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Monday, March 12, 2007

Losing it in style

Today's Australian reprints a piece by Simon Barnes "Losing in Style: how Arsenal discovered an ugly truth about the beautiful game" which was originally published in The Times. I thought that the ghost of Neville Cardus had long ago been exorcised from writing about sport, but I'm wrong. Read this:

Arsenal: a nation mourns. They lost the Carling Cup final, despite playing better than Chelsea. They were knocked out of the FA Cup, despite playing better than Blackburn Rovers over two matches. They have lost all chance of winning the Barclays Premiership, despite playing better than Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. They are in danger of failing to qualify for the Champions League next season, despite playing better than all the clubs below them. And now they are out of Europe’s premier club competition this season, despite playing better than PSV Eindhoven over two legs and playing better than all eight clubs that remain in the competition.

It’s not really fair, is it? But then Arsenal’s football was not better in terms of goals and victories and all that; it was better morally. Arsenal play the right way. They play with style and brio, with beautiful passes, with intricate patterns, with wit and charm. They also play with youth, plucked from the ranks and taught to seek and find greatness.

This season Arsenal produced a team of pure and dizzy talent, the distilled essence of football. They embodied every kind of footballing virtue. Question: does defeat in four competitions destroy the moral argument? Does rightness depend on victory? Or is there really a right way and wrong way to play? Is it better to lose the right way than win the wrong way?


Well then, what does being the best, the prettiest and most morally perfect football team entail? It is not a question of good behaviour, keeping to the rules, not diving, not kicking opponents. Arsenal have been guilty of all these things, but that does not contradict the belief that they play “the right way”.

No, a team that play “good” football are one that please the senses of the observers. They are just nicer to watch. There is unquestionably an aesthetic dimension to football. The famous Danny Blanchflower dictum — that the game is not about winning but about glory and doing things in style — still has a deep resonance.

Can you imagine an Australian writing in this vein about any sport ? Gideon Haigh's name may come to mind, but while his prose is elegant and erudite it doesn't spill over into floridity like Barnes' does here. Haigh will give due credit to good performances from losing teams but in his match reports he'll always come back to the score and frame his assessments accordingly. Perhaps Barnes hasn't come to grips with the fact that because soccer is a low scoring game there will inevitably be a higher proportion of unjust results than in other sports.

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