In the past several years, I’ve become a full-fledged soccer fan. I’ve always followed (and played) sports, switching over the years from an interest in baseball to football to basketball and most recently, to soccer. It’s now the sport that I follow most closely, play most regularly for recreation, and read and think about most often. Over the past couple of years I’ve become a regular reader of a few soccer journalists that I think are generally quite outstanding, among whom my favorites lately have been Brian Phillips, who’s just a gorgeous, intelligent, thoughtful writer and Michael Cox, who’s really helped me to understand the tactical nuances of the game and develop an appreciation for some of global football’s more subtle playmakers and geniuses. I think I saw the book referenced a few times by Cox (or perhaps it was Simon Kuper?), but I recently decided it was time for me to read Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s well-regarded history of soccer tactics. I just finished it. It was excellent, and in what follows, I’ll present some of my favorite passages:
The first match in Austria took place on November 15, 1894 between the Vienna Cricket Club and gardeners from Baron Rothschild’s estate, but local interest was so great that by 1911 the cricket club had become Wiener Amateure.
There’s so much to love in this passage from the beginning of Chapter 2, but how can you not swoon over these two facts: The first soccer match played in Austria was contested by the Baron Rothschild’s gardeners! Even better, local interest in soccer was so great there that amateur wieners were born! If I ever adopt an Austrian club (or need a name for an intramural team), it will be Wiener Amateure for sure.
Arsenal won the league in 1931 and 1944 and were beaten in the 1932 Cup final only by a highly controversial goal. [Brian] Glanville wrote of them “approaching the precision of a machine,” and, in their rapid transition from defense to attack, the unfussy functionalism of their style, there was a sensibility in keeping with the art deco surroundings of Highbury. The machine analogy is telling, recalling as it does Le Corbusier’s reference to a house as “a machine for living in”; this was modernist soccer. William Carlos Williams, similarly, in a phrase that would become almost a slogan for his version of modernism, described a poem as “a machine made of words … there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.” Chapman’s Arsenal were very much of their age. “It was,” Joy said of their style, “twentieth-century, terse, exciting, spectacular, economic, devastating.”
Stuck in my mind because I’ve written about Williams’ machine poetics as part of my own academic research. Nice to see this cultural cross-pollination from Wilson.
The lengthy section on Béla Guttmann in Chapter 6 was extraordinary (the original wandering coach, a proto-Larry Brown). Here are some of the most impressive details:
Whenever he was asked how he survived the war, Guttman [a Hungarian Jew] would always reply, “God helped me.” His elder brother died in a concentration camp, and it seems probable that contacts from Hakoah [a Viennese football club] helped him escape to Switzerland, where he was interned. It was certainly there that Guttmann met his wife, but he refused always to speak of his wartime experiences, and his autobiography, published in 1964, contains a single paragraph on the subject: “In the last fifteen years countless books have been written about the destructive years of struggle for life and death. It would thus be superfluous to trouble our readers with such details.”
By 1945, he was back in Hungary with Vasas, and the following spring he moved on to Romania with Ciocanul, where he insisted on being paid in edible goods so as to circumvent the food shortages and inflation afflicting most of Europe at the time. His departure was characteristic. When a director sought to interfere with team selection, Guttmann apparently turned to him, said, “OK, you run the club; you seem to have the basics,” and left.
… Guttmann, who was adamant that soccer should be played the “right way,” had spent the first half trying to calm the aggressive approach of the fullback Mihály Patyi. Furious with him, Guttman instructed Patyi not to go out for the second half, even though that would leave Kispest down to ten men. Puskás told the defender to stay on. Patyi vacillated and eventually ignored his manager, at which Guttmann retired to the stands for the second half, most of which he spent reading a racing paper, then took a tram home and never returned.
… On he wandered … midway through the 1953-1954 season, to AC Milan. He lifted them to third in that first season and had them top of the table when he was dismissed nineteen games into 1954-1955 following a series of disputes with the board. “I have been sacked,” he told a stunned press conference convened to announce his departure, “even though I am neither a criminal nor a homosexual. Goodbye.” From then on he insisted on a clause in his contracts stipulating he couldn’t be dismissed while his team was at the top of the league.
Wow. Just wow. Another great section was the chapter which looked at Lobanovskyi’s technological optimism and scientific approach to soccer:
Soccer, he explained, eventallly became for him a system of twenty-two elements–two subsystems of eleven elements–moving within a define area (the field) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two subsystems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one was stronger, it would win.
… The aspect that Lobanovskyi found truly fascinating is that the subsystems were subject to a peculiarity: the efficiency of the subsystem is greater than the sum of the efficiencies of the elements that compose it. … Soccer, he concluded, was less about individuals than about coalitions and the connections among them. “All life,” as he later said, “is a number.”
… [from his autobiography, Endless Match] “It is impossible to rely on luck or on accidents in modern football. It is necessary to create the ensemble, a collective of believers who subordinate themselves to the common playing idea.”
Terrifying, and brutally efficient, Lobanovskyi’s remarks bear for me so many of the hallmarks of totalitarian, ideological thinking. One of the book’s most beautiful and lyrical passages, was also dedicated to a Ukrainian, but one of a decidedly different bent: Alexander Prokopenko, whose “lifestyle,” Wilson claims, “would have disbarred him from getting anywhere near a Lobanovskyi side”:
He was a heartbreak of a midfielder, a genius whose talent was an unbridled as his capacity for alcohol. A painfully shy man, he was so tormented by a speech impediment that he refused ever to be interviewed. It didn’t matter: Dinamo fans knew what he thought because he drank with them. More than that, he was one of them, just another worker from Minsk who happened to be a superb instinctive soccer player and an industrious one at that. “The tribune knew he would go for ninety minutes,” the journalist Vasily Sarychev wrote in The Moment and the Destiny, his book celebrating Belarus’s top sportsmen. “He would sooner die than cease his motion on the pitch through tiredness or laziness.”
… He was readmitted to the LTP [a state-sponsored rehab clinic] in 1989 but died two months later, aged just thirty-five. “He was followed by the smell of grass and of skin, by the joy of his goals and by empty cans,” Sarychev wrote. “When the need for football went, the urge died in him, the urge he was born to fulfil.”
Another delightful character Wilson’s book introduced me to was Miroslav “Ćiro” Blažević, an irrepressible Bosnian Croat, famous for his development of the 3-5-2 formation in the 1980s and 90s. Wilson relates this wonderful story narrated by Blažević about the Croatian national team’s preparation for their 1998 World Cup quarterfinal match against Germany:
I spend the whole night thinking about theory. I had a problem with [Oliver] Bierhoff, because I didn’t have a skilled player who could beat him in the air, so I had the idea of stopping the crosses coming in. I was thinking about telling the players the story about Rommel and Montgomery. Rommel was much, much better in strategy, but he didn’t have fuel. So the tanks couldn’t move and Montgomery wins.
Then that morning, the guy who was with me said [the Croatia president Franjo] Tudjman was calling, and Tudjman said ‘Ciro, you must win’. I was on my way to the dressing room with my theories, and there are a lot of mirrors in every dressing room. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was a kind of green colour. So I thought ‘Oh my God, am I going to die?’
I went to the room where the players were waiting for me – Šuker, Boban, Bokšić … and I had everything drawn on my paper, but I didn’t start to talk about anything. I couldn’t, because I was thinking was I going to die or not? I was looking at the players and there was silence in the dressing room, and after a few moments I saw that they were the same green colour as me.
“My theory was seven or eight minutes long, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep their attention so long. I didn’t start to talk about my theory. They were more and more green. So I crumpled my theories and threw them down, and after seven minutes I had said nothing about them. Fuck the theory. So I just said, ‘you have to go outside and die today for the Croatian flag and all the people who have given their lives’. No dealing with Bierhoff, nothing. And we won 3-0. You have to understand the psychology of the players. You have to have that sort of relationship with the team, so you can communicate your state of soul.
A glorious story, wonderfully told. ‘Fuck the theory,’ indeed. On the subject of locker room talks, Wilson also includes this morsel about Manchester United’s current dictator-manager Louis van Gaal’s behavior while serving as Bayern Munich’s manager:
[H]e made the point that he was unafraid of his big-name players by dropping his trousers in the dressing-room. “The coach wanted to make clear to us that he can leave out any player, it was all the same to him because, as he said, he had the balls,” said the forward Luca Toni. “He demonstrated this literally. I have never experienced anything like it, it was totally crazy. Luckily I didn’t see a lot, because I wasn’t in the front row.”
Again, ‘van Gaal’s Front Row’ or better yet ‘van Gaal’s Got Balls’ would make an excellent intramural team name, or Manchester United fanzine title. So van Gaal is made of iron, and is an insane tyrant. Not incredibly surprising, particularly if you listened to him take all the credit for everything positive the Dutch did in the last World Cup. In contrast with the indisputably successful van Gaal, one my favorite profiles in the book, however, was Wilson’s treatment of the idealistic, some would even say romantic, visionary Marco Bielsa, who has had an enormous influence on the modern game, despite winning almost nothing as a manager since the 2004 Olympics. Here’s a lovely Bielsa story about his response to losing a 1991 Copa Libertadores tie at home by a scoreline of 6-0:
Bielsa was distraught. The team went on to Santa Fe for that weekend’s league game against Unión, and it was there, in the Hotel Conquistador, that something extraordinary happened. “I shut myself in my room, turned off the light, closed the curtains and I realised the true meaning of an expression we sometimes use lightly: ‘I want to die.’ I burst into tears. I could not understand what was happening around me. I suffered as a professional and I suffered as a fan.”
He phoned his wife, Laura, “and presented an argument that for many would be irrefutable: ‘For three months our daughter was held between life and death. Not she is fine. Does it make any sense that I want the earth to swallow me over the result of a football match?’ The reasoning was brilliant but, nonetheless, my suffering from what had happened demanded immediate vindication.”
The final passage that struck me as particularly memorable were a pair of quotations, one from the colorful Argentinian manager César Luis Menotti, and the other from Bielsa. Menotti’s argument is:
There’s a right-wing football and a left-wing football. 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. That’s how they create retards, useful idiots that go with the system.
Here’s Bielsa on the same subject:
Totally mechanised teams are useless, because they get lost when they lose their script. But I don’t like either ones that live only on the inspiration of their soloists, because when God doesn’t turn them on, they are left totally at the mercy of their opponents.
That’s just a taste of the book, but hopefully enough to convince you that’s it’s well worth a read. The edition I read had been updated through the rise and fall of Guardiola’s Barcelona teams, and featured an epilogue reflecting on Bayern Munich’s 2013 Champions League victory, so the book felt very recent and relevant for the contemporary moment. A very impressive, very enlightening work, and highly recommended for anyone interested in a historical, tactical, or generally more thoughtful appreciation of the beautiful game.