By Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins
FIMBALÁ, Argentina — Hard as it may be to believe, when I found myself watching Argentina’s World Cup squad battle Nigeria’s on a flickery TV screen 200 km away from the closest permanent human settlement, 4,000 meters/13,000 feet above sea level, and ensconced between towering snow-capped Andean volcanoes that rank as the highest in the world, it was part of my summer research. Seriously! Admittedly, to fully explain the latter will take a while, so for now I will focus on the former — Argentina, the World Cup, and association football.
Argentina won, 1-0. Argentina also deserved to win. They played better. To those not fully initiated in the ways of the world’s sport (which included me until two years ago) these last two sentences might seem like an odd, redundant thing to say: Of course the team with more goals deserves to win, that’s why you keep track of them in the first place! In football, however, this is not necessarily so.
Football is the most arts-like of sports. Quality of play is adjudicated as much, if not more, by the gut than by the scoreline. After watching a match, deep down, you know which was the better team, regardless of how many goals they scored. How this happens, goodness knows. The “gut” is an incredible organ. But it happens, and at a football match’s conclusion you walk away with closure and an opinion. Uniquely, though, relative to other sports, there is a dearth of statistics to confirm and substantiate what your gut clearly knows to be.
Of course, there are goals — a rather important statistic indeed — but they come sparingly in football. So while goals often correspond to the quality of play and indicate the truly superior team, surprisingly frequently they do not. There are ties. Or a team, utterly dominated for 89 of a match’s 90 minutes, benefits from a singular error and wins 1-0. Usually in other sports to analyze these sorts of phenomena, onlookers would cite a battery of statistics to show just how “lucky” the 1-0 winner was, or to indicate the “better” of two tied teams. But try as the Nate Silvers of the world might, it is exceedingly difficult to condense a football match into a pithy few meaningful numbers. (Not coincidentally, in fantasy sports — statistics-driven online sports competitions — football has all the popularity of spinach.)
The sport’s resistance to statistical simplification stems from its fluid nature. The clock runs continuously, even through injuries, and the ball is in motion for almost all that time. Thus, football cannot be conveniently compartmentalized into possession, as with basketball, or individual plays, as with baseball or American football. So while you can often partly determine the worth of strikers (designated offensive players) by their goal tallies, how can you do so for defensive midfielders or full-backs or even teams as a whole? Empirically — statistically — you cannot.
As such, in the absence of statistics, football aficionados are left to appraise the on-field product as Roger Ebert does movies or Robert Parker does wines. Football journalists, for example, become more critics, albeit mild-mannered ones, than dispassionate reciters of numerical fact. To those accustomed to baseball or basketball recaps — essentially an obligatory litany of statistics rendered readable by an occasional anecdote — the football recaps in The Guardian or the Mirror might seem airy and ungrounded, but it’s difficult to write a grounded 500 words when spectation yields only ineffable “feels” of offensive or defensive energy and changes in momentum.
The lexicon of this journalistic genre is telling. Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández, the supremely talented Spanish national team midfielders, seem to be called “maestros” more often than their legal names. Ingenious passes are “inspired.” Football itself is “the beautiful game.” Though inconspicuous and largely unintentional, the sport’s vocabulary, delicate in its effort to describe the constant stream of on-field creativity that makes football football, betrays the sport’s art-like aspect.
Of course sports fans the world over still like a good old number or two. Enter: player ratings, an epitomizing example of football’s subjectivity, of trying to quantify the unquantifiable. Ebert gives movies up to four stars; Parker gives wines a number between 50 and 100; football journalists give all 22 players a 1-10 rating after their matches for passing creativity, work ethic, and finishing ability. It’s essentially a hybrid between a box score and a critical review.
All told, football inspires an almost unsports-like appreciation of the sport. A loyalty exists to the beauty of the game — of the art of the game — that supersedes club and national identity. Which leads me back to my rather unusual World Cup-viewing location.
I watched Argentina’s World Cup match at Las Grutas, a snowbound Argentinean national police outpost sited on a desolate mountain pass leading to Chile and the Pacific, while acclimatizing for an alpine science expedition. Watching the match with me were Domingo and Juan, the caretakers of Las Grutas’ three weather-worn concrete Quonset huts.
Domingo and Juan are Argentines, of course. So I floated a hypothetical their way. What if Argentina were not to be victorious this World Cup? Who, then, would you prefer to win?
They exchanged a guilty look, understandable considering their answer. Brazil.
Blasphemy! Argentina and Brazil, of course, are like Lex Luthor and Clark Kent or chocolate and vanilla: rivals of the highest order. But nonetheless their answer rings honestly. First, there is South American fraternity; a sort of epiphenomenal pride in having one of the continent’s own claim a world’s prize. But more significantly their admission speaks to a transcending fidelity to football as a sport.
The Brazilian samba superstars of 2010 play brilliantly and beautifully. That even an Argentine can admit this of their greatest foe — of the country, fittingly, that first gave the world the joga bonito style in the ’50s — is proof positive that football is the beautiful game and, partly by consequence, the world’s game.