Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Testing times and unfriendly friendlies - Ringo37

It’s the standard-issue answer from your standard-issue sports professional as (with his standard-issue fat tie-knot and hairfudge-moulded mullet) he fronts up to the standard-issue post-match inquisition: “The result,” he’ll say, “is the main thing.”

Well, what if it wasn’t? What if the result wasn’t the main thing? What if the result wasn’t anything?

Modern football – hell, maybe football full-stop – is devout in its devotion to the result. “Ask any supporter,” we’re often told, “and they’ll take three points over a good performance any day of the week”. Your greatest sporting memory? “Reading in the paper that we’d stuffed the Mackems (or, as it might be, the Bluenoses, or the Skates, or whoever) 2-1.”

Perhaps this is because football is our most rabidly partisan sport. Results matter because Our Team matters. The team takes precedence over the sport. Which, in a sense, is fair enough. But, if this is the case, why not just replace the current four-division league system with a 28-week serial coin-toss? You get winners, losers, bragging rights, reasons to smash up train carriages etc, and for a fraction of the cost (2p, unless you wanted to insist on playing important games simultaneously in order to prevent one set of tossers – pardon me – having an unfair advantage).

I’m not trying to deride football; it just worries me that this result-obsessed culture can only have a bad influence on all our sports.

I’ve just switched off the radio after the close of play in Trinidad: the Windies scraped a draw in the final Test, and bagged the series 1-0. What a finish. I mean – what a finish.

But what I didn’t like about this series was the use of the umpiring referral system. Its failings have been pretty thoroughly picked over in the press over the last few days, but the specifics of the system don’t much interest me. What I’m interested in is the principle.

Borderline decisions – borderline wickets, borderline survivals – should be seen to be of borderline value. No bowler is going to recline in the clubhouse in the twilight of his career, thoughtfully swill his cognac in its balloon and murmur: “Remember that time Perkins was questionably given out to my speculative armball back in ’72?”. Results matter, and teams matter, but the game – the great achievements and great moments of the game – should surely be paramount. Cricket isn’t usually bad at this sort of thing. Record run-hauls on shirtfronts are given short shrift by the cognoscenti; eight-fers on sticky dogs likewise. Results are just another kind of statistic, and the statistic is brother to the damned lie.

The clincher is this: cricket, like rugby, has Tests – football has Meaningless Friendlies. Why are the Ashes so important? Because the Aussies are so damned good. Why, in contrast, is the Football World Cup important? Because we all want a big tin pot. If you win an important game in football you win a cup. Hooray. In cricket – give or take the odd token urn or sceptre – what you win, if you win, is a win; it’s about who you beat, and how you beat them, not about the bauble foisted on you by a blazered dignitary.

It used to be like that in football – think England-Scotland in ‘67, or England-Hungary in ‘53. Not any more.

This isn’t an aesthete’s call for football to be prettified, Wengerised, and turned into an easy-on-the-eye circus. Teams should play to win – I don’t mind if they have to be dour and defensive at times to do so. But players and managers should remember that football is more than just a way of deciding who ends up with the cup at the end of the season. Football as football, and not as an over-elaborate results generator, really matters.

So no more bloody football friendlies, I say. Let’s call them Tests. That’s what they ought to be, after all. Let’s remind the players that they’re professional sportsmen even when it isn’t a World Cup year. Let’s remind them that every minute of every game is a test of their skill, their strength, their bottle and – if I might offer a speculative explanation of the origin of the word ‘Test’ – their balls.

28 comments:

Ebren said...

Lovely piece.

I remember a Holland-Australia game before the 2006 World Cup. The Dutch were mightily unimpressed with the Australian's 'over-competitiveness' so soon before a major competition.

The response from the Australia camp was simple: "We don't really understand frendlies, we play Test matches in Australia."

Rooto said...

Interesting idea. I like the semantics of changing things by changing the name (or is that semiotics? It's a bit too Umberto Eco for me to be sure).
Alternatively we could call those international football matches "FA Executive Pension Fund Fillers", and see how they're played then.

andrewm said...

The result really is everything, though. I have very little time for any sports fan who thinks otherwise. You play to win, and you do everything and anything within the laws of the game to do so. There are no moral victories in sport.

offsideintahiti said...

There are meaningful friendlies and just friendlies. Of the former, my favourites are France playing any of England, Italy, Germany, Argentina, or Brazil. Of the latter, I struggle to remember them at all.

A few treasured friendly memories (don't trust me about dates):

Brazil vs France 2-2 (Maracanha 1977)

Italy vs France 2-2 (Naples 1979)

(Yeah, in those days, getting a draw away in places like that was a BIG result.)

England vs France 0-3 (Wembley 1999, the third one of Anelka's hat-trick WAS over the line)

Germany vs France 0-3 (somewhere in Germany 2001)


ps: I'll let pipita mention the last two encouters with Argentina, but I remember them vividly too.

ringo37 said...

Ebren: that's a fantastic quote - sums up how it should be, in my book.

Andrewm: so why not just watch matches on Ceefax? In fact, why choose football at all? - why not go for something less time-consuming?

I realise it's a subtle distinction: between winning because you want to win and winning because winning gets you points or cups or whatever.

One thing I stupidly failed to pick up on in the article was the distinction between club- and international-level sport. Perhaps values in club cricket and rugby aren't so admirable (I'm no expert).

Offside: much as I love the World Cup, I do think it's done a lot of damage in this regard. Wouldn't it be just as great if, instead, international football sides toured as they do in rugby and cricket? None of this statty obsession with groups and everyone-plays-everyone, just proper, serious, top-level football.

andrewm said...

ringo37, I don't think it makes any difference whether you go to the games or not, nor do I draw a distinction between football and other sports. I know cricket fans in particular like to talk about what's good for the game as a whole, but then I'm suspicious of the degree to which most cricket fans actually care about any aspect of their game.

Why choose football? I don't think many people actually choose a sport, or a team, despite what people say about glory-hunting fans.

Sport is about winning. If it doesn't hurt like hell when you lose, you're doing something wrong. In my experience, it's only journalists who say otherwise, whether they believe it or not.

bluedaddy said...

Good topic, and I really hope to be able to give it more time.

Sport is definitely NOT just about winning, about counting medals/trophies etc. Sport is about playing. As a child you run fast and feel the wind move over you. Then your friend runs too and you laugh and run faster. Or you throw a pebble into the sea. Or climb a tree as high as you can.

I think we do sport because we are compelled to, and because it is such fun. The trophies are baubles already - most sportspeople/teams etc DON'T win most of the time.

guitou said...

There is nothing like the thrill of loosing it's fascinating, once you get used to it winning become a frustration-I hate winning but of course I always support the opposition.

munni said...

sometimes, though, the result really is the only thing that matters, like when it's the knockout stages of the Champions League and your team takes eight bloody rounds of penalties to "win".

guitou said...

Yes Munni,
an italian thriller ,
I was supporting Roma and still happy to lose!

mimi said...

Good and thought-provoking piece Ringo. I'd never really wondered about why we play Tests in Cricket and Rugby, but Friendlies in football.

I can agree with points made by everyone here - and hi andrewm: any news on the kitten, now probably a man-eating panther? - but I think bluedad says mostly what I think.

Sport is definitely about more than winning. It's about personal joy in taking part and it's about admiring performance even if that's not in a winning cause. I rejoice when teams I care about win, but I can take pleasure in a match lost if the quality of the winners is to be admired. There are times when even deep in the passionate heart one says - the best side won and means it, despite the loss inflicted on one's own team.

The only time I can NEVER do this is when England beat Wales. Then all sense goes out of the window!!

andrewm said...

BD, most sportspeople don't win most of the time, but they aim to, and I hope it hurts them when they don't.

I've not explained myself very well and I appear to be swimming against the tide, so I'll leave it there.

mimi, he's doing very well, thanks for asking.

mimi said...

andrewm: I think you express yourself perfectly well - no need to think of explaining. I get what you're saying and your point about not consciously choosing a team or sport, but just HAVING to follow (if I understand you) is spot on. For instance, I never made a decision to support Liverpool - it somehow crept into my life.

And no-one ever suggested that I get passionate about cycling. Just happened when I started racing.

Glad to hear kitten is fine - you should visit Other Stuff and read a pome I wrote about killing. Zeph put a lovely pic of a "Small Black" on there.

In another way, I've never CHOSEN to support Wales in the Rugby - I just have to because it's what my family have always done and it's in my blood.

bluedaddy said...

Don't leave it there andrewm, as this is such an interesting topic.

I largely agree with you about the importance of wanting to win, and I apply this when I play at my lowly level. I get considerably more grumpy when I lose a game that might have been won, than I do when Chelsea do the same. I am often disappointed in myself that I manage to get irate about what is essentially a kickabout. But I have much more fun if everyone is trying to win. My opponents' and teammates' efforts and edge are what makes my own efforts and accomplishments in a game real and worthwhile.

If a competition has no competition it can become dull - Sampras on grass, Michael Schumacher at times, Ed Moses, Waugh's Aussies. When competition is at its keenest, the will to win of the competitors produces moments of magic that leave you feeling honoured to witness it, even as the identity of the winner becomes almost immaterial - Ali/Frazier, Coe/Ovett, Federer/Nadal, Italy/Brasil WC82, 2005 Ashes, Portugal/Holland WC 06 (only joking).

But after saying all that, I really believe that at its honest core, sport represents the best of humanity, an elemental and childlike joy in having a body and being alive. And so that's why I believe that winning is an afterthought and cups are baubles.

Zephirine said...

Ringo, I'm not sure about your argument here: the World Cup is a tin pot, but it also says the team that wins it is the best in the world. Cricket does sort of have friendlies (warm-up matches before a Test series), but otherwise, yes, all Test matches count, like a never-ending World Cup, where there's never a final and the top cricketing position in the world is decided by rankings over the last year or so's matches.

(I wouldn't know about rugby Test matches which are probably quite diferent)

I don't think cricket fans are less bothered about results - especially those of them who are obsessed by statistics. There is a bit of a tendency to excuse poor scores on the grounds that the batsman has a good elegant technique, but there are always people like me who point out that the point of the game is to score runs not look beautiful.

Is your objection really to the tyranny of leagues and tables in football? The game that has to be won because it will gain points (perhaps 'on aggregate' a phrase that always makes me think of laying garden paths) as part of a stratified competition, and where all that matters is whether or not it moves your team a step up the ladder? Are there perhaps just, erm, too many football matches played?

But surely there are still football fans who'll say "We lost but it was a great game"?

mimi said...

Zeph: football somehow is different. There are few occasions when I forgive my team for losing even if they've played well. I just get very cross that they've let me down.

In cricket it's very different. Particularly in Test cricket. But it's a different sort of participation. A football match lasts 90 mins plus maybe extra time and penalties. A Test match requires up to five days of involvement. So there are nuances to enjoy or feel angry about. There's much more generally to be getting worked up about.

offsideintahiti said...

That friendly at Old Trafford went really well. No hard feelings there at all.

Margin said...

As people have got across pretty well, clearly sport isn't all about the result. Millions of people don't turn up to venues around the world each week to find out a scoreline.

And as Danny Blanchflower put best... "Football is about glory, it is about doing things in style and with a flourish, about going out and beating the lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom."

But would a name change really make a difference now that the culture of the 'friendly' has set in to what used to be Exhibition matches?

mimi said...

Was that the Friendly, Offie, that Liverpool won rather emphatically?

Haven't heard Rooney's thoughts post match. Just lots of "I hate Liverpool" a few days beforehand.

Ah me, how the mighty, sometimes, fall.

greengrass said...

The footy World Cup is by no means devoid of friendlies - my favourite is the friendly nod that Zidane gave Maserati.

guitou said...

gg,
That was his version of Paul Anka's "Put your head on my shoulder"-

mimi said...

No matter what you might think about anything in football, I think we will all agree that it is absolutely right that Liverpool will not be forced to play on the Hillsborough anniversary.

Mac Millings said...

5-day cricket doesn't lend itself to friendlies, nor to World Cups. The latter could only come about after ODIs came along, and sure enough, we have a World Cup.

Touring was the only way to do it in the old days, anyway. At first, only England and Australia were any good, so each team had to go all the way to the other's country to get a decent game.

Test-standard sides came along so slowly, that the touring method remained standard, and does so to this day. It's simply how international cricket evolved.

International football had a lot of countries that got good at the game early, plus, it only takes 90 minutes, so you can have lots of games, between lots of teams, in one place, in a relatively short period.

Quick piece of shameless self-promotion. I am attempting to amuse here, in case anyone wants to take a look :)

mimi said...

Mac - you may be the most ultra of identities, but this link works no better than the one over there.

Mac Millings said...

The link should now work here.

mimi, over at other stuff, I have tried to answer your question.

MeltonMowbray said...

I like reading cricket stats, usually, though not always, in conjunction with accounts of past matches, particularly in the pre-war period. It's one of the pleasures of the game that there are so many different approaches to it.

Stats have had to take the place of watching cricket since my house is, as far as possible, Murdoch-free.

mimi said...

The link works, Mac, but I still just don't get the whole twitter/tweet thing. I guess I'm in the Kermode camp!

Mouth of the Mersey said...

An interesting piece.

Instinctively, the result is what counts and I hate pretty sport for the sake of it - there's art for that pleasure after all.

Sport to me is about context. I wasn't too bothered about Aston Villa 3 Everton 3 yesterday, because I'm not too bothered about finishing fifth or sixth nor the Europa League qualification. So the Villa equaliser wasn't so bad and it was great to see the team get some praise for playing good football (instead of just good defending, organisation and team spirit).

Fast-forward a week, and I'll be heartbroken if we concede an equaliser in the FA Cup semi-final - that's all about the result.

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