Offside, 16 July
Greece has shown that the noble art of defending is not dead.
‘The unbelievable, the unfathomable and the almost impossible has happened’, gibbered Motty excitedly as Greece mugged Europe’s soccer superpowers and made off with the Euro 2004 trophy.
Those of us who thought that the 2002 World Cup (in which most of football’s traditional powers flopped) was just an accident of history, were forced to think again after history repeated itself in Euro 2004. One by one the traditional European powers tumbled out of the tournament. With the honourable exception of Pavel Nedved, all of Europe’s galacticos, notably Zidane, Henry, Figo, Beckham, Raul, and Totti, were hugely disappointing in Portugal.
How do we explain this? Is the congested European football calendar too demanding for Europe’s elite footballers? ‘Overpaid and overplayed, the Continent’s luminaries docked in Lisbon, Faro and Oporto as empty vessels’, wrote Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph. The Guardian’s Kevin McCarra complained that Euro 2004 ‘did nothing to allay worries that these tournaments are an afterthought for jaded players’. I don’t buy the excuse that players were tired. Portugal’s team included players who had taken part in Porto’s victorious Champions League campaign but they showed no signs of fatigue.
Is it the case that football’s world order is being turned on its head? Certainly, the gap between the traditional powers and the rest is narrowing thanks to the Champions League, which has driven up standards in countries like Turkey and Greece. But this levelling up of quality across Europe still does not excuse the abject failure of the stronger European nations to raise their game.
Greece were undoubtedly a very well-drilled team, but watching France and Portugal labour in vain to break down their defence you would have thought they had never encountered man-markers before. Most football pundits could barely conceal their disappointment as Greece stifled more attractive opponents. To his credit, Portugal’s coach Luiz Felipe Scolari refused to criticise Greek spoiling tactics. ‘It is up to us, as the more offensive team, to find a way through these defensive systems’, said Big Phil. ‘It is up to us to find another way of winning. They have a wonderful defence and it works well.’
Greece were spared the usual scorn directed at ultra-defensive teams because they were seen as plucky underdogs. England, by contrast were heavily criticised for adopting ‘tactics alla Italiano’, ie, nicking a goal, throwing everyone behind the ball, and hanging on to a 1-0 lead. The only snag is that we couldn’t quite do the holding on to the lead bit, which I guess makes us Italiano-lite.
Winning ugly is all very well if you actually win but, if you mess up, the alternative – losing ugly – is unlikely to win you many friends. As it happens, I’m not sure that England’s defeats against France and Portugal can be explained by negative tactics. This implies that there was some kind of game plan at work. Rather, England’s headless chicken performances bring to mind the words of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now: ‘I don’t see any method at all, sir.’
There is, however, one similarity with Italy – namely that the Italians are also incapable of defending a lead these days. Italy’s failure to protect a one-goal advantage has been their undoing in the past three international tournaments. ‘They lost it because they will not learn’, was Barry Davies’ memorable admonishment when the Azzurri succumbed to South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. As a paid-up member of the catennacio appreciation society it saddens me to see the descendants of Claudio Gentile and Franco Baresi unable to kill off a game through that classic combination of tight marking, brutal tackling, sly fouls, and time-wasting. Until they return to basics and re-learn the art of bolting the door the Italians deserve no sympathy whatsoever.
Euro 2004 was, in terms of the quality of football, a poor tournament with few classic head-to-head battles. The Croxteth Pele apart, the most positive feature of the tournament was Greece proving that the noble art of defending is not dead. In recent years FIFA has done its best to stack the odds in favour of attackers by outlawing tackles from behind, professional fouls, and time-wasting, as well as making it virtually impossible for defenders to play the offside trap.
Italy have demonstrably failed to adapt to this shift in power towards the attacking side. Greece, however, are the new Italy (and I mean that in a good way). They proved that, even in these attacker-friendly times, a well-marshalled defence can still come out on top. And I for one think that’s cause for celebration, even if nobody else is cheering.
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