RABBIL SIKDAR argues that the sport is now a place for idealists
History in football has a point at which there was everything before and everything after, but that point is the prism through which football has been viewed.
That point was Euro 2008, when Spain slayed their demons to win a tournament for the first time in 42 years.
The high point for Spain would be two years later when they won the World Cup, but that was the beginning of when football would never be the same.
After that, it wasn’t just enough to win. Statistics for passing accuracy, possession, playing three in the middle and even reclaiming possession with high pressure became preached.
Football had entered some religious realm, occupied suddenly by adherents of a new faith in football.
Barcelona, the zealous priests of this artistic doctrine, would shower football with its beauty for years. And everyone followed suit.
Direct and counterattacking became synonymous with defensive and boring, the antithesis of brave, proactive football.
And the game, the beautiful game, was suddenly about that — something of an art.
The blood and thunder and rugged steel of the English game gave way to something more measured, calm and fought almost in the minds.
Spain revolutionised football and imbued it with some moral superiority.
Followers of their sect (I went from a zealous believer to agnostic) claimed that teams who played with the ball were better because the intent to win was there.
Blessing or curse? Football was dogged by a perception of a certain way being the right way. Others resisted.
As football slid into the extremes of beauty, Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid veered the other way, an ugly, defensive brand of football whipped up often to fight Pep Guardiola’s mesmerising Barcelona side.
Idealists were not simply advocates of tiki-taka though. If Guardiola was the pioneer of a particular style of play, then Jurgen Klopp was the creator of another. Intense, aggressive counter-attacking play, labelled gegenpressing.
If Barcelona left you awed, Borussia Dortmund would leave you exhilarated. Quick flowing passes, high pressure building from the top and always relentless and suffocating, flying forward like arrows. Dortmund were a joyous team to watch.
There are glimpses of that under Klopp at Liverpool.
It’s why Guardiola and Klopp are such prized managers.
They are the defenders of footballing philosophies, the architects of football meaning something beyond three points.
Guardiola finds the ultimate enjoyment in a triangular movement of passes and Klopp adores a team that swarms their opponents with speed and intensity.
It’s a far cry from when football was alarmingly physical, about giants dominating the middle of the park and playing swiftly on the break. It’s a far cry, most of all, from when football just lacked an identity.
Sometimes it has not always worked. If Guardiola is revered for his way, Arsene Wenger is maligned for his frustrating commitment to a similar style that has garnered only two major trophies in 10 years.
Other times, the feeling has been that attacking football has been criticised whereas defensive styles of play haven’t.
How much criticism, if any at all, do proponents of counterattacking football receive?
Either way, there’s an ideological war happening in a cash-soaked game. A way to play has become incredibly important for football clubs.
Whether that’s importing a Spanish style of play or adopting the German-inspired way, there’s a way to play.