Saturday, May 27, 2006

 
World Cup According to Character

In anticipation of each World Cup I spend a few minutes to reread the following article written by Henry Kissinger in 1986. This article is truly classic and timeless, sure add a couple of wins to Brazil, another to Germany Italy and France, but for the most part this article could have been written today not 20 years ago.


World Cup According to Character
The Los Angeles Times
Sunday, June 29, 1986

by: Henry Kissinger


I have been an avid soccer fan ever since my youth in Fuerth, a soccer-mad city of southern Germany, which for some inexplicable reason won three championships in a three-year period. My father despaired of a son who preferred to stand for two hours (there were very few seats) watching a soccer game rather than sit in the comfort at the opera or be protected from the elements in a museum.

Soccer evokes extraordinary passions, especially during the quadrennial World Cup competition ending today in Mexico City. It has been estimated that the Brazilian gross national product suffers a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars for every day Brazil plays, as rabid fans sit before television sets or radios. Statistics in other soccer citadels must be comparable.

Soccer lends itself to a competition of national teams because it requires an extraordinary combination of individual skill, teamwork and strategic sense. Since there are 11 players on each side engaged in continuous action, every game produces tactical necessities to be solved by improvisation on the playing field.

This was true even in my youth when soccer was much less complex and much more oriented to the offense. Then there were five forwards, three midfield players, two fullbacks and a goalie. The offense being numerically superior to the defense, goals were much more frequent then. By the late 1930s, managers sought to overcome this advantage by assigning the center half to shadow the opposing center forward. The creation of three de facto fullbacks constricted the attack which since time immemorial had been built around the center forward.

In the early 1950s, the Hungarians showed how to overwhelm this defense, turning their center forward into a decoy. He would move to the sidelines or toward midfield, drawing the shadowing defensive player out of position, creating an empty space in front of the goal.

But as in military strategy every offensive maneuver in soccer evokes a compensating defensive move. The answer to the roving center forward was a zone defense; defensive players were required to cover a certain area regardless of which player was attacking. Total soccer was invented soon thereafter; all players had to be able to defend as well as attack and to shift from one mode to another with extreme rapidity.

The modern style of soccer in fact emphasizes defense — with few exceptions like Brazil, Argentina and France. The basic alignment has become four defensive and four midfield players; the forwards have shrunk to two. Massed defenses can in general be overcome only by rapid thrusts involving very accurate passing. The result is a very tactical game, its complexity becoming a fascinating reflection of national attitudes.

The styles of leading soccer powers like West Germany, Brazil, Italy and England illustrate this point.

West Germany, a finalist today, is, with Italy and Brazil, the most successful team of the modern era. West German soccer entered the postwar era with no particular legacy. Postwar Germany's newly professional soccer being as novel as the frontiers of the state it represents, it could adopt total soccer with a vengeance. The German national team plays the way its general staff prepared for the war; games are meticulously planned, each player skilled in both attack and defense. Intricate pass patterns evolve, starting right in front of the German goal. Anything achievable by human foresight, careful preparation and hard work is accounted for.

And there have been great successes. Of the last six prior World Cups, Germany has won two, was second twice, third once and out of the running only in 1978. At the same time, the German national team suffers from the same disability as the famous Schlieffen plan for German strategy in World War I. There is a limit to human foresight; psychological stress on those charged with executing excessively complex maneuvers cannot be calculated in advance. If the German team falls behind, or if its intricate approach yields no results, its game is shadowed by the underlying national premonition that in the end even the most dedicated effort will go unrewarded, by the nightmare that ultimately fate is cruel — a nightmare reinforced by the knowledge that the German media are unmerciful when high expectations go unfulfilled. The impression is unavoidable that an outstanding national soccer team has not brought a proportionate amount of joy to a people that may not in its heart of hearts believe joy is the ultimate national destiny.

Brazil suffers no such inhibitions. Its national teams are an assertion that virtue without joy is a contradiction in terms. Brazilian teams display a contagious exuberance; Brazilian fans cheer them on to the ecstatic beat of samba bands. Brazil always has the most acrobatic players, the individuals one cannot forget whatever the outcome of the match. But, as in Brazil's political institutions, this individualism is combined with an extraordinary ability to make the practical arrangements required for effective national performance. As a result, Brazil has appeared in more World Cups and won more than any other team. It was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the current competition partly as a result of an egregious seeding placing Italy, the old World Cup holder; France, the European champion, and two potential champions — Brazil and West Germany — in the same half of a sudden-death elimination round, while the other half contained only one team, Argentina — today's other finalist — that has ever been in the final four.

To be sure, the Brazilians, being human, cannot avoid some weaknesses. The players sometimes are so intoxicated by their brilliant maneuvers that they occasionally forget the purpose of the exercise is to score goals. And I have never seen an outstanding Brazilian goal-keeper. Perhaps the task is too lonely; the goalkeeper after all has to stay put while his teammates enjoy themselves tracing clever pass patterns on the turf. Or perhaps the only purely defensive assignment on a team offends the Brazilian self-image.

Yet a Brazilian team on the attack — which is most of the time — looks like a dancing band at carnival. Wave after wave of yellow shirts roll against the opposing goal until the opposition is overwhelmed without being humiliated; it is no disgrace to be defeated by a team whose style no one else can imitate.

Italy's record places it among the top teams of world soccer although it fell victim to the same absurd seeding as Brazil. The Italian style reflects the national conviction, forged by the vicissitudes of an ancient history, that the grim struggle for survival must be based on a careful husbanding of energy for the main task. It presupposes a correct assessment of the opponent's character, paired with an unostentatious and matter-of-fact perseverance that obscures many intricate levels on which the competition takes place. The initial objective of Italian teams is to force the opponent out of his game plan, to wreck his concentration and to induce him to abandon his preferred style. In the early stages of a match, the Italian team tends to look destructive and purely defensive — a style achievable only by extreme toughness and discipline. But once the Italian team has imposed its pattern, it can play some of the most effective, even beautiful soccer in the world — though it will never waste energy simply on looking good.

No discussion of national soccer styles can be complete without reference to England. Before World War II and for nearly a decade after, England was clearly the dominant power. I say England, because for purposes of international soccer, the United Kingdom fields four teams: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A single United Kingdom team using the best players from each would be even more formidable.

The decline in the fortunes of the English team is, in my view, primarily caused by a refusal to adapt to the tactics of the modern era. Before World War II, the English team overwhelmed its opponents with speed, power and condition. But as defenses massed, the English quick-breaking style lost much of its effectiveness; as most of Europe went over to professional soccer, the advantage of superior conditioning eroded. Yet England refused to adapt its tactical plan to the passing game needed to break open the modern defense.

The English national team had never lost a game at home until 1954, when Hungary prevailed with its roving center forward. Since then, the English team has gradually declined. It is steady, reliable, tough. It never yields to panic. It is never defeated one-sidedly. It achieves everything attainable by character and tenacity. Regrettably — because I thought the pre-World War II game was more fun to watch — it has also been somewhat pedantic, as if in nostalgic thrall to a bygone era. England has never won a European championship; it has prevailed only once in the World Cup and that was 20 years ago playing before its own fans. All of us who enjoy England's muscular game hope that England's relative success in the current matches heralds a real revival.

The World Cup arouses passions because it involves both an athletic competition and a contest of national styles. It can be no accident that the most offensive-minded and elegant European team is France, only recently become a soccer power; that no team from a communist country (except Hungary, in 1954) has ever reached the World Cup finals or semifinals. Too much stereotyped planning destroys the creativity indispensable for effective soccer.

Soccer has never taken hold in the United States partly because neither a national team nor a national style has been encouraged. Still, as an unreconstructed fan, I hope for another attempt to popularize the sport, perhaps by holding the next World Cup slated for the Western Hemisphere (1994) in this country.

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