My love is bigger than your love
February 22, 2011 § 35 Comments
The idea of arrogance in football is a persistent yet fluid one. Any dominant team can expect to be labelled arrogant at some point, regardless of how deserving of the tag, as a simple and natural consequence of being better at football than other teams. Football being what it is, defeat is not just a reflection of sporting prowess but a grave and mortal insult, often amplified by entrenched rivalries into a profound and personal offence. And offending through superiority is as good a working definition of arrogance as any that comes immediately to mind.
It is, of course, possible to be good, or great, without being arrogant; however sensitive a losing fan feels, it is not an act of arrogance just to win a football match. Arrogance, where it does manifest itself, comes from the manner in which a player, or a team, or a club goes about its business. But before approaching that, the very concept of superiority in football needs attention.
All sport contains at its heart a simple calculus of superiority: the result. Win and you’re better; lose and you’re worse; draw and you’re equal (note: not applicable in the United States). But football, thanks to the relative scarcity of its point scoring, has another more subjective calculus. As any Arsenal fan will tell you, the better team doesn’t always win. Teams will frequently fail to score during dominant passages of play, which is why Arsenal can dominate Leyton Orient for eighty minutes and only come away with a draw. If that balance of play had been achieved in a more point-rich sport — basketball, say — Arsenal would have been well out of reach by the time Orient had their moment. So there’s a second measure beyond superiority of result, and that’s superiority of performance.
But football, gloriously, ridiculously, doesn’t stop there with its calculi of worth. Further notions of superiority percolate through the game. There’s superiority of appearance, a measure of whose wife is the prettiest. There’s superiority of character, which is judged on the adherence to what remains of football’s soul, and is usually based on whichever team spent the least time trying to hurt or pretending to be hurt by the opposition. The other important ones are closely related — superiority of means and superiority of method — which refer, respectively, to ‘where did your money come from?’ and ‘how do you spend it?’.
It is immediately clear that of all these measures, only the most basic — result — is objective. All the rest are subjective assessments, and so it follows that any perceived arrogance based on an offensive superiority of any of these types is also necessarily subjective. That said, there are some widely-agreed examples: a perceived gracelessness in the face of a bad result, for instance, or an overly aggressive attitude in the transfer market.
All of which leads, in an appropriately roundabout, tippy-tappy, back and forth kind of way, to the dominant force in European club football: Barcelona.
The charges of arrogance laid at the door of Camp Nou form a troika of unjustified self-regard: that their self-proclaimed identity — més que un club, and all that — is a hypocritical sham; that their conduct in the face of defeat is often churlish in the extreme; and that their football is, in its extreme and ideological focus on possession, arrogant by its very nature.
The first of these is self-evidently true, and is arrogance of both means and method. It is not in itself unusually arrogant to profit from and work to entrench the distorting financial arrangements of your domestic league; nor is it particularly arrogant to sell the space on your shirt for money; nor even to use that money to buy, or attempt to buy, players from other teams. That’s what football clubs do, after all. But it is spectacularly arrogant to do so while pretending, simultaneously, to be better than all of that, to be somehow above the grubby mélange that besmirches the rest of football. Of course, this is slightly beside the point, since it is incoherent to blame the players or the manager for the sins of the suits. A club is an entity as diverse as it is unitary, and footballers and fans do not determine marketing messages.
The second is pretty self-evident too; it’s performance superiority. The only sour note in Xavi’s otherwise wonderful recent interview with Sid Lowe was his assertion that “Inter won the Champions League but no-one talks about them”. This is palpably untrue: that treble-winning Inter team will be remembered as a highly effective trophy-hoover; as a lesson in reductive yet oddly gripping tactics; as a stage for the brilliance of Wesley Sneijder; and as another step on Jose Mourinho’s path to world domination/hubristic collapse under the weight of his own ego (delete according to future). And they did win a flippin’ treble, as well as bring Marco Materazzi to tears, both of which take some doing. Of course, Xavi is here indulging his own prejudices and preferences; since Inter won playing a style of football he derides, he does not consider them as being worthy of remembrance. Which is fine and understandable, but at the same time disappointing; great players win well, great men lose well. It is the spoken-word equivalent of turning the sprinklers on.
It’s the third suggestion that intrigues: can a style of play be intrinsically arrogant? While arrogance is of course possible on the field, it generally manifests in individual moments: Peter Osgood waiting for his opponents to get up before beating them again, or Patrick Kluivert pausing on the goal-line to wind up the Belgians. Alternatively, it can be observed in a certain casualness of attitude or approach: playing a weakened team, or underestimating the capabilities of your opponents. But neither of these particularly apply to Barcelona, at least not often enough to support a generalised perception of fundamental arrogance.
Instead, the perception comes from the ideological zeal that underpins their play; as noted by Rafael Honigstein*, they are perhaps the most single-minded team since the heyday of the Crazy Gang. To quote Xavi again, when asked if he is an ideologue: “It was that or die”. But while those who subscribe to an ideal are naturally besotted by it, they can often overlook the implication that if your way is right, everyone else’s must be wrong. It is easy to see how this is taken as arrogance, particularly when the ideology keeps on winning games (defeated ideologues are never as annoying, unless they whinge).
The characteristics of the style are, at heart, almost anti-football, at least in the sense that they are opposed to the fundamental dialectic of a match: one team competing another. By keeping the ball for so long, and pursuing it, when lost, with such fervour, Barcelona essentially deny the opposition the right to participate in the game, cutting off any competitiveness at source. We’ll play with the ball; you won’t. (It might perhaps be mischievous to suggest that this strikes a particular nerve with British audiences, whose aversion to possession football has been refined throughout a dispiriting series of lessons on the international stage.)
Ultimately, the question of whether the style is implicitly arrogant is probably determined by the aesthetic preferences of the observer. A disdainer’s arrogance is an admirer’s self-belief. But it should also be acknowledged that the arrogance/self-belief is, to a certain extent, a necessary component of the Barcelona style. To play the way they do requires not only exceptional technical ability and a deep inculcation in the tenets of the ideology, but also the sure and certain knowledge that your way is the best way. The only way. The children of La Masia are reminiscent of orphans raised within a convent, wholly isolated from the world outside. Their faith is their weapon. There is no other better way. No wonder they get right up the nose of the heretics.
* A note. This was initially attributed to Sid Lowe, again, but a commenter pointed out that it was in fact a different member of the Football Weekly panel. It has therefore been altered; maybe not definitively, but that’ll do. It was one of them. The point stands.