by Bob Cassells
I watched the entire Tottenham v. Milan game the other week: that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back again. Twenty two international and world class players playing the game with levels of skill light-years beyond the SPL ,and some way still farther off from the Scottish First Division, and yet I was left profoundly frustrated and bored witless.
On the Tuesday night of the same week, I and one thousand other souls (exactly that – the crowd was 1,001) watched Partick Thistle cuff Queen of the South 3-1 on a pitch that looked like something akin to Ayr beach in weather conditions that would have made Captain Scott stay inside the tent. And yet I was engrossed throughout.
Okay, I’m a nutter. I’m one of those guys who buys the season ticket and turns up no matter what’s on the telly – Barcelona v. Arsenal or the Jags v. the Doonhamers: no contest, off to Firhill we go. And yet I honestly don’t believe my feelings about the game can simply be explained by some visceral tribal loyalty that requires me to turn up to these events. Or that games like Thistle against Queens just feed the addiction of a few hundred unreconstructed football fans who haven’t bought into the programme of the modern ‘beautiful game’. No, what I think is actually going on is that we’re being conned.
We buy the satellite TV subscriptions and the mass-produced beer and marvel at the remarkable skills of the multi-millionaire players who are, without doubt, the best in the world. And we gasp as they show unbelievable ability to control the ball, pass it to colleagues who receive it with aplomb and, on occasion, beat an opponent before swinging another inch-perfect pass across the pitch to a colleague who receives it (also) with aplomb … and so on. And all of this contrasts with the sweaty struggles of the Scottish First Division, the mis-controls, the wayward passes, the runs up the field brought to an end by a probably mistimed tackle … and so on.
And so we know what we’re watching is, to use the terminology of the fans’ on-line forums, ‘crap’. No Robhinos at Firhill that Tuesday night; no Iniestas or Messis either. By comparison, we’re being short-changed. Why turn up to games like that, pay ridiculous admission prices to sit in an empty, atmosphereless stadium on a freezing cold night when you can be in the pub or the comfort of your own home watching the best the world has to offer in the game you love?
Because maybe that experience really is crap. It’s ‘risk free’ football. It’s keep the ball away from the opposition even if you have to shift it all over the pitch to avoid them getting it.
It’s play a pass rather than try to beat a man because trying to beat someone means you might lose possession.
It’s don’t take a shot unless you think you’re going to score because that might lead to the opposition getting the ball.
It’s don’t try anything speculative at all because, well, the opposition might get the ball.
Yes, I know that watching Inniesta threading a pass through a defence is a thing of beauty. And Messi controlling the ball with a first touch before flicking it on to a colleague is a wonder to behold. And, of course, it’s very successful – Barcelona win things.
But for long stretches of the game it’s boring. And if Iniesta and Messi aren’t playing – as they weren’t in the Spurs/Milan match – there aren’t even the flashes of genius to enjoy – just long interminable passages of play when one team tries to keep the ball away from the other. It’s what I really think of when I hear the term ‘non-football’.
Scottish teams have often been accused of this sin – think Scotland against the Czech Republic and European ties when Rangers play, well, anyone really – but on all of these occasions the Scottish team has attempted to play the game so that there is an engagement with the opposition.
Okay, on these occasions it’s ‘you attack and we’ll defend and try to hit you on the break’, but the contract is clear – two teams engaging, interacting with one other. Barcelona, and their emulators, try to turn the opposition into traffic cones. Games become an exercise in geometry. Tackles are looked upon as some kind of cultural failure – you mean you held on to the ball long enough for someone to tackle you? What were you thinking? And more and more teams are buying into it. The world’s best footballers can now play the game as if the opposition weren’t there and teams are asking them to do just that.
And … It’s … Boring.
The world’s best footballers don’t play in the Scottish First Division, so fortunately the Barcelona-disease hasn’t taken hold fully yet. Although one First Division team, who shall remain nameless – but let’s call them, oh, I don’t know, say ‘Falkirk’ – do swan about in full Barcelona-style passing the ball along the back four before losing patience and hoofing it up the park. It has a certain charm, like your eight-year old nephew trying to play one of Beethoven’s piano concertos.
Okay, possibly because the skill levels of First Division players aren’t up to it, but also because the fans wouldn’t wear it. Yes, I know we fans have to be ‘educated’ and we don’t appreciate what the Continentals are up to and we’re stuck in the past and we probably still eat our young and whatever. But maybe we instinctively know it’s crap.
What do football fans revel in? The wee guy against the big guy. The flash of skill that leaves the opponent standing. The tackle that could bring a Chieftain tank to a dead stop. Taking a risk. Having a go. The sight of guys putting it all out there on the line – their skill, their strength, their attitude against the other lot. Football is an art of poetry and drama, not a science of calculations and analysis.
So, Nou Camp or Firhill? I know about the beautiful game as played by Barcelona. I can appreciate the sublime skills of Iniesta and Messi. I’m just as amazed as everyone else by the way the ball is stroked around on the green fields of Spain. But I’d still rather watch the efforts of the Jags and their opponents on the mud of Firhill.
Maybe it’s just me (well, me and at least one thousand others) but the beautiful game is about the creation of the sublime from the sweat and effort of the monumental struggle between players giving their all for their team. You’ll see that at a Thistle-Queen of the South game. When Barcelona play, Real Madrid say, you see 22 highly skilled millionaires playing a game of football. Believe me, no matter how skilful it is, it isn’t the beautiful game.
You can hear more passionate views from Bob Cassells, and others, by visiting Firhill on match days.