Thursday, 14 June 2012

Decline and fall in football

I watched the Netherlands lose to Germany in the European Championships last night, a result that means they are unlikely to reach the knock-out stage of the competition.

The commentators seized the chance to opine that the Netherlands had yet again blown it, their winning of the competition in 1988 and back-to-back runner-up spots in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups now seemingly high points that they will never reach again.

These kinds of comments are of course also made in relation to the England team.  They place a ridiculous emphasis on the outcome of a single match. If the Netherlands had beaten Germany, it would have been all about how they were now back at the top of world football. Jonathan Wilson in his superb history of football tactics Inverting the Pyramid makes the point that to talk about decline in relation to teams like England or the Netherlands is nonsense. England having invented the game were almost by definition - although Scots might disagree - the best football team on the planet in the last quarter of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth century. The Netherlands in the 1970's had a wonderfully skilful team that narrowly missed out winning two World Cups, largely built around the Ajax team that had won three European Cups in a row. But both England and the Netherlands still - unlike other teams that have led the world in football such as Austria, Hungary and Uruguay - not only routinely qualify for but regularly reach the latter stages of major international competitions. Their only problem, if it can be called that, is that having once dominated the game they are now, like Tom Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, left with the feeling "that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax."

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