The 1982 Brazil World Cup side in action against Argentina. Photo: Getty
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Why football loves beautiful losers

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

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

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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