How We Play the Game

How We Play the Game

Every team plays in distinct ways. To understand their style, one must learn a bit about each country’s history.


Produced by Andrew Das, Alicia DeSantis, and Josh Keller
June 15, 2014

Every team is simply trying to score goals while preventing its opponent from doing the same. But they all seem to go about it in distinct ways, don’t they? To understand what is happening on the fields in Brazil at the World Cup, one must learn a bit about each country’s history, and literature, and music, and regionalism, and economy – not to mention bicycles and pottery. If you look closely enough at the X’s and O’s, you just might find a national poem.

Pelé in a match at the 1966 World Cup in England.

The Beautiful Game
Lives Here


In Brazil, soccer was initially played among elite clubs behind closed doors. Blacks were excluded. Outside the confines of formal championships, however, the sport was quickly taken up as a game played in abandoned lots, meadows and urban gaps. Balls were improvised, fields were improvised, and the game was fertile ground for the spirit of improvisation.

No other activity brought over from Europe took root so widely and so immediately. This resulted in an imaginative style of play that made competition and gratifying playfulness inseparable, with blacks and people of mixed race rising from exclusion and becoming its main protagonists.

Outside the confines of formal championships, the sport was quickly taken up as a game played in abandoned lots, meadows and urban gaps.

This style of play took over the championships and official clubs in the 1930s and gained international recognition for the first time during the 1938 World Cup. At the time, the sociologist Gilberto Freyre believed soccer confirmed his own thesis, explored in two classic tomes on Brazilian culture, “The Masters and the Slaves” and “The Mansions and the Shanties.”

Brazilian soccer style transformed the “British and Apollonian” game into “Dionysian dance”; straight and angular European soccer became sinuous and curving as it took on the body movements of samba dancers and the martial art dancers and fighters of Brazilian capoeira. Freyre saw in it an affirmation of a tropical and mestizo culture that would enable it to reverse the stigmas of a heritage of slavery.

Whether these ideas were conscious or not, the style prevailed throughout the triumphs in the 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cups, when Brazilian soccer became renowned. It brought together competitive efficiency with inventive and beautiful moves. Pelé and Garrincha soared during the golden phase of soccer’s high modern form.

To the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Brazilian style was “poetic soccer” based on dribbling and a nonlinear opening of unforeseen spaces, as opposed to the linearly responsible “prose soccer” prevalent in Europe.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm noted that, at that point, mass culture worldwide was becoming North American or provincial, with the exception of the Brazilian national team. And it is only fair to add that the same thing could be said of bossa nova, Tom Jobim and João Gilberto (as well as the Beatles, of course).

Let us say that at least at its foundations, Brazilian soccer did not obey Anglo-Saxon pragmatism nor any form of Cartesianism. Instead, it took advantage of a margin of relatively gratuitous unproductivity allowed in soccer, the least numerical of all ball games, to open the way for a culture of the periphery — a culture that is elliptical and festive and in which “carnaval” is a verb.

Brazil’s last goal in the World Cup final, one of the most famous in the tournament’s history, showcased the Seleção at its fluid best. Andrew Das
2. Jairzinho drives at the Italy captain, Giacinto Facchetti, and feeds Pelé, who coolly rolls the ball into the path of the onrushing Carlos Alberto. He hammers it over Enrico Albertosi to cap Brazil’s victory. Final score: Brazil 4, Italy 1.
1. The nine-pass move is just a series of short exchanges until Roberto Rivelino’s sharp pass to Jairzinho suddenly makes it dangerous.

This phenomenon, this wide recognition, has also always been seen as a factor of political alienation, perpetuating backwardness, and the failure to tackle the real problems of an unequal society. Soccer is seen ambivalently in Brazil both as a model of possible achievements, since the nation succeeded with its own winning style of play, and as an emblem for all that the country fails to accomplish in education, health, distribution of wealth and political transparency.

We could say soccer achieves in the playing field a racial democracy that Brazilian society does not. It showcases the proliferation of talent as well as the inability, the irresponsibility and the narrowness of the private interests that manage them.

Over the past few decades world soccer has become more athletic, more in demand, more planned, collective and mercantile. The old “poetic soccer” lost much of its leeway, although it has not ceased to exist, nor, more important, has it ceased to be an object of desire in Brazil.

José Miguel Wisnik is a Brazilian musician, composer and essayist who writes frequently about soccer. He is the author of “Poison Remedy,” a book about soccer in Brazilian society.

Bobby Charlton scoring against Portugal during a World Cup semifinal in 1966. England won the match, 2-1.

A Soccer Empire,
Deeply Confused

England By David Winner

The playing style of England’s soccer team is reminiscent of the joke in which Past, Present and Future walk into a pub together: It’s tense.

It’s also deeply confused. As a former England captain put it to me recently: “We’re all over the place. What is the English football philosophy these days? We have no idea what our system should be.”

Other nations have developed coherent modern soccer identities. But the game’s mother country is stranded between then and now. What next?

Other nations have developed coherent modern soccer identities. But the game’s mother country is stranded between then and now.

At this World Cup, England Coach Roy Hodgson could follow most of his predecessors and deploy the traditional, failed bulldog, blood-and-thunder approach in a creaky old 4-4-2 formation. Alternatively, he might try to exploit the talent of a new generation of young players who have grown up in the innovative, foreigner-dominated Premier League.

Fiercely competitive, money-driven club soccer in England has changed in ways the history-burdened national team has yet to match. Bright, quick, technical young things like Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge or Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere are now as well educated to play the modern game as their peers in Spain or Germany.

But will they be allowed to do that for England?

Reflecting the uncertainty of a country in which the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party won elections to the European Parliament recently, no one has a clue. To understand why, we must look to history.

Soccer has long been a bastion of a peculiarly 19th-century conception of Englishness the nation seems reluctant to relinquish. The game was born during the era of empire when the country’s elite public schools adapted earlier forms of violent folk football for the purpose of education.

Typical rustic folk games involved hundreds of drunken men from rival villages rampaging through streets and fields, trying to drive, say, a casket of beer (the proto-ball) into the crypt of a church (the proto-goal). The schools distilled such testosterone-fuelled rituals into new formats involving smaller teams, sober boys and sodden leather balls.
Codified by the Football Association and later disseminated to the world, this style of soccer was never the so-called beautiful game; the original purpose of educators was to instill manly and martial virtues into future imperial soldiers and administrators.

Bobby Charlton’s long strike against Mexico in 1966 — one of the best-loved goals by one of England’s best-loved players — is not nearly as famous as Geoff Hurst’s World Cup winner two weeks later, but in its directness and its power, it may be symbolic of a nation at the peak of its soccer might. Andrew Das
2. When Mexico’s captain, Gustavo Peña, continues to backpedal, Charlton cuts to his right, looks up and fires.
3. The shot, struck with force from about 30 yards, gives Mexico goalkeeper Antonio Carbajal no chance. Final score: England 2, Mexico 0.
1. The entire play springs from nothing: a deflection, a quick layoff and a long run up the center by Bobby Charlton, who covers more than half the field in seconds.

The British Empire vanished long ago, but its legacy lingers, not least in the grass roots of English soccer where team spirit, courage and a willingness to endure pain still count for more than skill, intelligence or creativity. The archetypal English hero remains the lionhearted cartoon character Roy Race, better known as Roy of the Rovers: a warriorlike center forward who specialized in “bullet headers” and “cannonball” shots.

Even now, English TV and radio commentators talk of the season as a “campaign” and of strikers “leading the charge” as if soccer were a Victorian-era war game.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, soccer changed profoundly, and skill, intelligence and creativity came to be recognized as prerequisites for success. From the 1950s onward, encounters with soccer geniuses from other lands left the game’s onetime English masters looking like charging bulls bewildered by the movements of a cape.

Just as adapting to their diminished, post-imperial status in international affairs has been a struggle, so the English are taking a long time to abandon the fantasy that, having invented the game, they should still expect to win the World Cup.

The truth — as everyone elsewhere noticed long ago — is that the nation has only once gone further than the quarterfinals of a major tournament played abroad (it reached the semifinals in Italy in 1990).

English soccer confusion, delusion and cloying nostalgia have become tedious. The time for the national team to adopt a bit of modesty and modernity — and to move to embrace change — is long overdue.

David Winner is the author of “Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Soccer” and “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer.”

Fabio Cannavaro, left, battling with France’s Zinedine Zidane in the final of the 2006 World Cup, in Germany. (Associated Press/Michael Probst)

Never Boring,
Always Beautiful


Some people party too soon. I was in Brazil in spring 2006, and Brazil was in a festive mood. The World Cup in Germany was on the way, and Brazilians, rightly convinced they had the best team, were already celebrating their triumph. At one public event, I said: “Just calm down, please. Italy is going to win this one.” The audience chortled, saying: “Come on. Italian soccer is in the midst of its biggest scandal ever. Two championship titles have been revoked. The players are in shock, and the clubs are in disgrace!” That’s why, I said.

Italy’s best performances have come in the wake of defeat, disaster and scandal.

All right, I was lucky. But there was method to my prediction. When the Azzurri are on edge and feel they have something to prove, they deliver. When they ease off, they’re useless. Italy’s worst performances in the World Cup have been preceded by great expectations: Germany in 1974, after reaching the final in Mexico; Mexico in 1986, after winning in Spain; South Korea and Japan in 2002, after doing well in Europe; and in South Africa 2010, after arriving as champions. Italy’s best performances have come in the wake of defeat, disaster and scandal.

That’s why things are looking good for Brazil 2014. Italian soccer has been faring badly in Europe, and clubs seem to be in thrall to hooliganism and bad debts. The soft-spoken coach Cesare Prandelli had to swallow his pride when he called up Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini, who was ejected for a nasty foul against Roma. Soccer purists are furious, Prandelli is annoyed, and the Italian sports authorities are embarrassed. So far, so good.

Italy is famous for making the best of bad situations, and its third goal in the final against West Germany was a great example of that. Andrew Das
1. After a drive by Horst Hrubesch of West Germany, Hans-Peter Briegel takes a fall. Claudio Gentile picks up the ball deep in his end.
Horst Hrubesch
3. Alessandro Altobelli takes Conti’s pass near the penalty spot, nudges it to his left and slots it past goalkeeper Harald Schumacher. Final score: Italy 3, West Germany 1.
2. While Briegel appeals for a penalty, Gentile feeds Bruno Conti, and the Italians are gone.

In soccer as in life, we Italians tend to do best when our backs are against the wall. For most people, that is not a particularly comfortable position. But we seem to enjoy it. In economics, politics and ordinary life, Italy needs to be smarting, and maybe a little scared, to get cranked up. In the past three and half years, we have produced four prime ministers — the latest an inexperienced 39-year-old — and lashings of economic angst. Glance at the British and the American news over this period, and you’re going to find plenty of “Euro Crisis!” and “Italy on the Brink!” headlines.

But we like brinks. The view is fantastic.

I was in Colorado for the Aspen Ideas Festival in June 2012. The euro crisis was at its peak, European Union heads of government were gathering for an emergency summit in Brussels, and that night, Italy was playing Germany in the European Championship. I was on a panel that was not so much a discussion as a funeral for the euro. When it was my turn to speak, I said: “Germany will find a way to sort out the euro crisis, and Italy will find a way to sort out the Germans in the beautiful game. We both have too much at stake.” Once again, I was right.

I’m no prophet. I just know my country well. Being Italian is a full-time job because we never forget who we are — in life or on the field — and we like to befuddle our opponents. The Italian style of soccer is elegant, seductive and unpredictable. Germany, England and the Netherlands may have a more macho, run-till-you-drop approach, but Italy is a signora, a lady who entices and strikes when you get too close. Catenaccio — the lock and chain — is an obviously defensive sexual metaphor while a contropiede — the sudden counterattack — is inevitable when the lady decides she has had enough of your clumsy approaches.

Italians adore appearances, and sometimes we put aesthetics before ethics, which can be a problem. La bella figura — making a good impression — is a crucial concept to grasp if you want to get a handle on Italy. “La Grande Bellezza” — the Great Beauty — just won the Oscar for best foreign movie, and beauty is what we like to display on the field. Like a lot of other teams, admittedly. But for Germany, beauty is organization. For England, it is dedication and work rate. For Brazil, beauty is a dance. But for us and for Argentina — Italy squared, if you look at their names and faces! — beauty is breathtaking speed.

The American team will try hard and do reasonably well, as always. Italy could be a finalist or leave Brazil in disgrace. Rest assured the Azzurri will surprise or disappoint everyone. They’ll argue — with the press, the fans and one another — until the opening match against England on June 14 in Manaus. Predictable is boring; unexpected is amazing. The signora wouldn’t want it any other way.

Beppe Severgnini is a columnist at Corriere della Sera and the author of “La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.”

Franz Beckenbauer scoring in a match against Switzerland in 1966. West Germany won, 5-0. (AP Photo)

For Germany,
It’s Whatever Works


This is the pervasive notion: The Germans have a workmanlike, clinical and effective style of play, as well as a fighting spirit (called Kampfgeist) and a team orientation. All of that always trumps individual style of play. What you see on the field is analogous to the economic prowess of Modell Deutschland, the system that made the country the world’s leading exporter.

But if there is one thing that my lifelong engagement with Germany has shown me, it is that the country has no meaningful national characteristics. The notion of a workmanlike character is merely a stereotype; it is not a proper explanation for the national culture or a team’s style of play.

If there is one thing that my lifelong engagement with Germany has shown me, it is that the country has no meaningful national characteristics.

To best understand Germany’s national soccer team, look to its structure and its origins. The team has been called workmanlike since playing the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s, and, later, Hungary’s famous national team known as the Magnificent Magyars. The underdog Germans had no stars — very workmanlike of them —but still managed to defeat the Hungarian squad in the Miracle of Bern in 1954, Germany’s first World Cup win.

You could point to that game as the founding of the modern Federal Republic of Germany, the solid but decidedly unsexy entity that produced the German Economic Miracle and turned into a quiet economic giant and a political dwarf. The 1954 team’s victory became part of the country’s self-image of unflashy reliability that was so welcomed domestically and internationally after National Socialism’s incandescent horrors.

West Germany opened its 1966 World Cup with a decisive victory against Switzerland. The third goal, one of two by Franz Beckenbauer in the game, was a model of panache. Andrew Das
2. Haller rolls the ball to Beckenbauer, who completes a lightning-quick give-and-go with Uwe Seeler — beating three defenders and the goalkeeper — to announce his debut on the World Cup stage. Final score: West Germany 5, Switzerland 0.
1. The play begins with a long ball from right back Horst-Dieter Höttges to Helmut Haller.

The team’s playing style had much to do with its manager, the renowned Sepp Herberger, who coached the team from 1936 until 1964 and was known as Chef. Chef was a Yogi-Berra-esque character who had no patience for stars.

But in 1966, the German team had an emergent star: Franz Beckenbauer, soon to be called Kaiser. He was joined by a group of other standouts like Wolfgang Overath, Gerd Müller and Günter Netzer who led the national team to the European championship in 1972 and the world championship two years later. German soccer was all flair and panache with little of the reliable plodding of the past.

After the Kaiser, German’s national squad featured players like Jurgen Klinsmann who were superb but did not have the Kaiser’s flair. Again, the team was described as clinical, effective and, yes, workmanlike.

Forty years later, when Klinsmann coached the German team, his squad played some of the most attractive offense of any team anywhere. The same could be said four years later in South Africa, but many attributed the panache of that team to players like Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira — in other words, players who some said were Germans by passport but not by culture.

Ozil has often said his skills combine Turkish flair and German perseverance, thus making it clear that even the players see global soccer through a cultural lens.

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture.”

Johan Cruyff being fouled by a West German player during the World Cup Final in 1974. West Germany won the match, 2-1. (Allsport UK/Allsport)

Still Defined by Cruyff’s Eccentric Genius


“Football is an art form. The Dutch School is a collective term for Dutch artist.” These words, found on the official website of the Dutch coaches association, illustrate the significance of Dutch soccer in the world. Pictures of coaches such as Guus Hiddink, Frank de Boer and Ronald Koeman gaze out at visitors to the website, which without the slightest hint of irony proclaims, “Our coaches are modern-day Rembrandts.”

An impressive statement. But what does it mean to be a modern-day Rembrandt? And why not a contemporary van Gogh? A Piet Mondrian? A Pieter Jansz Saenredam? Or simply a modern-day Johan Cruyff?

The Dutch tend to divide their soccer history into two periods: B.C., before Johan Cruyff, and the period after.

The Dutch tend to divide their soccer history into two periods — before and after Cruyff. B.C. (Before Cruyff), it was plain, ordinary, pragmatic soccer we played. With the birth of the great Cruyff came Total Football: an exciting game, focused on attacking, with all players capable of changing positions and a keen eye for the open space in the playing field.
It was Rinus Michels, the coach of Ajax and of the Dutch team at the 1974 World Cup, who was the inspiring architect of the Total Football concept. But it was Cruyff who took the concept to a different level. The Dutch team’s game consisted of well-organized chaos. Cruyff, at the epicenter, arranged the play while checking from above that it all went well. To put it biblically, on the field he was God and Jesus blended into one player.

Cruyff gave the game an aura of the avant-garde at a time when Dutch society was undergoing significant changes. Cruyff, a cheeky young man from a working-class neighborhood, played for Ajax Amsterdam in the city of the antiauthoritarian Provo movement. He went against the establishment and never stopped trying to turn things around in his favor. If he was largely motivated by money, he was still a revolutionary person, a Dutch John Lennon.

Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands managed to put the ball in the net in the 1974 World Cup final before a West Germany player put a foot to it. Andrew Das
1. With the ball played deep to defender Wim Rijsbergen, Johan Cruyff comes back to collect it.
2. The ball is quickly cycled ahead and then back to Cruyff in the center circle. When he receives it, Cruyff is the player farthest from the goal.
3. Cruyff drives forward alone, beating Berti Vogts before being tripped by Uli Hoeness. The referee Jack Taylor awards a penalty, and Johan Neeskens blasts the penalty kick past Sepp Maier. The entire sequence takes 55 seconds. Final score: West Germany 2, the Netherlands 1.

His mantra was to make the playing field big when you had the ball and make it small when the opponent had it. The British author David Winner, in his book “Brilliant Orange,” compared Cruyff to Saenredam, the 17th-century Dutch painter who was famous for manipulating space on the canvas.

Cruyff convinced the nation that playing beautiful soccer is a typically Dutch thing.

We have a habit in this way. There are some signature Dutch products that have been, let’s say, incorporated from elsewhere. Tulips originally came from Turkey. Delft pottery was a cheap alternative to Chinese porcelain. The traditional black bicycle, an extension of any Dutch person’s body, was invented in England as a women’s bicycle and only became Dutch because we failed to keep up with the new designs. The Dutch are good at making something their own and then telling the rest that theirs is the only way.

Arthur van den Boogaard recently finished his book “Zo Speelden Wij” (“This Is How We Played”), in which he reconstructs 14 historical matches of the Dutch national team to show that the way they were played mirrored the Dutch soul.

Real Madrid’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, diving for a ball from Barcelona’s Xavi during a 2010 Spanish league match. Both men are playing for Spain in the World Cup this year.

Finally, a National Team


Until it started collecting titles recently, the Spanish national team had been the Chicago Cubs of world soccer: lovable underachievers with great talent, high expectations and no trophies.

The conventional wisdom was that the Spanish players did not care enough because their loyalties lay more with their regions of origin than with their country. Spain could not win, it was said, because there was no such thing as Spain in the Spanish players’ hearts.

Spain climbed to the top of world soccer by putting longstanding regional rivalries aside.

Indeed, regional identity and tensions often play out in the field, with games serving as occasions to reassert those identities. At the 2012 Copa del Rey final between Athletic Bilbao (which only signs players born or reared in the Basque region) and Barcelona (which is closely linked to Catalonia), followers of both teams jeered and whistled the two main symbols of Spain: the king and the national anthem. Still, a month later, each club provided players to the Spanish national team, which went off to defend its European championship.

Spain’s recent run of success, fueled by an extraordinary generation of players, took place amid a staggering economic crisis that has only increased separatist fervor. The success has served as a challenge to soccer regionalism, but it also owes a debt to a remarkable human story that has kept regional tensions from dividing the team: the friendship between the leaders of the country’s two most famous clubs, Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas and Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernández.

The goal that delivered Spain’s first World Cup championship was a symphony of movement, teamwork and unspoken understanding. Andrew Das
van der vaart
1. After a long run up the right by Jesús Navas, an Andrés Iniesta backheel to Cesc Fàbregas keeps the move alive. Both Iniesta and Fàbregas will touch the ball again later.
4. Iniesta’s hard shot screams past goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg with only minutes left in extra time. Final score: Spain 1, the Netherlands 0.
3. Fàbregas controls the free ball and immediately shoots it into the path of Iniesta, who has instinctively moved toward the goal.
2. Fernando Torres whips in a right-footed cross, but Rafael van der Vaart of the Netherlands knocks it down.

The two had excelled together since childhood on Spain’s youth and senior national teams, and their friendship prevailed in the worst moments of the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona, including a 2011 Clásico encounter during which coaches on opposing sides nearly came to blows. After that game, Casillas phoned Xavi to find a way for the players to defuse the smoldering feud that risked fracturing the Spanish team.

Sadly, Casillas paid a heavy price; his coach removed him from the Madrid lineup for his “disloyalty.” But a year later, Spain’s players — the Catalans, the Basques and all the rest — came together to win their second consecutive European championship.

Another key element in maintaining that team unity has been Spain’s coach, Vicente del Bosque. A quietly brilliant, modest, mustachioed man of somewhat dour countenance, he is known for his composure and politeness on the sideline and for his calm management of a collection of scintillating talent and powerful egos.

The in-house style of play he has inherited and fostered allows the diminutive Spanish players to dominate their larger, stronger opponents though a fluid style that combines relentless pressure and high-tempo, precision passing. Spain plays as if it has no stars; it is the triumph of the collective. But the success of players’ transcending their competing regional identities also provides a template for Spaniards facing these divides in their daily lives.

The peace brokered by Xavi and Casillas, along with the selfless play managed by del Bosque’s steady hand, suggests ways for the country to navigate the regionalism and economic distress that are taxing Spain’s identity and threatening its future.

Can this spirit survive the departures of some of the team’s top players after the World Cup — including, perhaps, two friends from mutually wary regions of Spain? Can this attitude survive a World Cup loss? We’ll be watching in Brazil, particularly after Spain’s disastrous start to the tournament, a 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in which Casillas and the heroes of a golden generation showed little of the team spirit that has driven Spain in recent years.

Luis Garicano is a professor of economics and strategy at the London School of Economics and the author of “El Dilema de España.”