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“Park the bus” football

Barcelona (Barca) and Manchester United (MU) played in the Champions League 2011 final. But if you want to talk about the match, you shouldn’t forget to bring Jose Mourinho into your narrative, in my opinion.  Now where does Mourinho come into this, you may ask? He wasn’t the Manager of either of these teams. Well, before the final, the MU Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, is said to have consulted him telephonically about how to contain Barcelona. Coming from Sir Alex, it was a huge compliment really to the one who called himself the “Special One”. What he told him, he didn’t reveal, and neither did Sir Alex. Understandable. One wonders whether the Real Madrid Manager, whose team had played Barcelona five times in that(2010-11) season, had advised him to adopt a strongly defense-oriented strategy; if he had, his advice was obviously not implemented in the match. Sir Ferguson didn’t “park the bus” in front of the goal; he was not the one to support the “killjoy” kind of football. Besides, hadn’t Barcelona defeated Mourinho’s Real Madrid in the semi-finals? Messi’s second goal in the second semi-final at the Bernabeu stadium, Real Madrid’s home ground, should constitute a good argument against the “park the bus in front of the goal” strategy.

By the way, Jose Mourinho is not the originator of the strategy of strongly defensive football, but in all probability, he gave it a memorable name: “park the bus”.It’s an appealing name for a style of play that isn’t appealing at all. But a name doesn’t have to reflect the nature of the entity it names, as the wise have said.

In any case, what Mourinho said about Barca’s 3-1 victory in that final match or about the match itself, which Barca had dominated, not many probably got to know. Did he murmur a reluctant word of praise for Barca, or more likely, did he trash Barca for having unfairly defeated his team in the semi-final? “Unfairly” in his view of course. He too often tended to see a conspiracy against his team whenever it lost a match that mattered. Or did he say (as his team was not playing)that the match was none of his business? Whatever he said wasn’t given coverage enough by the media for one to take note of.

As for the final, it was good both from the point of view of the match itself and the healthy respect that the managers and players showed towards each other. No aggressive or belittling comments by either team directed at the other had been made before the match and there was no cynical attempt to demoralize the opponent in a manner that is euphemistically called “playing the mind game”. And Ferguson’s words and conduct after the match set an example, worth emulating, of how dignified and graceful one could be in defeat. Both his captain and he himself paid compliments in controlled words to the team they had lost to. On the field, both teams played open football and both played to win. Although after Barca’s second goal MU might have sensed that the odds were clearly against them, they did not give up attacking; neither did, at any stage, Barca stop playing attacking football and go defensive to save their lead. There were no cynical fouls, no play-acting, and no ugliness. The game was pleasing. It was not a “one-nil” kind of final, the only goal coming from a penalty kick or being the result of some terrible defensive error, rather than of some creativity on the part of the striker. Four goals were scored and the goals were good; one could only argue about which of these the next- best was. The best was indisputably Messi’s for the element of surprise that it had. Barca won the match, but from another point of view – by no means inconsequential – both teams won as they played good clean, and positive football. Football won.

The match invited attention to the fact that there aren’t just two options in football, namely, (a) play attractive football and lose, and (b) play unattractive football and win. There is a third option: (c) play good, pleasing football and win. At the club level in Spain and England, Barca, Real Madrid, MU, and Arsenal, among others were and still are known for playing interesting football, as are Brazil, Holland, Portugal and Spain, to name some, at the international level. In fact, only a few teams implement the idea of winning at the cost of quality football. At the international level, it may be Italy in the last decade that did so more often than not, and at the club level, any club where Mourinho was the Manager in the last decade, except for Real Madrid because the fans wouldn’t accept it. As mentioned earlier, he isn’t the creator of uninteresting, defensive football; he has been merely the most articulate exponent of it all these years. And quite importantly, he has been unapologetic about it.

Now, I do not think any Manager would really like his team to play unattractive football. But much depends on the kind of players one has and the amount of money one has to buy the players one wants. And the Manager of a top team knows that he would lose his job if he didn’t win trophies even for two or three seasons consecutively. Perhaps the only exception, as far as the Premier League (EPL) is concerned, is Arsene Wenger, former Manager of Arsenal. 

Well, we know the arguments for defensive football as we do the context in which this is seen as a need. We also know that winning is intoxicating and that it has a way of legitimizing or at least condoning the sins committed in the process. But at the same time, we can hardly afford to forget that a healthy society cannot uphold success at any cost in any domain as a value. “Park the bus” football is a consequence of the society we live in – a society that values success.

We must not ignore the fact that neither the “bus in front of the goal” kind of football nor the open play kind always brings success. Chelsea under Mourinho, often playing very defensive football, didn’t always win titles. Playing artistic football, Brazil didn’t win the World Cup in 1882 and in 1986. Playing somewhat unappealing football by Brazilian standards, Brazil won the World Cup in 1994 but it didn’t bring cheers to the viewers across the world. Committed fans may rejoice over a soulless victory, but people celebrate a beautiful match. It must be remembered that a great football match or tournament today is no more a local event; it’s a global one, and the global audience looks forward to seeing aesthetically appealing football.

P.S. When asked which match he thought was the best in the 1986 World Cup finals, the great Maradona did not say the Argentina-England quarter-final match, which his team had won, or the Argentina-Germany final match, which Argentina won, and with that, the World Cup. He said it was the quarter-final match between Brazil and France (which, Brazil lost on penalties). Both teams played superbly attractive football.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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