One day while discussing with my coworkers how we view sports, one colleague narrowed the discussion down to one succinct catechism: is sport a fight or a dance? Ends or Means? Victory or Beauty?
Another colleague, who is one of the top fencers in America for his age group, refused to say Fight when I put the question to him, even though his sport is literally a fight. Of everyone I have asked this question, no one has chosen Fight. Maybe it is something about the Pacific Northwest culture I live in, but the desire to triumph over another seems to be considered a base, animal urge that must be resisted and pushed down. A coach like Antonio Conte, who is so obsessed with winning he has named his daughter Vittoria, would not be welcome here.
A friend of mine, who makes his living managing an academy team, posted an article on social media recently that caught my attention. It was a short blurb from Andrea Pirlo, a darling of those who value the Dance over the Fight; he remarked the game in America was so focused on the physical aspects of the game that tactics and technique fell by the wayside. I thought the timing was interesting as, only the day before, Pirlo and NYC FC had just been on the receiving end of a 7-0 bare bottom spanking from arch-rivals NY Red Bulls. Seven goals to none. SEVEN goals to none. I checked the comments on the thread of this article looking to see who was going to be the smart ass that pointed this out, but, to my surprise, I only found comments from other coaches saying, “So much this!”
It felt as though Jose Mourinho’s dig at Arsenal at the Chelsea end-of-season awards dinner had become reality: “There is one team that would like to play without goals. That team plays really well, the quality of the ball possession is really beautiful but no goals. They asked the international board of Fifa to play like this but were told it was not possible, that the bigger possession of the ball does not win matches.”
Another relevant joke that blurred reality was a Canadian parody news show that produced a segment on a youth soccer association that had removed the ball from all games “to address some of the negative effects of competition” and for children to enjoy the game more by using their imaginations. The article was picked up by genuine news outlets and reported earnestly. That this could be taken seriously is a testament to the strength of the cult of the Dance in North America (and the vitriolic reaction of the cult of Fight).
This phenomenon isn’t limited to North America either. Jonathan Wilson recently wrote how Germany’s coaching revolution has created a situation where the national team is overflowing with creative attacking midfielders but cannot seem to field any hard-nosed fullbacks or battling strikers. Amy Lawrence, Philippe Auclaire, and Rafael Honigstein all commented on Football Weekly how an over-focus on technical skills has removed the Fight from many European national teams. Even Arsene Wenger, the totem of soccer as Dance, has recognized this, declaring that the world’s truly elite strikers currently hail from South America where they benefit from a “fighting attitude” that would have been drilled out of them in Europe in favor of developing individual skill.
Martin Luther once compared humanity to a drunk peasant who, after falling off his horse from the right, gets back on the horse, leans too far left, and falls again. As the saying in Germany goes, it is possible to fall off the horse both ways. If one can answer that he would rather lose 7-0 playing beautiful, technically proficient soccer than win 1-0 playing objectively awful soccer, then he has fallen off the horse and can therefore be unquestionably labeled a drunk peasant.
Note: if you didn’t click on the Andrea Pirlo link and see the fantastic art by David Diehl, you definitely should click here and check it out.