Saturday, June 12, 2010

freedom's just another word

I took a moment to curse Eduardo Galeano during Uruguay's disappointing non-starter of an attack on France during their game's second half, and said that there can be no beautiful football without shape -- by which I suppose I meant I come down on the side of organisation, cold mechanical brains, well-rehearsed moves, collective acumen over individual spontaneity, science over nature, and other Enlightenment guff. Uruguay never threatened a surfeit of beauty, much less shape, but Argentina's opening moments in this first game against Nigeria did give me pause to re-examine this obviously Euro-indoctrinated prejudice. Unpredictable passing, seemingly fearless creativity, the lazy, easy attainment of Nigeria's box that was way more exhilarating than the blitzkrieg approach you usually see when very good club teams [such as the one our Leo plays for] meet less proficient ones: there were early intimations of magic.

The end of the game certainly contradicted that early optimism. I don't say this because Argentina ought to have won 7-0. Their attack was promising, even if the shots on goal started coming at longer and longer intervals, and if the entire forward line repeatedly failed to finish moves. This is Argentina -- how long is that state of affairs likely to last? [WAIT DON'T ANSWER THAT.] The harsh thing was seeing their creative purpose dissipate to an extent that the end of the match made it questionable if such purpose ever existed. It was like watching a whole team be Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But Zlatan's problem is disaffection -- Argentina's problem is not that. There was nothing running counter to their bounty of obvious intelligence, talent and cheek. There was simply nothing. Arrigo Sacchi would have been shocked. At least a well-trained team should manage itself, Sacchi would have grumbled. Even if there isn't a plan, there ought to be a backup plan, which should NOT be to replace Higuain with Milito in the 80th minute and expect a sudden infusion of dynamism into the attack. Was it ever more evident that sometimes the best gift you can give a brilliant team with brilliant players is to make them sleep early, eat pasta without sauce for lunch, and drill formations into their head so that they can execute them even when they're asleep? Isn't that how human beings do learn to dance, anyway?

Without an enforcing factor to their play on field, it seemed that Nigeria were left with the football textbook in their hands. Dutifully their plans were executed: the lines of play were cleanly drawn, the marking was more or less blameless after the unfortunate incident with Gabriel Heinze, and the passing, when thinkable, was efficient, hampered only by a forward line as awkward as Argentina's own goalkeeper. In the meanwhile, ideas meandered around Argentina's right flank and returned to the midfield to unravel hopefully until someone caught hold of an end and pulled over the final third. As Argentina began to look less superior and more supercilious, it's no wonder that the hero of the hour was Vincent Enyeama, whose chief expression as he kept their forward line at bay was that of someone utterly not amused. Early intimations of magic were nothing to Vincent Enyeama; Vincent Enyeama was here to keep the balrog at bay while his fellowship fled Moria. Enyeama did what every side Argentina meet from here on out, even the gormless Greece, are likely to do, which is to refuse to take Argentina at face value. In this case, the backup will be a plan. Leave aside the problematic defence for a moment. To unlock Argentina you can of course wait on them, resist them, second-guess them, or starve them out. All of this is possible. But the best way surely is to challenge them. South Korea may well be up to that. I have a smidgen of hope that it's what Argentina may even be secretly looking forward to.

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