The mechanization of the beautiful game

It was an inverse relationship like that of Dorian Gray with his portrait. For decades, Italy has played cold, defensive football that has unleashed the splendor of its own nation. The team is now among the easiest to look at. In addition to the obvious qualm – will Italy become a landfill? – I clung to such mercy in a shameful era for the game.

Euro 2020 is the first major tournament that hasn’t caught my attention since 1986, when I was four years old and there was no television at home. If it weren’t for the risk of burning your abdomen with a laugh, I’d say you worked too hard.

The real problem has been in gestation for the better part of a decade. He began with the cult of “pressing” (running to retrieve the ball). He continued with the NFL-style test of game attacks. Pep Guardiola once pressing Thierry Henry to leave the place in a sequence of passes. The fact that he had noticed a target was a poor mitigation.

Add levels of fitness astronauts to this micromanagement, and you have the mechanization of a game whose central point is anarchic expression. Divided into “sets”, “pitches” or “phases”, football at its best is as shapeless as a big city. The modern game has something of Canberra.

A proxy measure of change is the physical shape of the players. They were once Rolling Stone-thin, all the better to light one cents and spin sinuous passages. Now even the most mobile positions – full shoulders, midfielders, wings – have the narrow, gym-like look of a certain type of city trader in one night.

I especially welcome the Americanization of football: the data, the granular analysis, the consumer sympathy. The only concern I ask is the idea that athletics is intrinsically convincing. The place for this is athletics.

To say one good thing about the new game, it taught me patience for the idea that development is not an axiomatic progression. For the most part, they are what Canadian writer John Ralston Saul would call one of Voltaire’s “bastards”. I find LA more modern than Prague. I look with suspicion at the historical wash of what we are no longer destined to call the Dark Ages. That’s all I can do to keep my dinner in my stomach when some fool sells the lock as the way to a slower, more spirited life. They’re here, though, staring at the artisans of football as the new breed of spinning jennies gathers around them.

Younger readers will be diagnosed with an early medieval age here, and their nostalgia assists. Older people can tell me that sports trends are cyclical. There was a moral panic in tennis when Pete Sampras and other ballistic servants emerged for the first time. What followed him was a constellation of genius that is always with us.

The green shoots of a stylistic renaissance have been crossed in this tournament. There is the Stone of Spain, the youngest beginner of the competition. The Dutchman Frenkie de Jong is another who bears the old-school saying: he seems to run faster with the ball than without it.

In the end, though, I feel like his diaphanous promise will be brought to the heel. This is a sport that now gives the moment of the day to that most striking status of the soul: distance traveled.

One examiner once said of sparkling scholar Jeremy Wolfenden that he “wrote as if it were all beneath him; he wrote as if it were all a waste of his time.” From George Best to Ronaldinho, the nations big and small have had players with the same majestic languor. Italy, at best, have always welcomed Roberto Baggio, even if a ruined knee made him motionless.

The point is not that skill and ingenuity are gone. Given the speed of the game, players should be better than ever at controlling the ball and discovering opportunities. Only England has a couple of young masters.

It’s just that all of this style is embedded in a corset of defensive features, time-lapse patterns and – oh, vulgarity – running. At the club level, Kevin De Bruyne, perhaps the greatest talent left in the tournament, is a case in point. He sees him retrieve the ball, finds his wide station and whips a scudding cross, to infinity. It’s beautiful, but so is a blue gaiety in a cage.

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