17 June 2018

As good as a goal

There are great misses. Pelé's two classics in the 1970 World Cup are well known. There's also this from Pavel Nedvěd in the stupendous Czech Republic-Netherlands match in the group stage of Euro 2004:

And this header by Henrik Larsson against Russia in the succeeding Euros would have been famous had it dropped in:

And yesterday, Peru's Paolo Guerrero sent a backheel hopping towards the neighbourhood of Kasper Schmeichel's far post. It took many years to reach its destination. Watching, you don't spend that length of time in suspended animation, waiting to register the outcome: instead, that outcome where the ball goes in draws itself in your mind. You get an advance copy of the goal to come; or if it's a miss, you get to see a wonderful alternative future.

Guerrero's shot went just wide — agonisingly so, to use the commentator's fitting cliché. But the agony is sweet, because on the pitch in your mind, Guerrero scored his beautiful goal.

Sweet, that is, for the neutral. If it's a player on your team who's missed, it can be sickening.

Another miss. In the last minute of extra time in Chile's last-16 tie in the 2014 World Cup, Mauricio Pinilla fired a shot from the 18-yard line high towards the Brazil goal, and before it opened up the extraordinary reality that Brazil were going to lose. It had been theoretically possible before then, of course. It was apparent that this Brazil team were not the finest vintage, and Chile were a very good team themselves: certainly good enough, on their day, to beat Brazil. The game had been in the balance throughout its thrillingly bitter two hours. But this was Brazil. The notion of Brazil — Brazil! — getting knocked out in the second round of their own World Cup was unreal. It couldn't happen. No matter how perilous the waters they might find themselves in, some piece of fortune (or a kindly referee) would lift them to safety. But there it was. The ball was in midair, and everyone was helpless.

The shot did not go in. A whole world of which this catastrophe was the creation story had been made by Pinilla's boot, then destroyed by the crossbar, all in the time it took for the ball to travel eighteen yards. Brazil won the penalty shootout and felt relieved that their humiliation didn't materialise on that field in Belo Horizonte.

Meanwhile, Pinilla got himself a tattoo commemorating the moment. He knew something.


16 June 2018

The gift that keeps giving

Cristiano Ronaldo scored with an exquisite free kick to complete his hat-trick and secure a 3-3 draw with Spain in the World Cup today. If you haven't seen it: it was almost the equal of Aleksandr Golovin's for Russia against Saudi Arabia. Yet if he had contrived to shank it fifty feet high and wide, it would have been just as wondrous, just as pleasurable. Football's mysteries are unfathomable.


06 June 2018

AFC-S Mithering – or – Football’s Mr. Sorrow

There's no good reason why a team like Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, 1996 to 2004, should exist. There's nothing inevitable about it. Much of football is an expanse of earnest attempts at creating a beneficent order, leaving behind a trail of small individual moments of triumph or beauty each of which could, nonetheless, have been a happy accident, a rogue episode, a cloud that momentarily looks like Australia. Maybe even something you could have done. You could, of course, happily mark your time by such moments — at the very least, they show that something is happening out there.

But when some of those points of light are threaded together; and, deeper still, when more follow, and the threads begin to connect, and the connections proliferate ... I don't just mean winning, or even winning frequently (how mundane — there's always a winner), but a team that seems to be operating with a higher intelligence — nothing mystical or transcendent or other such shite, but something very human. They create something new and unforeseen with the same materials available to everyone else. They don't defy the laws of the universe or the mind: they know those laws, their convolutions and nooks; they know how to work them. They know the hardness of reality. You can't transcend it, only ride its contours — and perhaps in so doing bring a fresh eye to them.

The "beautiful game" can be an abstraction if you forget that even the bowling greens of the Premier League leave muck between the players' studs. It's always a balance between sun and shadow, fun and serious purpose, play and fight. (And the cascade of red cards that fell upon Arsenal in the early Wenger years shows they certainly used to fight. Or did they just lash out?) It's power and grace, sleekness and blunt force hinting at violence...

Maybe it's not even really a balance. There seems to be a sweet spot where apparently opposing notions like teamwork and individualism are no longer in inverse proportion — where they don't conflict, but enhance and transform one another. Reach that state and a team can become so entirely fit for purpose that they give you the illusion (it's all illusion) that football has at last been solved.

That's beauty beyond prettiness. Most of football's primary pleasures are small and subtle: a well-controlled ball, a nice floodlight pylon, the opposition goalkeeper slicing a clearance out of play. It's mad, but it's not that mad. It's nice to have something bigger in reserve, though.

And for it to happen to your team, i.e. the side of all that's holy and righteous … I was already an Arsenal fan before Wenger became their manager. I was hardly "long-suffering": I was far too young for that; and besides, I came to Gooner consciousness during the George Graham era, which brought titles a-plenty, as well as a style of play that would make many a more recent convert puke. (When it worked, it was fabulous, by the way.) Nor, evidently, can I claim to be one of those converts, seduced by the beauty, drawn ever deeper by the refined pleasure of a Wenger team. I just got lucky. Jammier than the M50. Right place, right time.

If, as Roger Angell says, baseball is about belonging (Angell seems to have belonged to about four different teams, and fair play to him), so is football. And better that the good stuff belongs to you than to them.


The trouble with sport is that it's a never-ending story. Rare is the conclusion that is not provisional. No matter what you've done lately, there'll always come along a new table full of zeroes that somehow has to be shaped. To the defeated, "there's always next year" is a consolation; to the victorious, it's both a seduction and a threat. Next year gives you the chance to parlay your achievements into something more, and to deepen your exploration of the game's unknown possibilities. More than that — it demands it. It also, of course, gives you a chance to lose it. Whatever comes to pass, it's impossible to preserve the present glorious moment just as it is and leave the future well alone. Or the past.

The memory of those early Wenger teams was too vivid. Even as the constant forward movement congealed into the Islington Shuffle and thence into something even less self-assured, there were frequent manoeuvres and performances that rhymed with those from what increasingly became the old days. Even as good form failed to turn into a title challenge, or a title challenge was halted by the inexplicable refusal of a fence, there'd always be a reminder that the old spirit was still there — even if it rested solely in the person of Arsène Wenger, who seemed to be less and less able to get it to connect with the players in his charge, or with the changed realities of the game, or with the expectations of five-star football on a four-star budget, or with what tethers idealism to the ground.

(It’s by some pretty warped standards that losing to Bayern and finishing fourth could be seen as abject failure, but losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to bayern and finishing fourht losingto bayern and finishing fourth losing to Bayern and finishing ourth losing to bayern anf finishing fourth lsing to Bayrn and finishing fourth losingin to Bayern and finishing fourth lsoing to Bayern and finihsing ofurth losinginto Bayern and finishing fourth losing to bayern and finishing fourth losinginto Bauern and finsihing fourth losing to Bayern anad finsihing fourth osing to Bayern and finishing fourth losing to Byern and finishiing fourth is at least a tester, like being a weatherman in Punxsutawney.)

The hope prompted by that spirit, its myriad little inflations and deflations, was a gambler's hope. It became wearing, exasperating, ever more difficult to sustain. I don't know whether Wenger should have gone after the 2017 FA Cup final; I don't know how much of a difference another year in twenty-two really makes. That game was a stunning recapitulation of the Wenger way. In 2017, it was also a reminder of the bits in between the rhymes, and thus of the W. w.'s waywardness. It was proof of the faith, and of its opposite.

There was no real shock of finality at the announcement of Wenger's more-or-less forced exit: the end of his tenure was a slow dissolution, not a point in time. More final was the send-off at his last home game, which could have been called "Fuck Off & Thanks for Everything" but for Wenger's graciousness making it less weird for (almost) all concerned. But it hit home the hardest once the whistle blew to end the second leg of the Europa League semi-final against Atlético Madrid. Arsenal were not the pre-tie favourites — but on paper, and then on grass, it was winnable, and they lost. The thing slipped through their fingers one final time. And that was that. What would a Europa title have been worth anyway...? Too late to answer. Time's up. Here comes Just Another Manager, to be followed, no doubt, by Yet Another Manager.

The long-time Wenger-Outs – hard-line, hard-headed, possibly hard-hearted — were probably right, or at least accurate. Me? Like someone said after another doomed, damned escapade, I'm a little bit stupid regarding this type of thing.

"It's very unusual," says Amy Lawrence in the documentary 89, talking about Graham's Arsenal's title-clinching win in The Anfield Game,
when you're experiencing something in the present, that's happening to you now, and you know that it's going to be something you'll cherish for the rest of your life.
The corollary thought is: it may never be this good again. Into that moment which seems, magically, to be a frozen present tense, is fed the past, with all its hopes and disappointments, and the future, which won't be as good as this. There it is, right there: that strange figure in the background staring at the camera, who you only noticed the hundredth time you looked at the picture. Things fall apart; it's as true as the ecstasy. Everything a team does after they assert what greatness they have to assert is an attempt to hunt that thought down, capture it, and subdue it. Alex Ferguson's Manchester United chased the thought relentlessly and ruthlessly, plucking its wings off with savage glee. Arsenal did not, or could not, do that, so it constantly buzzed around them: occasionally swatted, never squashed. They became its emblem.



08 April 2018

The Past of Football: NASAL and the New York/New Jersey Cosmos

The man they will try to stop once they've heard of him, Dr. Frank Lazarus, professor of football history at Frank Lazarus University, pieces together the scant remains of history and teaches us about that great enigma of world football, the United States of America

Back in the sixties, the whole world watched agog and non-north-Walian alike as Buzzward Aldrin, Stretchford Armstrong and a third man whose name is lost to history heroically fought off space communists trying to appropriate the United States of America's rightful claim to the moon's Teflon deposits. As the moon's eerily lunar landscape lay strewn with the corpses of America's enemies, Armstrong swung a bebooted foot at the head of one of them, and he uttered those now-famous words: "That's one small step for a man, one giant boot to the face of this space commie!" The dead red's head detached from its body and described a beautiful arc as it soared through the low-gravity moon sky. With this one act, the course of history changed. America was entranced and exited by the new futuristic possibilities that now stretched out before them. President John "F-word" Kennedy addressed an expectant nation. "We simply cannot wait for the NFL to come up with a better name for their championship game than the ludicrous 'Super Bowl'," he said, "and with the designated hitter rule, baseball has committed an unconscionable assault on the double switch, the most exciting move in all of sports. Stretchford — along with Buzzward and, I believe, some other guy, although I'm not sure about that, Ralf, check that one out for me — has shown us that soccer is in fact as American as an apple pie wearing a cowboy hat that has a detailed knowledge of anti-anxiety medication. I therefore proclaim that by the end of the decade, soccer will be our one true national American sport, game, or pastime."

And so, in a country with absolutely no history in the game whatsoever full stop period end of story move along nothing to see, soccer was invented for the eleventh time. Would this number prove auspicious?

No. In response to the President's decree, a league was hurriedly formed which, to tap into America's mania for all things spatial, was named NASA League, or NASAL (never the NASAL). The NASAL decided to inject some zeitgeisty narrative into proceedings by creating a league consisting of two teams: the patriotic, red-white-and-blue-clad Hero Legend Eagles, and the tie-dye wearing Super Freaky Electro Acid Commie Draft-Dodging Sunshine Gang. Without a dedicated soccer stadium, however, the league had to make-do with using other sports' facilities. Games were played on an iced hockey pitch, a stocked car pitch and a drained swimming pitch. In desperation, they tried playing on a baseball pitch, which worked perfectly well for several milliseconds until they were propelled from it by jealous baseball forces. Even after they found a more settled home on the infield of a go-kart track near Piddlesboro, Wyoming, the league struggled. Nervous about the American public's desire to sit through a soccer game, organisers stretched out the halftime entertainment — an incredible four-legged horse called Horse — until it became the main event and the soccer the halftime show. Horse became a star and is still sorely missed to this day. There was a new star in heaven the day he died.

Nothing the league tried seemed to work. The owners came up with a plan: win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. This didn't work. Then, realising that any American sports league needed a strong New York team in order to thrive, they tried to create one: the New York Vets. But cynical New Yorkers were too busy stylishly injecting drugs in an abandoned factory or moving to Hollywood to bother watching. In trying to salvage things with a desperate series of name changes — the Gets, the Yets, the Let's, the Stets, the Quets, the Prets, the Regrets, the Lil-lets, the Alphabets, the Capulets, the Letrasets, the Marmosets, the Sobriquets, the Peat Briquettes, the New Marvelettes, the Pair of Quintets (Plus One), the Xkblsgfvhstdffqkhets — the owners only made matters worse.

With NASAL gaining no support but life (life support), a miracle was needed. It came in the form of two of the entertainment biz's primary Italian-American supernovas: Sylvester Stallone and Foghorn Leghorn ( Fabiano Livorno). Eager to bring a taste of the old soccering country to the United States of A, they purchased the ailing Ets, promising to use their showbiz lure (money) to transform the fortunes of America's new obsession. They started with a new name for their team: in honour of America's brave space fliers, they were to be called the New York Cosmonauts. Then they gave the team some brand new kit to wear, and commemorated this special event by changing the team's name again: they were now the New York/New Jersey Cosmonauts.

Then it was time to sign some players. Reasoning that Brazil was the greatest soccering nation, they asked around trying to find out who the greatest Brazilian soccerer was. And so it was that Leônidas became the second NASAL superstar (after Horse). The 84-year-old ran riot against NASAL's cadre of Americans who, remember, didn't even know what a soccer was until five minutes before kick-off. Suddenly, NASAL became the go-to destination (as opposed to the go-away-from destination) for aging soccerers seeking a dose of HRT. In came one-man Mannschaft Franz "The Director" Peckinpah, destroyer Johan NeeskinleftonyourshinsbythetimeI'mfinishedwithyou, Carlos "Charlie" Alberto, Dennis Stewart, Sweden's 1958 World Cup hero Pelle, England's forgotten 1966 World Cup hero Stanislaus "The Manislaus" Carter, and Billy Meredith, plus coaches of the calibre of Ken Furphy, Billy O'Smelly and Ulick McGee.

But even these greats were complete fucking dogshit compared to the majestic Iolo Cynallia, a striker hailing from the part of the Welsh Valleys that mysteriously hasn't really got any valleys, probably because druids hid them or something. After travelling to Rome to grant the Pope an audience with him, Cynallia signed for Lazio, where he became part of the legendary team that took the prime minister hostage and secured the Scudetto as ransom. After six months spent as an aid worker in Biafra, he headed Stateside to resurrect soccer and, perhaps, the American nation itself. He was a greater goal machine than even the legendary Rasputin. He often won games entirely on his own, which was necessary given his penchant for physically assaulting teammates who wouldn't pass him the ball, especially if it looked like they were going to have a shot themselves. Should this course of action fail, a quick signal to the sideline would see the errant colleague hauled off and sold to Canada, Cynallia's immense charisma and intelligence having seen his effortless rise to the positions of special assistant to the coach, executive co-general manager, Owner-in-Spirit and Honorary Founder of the Cosmonauts. Between games, he liked to relax by shooting people in the streets of New York/New Jersey, which people liked because it was edgy.

The Cosmonauts were a great success, but America still needed one last push to be fully awoken to the joys of soccering. To that end, many rules were changed and gimmicks devised to reflect the unique American sportsing mindset. The game was divided into four quarters, the third being the "cocaine quarter". A 35-yard offside line was introduced (reputedly the "cocaine line"). Ties were abolished, broken by force if necessary. Defending was made illegal between the 15th and 75th minutes (the "NASAL Power Hour"); permission to defend outside that time was conditional on the collection of special tokens hidden around the stadium and surrounding neighbourhoods. The coin toss was replaced by the "NASAL Header-Off", wherein the ball was thrown up between two opposing players, the first to head it winning for his team the precious right to kick off first. (Far fewer careers were ended by this than predicted by the usual mongers of doom.) Goals scored by goalkeepers would count as fifty goals (Stallone's idea). One round per season was designated as "NASAL Pinball Week", wherein the pitch was transformed into a giant pinball machine, ball and players alike subject to the tyranny of the flipper.

A new halftime entertainment called "March Madness", in which a marching band were forced to keep marching until they went mad, finally and irrevocably tilted the balance. America experienced something like soccer ecstasy. Teams sprang up all over the land like soccer-shaped flowers in a desert of meaninglessness to welcome the godlike Cynallia and his troupe of Cosmonauts to their town, in the hope that their magic would liven up the dullness of living in a place full of right-angle intersections. NASAL welcomed the Tallahassee Uncontrollables, the Wichita Fuzzy Bunnies, the Des Moines Anxiety, the Kansas City Subsidence, the Carolina Plague of Frogs, the Portland Tax Day, the Philadelphia Kickers, the Seattle Kickers, the Albany Kickers, the New Orleans Kickers, the Boston Kickers, the Austin Kickers, the Cleveland Serial Killers, the Arizona Serial Kickers, the South Dakota Straight-Line-Border-Drawer-Uppers, the St. Louis Obesity Time Bombs, the Washington Plausible Deniability, the Los Angeles Aztecs of Anchorage, Team Amazing, Young Boys Poughkeepsie, the Houston Assault Rifles, the Pittsburgh Paranoia, the Bay Area Delightfulness, the Albuquerque Albuquerquians, AFC Indiana United, the Soccer Stars of Northeast West Virginia, People You Think Are American But Are Actually Canadian, the Cincinnati Loan Sharks, the Atlanta Go-To-Hecks, the Garkos Gorgons and the Chicago Shitehawks. President Kennedy's promise had been fulfilled, and the world wept in gratitude and awe.

Reigning supreme, however, were the mighty New York/New Jersey, now renamed Cynallia and His Cosmonauts. They smote their enemies with a swashbuckling style of soccer universally known as "Cynalliaball". "Give it to Iolo!," even opposition fans would scream. Eventually, the Cosmonauts made it to the championship game, where they faced a scary black-clad Iceland team coached by the fella from the Statoil ads. A tense match went to a shootout, with Iceland's final shot to be taken by Gunnar Stahl, who was so fearsome his parents were afraid to give him a normal Icelandic name. Cosmonauts coach Gordon Bombay (shortly afterwards renamed Gordon Mumbai) cleverly swapped out goalie Greg Goldberg for Julie "The Cat" Gaffney, who made the vital save. "Quack! Quack! Quack!," they all chanted for some reason. The Cosmonauts had won the big game!

As usual, the Cosmonauts' victory party took place in Hot Shit, the second happeningest club in town (after the Cosmonauts). Soccer-crazy funk monarchs Chic (named after Chic Brodie) headed down hoping to celebrate the championship win and the success of their latest single "Nile Rodgers' Disco Pants", but were refused entry, even after they said they were best friends with Billy Meredith. Fuming, they went home and immediately wrote the scathing anti-Cosmonaut anthem "Kill A Cosmo (For The God Of Happiness)". The song was so damn catchy that it inspired anti-Cosmonaut feeling all across America. The Cosmos Suck! movement was born. A Chic concert turned into a giant rally, wherein fans created a giant bonfire out of Cosmos jerseys, memorabilia and players, thus destroying yet another perfectly good Madison Square Garden.

But America loves a winner, and as long as the Cosmonauts kept the W's (win's) a-rollin' in (rolling in), they could hold on to their position as the kings of the republic. And win they did — until they didn't. With the scores level in a tense, decisive game 17 of the Teflon Earl of Football World Supreme Championship Series against the Rochester Rambunctiousness, a power cut plunged all of New York/New Jersey into darkness. Naturally enough, the entire crowd started to riot. As giddy fans spilled onto the pitch, looting mascot costumes and barrels of Gatorade, Cosmonaut keeper Sheep Messing sprinted from his goal to join his teammates in the sanctuary of the locker room. But eagle-brained Bunc ace Hank Schtrumpfsteiger V noticed that the referee had not blown his whistle and that the game was in fact still in progress. He kicked the ball into the net, and vigorously and repeatedly repeated the act to make sure the ref saw. The ref saw. With no Cosmonauts left on the field to restart the game, the ref blew for full-time. Rochester were/was world champion(s) (of America (and Canada)). The invincibles had been vinced.

The Cosmos were now big, fat losers. America, still desperately waiting for Who's the Boss? to be commissioned and craving certainty, lost all faith in the credibility of the team and therefore of NASAL as a whole. Attendances and TV figures were sent into a funk, which you'd think would be a good thing but was actually considered bad, so confused was America at the time. With the tide having turned so violently against soccer, and with the league on the brink of extinction ("NASAL Brinkstinction"), top lawmaking body Congress staged an anti-Cosmonaut witch trial to root out the evil in their mid. The nation was gripped. "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Cosmonauts?" became a catchphrase beloved of people who like pop culture. All Cosmonauts were tortured, including, tragically, members of long-defunct doo-wop group The Cosmonauts. Even the Horse Memorial in Washington was tortured. Stallone and Leghorn had had enough. They sold the Cosmos to a museum of taxidermy in Tickling Gulch, Colorado, and put all their energy into making Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, a feel-good buddy flick set in a prisoner-of-war camp, starring Stallone and Leghorn. NASAL folded and soccer was banished from America's shores, only returning when OJ Simpson (an old pal of Leghorn's) pretended to be a murderer, thus providing enough of a distraction for the World Cup to be smuggled into the US by Marco Etcheverry, who departed the field in triumph four minutes later.



21 February 2018

The art of defending the art of defending

In case you've misplaced your memory in the tumult of football's ninety-minute news cycle, or are simply one of the approximately seven billion people with better things to do, you'll know there were several incidents even more controversial than your weekend Prem norm in the Liverpool-Tottenham game some Sundays ago. One involved a pass by Dele Alli aimed for Harry Kane, who was in an offside position in the Liverpool penalty area. Liverpool's Dejan Lovren tried to cut out the pass by swinging a boot at it, but he only sliced at the underside of the ball, which grazed the top of his foot and ran through to Kane, who then was (or wasn't, according to taste) fouled by keeper Loris Karius. The referee awarded a penalty. He was then called over by his assistant, who informed him that Kane was in an offside position and was therefore offside if Lovren, in his effort to play the ball, had touched it. The ref didn't know whether Lovren had touched the ball, and so had a sneaky word into his microphone to ask the fourth official if he (4th off) had seen, by some dreadful accident, a Lovren touch on some sort of screen that may have been unforgivably placed within eyeshot. Off'l #4 had indeed seen L. t. (whether live or on a monitor is unclear), and the ref confirmed his original decision.

As well as Monitorgate and Ifeltcontactandwentdowngate, there was much discussion about the offside non-call. Why wasn't Kane offside? The rule is pretty clear, once you've stared at it for a while. (That I had to look it up to reacquaint myself with it should be used in evidence against me, not the rule. Whisht.) Applied gist: Kane was not interfering with play, because, essentially, he wasn't receiving the ball from Alli, but from Lovren (whose touch was intentional, not just a rebound or deflection). Nor was Kane deemed to be interfering with Lovren's playing of the ball, because he did not impede Lovren in his attempt by challenging him or otherwise obstructing him. So, by rule, no offside.

But is the rule wrong? Just because it says that Kane was not interfering with play doesn't mean he wasn't. Lovren's attempt to send the ball soaring over the West Riding was surely provoked by a knowledge of the presence of the future former Real Madrid striker behind him. Kane may not have pulled Lovren's shorts down or shouted "TWAT!" into his ear at the critical moment, but by being the intended recipient of the pass, he was unquestionably interfering with play. Should the Laws of the Game [sic] not reflect this obvious fact?

No. Or, to be fair, not necessarily. And here, friends, is where we must wade out into the philosophical soup. See, it's a question of lines, which, as we know, have to be drawn somewhere. 'Interfering with play' is subjective, and must be defined to work as a rule. Behind that definition must be an idea of the kind of game you want, and how this particular aspect of the rules will help bring this into being. You are under no obligation to take a phrase like 'interfering with play' with maximum literality. Take 'offside' itself. It originally meant that it was an offence for a player to be 'off' their side of the ball, i.e. in front of the ball (like in rugby); shortly after the assoc. code was founded, the rule was drastically altered to something akin to what it is today, whereby a player can be in front of the ball in almost any circumstance. So, a player can very much be offside in the most literal sense without committing the offence defined in the rulebook as offside. As with offside, so with interfering with play. The Shanks hand-me-down along the lines of 'if you're not interfering with play, what are you doing on the pitch?' that gets recited whenever there's confusion about the matter can be ignored if desired. You can choose where the line gets drawn. So what kind of game do you want?

That question is the bassline underneath all these debates about the rules and their application. 'You can't tackle anymore' is the refrain when a dubious free or card is doled out by a ref. In kinder, gentler times, a tackler was permitted to heap upon a tacklee a hefty helping of relish and other foul condiments as long as he (tackler) touched the ball or otherwise made it change velocity at some point in the operation. Live butchery being frowned upon in this PC age, changes to rules and attitudes have made life that bit easier for those saps with the ball at their feet. As a result, and especially amongst defenders (current and former), frequently lamented are the injuries done to the 'art of defending', which 'they' (FIFA, probably) are trying to eradicate with their softening ways. The application of current mores is seen as unfairness on a par with piping in distracting ice-cream van sounds over the PA.

But if the a. o. d. is a real thing, it is only honoured by the easing skyward of difficulty levels for defenders. Never before has the game so favoured such artists as might lurk amongst the defensive unit. Would-be Maldinis are ever further separated from the kind of clogger for whom 'defending' rhymes only with 'upending' and 'art' with 'still-pumping heart'. There is a greater need to hit upon the blend of subtle skills that are the true essence of defending — things like awareness, patience, synchronicity with teammates, knowing when and how to act individually, and, finally, the judiciousness to know when to go for that tackle and the precision to pull it off. It puts a premium on those who can do these things supremely. Taking away the crutch of the route-one ploughing has ensured that physical force takes its proper place: as part of that blend, a supplement rather than a first port of call. Now defenders can't get away so much with not dealing with that pesky, untrustworthy object that is the ball, which can be made to do devious things by those pampered Crufts contestants who get the balloon doors and vid-king comps. Of course you can still tackle — the difference these days is that you have to do it well.

Back to offside. Under the original rule, it was not something a team could impose on another; you could no more deliberately play an opponent offside than you can in rugby. Even after the drastic change to the rule mentioned several paragraphs north of here, it took half a century for the offside trap to be invented. When that happened, the rule was soon altered to dull the new scheme's effectiveness. But across the Rubicon football had already gone. Before, the rule was a means to keep forwards honest. After, it became weaponised, something that belonged in an Arsenal*. It was now something that could be inflicted.

* Ask your grandfather.

But here's another paragraph beginning with 'But'. When an offside offence occurs, an attack is halted without the defence having to directly engage with the attackers or the ball. This means there is a way available to the defence by which they can deliberately end an attack while avoiding altogether the chore of doing any actual defending: no tackling, no pressing, no shepherding, no clearing, no saving, no fuss, no m-, no nothing. They even get a free kick out of it. What a swizz! For the attacking team to acquire an equivalent privilege, they would have to employ telekinesis or a crack team of star lawyers. (Yes, yes, or dive for a penno — but they still have to get the ball into the goal somehow.)

Now, it should be noted that there's nothing entirely wrong with any of this. It's not illegal, hardly unethical; the Geneva Conventions remain largely unviolated. Moreover, it's an example of the kind of sophisticated development that any game needs to keep it moving in a general forward direction. Without such innovation, a pitch would still be the size of a village and the crossbar industry would be but a pipe dream. The rules, their application, their spirit: feel how fuzzy they are. Fair play to everyone concerned with exploiting them. kutgw

On the rare occasion a Lovrenesque situation occurs, there are always plenty who will say that the rule is too complicated and that we should go back to how it was in Lawro's day. It's telling that this bellyaching only ensues when it is the defending team that has run afoul of a thitherto-ignored legal wrinkle. It shows how accustomed we all — not just the defensively minded — have become to the aggressive use of offside by defences as a norm to be deviated from at the cost of, oh, the game itself (gone though it almost certainly already is).

However, offside was never meant to be used this way, and the rulemakers are under no obligation to facilitate the free unfurling of such ploys. As somebody once said: what kind of game do you want? Whatever else it should be, there are two attributes in particular it should possess. The first is that it should be an opportunity for great players to practice their craft in all its facets (including those that comprise that art of defending) to a high level — preferably all the way to the point where opportunity turns into necessity. The second might seem somewhat at odds with the first, moving as it does from the celebratory to the sadistic. But that's football for you. For what it should also do is continually place the players in peril to see how they try to get themselves out of it. It should jam together the realms of competence and incompetence, of wild glory and dreams shredded and scattered; it should bring the players right up to the front, give them a shove, and see which side they fall on. This century's tweaks to the offside rule — and tweaks are all they are — have brought some extra jeopardy to the invoking of a get-out clause and have thus, in their modest way, done their bit to move football closer to that blessed state of tension.

Hence Lovren. There was not a thing unfair or improper about the predicament he found himself in. He was presented with an escape route from the drudgery of defending: let the ball run through to Kane. But to do this, he would have to have done three things: spot the possibility; judge the probability of success; physically act upon it by playing offside. Or, by accident or design, he could have deviated from this process somewhere along the way and do something else. Try to do something else, anyway. All this in less time than it takes to say 'diving get'. Now there's your art of defending.

P.S. If you fancy petitioning IFAB to stand down and let me take over, their AGM is soon so now would be a good time. Your generous support will be factored into future considerations.




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