The Death of Mystery
Is the modern thirst for knowledge taking the fun out of football?
In the space of three weeks in the summer of 1989, two things came to pass. On the face of it, they are entirely unconnected, two events from different worlds, but it is worth considering them in conjunction nevertheless. A thread runs through them. An echo sounds from one reality and into another.
24 May 1989: AC Milan lift the European Cup for the first time under Arrigo Sacchi and etch their place in history. Steaua Bucharest are their pliant victims, two goals from Ruud Gullit and two from Marco van Basten putting Anghel Iordanescu’s side to the sword. Milan will go on to retain the trophy the following year — the last team to do so — and they will reach the forgotten final of 1993, too, before finally regaining the cup in 1994.
15 June 1989: Europe goes to the polls for elections to the parliament at Strasbourg. In the United Kingdom, some 2,292,695 people choose to cast their ballot not for Labour or Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives or even the newly-founded Liberal Democrats. Instead, some 15 per cent of the voting electorate give their support to the Green Party.
It was the greatest result in the organisation’s brief, somewhat muddled history. To some, it heralded the birth of a fourth political power in Britain. True, the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system meant that, despite a sixth of the country voting for them, the Greens won no seats at all in the European parliament. But the message was clear. The Green Party had arrived and Britain would change forever.
But what unites these two disparate events, a European Cup final and a European election, is not triumph. There is no similarity between what the summer of 1989 meant for the Greens and what it indicated for Sacchi’s Milan. This was not the dawn of a political dynasty; just a footballing one.
Within a year, the Green Party had separated into individual units in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and Wales. They would never again come so close to establishing themselves as a major party (though they do, at least, currently have one Member of Parliament at Westminster). Where Sacchi’s and Milan’s time was just starting, the Greens’ was already coming to an end.
The link, instead, is in the eventual defeat. There was no shame in the Greens failing to break the three-party system in British politics; that they came so close should be a source of pride. There was no shame in Steaua losing to that Milan side, either, to a team of Maldinis and Baresis and Donadonis and those three sublime Dutchmen. Iordanescu and his team have the right to be proud, too.
It is what happened to both, afterwards, though, that is of most interest. Their fates run parallel, an object lesson about how the world deals with nascent forces, how the big and the strong and the rich and the powerful adopt and assimilate them to maintain the status quo.
What happened to the Greens is best summarised by Richard North, writing in the Independent in 1992, when Sara Parkin, the public face of the party, left for pastures new: “[The problem faced by Green parties across Europe] is they are now surrounded by voters and politicians who want to be some shade of green, are increasingly going to some pains to work out what that means, and are even acting on it. The greens are being challenged where they live: they are no longer unique, only uniquely committed.”
Their success in 1989 was their curse: the main parties realised, belatedly, that green policies were vote-winners. (It would be nice to assume they also realised they were morally the right thing to do, that the Greens’ message about the planet being in danger had got through, but let’s not be naive.) By the time the 1992 General Election rolled around, everyone was a little bit green. Suddenly, there was no need to vote for a specifically environmental party; your green policy came rolled up in a package of other beliefs and values, like free texts when you get a new mobile phone.
Steaua were undone by a similar process. On December 22 of that year, Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena fled Bucharest by helicopter. By Christmas Day, they were dead, shot by firing squad after being captured by police and handed over to the army. As in much of the rest of the former Soviet Bloc, the collapse of Communism granted football players the chance to travel abroad for the first time in their careers. Within two years, nine of the side who started that defeat to Milan in 1989 had moved west. They were adopted and they were assimilated and the team that had given them their chance was left with nothing.
Much the same process occurred to Crvena Zvezda, winners of the European Cup in 1991, and not only the last eastern European side to win the competition, but the last Eastern European side to reach the final and, Dynamo Kiev in 1999 aside, the last eastern European side to get anywhere near it. Within a year of victory in Bari, the exodus accelerated by the threat of the Balkan civil war, all of that Zvezda side had departed the crumbling Yugoslavia.
In both cases, the impulse was the same: if you can’t beat them, take them. As Labour and the Conservatives took the Greens’ policies, so too teams in Italy and Spain and Belgium and Sweden — and in Ştefan Iovan’s case, Brighton and Hove Albion — cherry-picked everything they wanted from the East as soon as the political climate allowed them to do so. Just when Zvezda’s moment and Steaua’s moment, seemed to have arrived, it was over.
That process had ramifications way beyond Steaua and Zvezda, beyond Bucharest and Belgrade, and beyond the former Soviet bloc. Infinitely more significant things happened in 1989, of course, across a continent in ferment and infinitely more tragic things happened that year in football: the loss of 96 lives in the Hillsborough disaster, which set the path for everything English football would become. But, just as 1989 was one of those years in which the world changed irrevocably, dramatically, beyond all recognition, it was also a year in which something just as seismic started to happen to football.
The seats in Nelspruit’s Mbombela Stadium are black and white, like a zebra’s hide, its 18 russet roof supports are designed to look like giraffes. It is just a few miles from here to the Kruger National Park. The ground could easily be mistaken for a gigantic steel-and-concrete advert for the wildlife on offer.
Few of those seats are ever occupied. Since the 2010 World Cup, the stadium has served as the occasional home of the Premier Soccer League side Bidvest Wits and one of two home grounds for the Pumas rugby franchise. Of all the stadiums built for Africa’s first World Cup, the Mbombela has emerged as possibly the greatest folly; given the competition, that is quite an accolade.
On 21 January 2013, though, the stadium buzzed with noise. Busloads of Ethiopian fans had been arriving at the ground for hours in anticipation of their opening African Cup of Nations tie with Zambia. The men came with flags hailing Haile Selassie and T-shirts of Bob Marley; the women with their hair piled high and their heels vertiginous. They danced and sang and blew all of their breath into the devil’s hornpipe, the vuvuzela.
I sat in the sunshine, in the quiet end of the ground. My ticket had cost just a few rand, proffered by an underemployed tout outside. Out came the two sides: Ethiopia, all in white, and the green of the Chipolopolo, the reigning champions. A few of the Zambians were familiar — Christopher Katongo, Collins Mbesuma, Chisamba Lungu. Their system certainly was: raiding full-backs, holding midfielders, Katongo dropping deep. They were as well-organised as you would expect continental champions to be.
Ethiopia, though, were something else. Not one familiar face, not one familiar name. The number seven emerged as the star of the side: a nimble, quick-witted forward. But the number eight, too, had something about him. His long stride, his barrel chest, looked for all the world a little like Sandro, of Brazil and Tottenham Hotspur.
I did not know their names. Saladin Said and Asrat Megersa, I know now. But then, they were new, alien. And the way they played, too: not chaotic, not at all, but a style of their own, home-grown, uniquely theirs. Megersa roamed around the pitch, occasionally dropping deep, occasionally emerging as a forward. That should be no surprise: Ethiopia is a market that remains almost entirely untapped by Europe. All of that side, bar Said and Fuad Ibrahim, a young forward, played and play in their homeland, untroubled by scouts or agents or being streamed in Europe. It is a world that exists on its own and it is a world that does not exist any more.
There will never be another Steaua Bucharest. There will never be another Crvena Zvezda.
That is in part simple economics: the collapse of the Iron Curtain exposed the former Soviet bloc to football’s unabashed free market, a bazaar in which they lack the financial clout to compete.
As soon as Romania or Serbia or wherever produces a single decent prospect, he is enticed west, a migrant in search of riches in Paris or Milan or London. The chances of any club in the east holding on to a single generation of players for long enough to threaten to captivate Europe is all but zero.
But it is not just about players. It is about styles, too. Football has no borders in Europe, in much of the world, now. Not only can players transfer easily to wherever they can earn the most money or fulfil their ambitions, but so, too, can systems and tactics and approaches.
In such a climate, individual identity is all but lost. For all the hand-wringing the English indulge in over why their national side cannot compete with the best in the world and for all the self-adulation they afford themselves about the product on offer in the Premier League, if you look — as the authors of The Numbers Game did — at the end result of what football is — passes, shots, dribbles, goals — the numbers are remarkably similar across all of the major leagues, in England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy.
There are slight variations of tempo, of course — influenced by the climate and how much referees deem illegal — but, broadly, at the elite level, it is the same game wherever you go. The technical gap is miniscule; so, too, the tactical. Most teams in Western Europe play a formation that is somewhere close to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 (which is probably more accurately characterised, on the pitch, as a 4-1-2-2-1). There are a few three-man defences in Italy, of course, and in England the 4-4-2 makes an occasional appearance, giving the game in question the air of an Ocean Colour Scene reunion gig. You see it and you’re immediately transported back to the 90s.
The days of each nation having its own individual style, its own unique approach to the game, have gone. That is true away from the bright lights of the Champions League’s latter stages, too: Europe’s minor leagues are full of Spaniards and Brazilians on the pitch and French, Germans and Dutchmen in the dugout. Best practice disseminates rapidly, eroding identity.
That is what has been lost: identity. Individuality, tradition, difference: all of the things that once made football such a gloriously varied menagerie. Football is a homogenous game now. Everywhere you look, it looks the same. Gone are the days when Dinamo Tbilisi might be the best side Liverpool face on the way to a European Cup final. Gone are the days when Steaua or Zvezda might take the continent’s breath away, developing a team almost in secret, playing football in their own unique way.
The big leagues have taken all of the players, strangling any nascent golden generation at birth. Look at Borussia Dortmund; when they cannot stave off the predators, what chance Legia Warsaw or Levski Sofia?
And in exchange they have sent their reservists and fringe men as missionaries, to teach the poor and the deprived and the savage how to play the game the right way.
But it is not “the” game. There is no such thing as “the” game. It is their game, and it is our game. Football has myriad different interpretations, different emphases. It is wonderful, of course, that best practice can spread around the globe. It is wonderful that advances made in fitness or nutrition in England can be picked up in Slovakia, and vice versa, too.
But there is a dark side to this globalisation: as each nation loses its individual style to the proselytisers, as well as its best players to the merchants, its teams are condemned to play an inferior version of the football on offer in the Champions League. Football functions in a similar way to the Roman Empire: it takes the elements that it wants from conquered peoples and inserts them into its own culture, so they feel part of the conquest, while at the same time superimposing a version its own hybrid culture on each nation it touches.
So Zvezda and all the others are taught that there is one way to play; if they have any good ideas or any good players, they are adopted by the status quo and added to the cant. This is condemning the host nations, these lesser leagues, to a life-time of second best. It is depriving them of the hope they once had, that they might be able to compete by virtue not of being better but of being different. It is taking their game away and making a low-quality copy of our game.
We suffer, too. Gone is that capacity to surprise that the game once possessed. By virtue of social media and the internet and ESPN and Fifa and Football Manager, we as fans know, too, exactly who is coming through in which league, where all the brightest prospects are. But that means we are never surprised, our imaginations never captured by this strike force at Dynamo Kyiv, or this number 10 at Steaua, or this wondrous team emerging in Belgrade. Football can never take your breath away, not quite as it once did. The mystery has died.
There are still pockets that survive. In Ethiopia, of course, where St George and Dedebit dominate the national team and the scouts tend not to venture. In much of east Africa, in fact, football has seemingly been written off; strange, given how many players west Africa has always produced, that nobody should think there is likely to be just as much talent across the continent, amid the vast populations of Kenya and Tanzania. Perhaps here, isolation shelters individuality.
In South Africa, that is certainly the case. This was meant to be Africa’s forge of greatness, once apartheid was ended and the Rainbow Nation emerged blinking into the world. It looked that way, in 1996, when the African Cup of Nations was lifted, but the conveyor belt has never quite clicked into gear; the factory was never built. In some part, that is down to the traditions football developed during apartheid: it is a game here of skills and tricks. That is what the crowd want; that is what, in many cases, the players know. It may be ineffective at international level. It may infuriate vast numbers of players and coaches in the PSL. But it is their game. It is not ours.
In Egypt, too, before the revolution and the bloody chaos that followed, before Port Said and the suffering of the Ahlawy, a unique football culture had developed. There were still foreign managers, of course, playing in foreign formations, but most of the players were Egyptian: when the country is working, when the league is running, the money is good enough here to remove the temptation of moving abroad.
It is the same in Mexico: true, some of that country’s most famous names – Javier Hernández, Giovani Dos Santos, Rafael Márquez – have made their careers in Europe, but there are many who remain in the Liga MX, aware that they can have the lifestyle they want in Mexico City and Guadalajara and Monterey, playing in a high-quality league and retaining their international ambitions without needing to leave home. The influence here comes from Argentina, from the south, but this is still a football culture that has developed its own mores, its own codes, its own character.
These are the places where the game is still theirs, where Europe’s colonialism has not yet permeated. This is where the talent has not yet been adopted and the ideas not yet assimilated. These are the places where 1989 has not yet happened. These are the places where the mystery lives.