The Washington Post

National characteristics do not explain soccer styles

Brazilian football star Neymar, second from right, celebrates with his teammates after scoring a goal against the U.S. team during their international friendly in August 2012. (Reuters)

We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 1234 and 5). University of Michigan political scientist Andy Markovits has written extensively on soccer, politics and culture. Here he attacks a widely held stereotype: that the playing style of national teams somehow reflects a deep cultural trait of a country. 

— Erik Voeten

Bespeaking the cultural potency of a handful of sports – almost all played by teams contesting a ball-like contraption (pace hockey puck) – is the fact that they all allege to stand for much more than the events between the lines. Indeed, as I argue in “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (co-authored with Steven Hellerman), one of the most decisive ingredients of those few sports that are consumed and followed by millions is the rhapsodization in which the on-field activities are imbued with meanings that reach far beyond their actual confines.

These sports stand for moods, trends, Zeitgeist, politics. They are alleged to represent the true nature of the most diverse collectives be they geographic, ethnic, linguistic, religious or class-related. Baseball has spawned a gigantic literature that rhapsodizes about how the game embodies the true traits of the American soul. A parallel phenomenon exists for cricket in England, in which the game is interpreted to characterize the depth of genuine “Englishness.”  

While the two football codes (American and Association) have attained a somewhat smaller literary representation, here, too, authors allege that the games have much greater meaning than the actual contests on the field. But in no case is this metaphoric assignation more potent than in the most global sport of all – Association Football – in which, due to its international character, individual nations have become the most common collective representatives.

Thus, one constantly encounters the alleged “Gallic flair” of the French; the supposed “rhythmic samba-infused jogo bonito” of the Brazilians; and the workmanlike “clinical and effective” play of the Germans whose fighting spirit (Kampfgeist) and team orientation always supersede individual brilliance and lead the team to victory analogous to “Modell Deutschland’s” economic prowess catapulting the country to become the world’s leading exporter.

Such links have become common to much soccer analysis and we will hear them repeatedly in the coming weeks during the impending World Cup. But if there is one thing that my life-long engagement with Germany has shown me, it is the fact that national characteristics of any meaningful longevity do not exist. After all, the Germans mutated in a matter of a few years from allegedly being Europe’s most bellicose nation to its most peace-seeking. So what then is the German national character? And even if such existed, it is very doubtful whether it would spawn a commensurate on-the-field demeanor in any sport, soccer included.

Take the Italians: They are alleged to be a nation of bon vivants, given to “dolce vivere,” carefree, upbeat and unplanned – the essential non-Germans. And yet, for decades now, arguably reaching into the 1930s, the Italians have come to play a highly defensive, deeply organized, even dour soccer style which, under the aegis of the Argentinian Helenio Herrera, who presided over Inter Milan’s brilliance of the mid-1960s, has assumed the term “catenaccio” (door bolt).

Or take the Canadians, those civilized, non-violent and empathic North Americans (in notable contrast to their purportedly brutish southern neighbors) who claim that the savage custom of fighting in hockey comprises part of their deeper culture that they will not surrender in light of the onslaught of sissy Europeans who do not engage in such. (Have you noticed that, miraculously, fighting disappears during the splendid Stanley Cup playoffs?)

The point here is that alleged national characteristics, if in fact existent, cannot serve as proper explanations for a particular team’s style of play  (see also my book: “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture). This is not to argue that there are no differences in such styles. They certainly exist, but they are due to discernible structural influences represented by extant institutions, concrete coaching philosophies and the actual availability of real players that vary widely over time.

The dazzling “total football” that charmed the world at the 1974 World Cup in Germany and revolutionized the way the game came to be played – the explicit anti-catenaccio — had very little to do with any purported shifts, cultural or otherwise, in the Dutch national character but quite a lot with the playing philosophy of Rinus Michels and his immense successes at Ajax Amsterdam in the early 1970s. Having geniuses of the caliber of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens contributed to this style. And just think of the “total anti-football” that Michels’ Dutch compatriots displayed in the World Cup final in 2010 when it was their Spanish opponents whose game was much more reminiscent of Michels’s institutional legacy. With Cruyff becoming a key player in FC Barcelona’s recent history, the institutional lineage makes good sense. Thus Spaniards, via a Catalan club, play Dutch on occasion while Brazilians can play Italian and Germans Brazilian. 

No matter, the national characteristics as explanation will not disappear. They are too facile and convenient while at the same time also conveying some knowledge. One of the patterns that has emerged over the years is that nations of the southern hemisphere and warm European climes (with Italy being a major exception) allegedly present a style of play that is constantly categorized as playful, ingenious, spur-of-the-moment, innovative, rhythmic, but essentially undisciplined and unregimented.

In other words, these are the countries that – by dint of national character – play an unstructured and spontaneous game that remains resistant to the exigencies of modernity such as discipline, strategy, perseverance, organization, hard training that are purported to be the hallmark of the style of play performed by countries of the northern hemisphere, meaning northern Europe.  The former possess innate talent and genius that you cannot teach who are burdened not only by having to win but to do so with grace and beauty, while the latter are systematic, plodding and purposive in their sole aim to win at all cost regardless of the esthetics of such victory. This widely held view remains perilously close for me to the alleged distinction between playing “white” and “black” in basketball, with the former guided by hard work, perseverance, intelligence and strategy; and the latter by unteachable impulse, genius, innate talent and creative interpretation.

Andrei S. Markovits is the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  His most recent book is “Sportista: Female Fandom in the United States”(Temple University Press, 2012 co-authored with Emily Albertson).



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