Hearts and Minds
Spain threaten, like Lennox Lewis, to be a great but unloved champion
A schism exists within the sport-supporting masses. It has likely existed for as long as audiences have watched from the sidelines: there are those who want to be entertained, and there are those who accept a team’s first duty is to win, even if that can seem boring to those watching. In the past, the football of results tended to refer to a physical or cynical style but the recent success of Spain awoke a new realisation: technically excellent football could be dull. In decades to come, as the specifics of their triumphs fade into the yellowed pages of history, how will Spain’s era of tiki-taka dominance be remembered?
Much will depend on what kind of long-term affection and attachment the public ends up holding for their endeavours. It takes far more than being the heroes of the analysts to master your own mythos. Just ask Lennox Lewis.
Having retired from boxing in December 2003, Lewis remains the last man to hold the title of undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, yet his legacy is far from secure. His achievements continue to be picked apart by detractors who have targeted everything — his fighting style, his mentality, even the legitimacy of his professional record — in querying his calibre.
Critiques rejecting him as overrated are widely available and he is regularly overlooked in attempts at ranking the canon of past titleholders, especially by North American writers. Some more divisive voices have even gone as far as to accuse Lewis of being deleterious to boxing’s appeal, having failed to live up to the standards set by the legends of Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, Jake LaMotta and their ilk. It would be wrong to place him at the very peak of the sport without argument, but it often seems that he is denied the respect he has earned as a world beater for reasons beyond his fighting CV.
Spain’s unprecedented run of three consecutive major tournament wins between 2008 and 2012 may have confirmed them as the most successful international team of all time, but their greatness beyond that trophy count cannot be taken for granted. Already, the idea of “boring, boring Spain” has taken root under the surface of their successes, threatening to destabilise their reputation.
Their supremacy has been undeniable, but true greatness requires more than hauls of silverware or intimidating statistics. To be immortalised, champions must possess other more subjective and intangible qualities that exist independently of their accomplishments.
Boxing and football boast a gigantic capacity for emotional expression, fan investment and dramatic escapism, and with that come certain expectations. The exhaustive mythologies that fuel these two arenas, bursting with the globalised folk heroes and universal fables that have been generated by the raw and uncomplicated appeal of kicking a ball or delivering a punch, are part blood sport, part popular theatre.
The spectacle of watching a fight between boxers — or a 90-minute war between two tribes of eleven for control of a vulcanised sphere—binds together the visceral feelings of identity, athleticism, power, grace, violence and other aspects that make up the human condition. It’s why the sporting icons most vividly remembered in the popular consciousness are Mohammed Ali, Pelé and Pelé’s Brazil, who all came to transcend boxing and football through their sport’s qualities as much as their own. Individual brilliance and successes only take a candidate so far.
It’s not as simple, though, as saying that the greatest must entertain. Sport is not entertainment. Sports are focused on their own blunt and formal victory conditions that care little for the superfluous emotions at play within their audience. A fighter, manager or player who dared to espouse the beauty or meaning of their performances to a braying crowd amid an atrocious run of form is unlikely to remain in their position for long. Such haggling semantics in a game of cold, flat outcomes is the sort of behaviour that leads to ludicrous talk of “moral victories”.
Yet there still exists a need to be satisfied with results: the ends don’t always justify the means. To paraphrase Andi Thomas of Twisted Blood, the problem with Spain is that they turn what should be a contest between two teams into an exhibition of one. He may have been writing about Barcelona, but his points are arguably even more relevant when it comes to the Spain national team and their less hurried version of Guardiola’s development of Total Football: “Football is about great games, and a great game, like a great conversation (and indeed all great dialogic things, like a chess game, or a tennis match, or the tango) needs both sides in the mix. Perhaps it needs both sides to show a certain vulnerability; certainly, it needs both sides to show the best of themselves, which is what Barcelona try and usually manage to prevent. Barcelona’s style of football is as anaesthetic as it is admirable and their superiority is contingent upon the smother to an almost neurotic extent. By working so hard to eliminate the other team from the conversation, Barcelona are essentially attempting to undermine the dualistic nature of a football match, preferring instead to present a series of monologues on the importance of possession, the value of short people, and the attractiveness of Qatar as a destination for your business or pleasure needs.”
Spain suffocate rather than beat opponents, denying the opposing side any chance to play football because of their ability to hoard the ball. They succeed by wearing down the vitality and morale of their tormented chasers before growing to an effectively insurmountable crescendo against tired legs in the final acts of a match. For a national team nicknamed the “Red Fury”, their football of choice is remarkably considered and attritional.
Similar complaints were raised over Lewis’s handling of adversaries in the ring. It was rare for him to run out of energy or lose his composure as the rounds piled up thanks to his proficiency at controlling the pace of a fight as well as the terms of engagement against opponents by virtue of his intelligence and awareness of his own size and reach. His approach could almost have been considered managerial in the way he conserved his stamina and power, restraining himself until the right moment as his challengers started to slow and open up through exhaustion. It was then, once his foes had become jaded, that Lewis would strike, unloading a crushing right hook into their fading forms to begin his demolition.
Unfortunately, this aversion to risk often allowed mediocre fighters to hang on in fights in which they had no real right remaining upright and Lewis sometimes appeared reluctant to seize the initiative and floor these pretenders before he was good and ready. He preferred to jab, box and draw fights out rather than go for a fast and early finish, much like Spain and their contentment to spin the ball around their midfield centrifuge instead of going for the throat.
Having come to prominence after the heady days of Mike Tyson — a period during which the American had swept through the sport like an impulsive and ferocious force of nature — Lewis’s slow-burning style looked tame by comparison. In contrast to the savage immediacy of Iron Mike, it was as though the British-Canadian dawdled through like some supervising ringside executive. Those who demand their bloodlust sated by the action on the canvas still regard him as a woefully dull and lethargic fighter.
However, at his best — and against the right fighter — Lewis could be mesmerisingly brilliant to watch. His first title clash with Evander Holyfield was an emphatic display of dominance over the American, even if the fight was controversially called against Lewis by the ring judges — an injustice that he would later avenge in a triumphant rematch, somehow winning with a less convincing performance to the one he unleashed in that initial lost victory. At the time the decision was branded a travesty, not least because of the one-sided nature of the fight’s numbers. Lewis put on a clinic for his opponent, deconstructing his fellow champion by landing 348 punches to Holyfield’s total of 130, including 137 jabs to 52. It was the boxing equivalent to Spain’s “death by a thousand passes” Euro 2008 win over Germany.
What’s more, when he finally faced Tyson, who was past his best after a stint in jail but still a powerful opponent, Lewis raised his game beyond the reach of his much-feared aggressor. It was a victory for skill and elegance over raging brawn.
Like any sportsperson or team interested in succeeding, his tactics were developed to make the most of his natural strengths. Lewis’s size and reach dictated that he could prevent opponents from coming in close, while Spain’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to diminutive playmakers demands that they prioritise possession, short passes and patient build-up play. Although it may have since been taken to extremes under Vicente Del Bosque, tiki-taka initially came to be through necessity to allow technically talented players to survive in an age in which robust physical power ruled.
The criticisms levelled at Lewis for failing to obliterate less worthy opponents are analogous to the backlash suffered by Spain since the opening matches of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Their inability to match their ball-hogging with a proportionate downpour of goals led to discontent over their style of play.
In their very first Group H match, Del Bosque’s men suffered a shock 1-0 defeat against Switzerland to a rather scruffy long-ball goal. They had enjoyed almost total control over the fixture and yet were unable to find a breakthrough. And although the Spain of Xavi and Iniesta have been beaten, like Lewis they have never been completely dismantled by an opponent (bar one, but we’ll get to that later). Their falls have come largely from sucker punches and complacency rather than destruction at the hands of a rival. Lewis’s own Switzerland moment came in 2001 against Hasim Rahman, neatly enough in South Africa, with the favourite put down by a lucky knockout punch. However, just as Spain rallied from their setback to win the World Cup, Lewis soon overturned Rahman’s fluke result with a comprehensive rematch win that was settled by his own far less chancy finisher.
Predictably, Spain’s critics have only become more frustrated with this inability to flop in a suitably entertaining fashion. For those wishing an implosive downfall upon Spain, watching them lose by the tightest of margins — or through their own disinterest — must be something of an annoyance rather than a guilty pleasure, especially given how close Portugal took them to disaster in the semi-finals of Euro 2012.
Their Iberian neighbours were in some ways the perfect antidote to the Spanish monopoly for those opposed to Del Bosque’s defending champions. Led by Cristiano Ronaldo, they were a team whose strength lay in their speed, agility and the individualist flair of their direct yet erratic dribblers. Unfortunately, though they fought well as the tie’s underdogs, their earlier performances in Poland and Ukraine had shown they were far from complete competitors.
Before their showdown with Spain, they had looked turgid, especially against the Czech Republic, and although they did look threatening on the break at times, perhaps it’s fitting that the semi-final ground to a goalless halt, leaving penalties — and the reported egotism of Cristiano Ronaldo regarding the order of the takers — to decide the outcome.
For Lewis, the equivalent win came in May 2003 against Vitali Klitschko. It would prove to be his last ever fight, and a win at that, but as the champion stepped out of the ring for the final time as a competitor, he was audibly jeered by the crowds at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Having been won over by the Ukrainian’s greater intent to force the issue on the night, as well as his stronger performance on the judges’ score cards, the crowds believed he had been denied a major victory, just as Lewis had against Holyfield. Describing the mood within the arena, HBO’s commentator for the night Jim Lampley explained to the Pay Per View audience: “Lewis wins the fight, Klitschko wins the event.”
Ringside, Lewis was met by the veteran boxing correspondent Larry Merchant, who asked, “Why do you think the fans were cheering him and booing you at the end?” Lewis scoffed at the impertinence of the question. After all, he had just exploded Klitschko’s right eye to the extent that a doctor ruled him unfit to continue the fight. It wasn’t as though his victory had come through a decision steered on by some slippery technicality or a spurious judging call as he had suffered earlier in his career. Klitschko had been hurt, cut and beaten to defeat.
Lewis assured Merchant that the referee had done his opponent a favour, and that irrespective of the state of the Ukrainian’s eye, he would have brought the fight to a head either way had it continued. Yet given his struggles to keep up with the younger and more brutal fighter throughout the earlier rounds, his counterargument was met with some understandable scepticism.
Regardless, winning a fight by overcoming a more dangerous rival, against the momentum of the contest, is a worthy, tactical achievement in its own right. It wasn’t exactly the uncanny stroke of luck it has come to be treated as by faultfinders and Klitschko required months of recovery before his eye was healed enough for him to enter the ring again.
Along with the reaction the night, it was Lewis’s decision to retire just seven months after his title defence in LA that ended his illustrious career on a rather unsatisfying “what if” that has become ever more corrosive to his greatness as time has gone on.
What if Ronaldo had agreed to step up to the spot earlier for Portugal? It’s unlikely to have affected the result unless the suggestion is that watching the forward fire home his kick would have triggered some sort of psychological crisis within the Spanish squad.
Arguably, that narrow win left a mark on Spain’s tournament that could not be shifted, even with the firepower of their 4-0 conquest of Italy — a busted right eye in the minds of those who thought Portugal were better value for that semi-final than the eventual winners of Euro 2012. Fortunately for those vehemently opposed to their reign, just 12 months later their wishes were somewhat fulfilled in the final of the 2013 Confederations Cup.
The World Cup warm-up event is the only major non-Olympic trophy to elude Del Bosque since he took charge of Spain following Euro 2008. The 2013 edition wasn’t the only one to deliver disappointment for the affable manager either. In the 2009 Spain lost out to the USA in the semi-finals; a substandard result, but one that was almost understandable given the intense touring schedule that had been set down by a Spanish FA hungry for profits and prestige. It was an isolated incident in a non-vital competition, against a nation they didn’t need to make any statements against.
Contrast that with 2013 when they were beaten soundly by the host nation Brazil, a major challenger to their world crown. Never mind that Spain’s older players looked exhausted and dry on ideas, or their surprisingly strenuous timetable that took in Uruguay, Nigeria and Italy (and Tahiti) before the final. Perhaps inspired by the crowds, Brazil looked fresher, sharper and almost untouchable. They outplayed Spain. The hecklers were delighted.
Yet that loss could well prove to be the stumble that enables the reigning world champions to check their fall. More is learned in defeat than in victory and the causes of that setback against Brazil will have been studied in the weeks and months that followed it. In a way, a successful defence of their World Cup title would also complete another parallel with Lewis. Although the three-time heavyweight champion may not have retired undefeated, he was able to beat every opponent he ever faced. Besides Holyfield, Hasim Rahman and Oliver McCall were the only other men to get the better of him as a pro, but he rectified both of these unlikely outcomes with impressively comprehensive rematches.
Emotionally, it’s natural for an audience to want winners to show that they put up the better fight, but intellectually, regardless of any context, mitigations or the merits of defeated challengers such as Klitschko, it is those who can deliver when it matters who win. Therein lies the central tension at the heart of the question of Lewis and Spain’s claims to immortality. Jonathan Wilson has in the past said that the beauty of the game lies in the struggle. So if there is no struggle — but instead a managed decline followed by some belated, unlockable checkmate — can there really be beauty? Sure, Spain may struggle to find the breakthrough they need to clinch the game they control, but it seems disingenuous to suggest that their procedural probing has the same appeal as two sides valiantly battling for supremacy.
To many of Lewis’s most zealous supporters, those who question the boxer’s greatness either don’t understand the sport they claim to follow or are unable to comprehend or appreciate his class, or the skill and techniques that formed the bedrock of his abilities. In certain boxing circles, Lewis is remembered as a great, but there are also those who feed off his contrarian status. In football, players such as Claude Makélélé, Michael Carrick, Jon Obi Mikel and Thomas Müller have, at one time or another, been hijacked as living, breathing battlegrounds for those who wish to prove their powers of analysis, one way or the other. There’s rarely much subtlety in what become zero-sum exchanges, as dilettantes, poseurs and luddites bleat for or against their hero.
To the populists, tiki-taka is too technocratic and elitist, both on the field and on the page. For a certain brand of romantic — the viewers who believe everything depends on the competitive balance and uncertainty of the contest — Spain’s dominance is too stifling and one-sided for matches to be enjoyable. There are other more conspiratorial viewpoints too that won’t be examined here but left to be processed in the wash of history.
Such dissenters are not to be dismissed as idiot philistines. It’s true that on occasion neither Lewis nor Spain were able to offer casual or immediate thrills. Even in this regard, both can be considered to be champions of a certain type of purist. They are the enthusiasts who fetishise the act of the pass above all else, or the hypnotising patterns of an elaborate midfield at work, or the mastery over territory within the ring. For them there is of course plenty to enjoy within the goalmouth stalemates and low-scoring wins of Del Bosque’s pot collectors and a boxer who refuses to fire any unnecessary vulgar shots in anger.
To the more folksy punters and pundits, it’s as though Spain and Lewis lack a common touch. There seems to be a degree of inverse snobbery at play within such an argument, as if Spain and Lewis are guilty of over-complicating a simple pursuit and taking it away from its roots, whatever they may be.
Ultimately, such arguments boil down to the underlying aesthetic qualities of the football or boxing at hand. These are judgements that are in no way limited to sport. The musical equivalent of a match played by one team determined to cartelise possession might be an abstract soundscape, a minimalist dance track, or a piece of process music of some kind, bereft of the usual, casual entry points tradition has taught us to expect, such as riffs, a song structure or a hook. To the uninitiated, disinterested or outright offended, the result may sound formless, disjointed or like a batch of pointless noises.
There are no agreed criteria for a person or team to become great. Given the scale of its audience, and the variation in individuals within that constituency, it should be no surprise that there are probably an infinite number of checklists of desirable qualities required of a truly great football team.
Lots of goals, brilliant individuals, collective might, an abundance of flair, a preference for direct passes, Juan Román Riquelme in the hole, Andy Carroll up front, a calculated rise in perspiration from viewers, being the side that your Dad took you see as a kid; the rundown of potential reasons, requirements and fetishes is endless.
Yet if a person were to sketch out a rough approximation of what an objectively great football team would be composed of, and what it might look like, then it seems likely that any such theoretical, dream XI would share more than a few passing similarities with the peak years of Xavi and Iniesta. While they aren’t to everyone’s taste, they have dominated the international game like no one else before them, playing their own idiosyncratic style of football complete with its own flaws and anomalies rather than excelling in a more mainstream way. It’s surprisingly rare for the best teams actually to win tournaments and yet Spain have succeeded in doing so three times in a row. They’ve also helped to pioneer striker-less formations under Del Bosque — Luis Aragonés tempered his country’s tiki-taka idealism with pragmatism, utilising its features as a largely defensive measure while favouring a less dogmatic approach in attack — and reassert the skilful, midfield playmaker at the top of the game’s food chain.
For those caught in the middle of this whole dispute, the occasional, mischievous pang of regret that Argentina kept tabs on Lionel Messi after he left for Catalonia aged 11 would be understandable. Had he been naturalised by Spain and slotted into their gluttony of passing and conquest, reprising his role within the Barcelona set up, any question of la Furia Roja’s place in the footballing canon would have been laughed out of the room.
Even if their winning streak doesn’t stretch to a fourth major international victory in Brazil, their record is extraordinary. That won’t be enough to make Xavi the new Pelé, or place Spain as firmly in the heart as the Brazil of 1970, the Hungary of 1954 and the Netherlands of 1974, but they have dominated football like no side in the past half century. And that is worthy, if not of love, then at least of respect.
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