- Or: Why I Disagree with Xavi
Last week saw the emergence of a wonderful interview with Barcelona and Spain midfield ace Xavi Hernandez (read it here). Gracefully penned by Sid Lowe, the conversation unfolded the thoughts and character of the player, who came off as quite a sympathetic and articulate man.In all, the interview was a real treat to read in a media world so dominated by mindless post-match comments a la Monty Python (“Well Brian, I just hit the ball and there it was in the back of the net”) and made-up sensationalist non-stories. Here was a opinionated player who freely spoke his mind, and a journalist who gently marked a path for him to follow or stray from. Great stuff.
That being said, however, I must protest to some of Xavi’s bolder claims regarding the game as such. Xavi holds the view that football is essentially a game that revolves around the joy of playing neat passes around the opposition players, thus creating a entertaining and spectacular games of high technical quality. This view is described by himself as a ‘romantic’ one, apparently in contrast to the cynical, physical and destructive tactics/teams/players who are trying to ruin the fun of the gifted kids.
While I have no problem with Xavi stating his view (which I am sure is shared by many, maybe even the majority of football fans) I do feel that it is important to remember that there is a different way of perceiving the game as well.
The arguments put forward by Xavi are not new. It’s the type of rhetoric that has surrounded the Brazilian national team forever, and the modern version of the ‘tiki-taka’ is very familiar to the Dutch brand of total football as exhibited in the seventies. The point being that ball possession makes room for the technical details and individual skills which make football beautiful, makes it transcend the mere game and turn to art, as it were.
I’m not opposed to this latter idea as such. Without those moments of magic, football would be a dour affair, no question. However, I think that the perception that football is only about these epiphanic incidents, and indeed that you need to pass the ball around in never-ending triangles until they occur is a very one-dimensional and reductive view.
To me, the suggestion that only ‘pretty’ football is worth watching is simply wrong. First of all, it favours the ‘neutral’ perspective, which for me is highly overrated. Of course a number of pundits and commentators need to (and get paid to) take this objective stance. Football matches, however, are played between two teams that wish to win, hopefully at all costs, and I think that deep down, most players and supporters look at results first and performance second. Because for them (me), football is ultimately about winning and giving your all in the process. Playing beautifully as well is ideal, but essentially icing on the cake.
I know that some places, particularly in Spain, this view is not necessarily shared, but being molded by calcio for many years, such an attitude to me is exotic, bordering on incomprehensible. Naturally, I’m not saying that i prefer ugly and destructive football, that would be plain stupid. What I am saying, is that I prefer to see teams giving their all to win matches. What Xavi seems to be saying is that all teams should try and beat Barcelona or Spain by playing technical football and not get in their way with tactics, marking and physicality.
Pardon me, but that’s rubbish! The current Spain and Barcelona squads are obviously some of the most technically gifted sides ever to play the game, but should we as a consequence just drop the matches all together and let them win by default? Hardly – although that seems to almost be the case for Barca in La Liga.
Quite frankly, if Xavi feels that Barca’s defeat to Inter in the UCL-semi’s last year was ‘unfair’ as they were the prettier team to watch in the second leg, I must question his capacity to appreciate the richness of the game in full.
Football can be played in many ways, and personally I much prefer the directness of the current German side or the resilience of the WC-winning Italians in ’06 to the endless possession and passing around of the Spaniards. But I’m not saying that Spain should play any different than they do, and that – apart from a certain amount of talent and status! – is the difference between Xavi and I.
Maybe not everyone is prepared to appreciate the genius of the well placed sliding tackle, the brilliance of tactically outsmarting the opposition or the beauty of a player soaked in sweat from running tirelessly for 90 minutes. So be it. But it’s there. And I insist that it is not completely overshadowed by fun and finesse. Grinta! Passion! War! All essential components of great football to me. True beauty is born out of fight.
To stretch the aforementioned art-analogy, you could say that that the aesthetic concept underlying Xavi’s ideological ‘romanticism’ is the claim that ‘only that which is harmonious and pleasing to the eye is beautiful’ – thus disqualifying modern and historical expressive art altogether. That is a reductionist attitude for sure. Art was never just pretty, but indeed sometimes disturbing and always provoking emotions. As should football be, in all its multifaceted glory.