30 September 2011

Every scratch, every click, every heartbeat

To choose Tevez over Berbatov - to prefer the insistently effective to the evidently beautiful - is to embrace the kind of mindset that fills lakes with concrete, grinds trees into mulch, and crushes rare birds under the tracks of bulldozers. It is a prioritisation of the ends over the means, an acknowledgement that it is better to win than to smile.
Andi Thomas, gaffer at the excellent Twisted Blood, has a piece at SB Nation on the idleness of Dimitar Berbatov — the enforced idleness, that is, as Alex Ferguson prefers to pick a combination of Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Danny Welbeck in his stead. Thomas' love for Berbatov is infectious, if you're not already infected; you can practically feel his beating heart refusing to be still. But I wonder about some of the terms in which he expresses this. Specifically, I question the opposition he posits between the respective styles of Berbatov and Carlos Tévez.

Of course, perhaps I'm just touchy on this matter, being one who has frequently thrilled at Tévez's play. "Thrill" and variations thereon are probably overused — they certainly are by me — but it seems perfectly apt here. Thomas is onto something when he identifies the widespread approval of Tévez (before recent antics) with the anglocentric* tendency to value activity for its own sake. It is more important to make a show of being busy than it is to actually do something; the key coaching mantra is "Look lively!" It may be that Tévez's in-the-style-of-Taz play chimes most resoundingly with this mindset, but that does not invalidate it. Tevez's play has nothing to do with looking lively: he just is lively, and this liveliness has underpinned all the success he's had.

* (I use "anglocentric" here because what goes for English football goes too for its broader sphere of influence, for good and ill.)

Or, to change the focus, he's effective. So is Berbatov: both players scored twenty league goals last year, topping the scoring chart. It's impossible to imagine that Berbatov is any less obsessed with ends than is Tévez. Like any game, football is a puzzle its participants try to solve, and in learning to do so arrive at their own idiosyncratic means of doing so. It is always shaped by the aim of the game. This isn't a mark of a brutalising calcio moderno: this is sport. It's not a corruption, recent or otherwise. Beauty and efficacy may sometimes clash, but they are far from mortal enemies. Much of the beauty of football happens by the by; some even has ineffectiveness at its core. But it is impossible to fully separate the beauty from the goal, so to speak, whether we talk about Berbatov, Tévez or anyone else. The pursuit of that goal can leave a trail of magic, and so can its fulfillment. In fact, the difficulty of the fulfillment lends it a beauty of its own. "Simple, brute efficacy"? Well, "brute" is a question of taste; "simple" is wrong.

Thomas writes:
In a world as results-obsessed as modern football, the appreciation of the beautiful is one of the few avenues left for a fan to express a simple and innocent humanity.
But there is as much humanity in the play of Carlos Tévez — in a slashing run into the box, in an unstoppable finish, even (yes) in his industry — as in any of the more subtle moves pulled by Berbatov. Tévez may appeal mostly to those possessed by the mania for running around like an eegit, but for one thing, his appeal is broader than that; and for another, he represents the obverse of that mania. It is unfair to suggest that because this mindset can have negative consequences, it can't have positive, even beautiful, ones; it is unfair to thus write off an entire swath of sincerely felt experience as a willing extension of "the usual subjugation of [the fan's self] to the grind". It's too narrow a view of beauty to be getting on with, to pit these styles as irreconcilable opposites. It goes against the experiences of many: I for one would feel impoverished were I forced to make a choice. Thankfully, I don't have to. To say otherwise is to elevate a matter of taste to a level of absolutism it can't maintain.

As I say, I wouldn't like to make a choice between Berbatov and Tévez; nor do I like having the choice taken out of my hands. Tévez's absence from the football field for the foreseeable is in large part self-inflicted, and any sadness in the face of it is thus tempered, or at least complicated. Berbatov's current absence is down to the whim of his coach, setting our desires against "the unbeatable slow machine that brings you what you'll get", and so making it all the more keenly felt. It's been fun watching Manchester United make opposing defences take on the integrity of wet kitchen towel (except for you know when), but there's something missing. Going by Thomas' piece, he (if he'll forgive the comparison) feels about Berbatov like I feel about Robin van Persie. I could watch van Persie forever, even if all he did was fail to bring the ball onto his left foot. Today's reports that Manchester City are interested in him are speculative, but even the thought of him leaving Arsenal makes the blood chill, as do the frequent injuries that beset him. Just as I hope you don't have to be a Gooner to appreciate this, I know you don't have to be a United fan like Thomas to feel the pain his Berbalove is bringing him. Berbatov reminds me of Gavin Henson, another for whom the word "languid" has been used as a backhanded compliment. Thomas again:
Johan Cruyff once pointed out that any player who was sprinting had probably set off too late.
Henson and Berbatov look lazy because they're already in the right place, and can afford to take their time over what they do. And they do it well (or in Henson's case, perhaps, he did it well). They're not lazy — they're just punctual.


elliott 30/9/11 7:13 PM  

I always knew deep down in your heart of hearts you were an anglo "look lively" type.

Fredorrarci 30/9/11 7:41 PM  

My horrible secret is out!

Well, I enjoy lots of things in football, one of which happens to to be purposeful liveliness.

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