The beautiful game

I would like to quote from Wikipedia:
The phrase “The Beautiful Game” is a synonym for European football.
Gotta love Wikipedia. Simple. To the point. Splendidly accurate.

As the 2010 FIFA World Cup is about to begin, the tenth since its first edition in 1974 (no, it was not called that before, it was the Jules Rimet Cup, contrary to what anyone else might say), I cannot help thinking back of 1974… me and my brother glued to the television screen to watch every single game [0]… it almost seems like a different game now. I have to confess to being somewhat nostalgic of the way things were in those days.

FIFA WC 1974 Final, Germany vs Holland

1974 WC Final, Germany vs Holland. Shown here are legendary dutch player Johan Crujiff, as well as German Gerd Muller, Berti Vogts and Uli Hoeness.

It may be hard to believe for people in their 20s now, who have always seen football the way it is now, but, at the cost of sounding like the old fart that I am becoming, I am going to take a seat by the fireplace, my 6-yr old nephew (my brother’s son) listening to me mesmerized, like, you know, I actually know what I am talking about… there used to be a time, my dear Luca, many years ago, when…

1. Players wore jerseys carrying meaningful information…
not some company logo or some other bullshit. You see, I, the spectator, want to know what the player’s role on the pitch is, I could not care less about his name. Thus, player jerseys should be numbered 1 to 14, each number being associated to a specific position on the pitch that the player will have to keep throughout the game anyway, lest chaos ensues.
Numbering went as follows:
Starting line-up

  • 1. Goaltender
  • 2. Right back
  • 3. Left back
  • 4. Defensive Midfielder
  • 5. Stopper
  • 6. Sweeper
  • 7. Right Forward
  • 8. Right Offensive Midfielder
  • 9. Striker
  • 10. Left Offensive Midfielder
  • 11. Left Forward

Sitting on the bench:

  • 12. Substitute Goaltender
  • 13. First Substitute Player
  • 14. Second and last Substitute Player

What the beep is the deal now, with numbers such as 17, 34, 99… ? There are eleven players per team on the pitch, for beep‘s sake. Oh, and if you need to read the name on the back of the jersey in order to know who is who, you surely have been dragged to the stadium by a friend and would much rather not be there. Please stop whining about not knowing who the players are. You do not care anyway.
As for commercial advertising — really, do sales go up if the company’s logo is featured on a player’s shoulder, belly or crotch ?

2. This is what the ball used to look like.

What a beautiful object… just like the one I received as a gift for Christmas in 1972. It is (essentially) a truncated icosahedron, with black and white pentagons (12) and hexagons (20). That’s it. No frills. No nonsense. Nothing yellow, orange, red, green, no glow-in-the-dark malarkey. No artistic imagery. It’s a football. Its purpose is to be kicked and fly.

3. The goalie could handle the ball inside the penalty box.
And yes, that included on back passes from team mates. For a team that is winning, or in any case content with the score, resorting to back passes in order to run the clock is an acceptable strategy. Remember, we all can go on and on about “keeping the game spectacular”, but ultimately it is all about winning [1]. The other team can counter it by aggressively seeking possession, putting pressure on the goalie and on the defenders — whining about it for months is for beeping sissies…

4. Offside
OhDearJesusInHeaven, it is not a complicated rule ! Listen to me, listen carefully: if I, a player, kick the ball forward, and the ball passes the midfield (or, I was already in the midfield of the other team when I kicked it), and if one or more of my team mates find themselves closer to the goalie of the other team than any of its other players, those team mates of mine are in offside position.
The game must be interrupted and a free kick awarded to the opposite team. Offside must be signalled by one the linesmen.
Still not clear ? OK, here is a diagram:

The blue player in control of the ball in the left midfield (that is, the midfield of the red team) is about to kick it forward. Now, the blue forward on the left is in offside position, because he is closer to the red goalie than any of the other red players.

Simple enough, right ? OK, now, you see, back in those days offside was determined by the position alone. That’s right, it did not beeping matter whether the blue player in offside position was paying attention to the pass or, oh, I don’t know, picking his nose or what have you, whether he was “actively participating” to the play or just a “passive observer” (no, I am not kidding, that is what people argue over these days). There was no such thing as “active” or “passive” offside. Offside was offside. Then someone started complaining that offside was signalled too often, that too many beautiful goals were disallowed for offside, and that is when people started differentiating between “passive” and “active” offside. What is the difference ? Do not beeping ask me, because I do not know it. It is like that famous definition of pornography — I know it when I see it, problem is, we all see it differently.
If you ask me, it really should not matter. I do not give a flying beep about your resident psychologist, arguing based on camera footage, that from the facial expression of the player one could infer a certain lack of concentration, inducing one to believe that he would not have been able to contribute to the play in any substantive way. I give even less of a beep about your first principles Molecular Dynamics simulation, showing me that, given the initial conditions of position and velocity of the ball, that player would not have been able to catch that pass anyway, given the wind, conditions of the pitch and whatever crap you want to add — he is still in offside.

But, I do not really have an opinion, or feel strongly about any of the above. Not at all. After all, they are just little things. Except for the offside one. Kidding. Not really. All, right, I am. Then again, maybe I am not. OK, fine, I am really kidding.
Now, let’s all sit back, relax, and enjoy this World Cup. May the best team win. Yeah, right, as if… whom am I kidding…
FORZA AZZURRI ! (yes, even with that coach).


[0] Yes, in those early days of football broadcasting one would be stuck watching all games for free, live, with no commercial interruption, on the state-owned television. How much better it is these days, with all of these private networks competing to offer viewers the best product at the lowest price. Now technology, coupled with free market, makes it possible for all of us to pay top money to watch a marvellous blend of games and commercial advertising…

[1] I know, I know, some people say that they would prefer to see their favourite team lose a spectacular game, rather than win a boring one. This is technically called “lying”.

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23 Responses to “The beautiful game”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    Your 6-year old nephew thinks you know what you are talking about? Surely, he can’t be that naive. (Sorry, too good an opportunity. Actually, not sorry at all, too good an opportunity.)

  2. Luis Says:

    Hmmm… the entire quote from the Wikipedia entry sounds even better ;):

    The phrase “The Beautiful Game” is a synonym for European football. The Brazilian Portuguese expression Joga Bonito (to “play beautifully”) parallels this phrase.

    The exact origins of the term are disputed. Valdir Pereira, a Brazilian footballer, is thought to have coined the phrase,[citation needed] but the presenter Stuart Hall claims to have originated it in 1958.[1]

    In 1977 the famous footballer Pelé named his autobiography “My Life and the Beautiful Game”. The book’s dedication reads “I dedicate this book to all those who make the game beautiful”.

    Great post! And yes, I agree: Offside is offside. It can be argued that every attacking player is “actively participating” in the play since the defense and the goalie will be paying attention (and therefore distracted by) to all of them.

    PS – Please tell your nephew that my little cousin has a bunch of player stickers to trade. He´s missing the whole Italian defense, including Grosso, who actually made it into the sticker album…

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Magnificent! Bragging Rights Central for sure!

  4. cherish Says:

    I prefer basketball. It’s just as exciting as soccer, but the fans aren’t as crazy.


  5. transientreporter Says:

    Can’t believe you’re nostalgic for the old days. Football is vastly superior today – ask anyone who watches the Premiership… But yes, ’74… IMHO, Crujiff was the best player to have ever played the game – ahead of Pele, Beckenbauer, and that vertically-challenged Argentinian gentleman with the nice hairdo.
    (1) Agreed – although, I don’t care all that much about it.
    (2) I thought fewer pieces meant fewer stitches, therefore less friction and the ball travels more true. I admit that there’s something very romantic about the old black and white ball. As you know, lots of complaints about the ball this year – and it’ll be interesting to see how it moves in the high altitude. I predict a deluge of goals (most of them ugly goals).
    (3) Spoken like an Azzurri fan. You have to admit that the Catenaccio (yes, yes, I understand, it’s a modifiedCatenaccio, is wearying to watch. Hope you enjoyed ’82. The rest of us didn’t. Not quite joga bonito.
    (4) This is one of the structural weaknesses of the game, along with “injury time.” Perhaps FIFA should adopt a “blue line”, like they have in ice hockey. As an Italian-Canadian, I’m sure you’re all for that idea.

    • Massimo Says:

      Catenaccio, is wearying to watch. Hope you enjoyed ’82. The rest of us didn’t. Not quite joga bonito.

      What ? What ? WHAT ? Italy 1982… Catenaccio ?
      And I thought that Cherish’s comment was bad…
      OK, someone needs a refresher here (I am quite sure you can see all of these on Youtube, so, by all means, do not take my word):

      Italy-Argentina 2-1 — yes, the vertically challenged one was on the pitch — unfortunately for him, so was Gentile. No hand of God to his rescue that time 😉

      Italy-Brasil 3-2 — OK, a book should be written about this game, one of the best ever played. Brasil, of course, is always Brasil but, by most accounts, that was a stratospheric team, one of the strongest ever fielded. It literally seemed unbeatable (do names such as Zico, Falcao, Socrates, Cerezo, Junior, ring any bell ?). Brasil went into this game having disposed of Argentina, with a better goal differential than Italy. Thus, Italy needed a win, in order to make it to the semi-finals, could not play defensively by definition. It simply would not have been possible to beat them without playing an extraordinary game, and I think very few Brasilians would take issue with that statement.

      Italy-Poland 2-0 — This one seemed almost like a training session, after Brasil.

      Italy-Germany 3-1 — Germany’s path to that final was spotty (loss to Algeria, very dodgy win with Austria, a lot of luck in the semi-final against France), but still it was the team of Schumacher, Stielicke, Breitner, Littbarski, Rumenigge… they scored their goal at the 87’… you don’t go up 3-0 against Germany playing defensively, man.

      Honestly, I think only Brasil in 1970 won a World Cup as authoritatively as Italy in 1982. The eleven players of that line-up would all make it to player of the year these days.

    • transientreporter Says:

      Massimo… Massimo… PURLEEEZE…
      Looks like someone else needs a refresher…
      Need I remind you:

      Italy – Poland 0-0
      Italy – Peru 1-1
      Italy – Cameroon 1-1

      It’s true – Italy played well when they had to. But was there any team ever that was as insipid as the Azzurri in the group round? It’s a testament to something – if not Catenaccio, then what? – to be that bad and come away with three points. And – Wikipedia reminds me – Cameroon was robbed. Milla was onside when he got that goal against Peru.

      Italy-Brasil 3-2 — OK, a book should be written about this game, one of the best ever played…
      Not only was this NOT the best game ever played, it wasn’t even the best game in 1982. That would be the semi-final between France-Germany, a truly legendary match.

      I do agree that the Azzurri played exceptionally in the final. But what was probably more impressive was that they scored three goals without getting decapitated by Schumacher, a thug if there ever was one.

      • Massimo Says:

        Man, how can you possibly write things like these ? You must be one of those who think that a game is good only if a lot of goals are scored… Where did you get your PhD, Harvard or something ?

        taly – Poland 0-0
        Italy – Peru 1-1
        Italy – Cameroon 1-1

        Yeah, so, what ? That’s the first round, man ! Who played well at that stage ? Germany with Austria ? France lost 3-1 to England and made it to the semifinals by playing nobody. Argentina lost to Belgium. Brasil stole the game with the USSR. And so what if Cameroon was robbed against Peru, how does that make Italy’s play catenaccio ?

        it wasn’t even the best game in 1982. That would be the semi-final between France-Germany, a truly legendary match.

        Shaking my head… all right, I am going to patient with you, so here we go: the semifinal between France and Germany was a beeping sleeper, that ended 1-1. It became entertaining (not good by any means) in overtime, because both team stopped caring about defense. That does not make a game good, my friend. In fact, that is why Schumacher tried to decapitate frenchman Battiston, it was out of frustration for the poor quality of the game…

      • transientreporter Says:

        Dude, how could you possibly compare the Italy-Brazil game (rightfully won by the Azzurri, with Brazil getting some well-deserved comeuppance) which was, at best, interesting, with France-Germany? Schumacher karate-chopped a guy unconscious. Klaus Fischer equalized in the waning minutes of overtime with a motherfucking bicycle kick.

        What was the second best game? Germany-Austria?

      • Massimo Says:

        Pal, you are the one who keeps making a comparison between a game that kept everyone glued to the screen for 90 minutes, and one that only became watchable (I repeat, not good) in overtime. As for Fisher’s goal — again, the frenchies stopped defending. You can score as many as you want of those if you are not marked. They thought that, being up 3-1 the game was over — huge mistake to make when you are playing the Germans, who are at their most dangerous when they play their worst football (practically all the time).

  6. Filipe Guimarães Says:

    You forgot to mention that Brazil won the world cup 5 times, and will win again this year!! 😛
    Vai com tudo, Brasil!!!!! Go, Brazil!

    • Massimo Says:

      Of course, Brazil is always the best team… besides, Paolo Rossi has retired… oh, sorry, I forgot, never mention that name to a Brazilian, they still have nightmares about him… hehe 😉

      • Luis Says:

        Ero, ero, ero,
        o Baggio é brasileiro!

      • Massimo Says:

        That was the lamest WC ever….

      • Luis Says:

        Yes, I agree, 94 was not the prettiest WC. But, as someone said in a recent blog post 😉 :

        …some people say that they would prefer to see their favourite team lose a spectacular game (Luis: or World Cup), rather than win a boring one. This is technically called “lying”

        But it’s almost time! Let the games begin!

      • Massimo Says:

        Oh I know, but for Italy to play like that is no surprise, but that final was embarrassing… the Italians played like they all belonged in a retirement home, and the Brazilians like their nurses… I remember the funniest thing was watching George Bush trying hard not to fall asleep…

  7. Charro Says:

    mmm ok, I might be misreading this, but I think you have a mistake. For an offside, it doesn’t have to be the goalkeeper the last man of the defensive team, it could be anyone, as long as the attacking team is on the other’s team half.

    Thought I might say it since I just had looooooong arguments with some Mexico fans who still think they got robbed of one goal in the game against South Africa

    • Massimo Says:

      I totally agree with the Mexican fans. That rule that led to disallowing the Mexican goal against South Africa is news to me, I have seen dozens of goals disallowed even in the last Italian League in analogous circumstances…

  8. Massimo Says:

    I wish to thank those who have written me (there is a surprising number of lurkers who will simply not write a comment) to bring to my attention some of the other degenerations of modern football, which I failed to mention in my post.
    Of course referees should dress in black, not like clowns the way they do these days, and not wear DJ mics or iPods.
    Of course boots should be black, the same for every player.
    Fourth man ? What is that, the title of a bad sequel ?
    Yes, my friends, someone is looking for that dope at the stadium who makes those horrible announcements after a goal is scored (“The scorer for team xyz is Joooooohhnnnn Dooooeeeeee”). That person will one day be found, and returned to the asylum.

  9. chall Says:

    oh.. I am so not going in here with all the knowledge but then I saw something about WC 94 being lame…. ha, I remember being all in cheers and tears that Sweden got the bronze 😉

    Needless to say, the less I say now – the better …. *deep sigh* nothing fun about this years WC in my eyes….

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