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Why football loves beautiful losers

Sport’s love affair with the myth of thwarted victory.

The 1982 Brazil World Cup side in action against Argentina. Photo: Getty
The 1982 Brazil World Cup side in action against Argentina. Photo: Getty

One of the most remarkable stories in the history of football took place in the Gabonese capital Libreville in early 2012. Zambia lifted their first ever Africa Cup of Nations with a well-deserved penalty-shoot out win over Ivory Coast. The victory would have been remarkable enough without the back story – Zambia had seen a previous generation of great footballers wiped out in a plane crash just off the coast of the same city 19 years earlier. A team expected to qualify for USA 94 was decimated, leaving only one survivor – Kalusha Bwalya, who travelled to Senegal alone because he was playing in the Netherlands for PSV Eindhoven. The fact that in 2012 Bwalya, the country’s greatest-ever goalscorer, was the President of the Zambian Football Association only compounded the emotion. It was a Hollywood ending that commentators said was worthy of a film.

The film has yet to come but, to be totally honest, it probably wouldn’t make a very interesting one. Partly because the reality itself is already so powerful to make a fictional adaptation appear wan, and partly because it is the first half of the equation – the loss of a promising team – that really matters in a footballing narrative. It is loss, failure and the eternal wondering what might have been that nourishes legend in football (and other sports besides). Victories, be they frequent or rare, are celebrated, entered into the record books and memorialised and no fan, not even of the most successful club, will say they get sick of winning. But the folk memory of football views things a bit differently; it reveres the ones that got away – the brilliant failures.

I’m not talking about the sort of experimental failure that is valourised (and almost fetishised) in Silicon Valley these days. What I mean is the big immovable rock of unfulfillment that predominates in the history of certain teams, one the memory of which can never be wiped away, not by any number of successive victories. It is probably the tantalising sense that something has been left unfinished, that one has been reading a book you will never know the end of, that makes people cleave to the myth of the beautiful loser. It certainly helps to be beautiful – the Netherlands World Cup-losing sides of 1974 and 1978 are revered in the hearts of football fans and are almost a case study in falling short. Not so the Dutch side that lost to Spain in Johannesburg four years ago – for all their evident talent, the way they kicked lumps out of the Spaniards meant the world sighed collectively with relief when Andrés Iniesta finally dispatched them with an extra-time goal. Nobody will remember or mourn the Dutch of 2010 any more than they will the losing West Germans of 1982 and 1986.

The victorious Zambian team after winning the African Cup of Nations in 2012. Photo: Getty

The Zambian team after winning the African Cup of Nations in 2012.
Photo: Getty

The World Cup’s history is littered with teams whose brilliance is only magnified by the fact they didn’t win and later, more successful, sides, try as they might, can never eclipse them. Even the great Dutch side that lifted the European Championships in 1988 cannot compare in the memories of football fans with the losing team of the previous decade. The same goes for other nations – French fans may prefer the losers of 1982 to the winners of 98; the Danes of 1986 are more fondly remembered than their more agricultural European Champions of 1992. Hungarian football will probably never again experience a side that will even come close to winning the World Cup, as the Mighty Magyars of 1954 almost did. Brazil, five-times winner of the World Cup, has the distinction of having two losing sides that loom heavily in their history. One, the 1950 side that lost on home soil to Uruguay, had a traumatic effect that still undercuts Brazilian football; the other, the 1982 team, is probably the most loved beautiful loser of them all – a team of such awesome grace and force that their 3-2 defeat to a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy to this day seems incredible. Brazil’s World Cup winners of 1994 and 2002 might have been ultimately better drilled than Telê Santana’s men who faltered in Spain but it is the 1982 that people love. Brazil is probably the only country though to have a beautiful winner to loom in stature as great as its unfortunate loser – the 1970 winner, the first world champion of the colour-TV era.

The fascination with failure is probably down to a collective sense of Aristotelian catharsis. It also casts into relief the great achievements of the sport – it is significant that David Peace, in his novel The Damned Utd, chose not the glory days of Nottingham Forest’s European Cup wins for his narrative of the great Brian Clough, but Clough’s greatest, earth-shattering failure – the 44 days he spent in charge of Leeds United in 1974, where he alienated almost everybody and his winning touch deserted him. Peace’s novel does not use this failure to tell an uplifting story of Clough’s later ability to “bounce back” and overcome it in triumph – it is rather a portrayal of the darker, more rebarbative qualities of Clough’s character, that both drove him on and made him a superb man-manager but also one whose alcoholism and personality clashes had a detrimental effect on his career. Peace’s latest novel Red or Dead also takes a legendary manager, Bill Shankly, as its subject. It is not content to dwell however on Shankly’s phenomenal success at Liverpool FC where he not only won domestic and European trophies but also laid the groundwork for the greatest English club side of the 70s and 80s. The novel does not end at Shankly’s retirement in 1974 (his last match in charge was against Leeds United, being managed for the first time by one Brian Clough). It continues for another two hundred pages and follows Shankly in the years before his sudden death in 1981. The great manager sees his former assistant Bob Paisley outdo his achievements and also feels the onset of mortality – both figurative and literal. He is sidelined and at times snubbed by his former club – a logical decision from a management point of view but one which cruelly wounds the old man’s pride (Peace subtitles this second part of the novel “Samson Agonistes”). The journey down from such great heights can often be a lonesome one.

One player who practically thrust himself off that great height was Zinedine Zidane, whose last act in a glorious career was to headbutt Marco Materazzi in a World Cup final and thus get sent off, probably depriving France of a second World Cup in the process. The incident gave rise to a furious public debate in France, which eclipsed the angst of losing the 2006 final to Italy. 61 per cent of French people were willing to forgive him. Opinion writers speculated on the “meaning” of the gesture. It was thought that Materazzi had insulted the honour of Zidane’s mother (Materazzi would later say it was Zidane’s sister he slurred) – a philosopher wrote in the pages of Libération of Zidane’s “suspension of justice” that it was an existential realisation, evoking the words of another Franco-Algerian, Albert Camus in his (in)famous defence of the pieds noirs: “If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.” There was never a more tumultuous end to a great playing career. The Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint, who attended the match in Berlin, later wrote an essay on the incident ascribed it to the “bitterness of a player competing in the last match of his career, a match he can’t make up his mind to finish.” Toussaint noted that Zidane had already retired once from international football and was suspended for France’s final group game in 2006, which had they lost, would have spelled the end for him prematurely:

It’s always been impossible for him to bring his career to a close, least of all to do so beautifully, for to end beautifully is nonetheless to end, to seal one’s legend, to raise the World Cup is to accept one’s death, whereas ruining one’s proper exit leaves prospects open, unknown, alive."

We’re back to that book you will never know the ending of.

Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait

The most remarkable thing of all is that Zidane’s dramatic end was foretold in a film released only weeks before the World Cup began. Directed by video artists Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parrano, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait follows the player throughout the ninety minutes of a match for Real Madrid versus Villareal in April 2005. The sole focus of the film throughout is Zidane, with seventeen synchronised cameras almost libidinously trained on him. We see him stroll about, stub his foot in the turf of the Estádio Santiago Bernabéu, take delivery of the ball, pass it on and burst into an occasional run. It is a film of unremitting intensity that one will find either fascinating or mind-numbingly dull (over half the audience in the Paris cinema I saw it in walked out). Here is a footballer freed from the God-like gaze of the television camera and the “official discourse” – the sermon – of the commentator. He is humanised, stripped down to his physical form and we hear snatches of the vulgate of stadium matches, where he chats with Roberto Carlos during a break in play – the very same unpoliced discourse that resulted in him headbutting Marco Materazzi. (On a similar note, Toussaint ruminates that the headbutt in Berlin must never have happened because nobody in the stadium saw it.) The fortuitous narrative perfection of Zidane is such that its protagonist gets caught up in a brawl in the very last minute of the game, and the film. He is promptly sent off. It is as elegant a commentary on Zidane the player as one could expect as well as an eerie prophecy of the way in which he would end his career. Zidane was sent off a total of eleven times in his career, including once in France’s World Cup winning-campaign in 1998 (for retaliating to a slight on his mother’s honour). The explosive side to this quiet and unassuming man was the fatal flaw he will be remembered for more than the two goals he scored in the 1998 World Cup final.

Not every World Cup produces a beautiful loser – a team or an individual whose efforts and brilliance are cruelly rendered nought by fate, injustice or the tactical manoeuvres of cannier opposition. Much of the time there is a credible winner, unremarkable but deserving, and a cast of doughty also-rans who inevitably fall short. Every now and again though there comes a team who captures the imagination and the hearts of the world, for a brief moment looks invincible and then falters, vanquished as suddenly and traumatically as the hero of a Victorian novel. I wonder who is the most likely candidate for that role this year – France, Belgium, Japan, Argentina, or maybe, once again, Brazil?

Oliver Farry is blogging during the World Cup at Straight off the Beach