Sprachen Zie Futbol?

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Idioms of play On a recent Saturday morning in New York, I stopped by a basketball court in a park to watch two men work out with a soccer ball. Shirtless with shaved heads and pale skin, they had taken up positions at opposite ends of the court and were playing the ball to one another through the air, crosses whizzed low and hard through the air that nary a touch at the near post would convert into a goal on match day. Thwack, one would take the ball square on his bared chest and then as it landed, fire back an equally powerful airborne pass, about seven feet off the ground, that his mate would meet with the bone of his forehead sending the ball whizzing back at the same speed. And so it went on, like a game of tennis, back and forth, both men displaying an excellent ability to read the flight of the ball and respond appropriately — and also, an almost reckless physicality.

You're English, I said, as one came over to the fence to retrieve a miscued ball.

"How did you know?"

Something about the way you're playing the ball, I answered. Even before they opened their mouths, their soccer betrayed an English "accent."

I grew up watching soccer in an era when it was still possible to discern distinct national idioms in the way the game was played: The English game was all kick-and-rush, the ball played high into the penalty area as quickly and as often as possible where a tough-as-nails "target man" striker would power his way above the defenders to direct it with his head, either goalwards or else into the path of a supporting forward who could shoot past the keeper. It was an approach that rewarded hard work, physicality, finishing ability (creating a goal out of a pass into the area that eluded the defense) and bottle (physical courage and a refusal to accept defeat).

The Italians, by contrast, played a strolling game, stroking the ball to one another mostly along the ground, picking out team mates with accurate passing in a slow buildup, like a chess game, that sought to pull one of the opposing defenders out of position in order to create a gap through which a decisive pass could be threaded for a, sudden, lightning fast attack and shot on goal. No speculative long balls into the penalty area in Italy; Italian teams sought to retain possession until such time as a gap was created. The rules of physical contact were different, too: Italian defenders could dish it out, but their strikers were conditioned, at the first touch from the body of a rival, to fall to the ground writhing as if taken down by a sniper in the crowd. English lads, by contrast, never dived, but were expected to soldier on until literally kicked to the ground.

Germany combined the driving physicality of the English game with the organization and tactical awareness of the Italians. They played fast and direct, looking to catch their opponents out by with speed and pace rather than guile, but they didn't give the ball away on speculative crosses. Holland evolved a high-speed game of passing on the ground in which players routinely rotated in and out of position in order to give the man on the ball the maximum number of playmaking options and to use all of the space on the field.

And then there was Brazil. Ah, Brazil, whose poetry on the ball made all the European varieties of the game look prosaic. They emphasized the sort of showoff individual skill and creativity that most European training regimes had knocked out of their youngsters by the time of adolescence, creating a giddy and melodic form of the game (personified by the young Pele) in which players routinely did the unpredictable — shooting from 40 yards out; scoring with their backs to goal via an overhead kick; running over the ball to fake out an opponent; as a matter of course taking defenders on in one-to-one challenges and relying on their own dribbling skills to get past.

Amateur sociologists liked to see in the national idiom a reflection of the stereotyped view of the national culture: German efficiency, the Churchillian fighting spirit of the British, the Afro-Latin rhythms of the Brazilian game. It was even suggested that the dinky size of Dutch living space made their soccer players more innately aware of space than most others (a theory which ought to make Japan a world-beater).

While something as subjective and ethereal as a national soccer idiom may be by nature impossible defend in scientific terms, it nonetheless shaped the sensibilities of fans for generations. Whenever the fans of a lowly English outfit such as Bristol Rovers see their players exhibit a flash of uncharacteristic individual skill or imagination, they sing "Brazil, it's just like watching Brazil..."

It's hardly surprising that the legends of Brazilian football — Pele, Garrincha, Rivelino, Socrates, Zico all the way through to Ronaldo and Ronaldinho — are mostly strikers and attacking midfielders best remembered for their dazzling goals. German fans and international cognoscenti will certainly concur that their country's greatest ever footballer is Franz Beckenbauer, who patrolled in front of his defense in order to win the ball for his midfield. By contrast, the only Brazilian defenders who enter the pantheon of greats are those such as Junior and Roberto Carlos, remembered not for the goals they prevented but for those they scored on joining the attack. Dutch legend status, by contrast, is shared by strikers such as Johan Cruyff and Marco Van Basten, midfielders Johan Neeskens and Ruud Guullit, and defenders such as Ruud Krol and Frank Rijkaard.

Today, however, the cream of the world's players all tend to play their professional soccer in European clubs, where they're expected to conform to the discipline of the local coaching system. Not that individual skill and flair is completely knocked out of Brazilians turning out in England or Spain, simply that it's placed within the frame of a large, more disciplined and organized team effort. The European clubs seek the silky ball handling skills, speed and unpredictability of players who play the Brazilian game — whether from Latin America, Africa or even France or Portugal — but mix it up with organizational traditions long established in Europe. Arsenal's Premiership winning squad last season relied on a combination of English and African defenders; a set of midfielders comprising two Frenchmen, two Brazilians and a Swede; and a set of strikers that included a Frenchman, a Dutchman, a Spaniard and sometimes a Nigerian. And in Europe's top clubs today you'll find a blend of Western European, Latin American, African and Eastern European players.

Needless to say, the players take home with them some of what they've learned when turning out for their national teams. Moreover, the trend today is increasingly shifting from having the national team coached by a national, to having it coached by a foreigner with good coaching credentials. The Greece team that won the recent Euro 2004 tournament was coached by the German Otto Rehnagel. In the final, they beat Portugal, coached by Brazil's Felipe Scolari. Today, almost every major African national team is run by a coach from France or Germany, England coached by Sweden's Sven Goran Erikson and Scotland is run by Germany's Berti Vogts.

Inevitably, the combination of players and coaches migrating has tended to iron out national idioms, to some extent, and produce a version of the game whose tactics share a far great number of common characteristics. To be sure, the victory of rank outsiders Greece will long be remembered as one of soccer's great Cinderella story. But the way they won through — a superbly organized defense soaking up hours of pressure from more skillful and attacking opponents, and then winning by a single goal scored a quick headed goal on the counterattack or from a free kick or corner, left afficianados of the game with little to enthuse about. It was effective, but it wasn't pretty.

In today's Brazilian teams, for every Ronaldinho playing the Mozart role in midfield, there's a Dunga or a Kleberson or an Edu playing Salieri — a hardworking ball-winner who is ensuring that the opposing midfielders get little possession. And gone is that best-form-of-defense-is-attack sensibility of their forebears who always looked like they were having as much fun as a bunch of guys playing on the beach. The Brazilian teams of 2002 (winners), 1998 (beaten finalists) and 1994 (winners) have looked a lot more dour and efficient than their fabulous forebears. Then again, the fabulous forebears of 1982 may have been the most thrilling to watch since Pele's 1970 outfit, but they were knocked out as a result of the kind of basic mistakes you'd expect to see from — well, from a bunch of guys playing on the beach.

At club level, there's no longer a national idiom in the top tier. The teams are an assembly of global all-stars, as are the coaches, often. And while that has greatly enriched the spectacle of club level football in Britain, Spain, Italy and elsewhere, it's effect on the national game may be double edged. On the one hand, greater efficiency has facilitated more championships by Brazil and previously unthinkable success for such relative outsiders as Greece, South Korea or Senegal. The idea that "there are no longer any easy games" at international level has become a mantra among national team coaches, as the gap between the teams has narrowed. But the more national teams try to play the same way, the more difficult it becomes to distinguish national idioms of the game. And the spectacle is sometimes diminished as a result.