I find myself mesmerized in front of the television, watching what is the most fascinatingly boring sporting event I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the FIFA Confederations Cup, in which eight international football (soccer) teams compete in six different stadiums for first-place prize money of about $4 million U.S. What was originally started in Saudi Arabia as the King Fahd Cup, the Confederations Cup is now held every four years and is contested between a host nation— determined as the nation that will host the upcoming World Cup—(in this case, Brazil), reining World Cup champion (in this case, Spain) and six continental champions.
Words: John Madruga
Illustrations: Matthew Burton
As a kind of World Cup precursor, the Confederations Cup is indeed a respected and widely watched tournament, with some of the best teams and players in the world there to compete. Most of the time that would mean the margin of difference separating teams’ ability would be relatively small, as just about every squad would have the ability to assemble a roster of players with solid international experience—guys that have played football at the highest level for many years. In this select world of select athletes, everyone pretty much knows who the stars are, who the role players are, and who will be relegated to watching much of the game from the sideline team bench. It would also seem this would enable coaches to then strategize a game plan to account for what they may be facing from opponents on a game-to-game basis— say, flashy, speedy striker play, a slow, plodding and calculated offensive style or a tough back wall of defense—but this is clearly not the case in the game I’m tuned-in to. Within just a few minutes of watching Spain vs. Uruguay—a game that ends up looking like a seemingly close match on the scoreboard as Spain wins 2-1— it is not only clear that there is a large margin of difference between teams, at times that margin is monumental and multi-dimensional when Spain’s national team is on the pitch.
According to the FIFA world team rankings as of June, 2013, Uruguay is listed as the 19th top team in the world. As for their recent resumé, they placed 4th in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, won the 2011 Copa América and have a world-class front line of Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
Commentators speaking before the game anticipate a good match, mostly because Suárez has the ability to singlehandedly take over a game with his offensive shrewdness, but he, as one announcer puts it, “is as volatile as he his talented,” a point made clear by the fact that having Suárez in the day’s game is in itself somewhat of a surprise given his recent 10-match suspension for biting the arm of defender Branislav Ivanovic during an April 21, 2013, Premier League match between Chelsea and Suárez’s Liverpool team. In the highly reactionary world of international soccer, where out-of-control fervor and national pride demonstrated in the crowd can sometimes be mirrored by outrageous behavior on the pitch, the Suárez incident generates much press in the UK. Even Prime Minister David Cameron was compelled to comment, using the biting incident as a political/ personal opportunity to make a statement about the responsibility professional athletes have to the public to compete with character: “I have a seven-year-old son who loves football, loves watching football and when players behave like this, it sets the most appalling example to young people in our country.” Other comments by those more directly involved in the sport—former players and analysts—also made the point of being appalled by Suárez’s actions, but then took their commentary one step further to speculate on just what may have motivated Suárez in the first place. “Luis Suárez obviously has a big problem,” stated Jamie Redknapp, a former captain for Liverpool. “He has that madness gene in him. What he did was indefensible.” Football analyst Alan Hansen took much same tact, saying, “Why he did it, you’ll never know, but there appears to be a massive flaw in his character.” The fact is that Suárez has done this before, taking a bite out of Otman Bakkal during a 2010 match between Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. Upon seeing video of Suárez’s latest incident against Ivanovic, Bakkal had this to say: “It’s something you can never imagine happening on a pitch. It happened once already. At first I thought maybe it was an accident, but apparently he loses it sometimes. I don’t know what to say. I thought he meant it when he said sorry. I think he wants to win so badly that he loses his mind sometimes but afterwards he comes to his senses.”
Appalling. Shocking. Disgraceful. In the world of pro athlete indiscretions, is the Suárez on-the-field biting incident really all that horrible? Obviously it’s totally out of the realm of normal player behavior, has no place in the sport and should be punished, but it’s significance has also been magnified many times over since Suárez himself is a polarizing figure, a brilliant player on the field but also a guy with a rather long history of on- and off-the-field indiscretions, and this fact may of made it easier for the media to demonize the man and his actions. But what about the fact that there are no doubt thousands of examples of fan incidents that would far outweigh what Suárez has done on the pitch? No one mentions that. For some reason we hold athletes to a very different standard of behavior than those who watch from the stands and battle one another in ways that are far more sinister and bloody than a single bite on the arm. Also, by way of further example, here in the U.S., while the Confederations Cup is being played out, setting up the much anticipated final of Spain vs. Brazil, reports of not one but two active American pro football (NFL) players being charged with murder is headline news on every newspaper front page and television broadcast in the nation. The point is that the incidents where lives are lost or ruined are the real shocking, disgraceful and appalling stories surrounding sports and athletes, and they make the Suárez biting thing, while unfortunate and uncalled-for, pretty harmless in the larger context of what can happen in and around a particular sport. At the heart of the Suárez matter is that it represents the fiery, emotional and unpredictable nature of Suárez himself. And, as the leader of the Uruguay national team, it is this particular character and energy that pretty much defines the entire team and their style of play that mixes eruptive flashes of brilliance with moments of foolishness, and fans have to be willing to accept both extremes in order to accept the team as a whole.
Directly opposed to the up-and-down Uruguayan character/energy on the pitch is the stoic, single-minded nature of the Spanish team, which adheres a style of football that emphasizes control, calculated attack, spacing, rhythm and flow. At the 8:06 mark of the first half of Spain vs. Uruguay a statistic appears on the television screen to inform viewers that Spain has maintained the ball for 92% of the game. With precise passing, taking the ball both forward and backward, into the middle and along the sidelines, Spain paints the pitch in myriad lines of ball movement and Uruguay has no answer. Additionally, once Uruguay does gain occasional possession of the ball, Spain quickly and easily takes it back, and then goes back to its methodical style of play. Most passes are on the ground and quick and pinpointed, one-touch player-to-player examples of accuracy that assures Spain the ability to dictate the action. But the Spaniards are just as effective in the air, going over the heads of the Uruguayan players to send a pass to the foot of a waiting player across or up field, still controlling the pace of play but this time through a masterful sense of ball trajectory and distance. The effect of Spain’s style is interesting because it seems to tire their opponent not so much physically but emotionally, kind of hypnotizing Uruguay into a state of hopelessness, a feeling of despair that they may never get to fully compete in the game they are playing. At halftime, another statistic is presented on the screen, and this one is the most deflating for Uruguay so far: Number of completed passes for each team in the first half: Spain: 108, Uruguay: 9. Complete domination for the Spaniards.
There is little doubt that Spain has the finest collection of talent of any football team on the planet, and so they posses the physical skill to control play in a way that other teams simply cannot match. But having the capacity to play possession football isn’t the important thing, it’s the fact that Spain’s coach, Vincente del Bosque, has made the clear choice that this will absolutely be the style of play for his team, and this philosophy is so universally accepted that every player on the team seems to merge into one greater, like-minded force on the field. As del Bosque has said, “The key to our style of play is that every player feels a bit like a defender, a bit like a midfielder and a bit like a forward. This richness is difficult for our opponents to cope with.” Within that style, control is the guiding force of the Spanish method and it sets up all other elements of their game. But its not simply control of the ball that matters most, it is how that control is managed within a certain amount of spacing between players, with a certain pace of ball movement, and with a certain awareness of knowing when to attack, that makes the Spanish style so remarkable to watch. There is such a consistent flow and intelligence to the almost robotic nature of Spain’s style that it seems as if the team is seeing the game from above the stadium, from some kind of aerial vantage point, allowing them to measure the distances between every player on the pitch and calculate the correct angle and timing for when and where to play the next ball. And this all happens with a sense of knowing what the next four or five passes ahead of where the ball actually is at any given point will be, so that Spain always seems to be playing with a kind of dual awareness of what is happing in the present moment and knowing what will be taking place in the immediate future. It typically works something like this. After a series of precise, short passes, gaps begin to grow in the Uruguayan defense as they watch the ball dart from Spanish player to Spanish player in Pachinko-like fashion. With the field of play slightly opened up, either a long ball or a ball that reverses the field of play is eventually sent to a Spanish striker making a run toward the goal. What started off looking like more of the same measured flow and controlled tempo from Spain becomes, in an instant, a flash of speed or a change in direction and an excellent scoring opportunity. Uruguay, having already been lulled to sleep and somewhat demoralized by Spain’s domination from the opening kick-off, simply cannot respond quickly enough to the shift, as they seem to be perpetually behind—physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s Spain’s ability to control virtually every element of the game that allows their strategy to unfold the way they want it to: setting the pace of the action … leads to breaking down Uruguay’s defense … which leads to calculated, measured attacks … which leads to scoring … which leads to victory. It’s all very well planned and somewhat cold-blooded, as Spain slowly dismantles Uruguay point by point, with surgical-like precision.
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A few weeks after the Spain vs. Uruguay match my attention shifts from the Confederations Cup to the Tour de France. Now words like control, pace, rhythm, spacing, flow, and attack, which seemed to describe the Spanish football team so well, are now equally appropriate in the context of cycling’s greatest Grand Tour. As of this writing, 10 stages have been completed, and so just over half the race has been revealed. We’ve already seen several different riders in yellow and some familiar faces taking stages, as Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan and Chris Froome have all made it to the podium, but what remains to be seen is how teams like Sky, BMC, Movistar and Saxo-Tinkoff will work for their leaders in the critical stages to come, how they will seek to control the race, establish the right pace (not just within a stage but throughout the remaining days of racing) and smartly attack. The contrast between stages 8 and 9 has been the most significant glimpse into teams vying for control of the Tour so far, as Sky dominated stage 8 with a superhuman effort lead by Richie Porte to pace Froome into his attack on Ax 3 Domaines and into the maillot jaune. At the end of the day, an invigorated and confident Froome stood 51 seconds ahead of Porte in second place on the GC, 1:25 ahead of Valverde and 1:51 of Contador, and had this to say: ‘‘More than anything today we’ve got a bit of a psychological advantage over the others.’’ But that confidence and psychological advantage was seriously tested in stage 9 by multiple teams, but mostly by Movistar’s largely Spanish contingent of riders who had their own strategy to make Froome suffer and dismantle Sky’s control. Like the relentless, unforgiving and single-minded style of the Spanish national football team, the question remains how well Froome will resist the persistent pressure of the Spanish climbers within Movistar (as well as other teams) as the race moves toward their favorite terrain: Mt. Ventoux (stage 15), Alpe d’ Huez (stage 18), Col de la Madeleine (stage 19) and Annecy-Semnoz (stage 20).
Will Contador return to old form and use his signature rapid-fire attacking style to weaken his rivals? What about Alejandro Valverde or Joaquim Rodriguez? Will these Spanish riders be able to measure their effort in such a way that will allow them to find the podium? Or will Froome be able to resist the inevitable Spanish onslaught in the mountains and go on to win this year’s 100th edition of the Tour? Whatever the answers to these questions turn out to be (and they will all have long been answered by the time this is printed), it will be interesting to replay the entire race and see just how the winning team established it’s own level of control, found the right pace, looked for gaps and attacked in the right way and at the right time. Attacking the toughest climbs and hammering the time trials is only made possible by the level of comfort, pace and control that an entire team is able to establish throughout the entire 21 days of racing. At times, especially during the early-Tour long, flat, hot stages where the peloton travels for hours without much seeming to happen, the ride to Paris is not always beautiful but it’s here the groundwork will be laid by one team to determine one winner. Given the enormity of the challenge, a team essentially wins the Tour de France, but within the team it’s the rider—recalling Spanish football coach Vincente del Bosque’s words—that “feels a bit like a defender, a bit like a midfielder and a bit like a forward” that has the best chance of wearing yellow in Paris. A focused, single-minded and well-planned team makes that possible.