In this age of supreme physical preparation, thorough statistical analysis and detailed tactical training, the standard of football across the world has gone through the roof. Players at the highest level are better than they have been at any other time in the history of the sport and football that is deemed unattractive by contemporary measures is still in most cases more expansive than what was the most watchable as recently as ten years ago.
However, this improvement has come at a cultural cost. The colossal financial investment that funded this sporting development has also corporatised the game’s upper echelons and made Europe’s domestic leagues uniformly uncompetitive. It has also, according to many critics, sterilised many of football’s marquee matches, with star players’ total adherence to tactical instructions apparently making their play appear monotonous and uninspiring.
While the former two grievances are undoubtedly valid concerns, I would argue that the latter is one of two things: a wilful exaggeration on the part of disillusioned fans or the product of a fundamental misunderstanding. It may even be a bit of both. The semantics of football itself have changed: in particular, its practical conventions are now unrecognisable in relation to the age-old expectations of fans.
In 2014, the best footballers of all ages are less trained to play the game than programmed, either learning highly specialised roles or becoming so versed in universal tactical theory that they reach something akin to chess grandmaster status. Thus, the pre-eminent players of our time unwaveringly make logical, strategic decisions that fit into complex game-plans and almost always prioritise long-term team aims rather than exciting spectators by doing something irrational but individually spectacular.
This is in direct contrast to the fact that top-level football still exists in the minds of many not as a painstakingly detailed technical exercise played out by dedicated and highly-educated professionals, but as the amateur ‘our lot versus your lot’ pantomime their great-grandfathers knew it as roughly 150 years ago. As a consequence, many of the best sides around are grudgingly appreciated more than enthusiastically embraced.
The dogmatic but era-defining approach of Barcelona and Spain, for example, is seen by what appears to be a majority of viewers as spirit-crushingly boring. The reality is that the two sides play a version of the sport that casual viewers still do not recognise and understand. They could – somewhat condescendingly, by my own admission – be said to be playing art-house football in front of a blockbuster audience.
This rejection of stylistic complexity does not mean viewers eschew the concept of artistry altogether. At the other end of the ideological scale to tiki-taka we have José Mourinho’s sides, all of whom – from his UEFA Cup-winning Porto side right up to his current Chelsea team – have been regarded as the most contemptuous purveyors of pragmatism, cynically seeking to remove fluidity from their matches in order to lock down positive results.
That the vastly different approaches of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and company and Mourinho remain popularly scorned illustrates the disconnection between the modern game and its audience, despite the mind-boggling numbers in which viewers continue to attend and tune into their games.
One arguing from a fan’s perspective could convincingly suggest that football has forgotten that it is entertainment first and foremost and should therefore exist to serve its supporters, dishing up goals on a plate and nothing more. However, to peg football at that level would surely be unfair to the players, coaches and managers who have dedicated their lives to taking the sport as far as it can go.
Following the ‘trickle-down’ revolution in football and the widespread adoption of such an obviously different style of play, a repeated complaint from the archetypal nostalgic fan is that ‘passion’ has disappeared from the game. Again, this is due to a fundamental change in what ‘passion’ is and how it manifests itself.
It is true that we almost never see the traditional visual signifiers of commitment and unity in modern day football: players never hurl themselves into bone-shattering fifty-fifties in midfield, twenty-two-man brawls are few and far between and, to take a popular Bryan Robson anecdote as an example, no-one sprints fifty yards to make a tackle by the corner flag when their team’s last-minute 3-0 lead renders such an action obviously unnecessary.
That is not, however, to say that ‘passion’ is absent from the field of play. The players may be multimillionaires hailing from all corners of the globe but they have all devoted every minute of their lives to reach the top of their profession, often leaving home at unthinkably young ages and in many cases moving to a new continent without speaking a word of their new home’s language.
What fans traditionally recognise as ‘passion’ is now best demonstrated not by traditional on-pitch signifiers but by sacrifices such as these. Furthermore, we have to consider the relentless self-improvement required on the training pitch every single day, the oppressive dietary regimes players are contractually obliged to follow, and the hours put in preparing specifically for each match.
One does not voluntarily do these things if they do not care about their performance and the team’s result. All that sacrifice, work and development is practically invisible to the match-going supporter, however. It happens behind closed doors and so represents a level of hyper-professionalism that does not translate into fan culture in the same way that traditional signifiers do.
In that regard, the psychology of the crowd has yet to catch up with the sport, and unfortunately continues to teach new fans that one does not cheer the clever feint that creates half a yard of space or the decoy run that drags a defender out of position, but rather the slide tackle that blocks a defender’s clearance or the striker that chases an overhit pass as it bounces out of play.
These fans’ reliance on such outmoded behavioural conventions means that they are conditioned to ignore that while the habitual tendency to steam into unwinnable tackles shows fire and determination, it also allows the more street-smart players on the other team to play a quick one-two and gain access to the space in behind. Most modern players learn this at an extremely young age; some fans never realise and still prefer their players to make basic strategic errors in the name of ‘passion’.
A case in point: speaking to some Arsenal fans after the Gunners’ recent 5-1 defeat against Liverpool, I noted that almost to a man they felt that Jack Wilshere had played very well despite the scoreline: he had shown grit and determination in his attempts to rescue the game, driving forward and carrying the fight to Liverpool, visibly angry that his side was being humiliated so effortlessly.
These fans did not realise that Wilshere’s inclination to charge forward had contributed significantly to his side being so easily and repeatedly picked off by one-pass counter-attacks, nor that his desire to fix the team’s problems single-handed and at a hundred miles an hour served only to exacerbate their problems.
They saw only traditional signifiers of passion rather than any more necessary demonstration of modern day professionalism. His display of fan-like emotion was drawn straight from the lexicon of old football, a throwback to an era when players shaped games apparently by force of will alone, and made his performance much more acceptable than those of his teammates who made fewer elementary tactical mistakes but did not look so irritated or kick the opponents as much.
We can conclude therefore that these fans would rather a player did his job poorly but appeared as though he cared as much as they did, rather than the other way around. This goes against everything contemporary players are taught and illustrates perfectly the disconnection between the modern game and the demands of those who pay to see it.
Not to make a straw man out of Arsenal fans, but this is also the reason that they have a vocal number of supporters who suggest that Mesut Özil does not care because he does not sprint towards the corner flag to block a full-back’s hoof up the line, oblivious to the fact that were he to do so he would not be in a position to counter when the aimless punt comes back his way via a teammate.
For all the ill-effects of the trickle-down revolution in football has had over the last twenty years, the parallel developments in what constitutes good play and what ‘passion’ means are positive side-effects for which we as fans should be thankful.
It is of course a crying shame that what was the working man’s game is now almost exclusively the property of oil-rich oligarchs and sheikhs, but now that it is the responsibility lies with the fans to adapt to the demands of top-level spectating or head down into the lower leagues, where familiar and comforting amateurism is alive and well.