Sunday, 3 February 2013

Communism and Capitalism of Football

The Cold War lasted forty-six years from 1945 to 1991. The war was not a physical one. It was not a financial one. It was not geographical, not religious and not even political. It was a war of ideology. It was a war between two superpower nations who had polar opposite views as to how humans should be organised to live in their society. It was a war of theory. It was a war between two nations who disagreed with how a human should live. It was a war about how each thought about the universe. To say it was a "cold" war is somewhat misleading. It wasn't played out because of any legitimate reason. It was played out simply because each wanted to prove that they were right. After forty-six years of conflict and verbal squabbling, the Soviet Union fell and with it, the war. Or did it?

The essence of communism was that it valued the collective over the individual. Every member in a society was equal to the person next to him. Every member of society had an equal input into the functioning of the society and each one was expected to contribute. The whole philosophy was based on the fact that the sum of the parts were greater than the whole - that if everyone contributed, the whole community would function more efficiently and no person was left disadvantaged. It wasn't just a matter of economic or social policy, communism was a matter of principle, that it was the correct ideology simply because it was believed that it was.

Capitalism on the other hand, valued the individual freedom to be able to express the very best a man could be. Freedom of expression, invention and competition are key values. It goes without saying that capitalism allow the best to rise to the top and the mediocre to sink to the bottom. The disadvantage is that conflict always arises between the top and bottom of society. The people at the top are defensive and seek to hold onto their status while the people at the bottom rebel and seek to displace the men at the top.

The Cold War has of course ended, but in football, it has reached a crescendo.  The war between collective football and individual football. Throughout the history of football a struggle has existed between those who believe that players should be given the freedom to play, and those who believe that players must work within a system. Two of the greatest national sides were 1970's Brazil and 1970's Netherlands. These two great teams existed at about the same time and yet had opposite ideas on how the game should be played. If we disregard specific tactics, Brazil represented the individualism of capitalism while the total football of the Netherlands were based on the principles of co-ordinated team work of communism. Brazil scored goals goals through dribbling, the Dutch through passing. Brazil were a team full of excellent players, while the Netherlands were an excellent team. Both national teams will be remembered as two of the greatest teams to have ever played the game, but they were different to each other. The battle of individual vs collective has always marked football and it will continue to do so.


Barcelona is the perfect example of what the Soviet Union had epitomised. It is the gold standard and the philosophical Mount Everest of collectivism - communism. Barcelona display all the trademarks of being a communist club, without quite reaching it. The resemblance is so close in fact, that the grey area between imitating, and being, is almost abolished, and the two ideas merge into one.

Barcelona's system of play relies on the transfer of the ball via the mode of passing. So much is Barca's reliance on passing the ball that a word is used to describe it - tiki taka. To pass the ball, an individual must be willing to sacrifice possession of the ball in order to give it to someone else. To hold onto it is selfish. It is an admission of weakness of thought, that one cannot rid himself of the temptation to keep the ball for himself. It is an admission that one does not believe in his team-mates and does not trust them. Guardiola once said of his team: "This team will respect a philosophy." The philosophy is all encompassing and it filters through every level of the club, right down to the kids and parents.

Guardiola is a smart man and he thought deeply about how to make his team even better. Realising that he could add more variety in his attack, he bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan. In bringing in the tall Swedish striker, Guardiola was making a huge statement - he was bringing in a player who was different from the players he already had. The likes of Messi, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta, Busquets were all brought up - schooled - to follow the doctrine of collective football and sacrifice. In Ibrahimovic, Guardiola was bringing in a man who was the star in every team he had played for and was not the equal to his team mates. Zlatan had been to several clubs and thus was not as receptive to learning a whole new religion from the very beginning. Guardiola had bought an individualist - who believed that he was different - to a club that condemned such personalities - it was why Ronaldinho was booted out as well. Ultimately, this particular transfer would end in failure, but the fact that Guardiola chose to spend such a huge amount of money on a rebel was suggestive of a slight doubt he had in Barca's philosophy.

Just like the people of the Soviet Union during weak economic times, lack of infrastructural development, food shortages and lack of progress - people start to question how their country is being run and whether communism is working. When the United States became the number one country in the world under Ronald Reagan, surpassing the Soviet Union, the Russian people started to doubt their own country and sought prosperity like the Americans. It was this shift in attitude which led to uprisings against the Soviet government and ultimately bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The difference between the Soviet Union and Barcelona is that the latter is currently prospering and all is harmonious within it's walls. However, the Soviet Union also prospered before it collapsed.

There were signs last season when Real Madrid out powered all opposition towards winning the league, while Barcelona were struggling to beat opponents who had become used to their patterns of play. Some observers criticised Barca's reliance on the collective, remarking that they were passing it for the sake of passing it and that their tiki taka philosophy had become a cult like religion, instead of a mere philosophy. People had started to grow tired of possession and some called for flair and dribbling to be brought back to the team for the sake of results. To quash the uprisings, Barcelona changed the leader - a common practice to give a renewed sense of hope back to the people. It was a smart move too as Vilanova brought enthusiasm and motivation back to the team and the people who grew tired by hearing one message over and over. Vilanova preached the same message, yet he inspired the doubters that possession was still the best answer to football. Communist football had remained and had resurged under a fresh leader. To this day, Barcelona are as deeply entrenched in the philosophy of collective football as it has ever been. Until the next day arrives when people start to grow jealous of another more successful philosophy, Barcelona will remain a communist club.

Valeriy Lobanovskyi

Even more so than Barcelona, Soviet football in the 1970s and 1980s paralleled the political climate of the time. During a time of forced technological advances during the space race, Soviet football was also heading in the direction of the scientific and the methodical. One coach of this era epitomised and symbolised communist philosophy - the legendary Ukranian Valeriy Lobanovskyi. As a player, he was a dashing winger, full of trickery and invention but his is coaching would contradict his style as a player. As a coach he revolutionised how sports science and statistics were to be used to maximise the talents of the players.

In him was acted out the great struggle between individuality and system: the player in him wanted to dribble, to invent tricks and to embarrass his opponents, and yet, as he later admitted, his training at the Polytechnic Institute drove him to a systematic approach, to break down football into its component tasks. Football, he explained, eventually became for him a system of twenty-two elements - two sub-systems of eleven elements - moving within a defined area (the pitch) and subject to a series of restrictions (the laws of the game). If the two sub-systems were equal, the outcome would be a draw. If one were stronger, it would win.
                                                              Jonathan Wilson - Inverting the Pyramid

Lobanovskyi was fascinated that these sub-systems had the characteristic of being greater than the sum of the individuals. In other words, smaller but more numerous factions of players working together could outperform bigger but less numerous factions of players. When all of the factions were operating at optimal efficiency, the product (the team) would perform at maximum efficiency, and should theoretically win 100% of games. Communist Soviet Union had similar factions of communities organised into what were called kolkhoz or communes. These were communities of farmers who would work together to farm crops on a large scale and subsequently donate all that was grown to the state for redistribution.The theory was that communities working together would create economies of scale. An economic term, economies of scale basically states that as operations of production increase in scale, the cost per unit decreases due to the greater efficiency of producing a single unit. In other words, the larger the scale of operation, the less it costs to produce a single unit, which reduces costs overall. Subsequently, a business can produce more products at the same cost as before or even lower. For Lobanovskyi, the result of the economies of scale within his team would be - as he termed it - universality. The notion that defenders would attack, and attackers defend - to create eleven efficient players who all contribute equally no matter where they played on the pitch. Now opponents had to deal with eleven players to defend against, and eleven players stopping them from scoring. In Lobanovskyi's mind, this was much better than having only the defenders defending and the forwards attacking.

Arrigo Sacchi

Arrigo Sacchi's Milan was constructed with the same principles with Lobanovskyi's Dynamo Kiev, perhaps without going to the extremes that Lobanovskyi did. Sacchi was famous for his 'shadow play' training methods, a method which famously bemused spies from other teams in the league. Sacchi had engrained the concept of teamwork and of the collective in his players. For zonal marking to work, it needed every player to be working in unison. One player out of position would mean the delicate balance of the state of play would crumble. While this works in theory, reality is different. The reality for Sacchi was that he had two flamboyant Dutchmen in his team when he first took charge. Van Basten and Gullit were exceptional players, their talents surpassing those who sought to defend against them. The trouble was that they thrived on being given the trust to express themselves as individuals within the system. They showed creativity which could not be restricted by any sane coach. Sacchi was facing a dilemma - whether to allow the Dutchmen to play outside of his system, or to reign them in and force them to play within the confines of the system. Sacchi chose to do something else.

He brought in a third Dutchman - Frank Rijkaard - another flamboyent (less so than Van Basten or Gullit) player. Sacchi had chosen pragmatism and sacrificed his theoretical utopia of how football should be played. It was still a structured and collective orientated style of play, it just had a few restrictions lifted of the system. In essence, it can be said Sacchi was more of a socialist than a communist. He never reached the final version of his philosophy. Reality had rendered it redundant and it was simply impractical beyond the point of trying.

Jose Mourinho

Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho is the modern version of Sacchi's Milan. Mourinho is famous for his tactical organisation and attention to detail. He often talks about how the team needs to work as a unit in order to be successful. Samuel Eto'o is symbolic of his influence, playing on the wing instead of his preferred position as a striker in order to suit the team shape and tactics. At Madrid however, Mourinho had the most talented group of players he has ever coached, and subsequently encountered the same dilemma Sacchi faced two decades ago. Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil - these were the modern day equivalent of the Dutch trio - highly skilful players who needed the freedom to express their creativity. Upon his appointment, the main concern expressed by people and media was that Mourinho would have difficulty successfully integrating these special players into a working system. Mind you, the pressure to play in a stylish manner was there from the beginning and added further complexities to Mourinho's dilemma. Much like Sacchi, the practicality of the situation meant that Mourinho opted to allow the positional freedom to Ronaldo and others by putting in place 'compensation mechanisms' as Andre Villas-Boas put it. To give freedom to a part of a team means that you must take away freedom in other parts in order to compensate and balance. Otherwise, you end up with a team who will become too imbalanced - usually over balanced in the attacking phase. One such coach who exhibits traits for failing to strike the balance between allowing individuals freedom and organising an efficient collectivised system, is Zdenek Zeman.

Zdenek Zeman

Argentine coach Marcelo Bielsa has a nickname - El Loco - The Madman. It pretty much sums up his whole career as a coach - unique, intense, weird. You could literally replace Bielsa's name with Zeman's and El Loco would describe this gentlemen perfectly. Like Bielsa, Zeman has built up a reputation for his beliefs of the game, training methods and his quixotic philosophies. His teams play in a brilliant but flawed way: with wild abandon, highly attacking and forward thinking way which produces very attractive football. Imagine being in the middle of Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls festival - that is virtually how Roma play today. The logic is to play in a manner that is so intense, direct and fast, that no matter how many goals the opponents score, they will simply concede more. The problem with Zeman's love of attacking football is that it relies on the players to play, not the coach - but players are emotional. If you let the bulls run free, they will act irrationally and without reason. It's easier to set a bull free than to tame a cat. Sometimes the players will perform, but other times they will fail badly and the result is inconsistency - Roma this season have been inconsistent. They have scored 47 goals - the most goals in the league, one ahead of Juventus. However, they have also conceded 38 goals - joint third most conceded. Roma are currently in 7th position. These numbers sum up the predicament of Roma under Zeman this season.

Zeman really is a dreamer - always the same football, always the same defeats, and yet he never takes a step back.
                                                                       Massimo Mauro, former Juventus player

To be labelled as pragmatic and practical is insulting to Zeman. He would rather leave a memorable legacy, than a successful one. To play attacking football is like living with freedom and independence  To place restrictions would be to deny fulfilment of potential. Consistency is sacrificed for the sake of owning your talent. Games involving Roma resemble a free market economy, where a player has full ownership of their decisions, skills and decisions. They are not bound to playing under restrictions -  they can decide how to play without the state governing how to do so. Even though Zeman is a capitalist at heart, he is bounded by the rules of reality. Like Sacchi and Mourinho and even Guardiola, some form of governance must exist if only to avoid total chaos. In a similar way to many economies around the world, there is some form of state ownership involved - state capitalism. Only the essentials like healthcare, education, transport etc are owned and operated by the state. Zeman still coaches tactical concepts like a high press, positional play and ball possession, but does not govern every little concept in detail like Bielsa or Mourinho would. Only the essentials are imprinted in the players, but the individuality is still left quite open to expression.

Harry Redknaap

Mention Harry Redknaap and tactics in the same sentence and people would look at you in a funny way. Old Harry is known for being a dinosaur tactician when compared to modern coaches like Andre Villas-Boas, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup. On the flip-side  he is well known for being a fabulous man manager who has that ability to extract good performances from his players.

There are no long and boring speeches about tactics, like I was used to at Real Madrid. There is a clipboard in our dressing room, but Harry doesn't write anything on it. It's not that we do nothing - but it's close to that.
                                                                                                  Rafael van der Vaart

His coaching style relies on empowering and liberating his players - to give them encouragement to exploit their talents as they see fit. It is not so much a policy, it's more of a natural way of thinking. Perhaps being an Englishman who grew up during the Cold War made him suspicious of politics in Soviet Union, China and Soviet-led East Germany. Of course, England have always been allies with the United States and it is quite common to agree on most issues with your friends, and disagree with your enemies. Perhaps it's just that Redknaap believes in the individual making his own decisions, rather than it being dictated by someone else. Out of all the coaches in the current day, Redknaap is one of the most liberal and wild at heart.

Juanma Lillo

Juanma Lillo is one of the most theoretical coaches out there. A fanatical supporter of the phrase "there is no 'I' in team", Lillo is like Karl Marx in his insistence that every action on a field by a player is only caused by, and affects, other players around him.

‘If a player gets the ball in his own area, the opposition players all sit down on the turf and he runs the whole length of the pitch, dribbling round them and scores a goal…that’s still not an individual act because if they don’t sit down, he can’t do that. What the other guy does is what imposes upon you this decision or that one. People talk about ‘individual actions’, but there are not individual actions.’
                                                                                                        Juanma Lillo

This is an example of communist ideology taken to the extreme - the last team Lillo managed was Almeria which got relegated under his leadership. Lillo's last game in charge was an 8-0 drubbing by Guardiola's Barca. The irony is that, alongside Marcelo Bielsa, Lillo mentored and advised Guardiola when he was in charge of Barca B. Lillo is a symbol that theory alone will not be successful. Adaptation and realism play an important part in success.

Barcelona, Dynamo Kiev, AC Milan, Brazil, Netherlands, Roma and Real Madrid in some shape or form have all been at war - an often silent war - between two ideologies. Players, managers, directors, supporters and media have all been soldiers in this war, trying to win everyone over everyone else with their arguments and speeches. It is a symptom of a perfect game - one open to interpretation and argument. Just like the Cold War was a battle of ideologies, football is at at war with itself to determine which is the best way to play the game. Unlike the Cold War, an answer will never be found. The Cold War in football is an endless war.

Published with permission from Sportskeeda

1 comment:

  1. Soccer is communist sport.
    Soccer ain't about money, but recognition and love for the sport.
    Soccer players are the most handsome players.
    Soccer players could donate sums of money to poor people globally.
    The structure of playing soccer is not organized and heavily relies on teamwork.
    Soccer players respect everyone who respects them equally.
    Soccer players should get paid more than the worlds famous movie stars.
    Playing soccer is the best exercise for cardiovascular system.
    I love your article and it doesn't require word count. Thanks my favorite team is Barcelona and Real Madrid.