It has become accepted gospel in soccer circles that two of the great teams in soccer history did not win the World Cup: the Netherlands in 1974 and Brazil in 1982. I remember sitting at a bar in Salvador listening to a Brazilian go on and on about Socrates and the rest of Brazil national team, and how it was a great injustice that the better team did not win against Italy. My only reply, which produced some incredulity in my drinking companion, was, “Better team? Apparently not.”
I like pretty passing and flair as much as the next guy, but if Brazil didn’t have the guile or onions to unlock or break the Italian defense, then how good could they really be? And, while “Total Football” (as annoying and overused a phrase as “the beautiful game”) might have been an important leap forward in the evolution of soccer, how good were the Dutch really if they lacked the discipline and killer instinct to finish off West Germany instead of trying to put on a clinic? Those were flawed teams, and I know this because they lost.
With proper respect to Herm Edwards, you play to win the game. Not to be pretty, not to “play the right way” and not to impress the fans in the stadium and a worldwide audience. No, the object is to kick a ball into a net more times than your opponent. As overwrought sportswriters have become enamored with particular styles and displays of flair, they have forgotten the central truth that these things are incidental—and not central—to the game of soccer (notwithstanding South America’s purported preference for artistry over mere results in decades past). To say that the 1982 Brazil or 1974 Holland teams were among the great teams of all time is only slightly less ridiculous than saying that the 1979 Harlem Globetrotters were among the great basketball teams off all time because Meadowlark Lemon could hit half court hook shots or bounce in free throws between his legs.
Getting back to Holland, they saw that Switzerland had beaten Spain by playing rough. The Spanish midfield is immensely talented and quick of foot and mind, but the Dutch must have seen them as diminutive types unlikely to hold up well to tough physical challenges, and often too in love with play-acting and diving. The Switzerland-Spain game was not pretty, but it provided a useful template. It would not make for pretty soccer, and the 700 million people watching around the world likely would not like what they saw, but the obligation of the Dutch team was not to ESPN or the fans around the world; their principal obligation was to find a way to win for themselves and their country.
So long as the Dutch did not seek to hurt anyone (which obviously excludes Nigel De Jong’s Bruce Lee moment in which he chopped down Xabi Alonso with a kick to the chest), the accumulation of yellow cards by Holland did not bother me. Spain plays a quick-passing game based on timing and flow. Put their little midfielders on the ground a few times, and this gets broken up.
No sport is as obsessed with its style of play as is soccer. In football, we appreciate nasty defensive teams, and even respect the aesthetic of a low-scoring defensive struggle. Though the NBA changed its rules to limit more physical defensive tactics, most hoops fans will give at least begrudging respect to the Bad Boy Pistons and Pat Riley’s Knicks for playing dirty—er, I mean, giving a hard blue collar effort. Sure, most fans would prefer Lakers Showtime, but the problem is that there was only one Magic Johnson, and it would have been unfair to force to every team to play a style in which they could not win simply because the TV audience preferred it. Similarly, Holland did not have an Andres Iniesta or Xavi, but it does have de Jong and Mark van Bommel, so it would have been folly—the presence of Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt and Van Persie notwithstanding—for the Dutch to engage in a flowing and pretty game with the Spanish when they had the thugs to play differently.
Of course, the reason that soccer fans are so particular about style is that, with so few goals scored in a game, if you are going to appreciate the sport you have to love the thousand moments that do not necessarily lead to a goal but that slowly tilt the tactical advantages one way or another. A basketball game will give you 100 or so made shots. A football game will usually provide you with six to eight touchdowns, etc. But a soccer match might require you to commit two hours to see one or no goals. If the long goalless stretches are not compelling, soccer can be a truly awful game to watch.
Nonetheless, the obligation to produce crowd-pleasing games is with FIFA, not on the individual teams. No manager should ever eschew a tactic (again, provided that it places no player in too-great danger of injury) that will maximize his chances of winning. If FIFA decides that particular tactics hurt the marketability of its game, then outlaw them. Otherwise, if a team chooses to use them, deal with it.
A Yale graduate student based in South Africa, Brian attended the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He blogs here.