunesse in Lausanne yesterday with the kids (by the way, excellent interactive exhibition on the brain, for all my readers with offspring to entertain), I couldn’t help but notice the following interesting accessory in the men’s (literally). Though this amusing addition to an otherwise perfunctory task could be seen as adding another dimension to the legendary self-professed exploits of Humpty Hump in BK’s facilities, please let there be no scandalous confusion when I say that I scored.