If football’s age of innocence can be said to have ended when 39 people lost their lives to hooligan violence in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium during the final of the 1985 European Cup club championship, the European Nations Cup in France this past summer confirmed that the sport is now well into old age. Behind the veneer of youthful Ibiza glamour spun by French Touch guru David Guetta at the opening ceremony concert, the Euro, as it is commonly known, all but groaned under the weight of excess global capital, merciless media scrutiny, hyperprofessionalization, domestic French anxieties, and geopolitics.
Vulnerable as sports writing is to autobiographical projection, skeptical readers will rightfully protest that such jeremiads are typically more symptoms of their aging authors’ longing for youth than diagnoses of true states of affairs. After all, money has been fueling football since its birth as a professional sport in the industrial heartlands of 19th century Britain. Politics and cultural conflict, too, have been insinuating themselves into the beautiful game since the first Rangers-Celtic match projected Scotland’s sectarian divisions onto a crosstown club rivalry and Benito Mussolini seized on the 1934 World Cup to showcase fascism. These same skeptics could also point to the renaissance of possession-based attacking football preached by the coaching likes of Pep Guardiola, enshrined as team philosophy by clubs like FC Barcelona, and embodied by players like Lionel Messi.
I thus owe readers full disclosure: like many 40-somethings whose football coming of age took place in the ’70s and ’80s, my heart tilts toward slower-paced play, brilliant iconoclasts like Johan Cruyff, the unruly hairstyles they favored, and the cheap ticket prices we paid to see them. As a football-crazed French-American growing up in New York before cable television had begun beaming a constant stream of global football into American homes, I hung on whatever South American and Serie A matches Univision or Rai Italia’s tri-state affiliates deigned to broadcast, studying the occasional back copies of L’Équipe mailed from Paris by a cousin sympathetic to my football-starved plight. The last time France hosted the Euro looms large in this happy football childhood when, in 1984, a splendid squad lifted France’s first silverware and convinced my wide-eyed generation that world-class aesthetic football was somehow a French birthright. My saddest football moment came just a year later, when I skipped out of high school early to watch Liverpool play Juventus in the violence-tainted Heysel match. Never trust a pundit who calques his own life-arc onto the history of the thing he loves.
And yet, on the Euro’s eve, even the most dispassionate observer had to concede that, one year into the worst governance crisis in its history, something was rotten in the world of football. American authorities were already several years into their investigation of corruption inside the sport’s global governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), turning up hard proof of what anyone with eyes to see had sensed for years. While employees of tony Zurich hotels exercised themselves holding up high-thread-count sheets to shield FIFA officials being whisked into police custody from prying telephotos, US prosecutors charged over a dozen with accepting bribes in exchange for marketing and broadcast rights, sponsorship contracts, and awarding World Cups to host nations. Strange irony that the government of a superpower whose citizens had, until quite recently, treated football with splendid indifference, was now taking it upon itself to clean out the sport’s Augean stables. The probe has already brought the jovial Swiss machiavel (and former FIFA head) Sepp Blatter and a number of his attendants down. It’s impossible to predict how deeply down the various rabbit holes that are burrowed into football’s corporate sponsors, Persian Gulf paymasters, and national federations the resulting investigations will lead.
One of the most spectacular casualties of the FIFA scandal was also the most conspicuous absence from the Euro 2016’s opening ceremony: Michel Platini, the luminous playmaker whose nine goals in five matches made him the hero of France’s 1984 Euro-winning team and still stand as the greatest individual performance in the tournament’s history; the captain, too, of the Juventus squad witness to the 1985 Heysel disaster. Platini devoted his post-playing career to football governance, co-chairing the organization of the 1998 World Cup in France, before holding various technical positions within FIFA, the European governing body known as UEFA (Union Européenne de Football Association), and the French Football Federation. Platini won election as UEFA president in 2007 on promises to check the mounting influence of wealthier leagues and clubs within European football. Virtually assured of replacing the discredited Blatter as FIFA chief, Platini found himself accused of malfeasance for having accepted a dodgy consulting fee from Blatter over 15 years before. Drawing from memories (and archives) of a lifetime of sharing spoils, Blatter’s last act on the world football stage was thus to topple his rival in an expertly executed piece of scorched-earth political jujitsu. Après moi, le déluge. Banned from football for four years, Platini couldn’t attend any of the matches of a Euro 2016 that he had done more than anyone else to bring to France. (Full disclosure again: Platini’s poster adorned my bedroom wall as a teenager).
Fortunately for the good people at UEFA, the financial arrangements that ensured the Euro would be a handsomely profitable enterprise were all perfectly legal. As with FIFA under Blatter’s fabulously lucrative leadership, UEFA has aggressively extended its control over its tournaments so as to capture and maximize their revenue streams. UEFA held a 54 percent ownership stake in the corporate entity charged with putting on Portugal 2004, the first of the Euros to be organized as a full-fledged business venture (the Portuguese football federation owned the rest); 12 years later, UEFA owns 95 percent of Euro 2016 SAS. The European federation has used this control to transform what had been relatively bare-boned events, organized by loose partnerships of state and local authorities, national federations, and grassroots clubs, into tightly managed, capital-intensive, and carefully-choreographed profit-making spectacles.
To this end, UEFA uses its bargaining clout to lean on host nations for tax breaks and commitments to shoulder operating costs, all the while cultivating direct relationships with sponsors. Consider the remarkably favorable terms UEFA negotiated in exchange for awarding the tournament to France. The European federation agreed to pay for the organization of the tournament narrowly construed — the cost of stadium rental, ticketing management, and salaries, which amounted to €650 million — in exchange for all eventual profits. All other costs associated with putting on the Euro — renovation and construction of stadiums and other infrastructure, the organization of dedicated fan-zones, and security — fell to national and local governments. So powerful is UEFA that it extracted a full tax exemption on all revenues generated by the Euro from the French government, amounting to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of somewhere between €150 and €200 million. “The 1998 World Cup was without a doubt the last of the previous era,” recalls the former director of marketing for France 98, lamenting that today “All of the rights fall to the international federation, and all the obligations and duties fall to the state and the host cities.”
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This socializing of costs and privatizing of profits helped make Euro 2016 big business. UEFA’s sweetheart deal gave its organizing entity sole ownership of all licensing rights, which it entrusted to IMG, the biggest sports marketing company in the world. Happy to oblige, IMG conjured up a cornucopia of football tchotchkes, flooding a market estimated at €250 million (of which UEFA stood to pocket ten percent in profits) with no less than 6,000 licensed products. Meanwhile, France sank nearly €1.6 billion into building or renovating stadiums for the Euro, financed via public-private partnerships which guaranteed French construction giants like Vinci lucrative long-term revenue streams and saddled municipalities with oversized white elephants and full liability for cost overruns. The bottom line: France 2016 generated an impressive €2 billion in revenue and an even more impressive €900 million in profits. o be sure, UEFA won’t keep it all for itself: over the next five years, the European federation will redistribute most of the money to national federations across Europe (who, it should be noted, elect the UEFA presidents charged with negotiating terms with nations hosting the tournament. Administrators attentive to their own federations’ bottom lines thus have a vested interest in electing UEFA chiefs who will maximize tournament profits).
The Euro’s rebirth as rent-seeking capitalist enterprise has had a tangible impact not just on federations’ cash flow and shareholder value, but also on the tournament as sport and spectacle. In the same way that federations, sponsors, broadcasters, and club owners across Europe have worked since the ’90s to take football upmarket, UEFA’s management has transformed a popular festival into an increasingly sanitized commodity, raising ticket prices and directing host nations to build luxury skyboxes and VIP spaces into stadiums to accommodate what former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane dubbed the “prawn sandwich brigade”. This is how the great paradox of European football has come into being. It is supporters’ very fervor — the intensity of their attachments, and the spectacular theater that their singing, their scarves and banners, and their pyrotechnics conjure up inside stadiums — that corporate sponsors are so eager to harness to their own brands. But the more sponsors have funneled money into the game, and the more insistently they have appropriated the loud and colorful pageantry of football terraces for their own advertizing, the staider and more socially exclusive real-life stadium audiences have become. Orange flogged its cell phone plans on French television during the Euro with a slogan whose claim to authenticity rested on a simple yet self-defeating equivalency between fan and consumer: “the real supporters are you”.
Football’s neoliberal turn also helps account for France 2016’s puzzling organizational problems. The hexagon has a long history of putting on first-rate international sporting competitions. After all, France invented the Olympics as well as the World and European Cups; the 1998 World Cup was probably the best-organized in the modern era; and the elephant-eared silverplate trophy that the winners of the Euro hoist bears the name of Henri Delaunay, a Frenchman who helped launch both football tournaments. How then to explain the lamentable state of France 2016’s pitches, whose worn, divot-pocked playing surfaces were more befitting a low-division midwinter derby in rain-swept Normandy than a major international showcase? Rather than rely on the perfectly competent grounds crews who ordinarily tend France’s publicly-owned stadiums, UEFA — which had insisted on retaining full control over every detail of the tournament inside stadium walls — entrusted the Euro’s grass to an Austrian company, who in turn trucked in ill-adapted sod from Slovakia.
The Joy of Hundreds of Thousands of Irish and Welsh
That UEFA increasingly runs the Euro as its own private, entrepreneurial profit center hasn’t stopped national governments from continuing to pin great political hopes on it. Visitors to the interesting exhibit on “Le football, une affaire d’État” [Football, an affair of state] put on by the French National Archives last summer at its Pierrefitte site — walking distance from the Stade de France — could revisit the long history of the sport’s political instrumentalization.
This history’s most enduring image surely remains that of then-president Jacques Chirac (always discreet about his true sports passion, sumo) at the 1998 World Cup final sporting a national team jersey together with a broad smile, a performance calibrated to help resuscitate his ailing political fortunes. For François Hollande’s embattled Socialist government, however, the Euro fell at a particularly treacherous political moment. Having spent the better part of the Spring facing down bitter strikes and street demonstrations protesting a far-reaching labor law reform, and with unions threatening to disrupt the Euro, it was unclear whether Hollande would be in a position to glean any political capital from the tournament.
Still mourning the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015, the French too had good reason to be anxious as the Euro approached. With French intelligence services warning of the risks of another attack during the tournament (recall that the Stade de France was targeted by suicide bombers last year during a friendly opposing France and Germany), police were placed on high alert. Mixing opportunism with bad faith, right-wing politicians tripped over themselves to cast doubt on Hollande’s ability to keep France safe during the Euro. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, ready as ever to pour fuel over the flames of fear to forward his own efforts to win the presidency again in 2017, called for shutting the fan zones altogether.
Even the narrowest focus on football could bring no escape from broader French worries. The national team has come to function as a screen upon which French society projects its anxieties. If the 1998 World Cup-winning team was celebrated as a happy symbol of a France at peace with its multicultural “Black-Blanc-Beur” identity, the squad has since become exhibit A in an increasingly hysterical public conversation on race and immigration. When the far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen called the “Frenchness” of players of North and West African origin into question t20 years ago, his was mercifully a lonely voice. Beginning in the ’00s, however, a number of public figures seeking to make political hay of a mounting crisis of confidence in the French model helped normalize Le Pen’s racialized and racist vocabulary.
Alain Finkielkraut, whose association with the ’70s-era “New Philosophers” movement has granted him the legitimacy and media access with which to proffer increasingly extreme views, criticized the team in 2005 in noxious terms: “today, the national team is black-black-black, which makes all of Europe snicker.” Pundits transformed the French players’ strike during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (protesting the expulsion of forward Nicolas Anelka for having insulted the coach) from the ridiculous soap opera it was into a morality play about the alleged failings of France’s banlieues, the disadvantaged suburbs where, it was presumed, French players grow up. Such concerns have apparently insinuated themselves into the world of professional football itself. In 2011, a conversation involving then-national team coach (and veteran of the 1998 team) Laurent Blanc and other high-ranking federation officials was leaked in which they spoke of the need for “racial quotas” on the national team.
This past season offered up the latest polemic-ready telenovela, when France’s best striker, Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, was indicted as an accessory in the blackmail of his own teammate, Matthieu Valbuena, over a sex tape. One of the far-right’s rising stars, Jean-Marie’s own niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, seized the occasion in predictably xenophobic fashion, accusing Benzema of preferring “his” country (meaning Algeria, where his parents were born) and being “a repeat anti-patriotic offender”. No small irony, then, that in December the so-called Football Leaks investigation into offshore tax evasion piloted by a consortium of European news organizations revealed that Benzema was one of the only top players who chose to pay taxes in high-marginal-rate France; in contrast, Jean-Marie Le Pen, his daughter and current FN chief Marine, and members of their circle figure in the Panama Papers and have repeatedly been investigated for (and convicted of) tax evasion.
While the FN and its fellow-travelers are quick to view French players’ misadventures through the lens of race and cultural difference, such incidents are surely better understood in the context of the professional footballer’s peculiar adolescence. Plucked from their families as children, boarded and educated within French clubs’ training academies, socialized in homosocial worlds stamped with intensely heteronormative and competitive values, showered with wealth, subjected to intense media scrutiny, and burdened with weighty professional and public expectations, it isn’t all that surprising that some of these young men make poor decisions. The sorcerers’ apprentices of hate who have made players into overdetermined symbols of essential cultural identities have obscured their true nature as highly commodified laborers (albeit well-remunerated ones), whose emotional maturity and even personal happiness have been sacrificed on the altars of performance and profit (on this, the bestselling memoir of life in the English Premiership, The Secret Footballer, is illuminating). That the French team’s current (white) poster boy Antoine Griezmann escaped opprobrium for a 2012 escapade (sneaking away from Le Havre in a taxi with several teammates on France’s under-21 team to party at a Paris nightclub on the eve of a key match, which earned him a 12-month suspension) throws the racialized double standard to which French players are held into sharp relief.
Benzema’s suspension for his alleged role in the sex tape affair, the presumed toll the attendant scandal took on lockerroom morale, and a raft of injuries to other internationals ensured that, despite a surprise run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup two years before, French hopes were not running high on the eve of the Euro. Pessimists looking for a silver lining in this storm front of controversy and medical misfortune could find solace in the notion that an exciting, internationally-competitive team could have been composed (on paper, at least) from French players left off the squad because of judicial tribulations, injury, or coach’s prerogative — a testament to the continued health of France’s vaunted youth training system (cognoscenti are invited to consider this starting lineup of world-class absentees: Ruffier / Mathieu-Sakho-Varane-Debuchy / Zouma-Diarra / Ntep-Fekir-Valbuena / Benzema).
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As I made my way with a friend to the Stade de France for the opening match between France and Romania, we had to traverse successive cordons of heavily armed police patting-down every ticket-holder, sobering proof that the authorities had taken the security threat very seriously indeed. Once the match was underway, France’s tentative play and rickety defense (typically a strength, but Les Bleus’s coach had improvised a back-four line at the last minute after injuries felled several key defensive players), did little to dispel concern about their prospects in the tournament. French midfielder Dimitri Payet’s heart-stopping long-range shot into the upper left corner of the Romanian goal in the final minute of regulation, which sent French supporters home happy, surprised, and spent, would prove to be the first of several last-minute French miracles in the first round.
The opening match’s biggest surprise was not what unfolded on the pitch, however, but rather in the stands. While Les Bleus have been part of the international top flight more or less continuously since the ’80s, its supporters have remained notoriously passive — in contrast, say, to Scotland’s mighty “Tartan Army” or Germany’s boisterous support. I can recall a friendly between France and the Netherlands in the mid-’90s at the Parc des Princes in Paris (a 2-1 French victory) when the lusty singing of several thousand Oranje fans utterly drowned out 30,000 French supporters. Thanks to the patient efforts of a French supporters association which has worked to translate the kind of fervent support the hexagon’s most popular clubs enjoy to the national team, such a culture has finally taken root in France. In the kop, the section of the stadium behind the goal where we watched the match, supporters stood, sang, and danced through the entire match.
Less than 24 hours later, violent clashes between Russian and England supporters in the streets of Marseille summoned football’s worst demons. Russians and English fought again in Lille several days later. Even the most anti-authoritarian observers had to feel a certain sympathy for the French police, worn down from interminable overtime hours policing the post-Charlie Hebdo state of emergency and last spring’s labor demonstrations, and now facing off against hardened street fighters. It was also hard not to wonder whether French law enforcement, focused as it was on terrorism, had prepared for the wrong threat.
The English press covered the story as a “return” of hooliganism, as if the phenomenon had been buried long ago, the front page of the Daily Mail’s sports supplement screaming “Back in the Dark Ages”. As anyone versed in the notorious history of England’s traveling support will know, this was disingenuous. Violence has been a part of the landscape ever since large numbers of Englishmen began following the team abroad in the ’80s: Sardinia in the 1990 World Cup, Marseille in the 1998 World Cup, Algarve during the 2004 Euro, and so on. Likewise, the specialists who have worriedly tracked the emergence of novel forms of hooliganism in Russia, animated in certain instances by far-right ultranationalists who circulate in Vladimir Putin’s orbit, were little surprised by the eruption of highly-trained and exceptionally violent Russians bent on creating havoc in France. Before the tournament, Russian police neglected to share much information about problem supporters with the French police services charged with monitoring hooliganism (a source within the French police told Le Monde that the Russians provided a watch list counting only 40 people; in comparison, Switzerland communicated 20 times as many names). The Kremlin even formally protested the arrest of Russian nationals involved in the fighting, arguing they had been provoked. All troubling evidence that Russia’s long geopolitical hand casts one of the shadows darkening football today. For fans planning to travel to Russia for the World Cup in 2018, have a nice trip.
Happily, the tournament returned to the festive norm that has set the Euro apart from other major international sporting events since the ’70s. Postwar Europe’s geographical, political, and socioeconomic particularities — a large number of densely populated countries disposed over a relatively small area, the growth of sizable middle classes with long vacations and disposal income, a dense network of rail and bus lines (and now, low-cost airlines), and the ease with which most Europeans can cross national frontiers have all made it possible for large numbers of supporters to cheer on their teams in person. For the citizens of many of Europe’s smaller nation-states, representing one’s country as a supporter at the Euro has become an especially important means of affirming national identity. To experience hundreds of thousands of Irish and Welsh supporters pacifically celebrating, drinking, and fraternizing is, more than anything else, what makes being in a host country during a Euro so much fun. No one who heard Northern Irish fans sing “Will Grigg’s on Fire” in France this summer will soon forget it.
A Luxury Won On the Back of Postwar Peace
The dramaturgy of such tournaments typically turns on whether expectations are confirmed or upended — whether favorites will win or suffer upset defeats. France 2016’s biggest surprise was Iceland, population 300,000, with no football past to speak of (handball is king on the island), participating in the Euro’s final phase for the first time in its history — knocking England out in the round of 16. England’s manifold problems confirmed its ongoing difficulties at the international level. Joe Hart joined a veritable rogues gallery of not-ready-for-prime-time keepers who are a big part of the reason England isn’t a major power. But the ten players in front of Hart share blame. Whether from overconfidence or lack of tactical intelligence, England didn’t know what to do against a tightly organized defensive block; when England fell behind, its response lacked effort and inspiration; its players didn’t press, were slow and static, left their opponents too much space, and watched Iceland play.
There’s always a tragic dimension to England’s disappointments: the pride of a nation convinced football is its exclusive patrimony (what other country would chose as tournament theme song “Football is Coming Home”, as England did for the 1996 Euro?) forever dashed by hard football facts, its tabloid-inflated heroes cruelly cut back down to size (think David Beckham, Michael Owen, and Wayne Rooney).
England’s elimination triggered the usual inquest. Past disappointments had already prompted a gradual realization that English football does not have the resources to lift itself into the top flight on its own. The Football Association named a foreigner as manager for the first time in 2001 (the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson). The FA swallowed still more English pride when it built the St. George’s Park National Football Centre, inaugurated in 2012, modeled on France’s national team facility at Clairefontaine. But members of the FA couldn’t help themselves from indulging in a characteristic mix of wistful hope, hubris, and fantasy, installing a clock counting down to when England will win the 2022 World Cup. By all appearances, England forgot to leave its hubris at St. George’s when its players left for France this past summer. Players reportedly didn’t bother to watch many other matches. Instead of attending the Iceland-Austria confrontation that determined whom England would play in the round of 16, Three Lions manager Roy Hodgson and his assistant chose instead to take a boat tour on the Seine and sightsee at Notre Dame. The English apparently preferred tourism to tactical preparation.
As the FA tried to put the pieces back together, former France and Man United playmaker turned poet, actor, and sometime philosopher Eric Cantona proposed his services as England coach in this marvelous Youtube video:
Ignoring King Eric’s offer, the FA instead appointed a battle-scarred Premiership veteran to replace Hodgson, Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce. Allardyce’s fleeting tenure as England coach proved even more surreal than Cantona’s Dadaesque performance piece. Journalists with the Telegraph caught the new coach on video agreeing to £400k in exchange for advising an Asian consortium on how to violate FA rules against third-party ownership of players’ transfer rights. “You can still get around it,” he blithely assured them, “I mean obviously the big money’s here.” Whether the FA didn’t bother with due diligence or rolled the dice in full knowledge of Allardyce’s well-documented track record of testing tested ethical boundaries, both scenarios hint at how deep the rot of easy money and unaccountability runs in English football.
Belgium’s disintegration was of a lesser order, the disappointing underachievement of a team with the potential to win the Euro, pathos rather than tragedy. There were mitigating factors, to be sure: as the youngest team to participate in a Euro since Yugoslavia 1968 (average age: 24), the team lacked experience; injuries too had depleted Belgium’s defense. But Belgium’s coach bears most of the responsibility. The former Red Devil midfielder Marc Wilmots made puzzling tactical choices, and the team played with little resolve, rigor, or imagination. Post-elimination revelations shed light on this titanic failure in team management: after the team’s Hungary victory, the coaching staff drank themselves into a collective stupor, while players were locked into their hotel; in the locker room following their elimination by Wales, their world-class keeper Thibaut Courtois confronted Wilmots to criticize his coaching, provoking a fierce argument.
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What diagnosis concerning the state of play itself did the Euro, ostensibly a showcase of the best players in Europe, support? Football’s unofficial title as “the beautiful game” — embraced by a long line of players, coaches, and self-appointed football philosophers from Pelé to Arsenal’s professorial coach Arsène Wenger — functions as much as an ethical imperative as a descriptive. To describe the game as “beautiful” imposes cultural expectations that go beyond the simple aim to win, figuring an aesthetic ideal in the place of a purely instrumental vision that sets football apart from most other competitive sports. In this view, “good” football is not just effective (securing wins or avoiding losses), it is also artistic, spectacular, pleasing to the eye and the soul.
Not all adhere to the jogo bonito ideal, however, and the debate between its defenders and critics traces an ideological fault line dividing fans, pundits, and tacticians alike: is it better (moral connotation intended) to attack or to defend? Should one play with panache, or is the result at the final whistle all that matters, irregardless of the manner in which it is attained? Superstar Cristiano Ronaldo resorted to precisely this ethical idiom when, frustrated after Portugal’s first-round draw against Iceland, he complained: “Iceland didn’t try anything. They were just defend, defend, and counterattack.” A lament rich in irony, given that Portugal would go on to win the tournament on the strength of rugged, ragged defensive play, while Iceland proved one of the most exciting teams to watch. (When US women’s national team goalkeeper and football bad girl Hope Solo made much the same remarks, calling Sweden “a bunch of cowards” after the US’s semi-final loss at last summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the American federation suspended her, showing none of the indulgence European instances do for Ronaldo’s petulance and laying bare the gendered inequities that structure professional sport.)
But even hardheaded realists who eschew such niceties can see in football a chess-like matrix for endless tactical innovation, as much a battle of minds as it is of skills and athletic prowess. The resolutely defensive catenaccio style developed in Italy in the ’60s and ’70s may have been ugly, but it was also deeply thought-out.
Last summer’s Euro left aficionados of good football, however conceived, hungry. Platini bears part of the blame. In his campaign to become UEFA president, he had won the support of smaller federations by promising to expand the Euro from 16 to 24 teams. What had always been a fiercely selective tournament pitting only the strongest European football nations, making it harder to win than the World Cup, became a watered-down competition whose early rounds now feature lopsided mismatches. (That more matches meant more possibilities for gate, television, and merchandising revenue was doubtless not lost on UEFA’s financiers).
France 2016 also provided the latest confirmation that the balance of football power is increasingly tilting towards top clubs and away from national sides. There was a time when the best quality football was practiced by national teams: Ferenc Puskás’s Hungary, Pelé’s Brazil, Cruyf’s Netherlands, Platini’s France. No more: the top clubs have enough capital to buy world-class talent sufficient to outclass any national team (of the twenty-eight players who took part in the 2016 Champion’s League final between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, all were senior internationals except for the young defender Lucas Hernández, who still plays for France’s under-21 team).
Worn down by the demands of club football, these very same stars aren’t always at their best when Euros or World Cups roll around. The pro players plying their trade in money-rich leagues like the English Premiership face long, grinding schedules mixing do-or-die fixtures with inconsequential yet lucrative off-season tours across Asia and North America. Little wonder that those who make it into June unhurt are a step or two slower than at the height of their club seasons — context, perhaps, for the surprisingly ordinary play of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and the usually brilliant Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard at the Euro.
Further, as every national team coach rues, Europe’s top clubs and leagues have successfully whittled down the time their players can take off to train with their national selections. During his tenure as Barcelona’s head coach, Guardiola had the luxury to work closely with the club’s youth teams to teach a common tactical culture, and with the senior team in daily training sessions to impart the subtle intricacies of aggressive pressing and tiki-taka passing. National team managers, for the most part, see their players only a handful of times a year, who mostly nurse their sore bodies for a few days before meaningless friendlies or Euro/World Cup qualifying matches. In the runup to a Euro or World Cup, managers have a few weeks with which to try to drill some semblance of tactical cohesion into their squad. It’s no accident that most teams at France 2016 kept tactics simple: no high pressing after losing the ball (which requires that teams know how to instantly take up defensive shape even when caught out of position); direct, easily-executed offensive configurations. The sinews of global capitalism, pumped up by multinational media giants, American hedge funds, eastern-European oligarchs, and Chinese conglomerates, have bent the arc of football history away from international play.
That isn’t to say there weren’t teams worth watching at the Euro. The two Goliath-slaying Davids, Iceland and Wales, were magnificent. Everyone who watched England-Iceland knows the outcome was no fluke. Iceland didn’t just defend, or rely on unusual and much kibbitzed long throw-ins and set-pieces (though there were those). Breathing new life into their traditional 4-4-2 formation (read: four defenders; four midfielders; two attackers), Iceland had ideas: they built up their attacks from a carefully planned menu involving rapid ball movement, direct play to teammates good with heading who functioned as multiple points of deviation. So too with Wales, who in their first Euro appearance sent Belgium packing in exuberant fashion. Wales impressed with their work rate, collective purpose, and swift counterattacks; standouts Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey didn’t let their Real Madrid and Arsenal stardom stop them from embracing thankless defensive tasks. Wales’ second goal in their quarterfinal against Belgium was a marvelous strike by Hal Robson-Kanu, a kind of prodigal son who had scored only three times for Reading in England’s second division last season, and at the Euro’s start was unemployed and still searching for a new club (he now plays for West Brom).
It’s Hard to Enjoy Football, These Days
The real team of the tournament, however, was Italy. Before the Euro’s start, the peninsula’s sharp-eyed and sharper-penned confraternity of football analysts judged this squad of unremarkable journeymen (Italy’s ageless keeper Gianluigi Buffon excepted) to be the weakest squadra azzurra in generations. They have Italy’s coach Antonio Conte to thank for transforming this middling cast into a compact, disciplined, and fast-moving unit (he is now practicing his craft at Chelsea, with success). During his 2011-14 tenure as Juventus’s head coach — his first top flight management position — Conte had invented an unusual 3-5-2 formation, in which the two midfielders positioned on the wings moved back to reinforce the defense (reshaping the team in a 5-3-2), or forward to support attacks (transforming it into a 3-3-4), depending on circumstances.
With Italy, Conte relied on the deep tactical fluency shared by all Italian players and the defensive foundation he had built at Juve (composed of Buffon and a three-man defensive line) to inculcate his players with his 3-5-2. Having diligently mastered Conte’s system, Italy brought the only genuine tactical innovation of the Euro to France, readily surrendering possession, confident in their defensive qualities and their capacity to overwhelm adversaries with direct, lightning-fast counterattacks. In the final analysis, football is a collective sport in which tactics, when executed with discipline and discernment, can trump superior technique and athleticism. As Conte himself put it after Italy had eliminated a Spanish squad whose roster was unquestionably better than his own: “Spain had the talent, but we had the ideas. And ideas win out over talent.”
Defensive styles can be effective, but they can also be ugly; the ruthless approach pursued by Manchester United’s larger-than-life coach José Mourinho comes to mind. Italy’s play was of a different order, giving the lie to those who believe defensive football is boring to watch, indeed demonstrating that it could constitute a work of art. If you don’t believe me, see the gripping video, below, capturing from above a 30-second Italian defensive sequence during their 2-0 dismantling of Belgium, during which all 11 Italian players — arrayed in a tight 5-3-2 formation resembling a stepped Mesoamerican pyramid — maintain their spacing as they shift right to left and back tracking Belgian passing around the outside of their defensive shape, and, without ever attempting to tackle or physically challenge an opposing player, deny Belgium’s attempts to find an opening.
Italy’s loss to Germany in the quarterfinals left me of two minds. On the one hand, the Mannschaft’s coach Joachim Löw’s decision to shelve his forward-oriented formation in favor of copying Italy’s more prudent 3-5-2 shape proved smart, providing more midfield density to slow azzurri counterattacks. On the other, it was a pity that Löw, who had done more than anyone else to replace the physical, pragmatic brand Germany had prosecuted (not without success, it must be said) into the ’90s with an exciting and technically demanding style no called “sexy football”, wasn’t ready to die for his ideas.
The Euro, then, offered a few lessons for national teams nursing international ambitions. The squads which met with success in France tended to display strong tactical identities and collective purpose, thanks to workarounds for circumventing the formidable constraints on preparation imposed by football’s free-market tropism. Conte proved there’s still room for coaches with vision and the charisma to bring their players on board to lead tactical revolutions (Wales also adopted his three-man defense, albeit in simplified form). Overachieving Iceland gave its national team coaches the opportunity to work with their players over an extended period, a strategy tested with success by Chile between 2007 and 2011 under the brilliant, mercurial coach Marcelo Bielsa, and by South Korea in their surprise 2006 World Cup run orchestrated by Guus Hiddink. Some federations commit to inculcating particular styles of play on their national teams over the long term (as Germany has since 2004, or Spain for longer still). Some national team managers forgo searching for team and tactical alchemy altogether, relying instead on a nucleus who play on the same club and already share tactical reflexes (as Conte did with Juventus, though this approach risks stoking locker room tensions between players from rival clubs: the enmity opposing Barcelona and Real Madrid long undermined Spain’s selection; likewise, tensions between Paris-St. Germain and Olympique de Marseille players plagued Les Bleus in the early ’90s). Teams ready to play their hearts out, like Wales or Italy, had a big edge, grimly determined Portugal proving that grinta could more than make up for lack of inspiration. Portugal’s ultimate victory confirmed that well-organized defenses remain the great football leveler, offering teams what can be a quickly-organized gambit to defuse superior offensive-minded opponents.
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As for France, their run traced yet another viable path to the finals: hatch a generation of exceptional players of the likes of Griezmann, Payet, N’Golo Kanté, and Paul Pogba. For those who recall his standout career as a defensive midfielder, whose physical toughness, tactical intelligence, and smart (or cynical, if you prefer) fouling made up for his technical shortcomings, Didier Deschamps’ willingness as coach to take offensive gambles has proven something of a surprise. So risk-averse was Deschamps as captain of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team that he lobbied the coach to field three defensive midfielders (an extremely conservative posture assigning defensive responsibilities to no less than seven out of ten outfield players). At the Euro, the very same Deschamps merrily urged his talented players forward, piloting what proved to be the tournament’s top-scoring team. Unlike coaches married to specific systems or philosophies — Guardiola and Conte come to mind — Deschamps has shown himself a flexible pragmatist, ready to play to his players’ strengths and adapt to evolving circumstances. After seeking without success to find a schema within which the atypical midfielder Pogba could control play, for example, Deschamps gave up and instead handed Griezmann the keys to the offense.
France’s 5-2 dismantling of Iceland, built from clinical use of long balls, strikers’ deep runs behind Scandinavian defenders, and determined testing of a weak keeper, signaled that Les Bleus had (unlike England) carefully studied Iceland’s play. Griezmann’s goal encapsulated the team’s fearsome offensive potential: his strike came after fourteen consecutive passes, the first twelve deep in the French half, followed by a luminous long ball from Pogba (his specialty with Juventus) to Olivier Giroud; with one subtle touch belying the Arsenal forward’s bulk, Giroud sent it on to Griezmann who, already well into his run behind an Icelandic defender, took three touches before nicely dosing his lob over the keeper into goal.
France’s semifinal victory over Germany may have been more laborious, but French fans of my generation still saw in this matchup a tournament high point saturated (not to say overdetermined) with historical meaning. It was impossible not to read this confrontation through the lens of what is probably the greatest match in French football history when, on a sweltering evening in Seville, Platini’s band of fleet-footed aesthetes faced an artless West German squad in the semifinals of the 1982 World Cup. After a brutal German foul sent a French defender to the hospital in the second half, France surrendered a two-goal lead in overtime, before losing the penalty shootout in a game that mixed high drama, elation, and disappointment, and has since taken on the character of a grand morality play in France. A less vindicatory framing of the Euro rematch might underscore how, on the one hand, France’s commitment to defensive realism since the mid-1990s (inspired by repeated French losses to hard-nosed German teams), and on the other, Germany’s construction of an elaborate youth training system, its recruitment of children of immigrants (both attempts to reproduce late ’90s French success), and its embrace of “sexy football” (calqued on Spanish models), have reversed these aesthetic and ethical polarities.
Whatever one’s preferred narrative, the supporters in the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, France’s most football-crazed city, provided a deafening and exhilarating backdrop for last summer’s semifinal. After opting for a defensive posture against Italy, Löw came to Marseille full of attacking intentions. But with key players like Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez out with injuries, and striker Thomas Müller showing his age, Germany’s marvelous short-passing proved sterile. It wasn’t pretty, but France played with determination and defensive abnegation, and Griezmann’s talent ultimately carried the day.
The mounting excitement in France as Les Bleus progressed through the tournament, catalyzed as it was by happy surprise, recalled the effervescence that gripped France during the 1998 World Cup. But there was something else propelling popular élan this time around. After the preceding year’s solemn gatherings reaffirming Republican values and mourning terrorism’s victims, people felt a hunger for a more festive collective celebration, a longing for a therapeutic communion that might call forth fraternity in the place of national trauma and divisive populist rhetoric. France’s players, several of whom were directly affected by the attacks (Greizmann’s sister was inside the Bataclan during the killings, and midfielder Lassana Diarra — who missed the Euro due to injury — lost a cousin when a gunman opened fire at a nearby café), were manifestly animated by the same goal.
Portugal, faithful to the destructive ethos it adopted throughout the Euro, and France, its strikers uncharacteristically imprecise in front of goal, conspired to make the final a lackluster, if uncertain, affair. The match turned not on a tearful Ronaldo’s unexpected exit early in the first half due to injury — in the end, Portugal’s single-minded commitment to defending and the superstar’s poor form meant his absence wasn’t particularly missed — but rather on the dime of Eder’s extra-time goal. Twelve years ago a golden generation of Portuguese players (including a young Ronaldo) lost to an uncomely but defensively formidable Greece in the Euro 2004 final, played in front of a heartbroken home crowd. This time around, Portugal found redemption by reversing the tactical scenario, stifling France’s flying strikers with dogged defense. The champagne I had stashed in the fridge in hopeful anticipation of a happier outcome stayed on ice, and the friends who had come to watch the final in our apartment with us politely took their leave and headed out into the Paris night.
In the meantime, the capital’s considerable Portuguese diaspora had already begun their loud celebration. Klaxoning cars flags crisscrossed the city flying Portuguese flags and groups of fans navigating on foot sang the glory of the seleção. French supporters could find some solace in the happiness of one of the hexagon’s largest immigrant communities, which took shape when large numbers left poverty-wracked Portugal in the ’60s and ’70s in search of work. To a certain extent, Portugal played at home in this Euro — as I was reminded every time I watched them, the sound muted so as not to awaken our toddler, the windows of our apartment open to the warm Paris summer, listening to the Franco-Portuguese neighbors on our street put passion into singing the national anthem and cheering their team on. (That the same French commentators who are so quick to decry Franco-Algerians’ divided loyalties remained silent on these proud expressions of Luso-Gallic identities confirms the racialized selectivity of their assimilationist opprobrium). There was solace too in a victory that brought joy to the last great European football nation never to have won a major trophy and balm to a society that has paid an especially heavy toll to the global financial crisis.
Notwithstanding dashed French hopes, there were other reasons for satisfaction at the Euro’s close. The tournament, by the organizers’ own fiduciary metrics at least, was a success. More importantly, ordinary French people, not to mention security services and government officials, all breathed a heavy sigh of relief that fears of terrorism had not been realized.
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This sense of relief would prove short-lived. Four days after the final, a man drove a rented truck through a crowd watching a 14th July fireworks display on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing 86 and injuring hundreds.
For fans still basking in the Euro’s afterglow, this senseless loss of life abruptly threw football into sharp perspective. While football — occasion for intense forms of sociability, fertile terrain for capitalist enterprise, or vehicle for sublimated nationalism — is unquestionably more than a game, dark events like the Nice attack quickly cut its self-importance down to size. Indeed, there are those, like the Communist family in Alberta in which my wife grew up (a rare but, I assure you, real breed), who take a dim view of such capitalist frivolities. Eschewing the Marxism, others look down on them as lowbrow instances of bread-and-circus escapism.
I take a different view. The liberty to take pleasure in a well-played match (or kvetch about a poorly-played one), to argue about the merits of Cruyff’s total football versus the catenaccio, and to travel across borders in order to drink beers and sing silly songs to the glory of one’s team are luxuries Europeans won on the back of postwar peace, social democratic prosperity, and European integration. To my mind, they are precisely the kinds of frivolities citizens of healthy societies should have the latitude to indulge in, if they so wish.
But these are not normal times, and the gathering storm clouds are reminders that my wife’s parents may have a point. War, rumors of war, terrorism, grave environmental dangers, yawning social inequality, repeated body blows to the European project (in this moment of existential crisis for the EU, it’s worth saluting the much decried Schengen arrangement eliminating border controls between most member countries — which, for example, makes it possible for supporters to travel easily to Euros — as a form of social progress), and homegrown populist and far-right threats to western democracies, all make it hard to enjoy football right now, and harder still to justify taking the time to enjoy it.
As I have argued here, the pathologies of our day have deeply contaminated football itself. Just weeks after the end of the Euro, Manchester United’s purchase of Paul Pogba’s contract from Juventus for €105 million — the highest transfer fee in history — proved that the business of football rolls relentlessly forward (that Man United, just four years before, had already had an opportunity to sign Pogba to a senior contract for free when he played youth football for them, but chose instead to let him go for nothing, illustrates the prodigal absurdities of the transfer market). n the weeks following, American real estate magnate (and former Los Angeles Dodgers owner) Frank McCourt purchased Olympique de Marseille (for half the price of Pogba’s transfer fee) and a Chinese food packaging conglomerate acquired AJ Auxerre (a small-town French club with a much admired youth system, currently in the second tier), the latest chapters in global capitalism’s restructuring of European football. Recall too that one of the targets of the November 2015 attacks in Paris was the Stade de France, where France and Germany were playing a friendly.
I’m not sure I will have the heart to watch the 2018 World Cup, which, the Fifagate investigation suggests, was likely awarded to Russia under highly irregular circumstances (so too with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar), and which promises to be a veritable consecration for the Russian Federation’s Mephistophelean autocrat. I picture with dread the warm handshake between America’s new president (assuming the US qualifies for the tournament) and his dour ally, Putin. Whatever it is that the beautiful game has become, in the grim years ahead the more pressing matters that we will all be called to attend to will, regretfully, leave a lot less time to think about things that, in a better world, should matter. Like football.