Tuesday, June 22, 2010

random thoughts about the swiss, spanish, and united states teams

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed - but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.
-- Harry Lime (Orson Welles) justifying his murderous amorality in The Third Man (1949).  

The Swiss have given us much more than the cuckoo clock and being the punchline to one of the finest films of all time: actors Ursula Andress, Irene Jacob, Bruno Ganz; painters Henry Fuseli, HR Giger, Paul Klee; sculptor Alberto Giacometti; philosopher/writer Jean-Jacques Rosseau; psychiatrist CG Jung; revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, just to name a few of the more notable individuals, all hail from Switzerland.  Oh, and Celtic Frost.  Aren't they Swiss?  If not, they should be.

But when it comes to football, the Swiss are duds.  Yes, they routinely make the World Cup (they've appeared nine times, reached the quarter-finals three times, and hosted it in 1954), though they play a sort of unimaginative, defensive-oriented football that only a countryman could love.  Yet somehow... they managed to beat Spain in the first round of this year's World Cup.

The Swiss "style" is not the sort of football that aims to win the hearts and minds of neutrals or lovers of an attacking, progressive style.  Current Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is not interested in dazzling the crowds with some new alchemically-laced hybrid of Brazillian tiki-taka-style with Northern European strength and power with the Dutch Totaalvoetbal ideal (which, to be honest, the Dutch don't really play any longer).  He's simply interested in grinding out results by forsaking the width of the field for the claustrophobia of the inside, clipping the opposing team's ambition for flight on the wings, and only risking an offensive move on the counter-attack when there's nowhere else to go but forward.  Only score when you've run out of all other options.  It's a tactic that oddly, brilliantly works against teams like Spain, as the strict Swiss taught them in that first round 0-1 shocker.  It's the Swiss version of catenaccio, the legendary and infamous Italian style of football obstinacy.

Hitzfeld, though, did not swipe his version of the defense-first tactic from the Italians' playbook... he got it from US men's national coach Bob Bradley.  Specifically, studying videos of the 0-2 US victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-finals, a shocking defeat for the current European Champions.  In that match, Bradley--who has never been at the top of anyone's list of all-time great football tacticians--managed to stymie the living gods of fluid, creative, gyroscopic football with American grit and teeth-gnashing defense.  But the US team not only managed to kill off the Spanish offense, they managed to score against them as well.  This was no ordinary win.  This was a shockwave of mammoth proportions.  Bradley's boys did something that  no other team had managed to figure out the previous summer during Euro 2008--they toppled the greatest football team on earth.  Forget Dunga's squad of efficient though lackadaisical Brazilian hitmen, who are labeled "The Greatest Football Team" by every ignorant fan and announcer who wouldn't know brilliant tactics if they mainlined them.  Luis Aragones's Spanish squad, a team deep with talent and ingenuity, proved to the skeptics that imaginative, devil-may-care football could work during large and important tournaments, contradicting all of the unbelievers who regurgitate like clockwork the old line that only defensive-minded, ugly football wins championships.

Aragones abandoned Spain for managing Turkish side Fenerbahce immediately after the Euro 2008 triumph, but new coach Vicente del Bosque has continued the team's breakneck style of precision passing, possession, and midfield majesty.  The team has loads of talent, a deep bench, and is attractive to watch.  It's art of a kind and puts the over-hyped Brazilians to shame.  But since losing against the US and now the Swiss, supporters and admirers of the Spanish team are now faced with a horrifying reality--Euro 2008 might have been a one-time deal for this line-up.  The team may have effectively broken the curse of not having won a major title since the 1964 Euro Championship, yet Spain is currently finding it difficult to tap into that wellspring of ingenuity and flashing inspiration that has served them well.  Bradley and Hitzfeld have both shown that it is possible to flush out Spain's love of commandeering the sides of the pitch by boxing them in the middle, then making them pay on the counter-attack when Spain finally loses possession.

It's a good tactic, though one that isn't foolproof.  As with playing a progressive, forward style of game, this stubborn anti-football also comes with risk.  If the bus you park in front of the net isn't strong enough to take the onslaught of shots, if all eleven devils don't step up bravely and defend, defend, defend (anti-Total Football)--a team like Spain will eventually exhaust you, and eventually crush you.  Your defense must be just as bold, aggressive, and dexterous as the opposing team's forward momentum.

After watching Spain win against Honduras yesterday (2-0), I'm still not sure what to think about them.  I came into the tournament swaggering with confidence, just like them, sure that they would sweep on through the group stage like true champions.  But that hasn't happened.  Striker Fernando Torres can't connect with anything (such a petulant, brittle player, but lethal when the blood is up), the cerebral yet brave Iniesta is still not in the best form, and the team seems... well, uninspired.  They look like all of the Spanish teams that have come into previous World Cups and underperformed.  The US, on the other hand, are playing with passion and, despite some cautious openings that have cost them goals, real confidence.  I'd love to see them not concede early goals... but the fact that they've bounced back with real American gusto gives me more than hope that they can beat Algeria decisively and make it out of the group.

Switzerland... hmmm.  They're technically still in the Cup despite losing to an energetic though sloppy Chile yesterday (1-0), although in their match against Honduras they will be missing their midfielder Valon Behrami because of a red card.  No matter.  All the Swiss need to do to beat Honduras is park a bigger bus in front of the net and hope Spain lose to Chile.  This Cup has been full of surprises.  Hell, Greece could beat Argentina (the game I'm watching while I type this).  It's nil-nil at the moment (68') and I don't really think it will happen... but you never know.  Stranger things have happened.  And as this tournament has shown us... anti-football is once again on the march.

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