The German team celebrate their fourth goal against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final. Photo: Getty
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It has been the World Cup of the individual, but Germany showed us the power of the team game

Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

This has been the World Cup of the individual. More than in any World Cup since the 1980s, teams in Brazil have been carried by one creative talent. Argentina have relied on Lionel Messi, Colombia have relied on James Rodríguez, Brazil relied, until his injury, on Neymar and even the Netherlands have been reliant on the pace of Arjen Robben. More than anything else, that explains why this has felt like such a strange, old-fashioned World Cup.

The 1970 competition in Mexico was heralded as the beginning of a bold new age. It was the first World Cup broadcast live by satellite and in those indistinct images from Mexico there was something revolutionary. Here were Brazil, golden shirts shimmering in the sunshine, playing a brand of football barely imaginable to British eyes. It was slick, skilful and joyous and was assumed to be the future. It turned out it was the past.

The football that had been seen in England in 1966 was the football of the future. In the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport became increasingly systematised: sides would play less as collections of individuals than as a unit. This mechanisation was no less beautiful than the previous style but it was a different kind of beauty – the collective play of the Dutch or the Dynamo Kyiv of Valeriy Lobanovskyi, rather than the dribbling and flair of a Garrincha or a Pelé. As the Swedish academic Tomas Peterson put it, football took in a second order of complexity. It began to be played with a knowledge of its workings: modern football was to old football as Picasso was to Gainsborough.

The most significant change was pressing, the systematised hunting of the man in possession in packs. It was something made possible by better nutrition (and drugs) in the late 1960s and 1970s and by improved understanding of structures on the pitch – the realisation that a properly organised side could use the offside trap to squeeze the play in such a way that opponents could be left, in effect, unmarked, and so more men could be committed to ball-winning.

At club level, that has made the game more tactically sophisticated but since the coming of systematisation, international football has lagged behind. A club coach can work with his players every day for ten months of the year, building the mutual understanding necessary for the integration this approach demands. At national level, a coach has his players for perhaps three or four days, five or six times a year, plus a couple of weeks before major tournaments. Inevitably, most choose a lowest-common-denominator approach, packing men behind the ball and getting the defence right – since a coach will always be blamed far more for defensive than for attacking failings.

The result is that recent World Cups have yielded roughly half a goal per game fewer than the Champions League. That’s why the group stages of this World Cup, which yielded an average of 2.83 goals per game, were such a surprise. With occasional exceptions – Iran, Russia – teams attacked relentlessly. It was as if sides were caught up in a sense of collective freedom with the defenestration of Spain and their controlled passing approach in their 5-1 defeat to the Dutch.

Some were rapt in the romantic fervour of those early games and suggested that this was the spirit of Brazil at work – that everybody had caught the jogo bonito attitude. More likely, not least because few sides have played less beautifully than Brazil in this tournament with their tactical fouling and unnerving desperation for victory at any cost, this was a familiar pattern: trends in the club game usually take five years or so to filter through to the national game.

Over the past five years, it has become increasingly common for teams to try to win the ball back high up the pitch, to initiate transitions as quickly as possible, taking pressing to a new level. Quick transitions mean players breaking at pace against defences that aren’t set, and that leads to more chances and more goals. It’s no coincidence that the Premier League has averaged over 2.7 goals per game in each of the past four seasons, the first time those levels have been reached since the 1980s.

When two high-pressing teams meet, the result can be stalemate, the game squeezed into a narrow sliver either side of halfway. In this World Cup, though, the result has often been glorious anarchy and, with defences less rigid than usual, skilful individuals have been able to exert a powerful influence. The great creators have become celebrities, supported by hysterical fans who act in a way more associated with Justin Bieber devotees. Perhaps that is the result of the globalisation of the game and the emergence of a new wave of fans with few geographical or cultural reasons to support a particular club, and who prefer to attach themselves to individuals. Or perhaps it is to do with the way the game is presented and the growing demand for soap opera with easily identifiable heroes and villains. Either way, from a tactical point of view, it feels regressive. Germany, superbly well drilled, provided the perfect example of the superiority of the team game with their 7-1 evisceration of Brazil’s emotionally overcharged individuals in the semi-final.

In the last 16 and quarter-final, goals per game were down to 1.33 in normal time, which, beyond regression to the mean, is probably indicative of two things. First, that coaches have had longer to organise their defences but also that the better national teams are closer to assimilating the most intriguing recent development in the club game: the counter-counter, stymying the transitions that have become a key feature of so many sides’ attacking, even if, in the less sophisticated world of the international game, that translates to little more than sitting deeper to keep men behind the ball. Even in the individuals’ World Cup, a system has come to assert itself.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Leader: Against neverendums

At present, we are experiencing a fetishisation of referendums. But we must remember that Britain is a representative democracy.

Imagine a Britain where the death penalty was restored, where immigration quotas were determined on ethnicity and where some communities were forcibly repatriated to countries that they never called home. This is not some dystopia led by a British Donald Trump. It is what the UK could have looked like had the proponents of direct democracy – referendums – had their way.

Britain is a representative democracy. We elect 650 MPs and we entrust them with the power to make and scrutinise legislation on our behalf. This simple method of central government (we also have devolved institutions) has done much to ensure our stability where more fragile democracies, or illiberal ones, have succumbed to disorder or fascism.

At present, we are experiencing a fetishisation of referendums: we argue this having supported the Scottish referendum in 2014, for which the SNP had an unequivocal mandate. Yet, broadly, referendums are not a uniquely democratic way to arrive at a decision of national moment but a crude majoritarian tool. The deliberative nature of a parliament, with its built-in checks and balances, safeguards it against blindness to the interests of minority groups and views and allows compromises to evolve. Referendums can too easily allow the dominant moral panic of the time to be translated into immediate action. Had they been called on the progressive social advances of the 20th century, we would now be a far less open and tolerant society.

Referendums can also undermine the basis of representative democracy. Our parliament works, on the whole, because we trust its supreme authority to make decisions. As one concedes that there are some issues that are only legitimately settled by a referendum, the question immediately arises: which ones? If the UK’s continued membership of the European Union falls into this category, why not the Budget? If the Alternative Vote does, why not the issue of military intervention in Iraq or Libya? Yet the ultimate threat to our form of democracy is not referendums but those who have instigated them. The EU referendum on 23 June was dreamed up by the Prime Minister for no better reason than that he was pressured by recalcitrant right-wingers in the Tory party, as well as the UK Independence Party and the press.

Referendums seldom settle difficult questions, as events in Scotland have demonstrated. There, a “once in a generation” vote turned out to be no such thing: rarely does a week pass without Nicola Sturgeon making vague threats about a “second” independence referendum. Moreover, Ukip’s Nigel Farage is already talking about the need for a second EU referendum before the first has even happened.

When confused voters say that they want an objective list of the pros and cons of Brexit before they can make up their minds, what they mean is that they want their representatives to regain the courage to make difficult decisions on their behalf. Britain needs a frank reminder that politics is complicated and its practitioners are often skilled and conscientious.

It would be a folly to leave the EU but it was a folly enough to call this referendum during a period of multiple crises in Europe. It is time to speak up for representative democracy.

The rise of the nativist right

Had 31,000 Austrians voted differently, Europe would now have its first far-right president since 1945. The narrow defeat of the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer is emblematic of the xenophobic nativism that has spread across the continent. Mr Hofer’s softly spoken, telegenic manner belied his extreme views. He has declared that “Islam has no place in Austria”, wears a blue cornflower (the historic symbol of pan-Germanism) and is an honorary member of the student fraternity Marko-Germania zu Pinkafeld, which rejects the “fiction of an ‘Austrian nation’”.

Yet far from being an outlier, Hofer has many allies. Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Frauke Petry of Alternative für Deutschland and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom all rallied to his cause. In Hungary, Poland and Finland, the far right holds office.

The rise of these atavistic forces is an indictment of Europe’s mainstream, most notably its becalmed centre-left. As in the 1930s, nationalists have skilfully exploited cultural and economic alienation. History provides ample warning of the consequences of allowing such extremists into power. It is a lesson that Europe should not be forced to learn again. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad