Where has the poetry in motion that is synonymous with Latin American soccer gone?
LET'S MOVE back in time — a throwback to the infamous 'Hand-of-God' World Cup win of Argentina over England in Mexico, 1986. The greatest footballer on show in that World Cup, Diego Maradona, was on a song five minutes after 'fisting' in the controversial goal. The short stature footballer of the tallest pedigree dribbled past six English players (Hoddle, Reid, Sansom, Butcher, Fenwick and finally goalkeeping legend Shilton) to score what was voted in 2002 as the Best Goal ever in World Cup history.
Now, let's forget for a while that golden moment of 20-years vintage and switch over to the event's 2006 edition that is currently under way in Germany. All those who have been glued to the TV and turning up with leaden eyes in schools and offices next day, say:“The magic is missing”.
True. Even experts agree, but then where has the good arty football gone? From football's philosopher Jorge Valdano, who was Maradona's mate in the 1986 Argentine World Cup winning squad, to World Bank economist Branco Milanovic and FIFA chief Sepp Blatter have cracked their heads over the rot that has set in the artistic game and blamed it on unbridled corporatisation, perverted globalisation and money domination of football. And as in the case with global economy, the worst sufferers of the money onslaught are the talent-rich Third World countries of South (Latin) America and Africa and, of course, good football. The winners are the powerful and rich European clubs.
Many will argue that money develops sports and football can only profit from it.
But then, it is killing what the great game is passionately loved for — its diversity. The game’s charm has been its diversity of style, temperament and character. All these features distinguish one nation from another, a Maradona from a Gary Lineker, a Brazilian from a German. And no one knows it better than former Argentine great and one-time Real Madrid sporting director Valdano.
Distinguishing the teams he had once told The Economist: “The Brazilians play like they dance; the Germans play like they make cars, with lots of technical efficiency and not much left to the imagination; the English run hard all the time, maybe because of the weather; the Spanish are a mosaic of regional styles, which has yet to find a national pattern. And the Italians are a paradox. In every other area they export style and flair to the world; but in football they've allowed the ideal of collective organisation to crush individual talent.”
In this era of free market and 'crossover footballers', the Latin poetry is getting lost in the European staccato style. And the big European clubs have made matters worse. Many of the footballing majors (Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Napoli, Ajax, Bayern Munich) have turned themselves into corporate brands. For them the game is the product, the players are salaried workers and the supporters shareholders. Therefore, they glean the best available talents and, in a way, own them. So Thierry Henry, a Frenchman, is Arsenal's captain, Andrie Shevchenko, a Ukrainian, is often the captain of AC Milan, and Christiano Zanetti, an Argentine, is captain of Inter Milan. Similarly, dozens of South Americans and Africans play in Russian, Turkish, Polish, and various Southeast European leagues.
For these clubs, the end motive is not seeing the beautiful game flourish but make good business. At the end of the day, a club's CEO, who is not a footballing great or a passionate soccer enthusiast, is not concerned about the scoresheet but the balance sheet. Not artistry but calculated moves. So the management expert preaches lesser risk. He says when a win is required go for it and if a draw is enough don't risk a win (else the clubs' shares will take a tumble at the stock exchange).
His wisdom is sound because a good profit will earn him more money, or even a better pay packet from rival clubs. So, it's hell with good football.
“However, the paradox is that globalisation and rampant commercialisation have achieved a concentration of quality and success but that is undoing the art that is football,” writes World Bank economist Branco Milanovic in one of his much acclaimed expositions on globalisation and football. He says 'leg drain' in football has led to monopolisation.
How true it is. As money rules, major trophies are being cornered by rich European clubs. For a Steaua Bucharest, a Dynamo Kiev or a Nottingham Forest to win a major trophy will require better bank balance rather than good footballers.
And Valdano's worry is just that. He feels that this is eroding national differences. Most of the leading Latin American stars now play in Europe and ironically that's causing the ruin back home. “Twenty years ago, it was easy to say that Latin American football was about technique and talent, and European football was about organisation, speed and fighting spirit. But with television and player transfers, all these trends are coming together,” Valdona says.
In Latin America in particular, there is concern that in the new, global style of football, athleticism is triumphing over artistry.
When the great Brazilian sides of 1970 and 1982 were strutting their stuff, the average player would run about four kilometres during a game. Now, he covers almost eight kilometres. As a result, players have less time and space to display their ball skills.
The Bosman ruling (named after a Belgian player who successfully challenged the ceiling on the numbers of foreigners a team can possess) eroded the limit. With it came the onslaught of the richest European clubs' demand for a free hand in hiring the best players, wherever they might be found.
This almost sounded the death knell for Latin American artistry.
Now, the European clubs can take as many players they wish. So an Arsenal is still an English side with just six British nationals on its list of 46! Thus, styles merge into one and lose the many. In this manner, the Latin music is numbed, the African beats take a beating and only European pragmatism is being played out big and loud. In the end, good football gets driven away by bad money.
So when the Ro-Ros (the Ronaldos, Robertos and Ronaldinhos) run for Brazil they fail to create the music that's unheard to the Germans. So, while the European rhythm sways the world, the South American artistry fades out unheard.
This is not to say that South Americans are innocent victims. Some of their best footballing minds have also become game to the European school of football. Nothing displayed it better than last week's Argentina-Germany clash in the World Cup. With Argentina ahead with an Ayala header, Jose Pekerman, the coach, replaced natural attackers Crespo and Riquelme with two defensive players. This move was unfamiliar to the followers of Latin American football, but regular to a European addict. One would have expected 'wonderkid' Messi to take the field, but astuteness did not allow. Pekerman's European move backfired and Germany won.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter is also outraged at the fate of football. Launching a frontal attack on major clubs, he had said "wild West-style of capitalism" was threatening the game.
"The majority is fighting with spears, while the greedy few have the financial equivalent of nuclear warheads," Blatter wrote in the Financial Times.
Blatter had said a FIFA taskforce would examine the "pornographic amounts of money" that have divided the sport. "This cannot be the future of our game. FIFA cannot sit by and see greed rule the football world. Nor shall we," he had said.
How far Blatter will go to save the game from big money only the future can tell, but for football to survive, artistry must thrill the lovers of the game and rule their hearts.
One hopes, good money goes into nurturing the football nurseries of South America — Boca Junior, River Plate, Cosmos — and good soccer blossoms like a thousand flowers.
While signing off, one can only wish that brand soccer be damned, but long live the good 'ole romantic football that the Peles, Maradonas and their predecessors had once upon a time brought to this earth and the likes of Cesar Luis Menotti and Mario Zagalo had reared.