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- The supporter*
As a diminutive, sickly young kid, I was never any good at sports. I went through the regular bouts of running, cycling and hide-and-seek, as well as some tennis, but sports were never a thing in my youth. On the other hand, I come from a family with precious little interest in sports as a whole. Therefore, a lack of interest in football was to be expected. It was just outside my scope.
It all changed when I was 14 - hence the "late bloomer" label. I attended my first match in a proper stadium (the first one I had been to was so bad that the home supporters mutinied when one person had the audacity of praising one of the best goals I've ever seen - unfortunately, for the away team). It was one of the first Champions League games in Portugal, no less.
I knew there were 11 players on each side, two goals and some lines, but that was pretty much it. I had no understanding of tactics or even positions. All I could remember was that a goal always seemed to be the centre-backs' fault. I couldn't really understand why nor did I know who or what the centre-backs were.
I was immediately taken aback by all of it: the roar of the crowd, the floodlights, the life-sized players, the proximity to the pitch, the seemingly endless elation of a goal, the constant singing and standing from supporters, as if by standing they would be closer to their heroes or mimicking at least part of their idols' effort, pushing them onward.
Things would never be the same. I immersed myself in the game as hard as I could and developed a profound love for the game that lasts to this day.
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- The writer
Somewhere along the line, I decided to combine my love for writing with the passion for the game (which included the mandatory coaching badges). After a few years of trial and error, I started getting a few more calls, a few more requests, a few more questions. I developed a more clinical eye for specific details and started breaking the game down.
I had completed the transition from a football supporter to a football writer.
Even though I still get the same goosebumps whenever I enter a stadium, the emotion has to do with the sport, rather than any specific team. I don't think I've ever supported a team in blind fashion, but my allegiances have surely waned as I delved deeper into the game's minutiae. Every now and then I find beauty and thrilling emotion in the most dreary of matches; other times I find something of note from a purely tactical point of view and become aware of the difference of opinions between supporters and myself - and that's when I realise I'm no longer a supporter, just a writer.
The first facet allows me to understand the celebration that was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The sport had come back to its spiritual home, the country that springs to the mind of every single person when they think of football. The scenery was magnificent, the crowds were colourful, the competition was a goal feast (with the possible exception of the latter stages, including the final). There were comebacks, great goals, even better saves and nice little nutmegs. There were fascinating narratives on and off the pitch and Germany's triumph harvested a seldom seen consensus.
- The World Cup
However, as an analyst, I can't help but find some worrying tendencies from a purely footballing perspective.
1) Three steps back. For the past 10/15 years, the death of specific positions and formations has been heralded as a certainty, whether it was the no. 10 or the 3-man defence. It also seemed football was heading down a socialist path of sorts, where everyone on the team had a specific role to fulfill. It was the times of commentators complaining how tactically shackled the Ginolas of the world were and how much better it was when players had the freedom to sprinkle their fantasy at will (or disappear altogether, in a time where hardly any games were televised). It was the advent of the 4x3x3 virtually everywhere (with the exception of the United Kingdom, where the 4x4x2 was and still is a force of nature).
As it turns out, football seems to have regressed 30 years. Or so I thought while watching the past few club seasons - teams comprised of players only instructed to defend while others seem to have the exclusive responsibility of attacking, effectively breaking the team in two. The 4x2x3x1 formation seems to strengthen that same notion, the prevalent idea being that the two men in the centre keep the team from losing their balance.
That same idea came to me once again when watching the first stages of the World Cup. I searched for the goals scored average of previous World Cups and what I found was eerily accurate:
There had never been such a high number of goals scored after the famous World Cup of 1982 - where the likes of Sócrates, Conti and Falcão lit up the pitches. The notion of artistic freedom and of the beautiful game ran rampant. (Not unlike 1982, Brazil's attacking abandonment without much defensive care ended up being their downfall.)
Unfortunately, I find it impossible to ascribe great merit to that. Given the characteristics that seem to affect most teams, it's only natural that most goals stem from balls given away and/or set pieces. That was one of the main reasons why there were loads of goals in the group stages: worse players tend to give the ball away more often and take up worse positions. As the tournament progressed, better teams were more reluctant to be proactive and there were a lot less goals. There was clearly no collective idea of organisation, no notion of strategy to attack anyone's enemy. The few teams that had those ideas were the surprises: Chile, Algeria and Costa Rica. I can't remember a World Cup when all you had to do to progress was just to be organised.
While I understand that fans and supporters alike find the tournament all the more alluring, it does not bode well for the sport. All of which segues quite well into the next issue.
2) The pop-star player. As teams become increasingly unable to collectively cope with the challenges opponents throw their way, they become ever more reliant on their figureheads. It was therefore hardly surprising to see entire nations living and breathing the fate of their stars - whether it was Neymar, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Brazil went into nationwide shock when they found out Neymar would not be involved in the rest of the competition. An entire country was discussing Ronaldo's best positioning while his team-mates didn't want to have anything with the ball. Messi is not even considered all that Argentinean in his own country - nothing short of a World Cup would suffice for the Barcelona star. Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta went as far as claiming Argentina were "playing for Messi".
While there will always be and there will have been idols that draw crowds (the very notion of football hangs on the inspirational abilities of a team and/or player), such a one-dimensional approach to a sport that moves billions of euros around begs belief. The temptation of pinning every hope on the shoulders of a particular player turns football into an amalgamation of average players toiling so that one particular player can shine and solve matches. However, the flip side is that, by resigning from performing other duties, those very players are diminishing the possibilities of success of their best player (think Messi against four Dutch players) - and ergo their team.
* "Supporters" was used throughout the text rather than "fans". I dislike "fans", devices - and people - who blow wherever they're told to, with very little passion or personality. The secret of "supporters", on the other hand, lies in their own name: They support, i.e., they act as the foundation upon which their team is based.