From the simple question of the quality of reportage through the central problem of footballing professionalism to the downright philosophical challenges which peaks of human endeavour (any peak, any endeavour) inevitably present, the latest World Cup proved both the most informative and the most insight-provoking ever – ever since, that is, television has enabled football-loving humanity to watch World Cups away from home. Television has, moreover, enabled the truth-loving sports fan to check, for the first time in the history of reportage, its reliability: the inevitable tautology of the televisual sports commentary – you hear what you see – enables us to see what we don’t hear and hear what we don’t see – quite a shock for those who tend to accept, unquestioningly, the facts of the expert reporter.
At which point even the sports-hater might prick up his ears: sport puts him in a position to scrutinise mass communication; without sport, this possibility would not exist. In France’s match against Austria, ‘the first free-kick to be given against an Austrian’ was, in fact, the second, and a ‘free-kick for a deliberate foul’ proved the expert commentator unacquainted with the laws of the game, for the very concept of a foul involves intention. In Italy’s crucial match against Argentina, we were told that ‘about eight free-kicks in 12 minutes’ had taken place, when we had seen ten. ‘That’s going to be the ninth free-kick,’ we were next informed, when we were to see the 11th. At a late stage in the match, the commentator pointed out that ‘we’ve had about twenty free-kicks in this match already,’ when we had had no fewer than 29 – or, generously excluding two offsides and one indirect free-kick, 26. The first-mentioned match was relayed by the BBC, the second by ITV: it didn’t make any difference, and statistics continued to be utterly unreliable throughout the World Cup, the actual number of incidents being invariably higher than the reported number. It was always a case of incidents having been overlooked or forgotten.
In addition, we did not always receive the untautological information required: if the camera didn’t show you the referee, and when the infringement in question could have been interpreted as either a foul or obstruction or dangerous play, the commentator should have considered it his duty to inform you of the verdict. Alternatively, in all such problematic cases, the televisual direction ought to have shown what the right hand of the referee was doing.
Reportage about any activity that involves expert knowledge needs two professionalisms, not one – not only the activity’s own expertise, that is to say, but also reporting expertise, which, in principle, is a scientific quality, as regards both the expert’s power of observation and his sheer conscience about getting things right. A great writer will ineluctably evince such a scientific aptitude, his imagination quite apart: Max Brod recounts that he was staggered at Franz Kafka’s detailed report on a football match they had seen together; Kafka had suggested that they should try and see who could remember more, minute details included. No wonder mass communication is a grave problem – amazing, though, that the fact is not universally realised.
At least, however, one knows what one is talking about when discussing these professionalisms. But once one tries to define professionalism in football itself, one realises, to put it bluntly, that supreme achievement may be unprofessional; what professionalism ensures is a minimal level of competence which may be mediocre, and a maximum of achievement seems to be impossible on the basis of mere mastery, on the basis of a thoroughly professional, and proportionately predictable, peformance. That much the Brazilians have taught us, down the World Cups, but never so clearly as on this occasion.
For a start, they wouldn’t know what a ‘professional foul’ meant, let alone commit it: when they did foul, it was the very opposite, in that they didn’t foul for a purpose, but as the result of unforeseen or unfore-felt emotion. Nor indeed was it only negative professionalism they lacked – or rather, from their own standpoint, it was: their game was without the remotest element of destructive football, so emphatically so that they proved incapable of defending without, at the same time, constructing. Their history teems with lousy goalkeepers, and as for their defenders, they only reach Brazilian heights when they don’t defend – when, virtually without body contact, they dispossess an opposing player by way of mere introduction to a movement which, first time, results in an anticipatory and anticipated pass that, ironically, may itself prove defence-splitting.
On the other hand, they were capable of those defensive slips which cost them at least two goals against Italy and thus the World Cup, and which a professional (Italian or English or German) defence wouldn’t have committed. It would be quite wrong to assume that therefore, they operated without strategy, without tactics. But all their planning seems to concentrate on build-ups – even its own negative part, which confined itself to the avoidance of unforced attacking mistakes. As neither commentators nor their assisting footballers and managers noticed, for instance, their highly improvisatory attacking movements yet included many a safeguard against landing themselves in an offside position.
In the match in which they beat the holders of the World Cup, for example, Brazil was ruled offside on a single occasion in the first half, and not at all in the second. This is not to say that the Argentines were incapable of comparable precautions: their offside infringement in the same match was, likewise, a single one in the first half – as was the new World Champions’ in the final, but the Argentinian or Italian game is such that my news does not surprise you, whereas in the case of Brazil, I daresay it does. Brazil’s footballing world is not merely un-European, but altogether different from everybody else’s, and not readily distinguishable from paradise, where you only lose against the Italians if, for once, your deadly free-kicks (amongst other kicks) go wrong.
Their professionalism, in short, does not extend beyond the constructive aspects of the game, and within them, professionalism, mastery, is a mere means of realising feats of spontaneous invention. The highest possible level of both inborn and trained skill is a necessary condition. For the purpose of a differential diagnosis between the two, let me simplify and call Zico’s left foot in-born, his right foot trained, and compare him to an un-Brazilian left – footed master, Ferenc Puskas, the ‘star of stars’ of the 1954 World Cup. Zico scored all his four goals with his right foot – though admittedly, even Puskas’s right foot could have scored the fourth, against Argentina.
But Puskas’s right foot was downright impossible, whereas the intensity of Zico’s talent had obviously made it impossible for him to neglect his right foot: there must, in fact, have been enough inborn-ness there, too, for subsequent practice to produce such two-footedness that the commentators failed to see that his right foot was his wrong foot. Not even Jimmy Greaves’s right foot, by no means untrained or unscoring, deceived the commentators of the 1962 World Cup – his first, upon his return from AC Milan. I’m afraid we have to land ourselves in an answerless conclusion: the Brazilian concentration of natural talent, like the Eastern European-Jewish concentration of supreme fiddling talent, is, let’s face it, inexplicable – and without the assumption of such congenital superiority, the Brazilian game is inexplicable.
It was Greaves himself who, on a World Cup television panel for the first time, predicted Italy’s conquest from the outset, despite his awareness that they couldn’t touch the Brazilians – even, we may add with wisdom after the misleading event, when they happened to beat them. In Mexico in 1970, the match between the two – Brazil v. the poor man’s Brazil – was the final, and as in 1982, Italy went a goal up. But as is their wont when they are being scored against (remember 1982’s games against Russia and Scotland), the Brazilians didn’t seem to notice and continued their supernormal game, indistinguishable from what they’d done before the goal was scored, and duly won the World Cup.
This time, they unduly didn’t: defensive things went wrong, whereas in Italy, they virtually never do. Greaves’s wisdom before the event was comprehensive. Beethoven, I daresay, slipped more readily than Brahms, the poor man’s Beethoven, whose inventions are overwhelming, but whose utterly reliable defensive game bores the pants off you. Without exception until this moment, throughout my writing life I have kept art and sport well apart, but to deny the Brazilians’ art would be unrealistic, for two reasons.
The essence of their approach is the anticipatory, inventive, meaningful contradiction of the spectator’s expectations – as well as the opponent’s – and their skill, their uncanny ball control, the entire physical aspect of their game is subservient to, and nourished by, their imaginative intentions: their virtuosity is comparable to the concert hall’s rather than the circus’s. In fact, physical fitness, a priority all over the world, does not appear to be a sine qua non in paradise. From 1970, we remember Tostao, who couldn’t head because of his detached retina, and the chain-smoker Gerson, who dominated midfield without running a single step (I carefully recorded his every game). His 1982 successor, amusingly, was Dr Socrates, who denied smoking sixty a day: perhaps his restraint made him an even more effective striker from midfield than Gerson. In any case, when one compared Germany’s preoccupation with fitness, or our own, to Brazil’s indifference, one saw the fundamental difference between two footballing world views – which is where philosophy came in and still does.
One is tempted, too, to compare the genius of Brazil, and the flashes of genius of which Italy or France were capable, with the mere talent with which Germany or England impressed. Italy were lucky enough to be able to combine their defensive talent with strokes of attacking genius (not Rossi’s headed goals, which were conventional), and that was how their World Cup win happened. As for ourselves, the virtual exclusion of any strokes of genius (from Brooking and Hoddle) confined us, at best, to talented performances, and that was how England’s elimination happened: unpredictable strokes of genius were needed for the required wins against West Germany and Spain.
And here lies the World Cup’s only mystery: from personal knowledge, I am able to assert that Greenwood’s footballing philosophy – his philosophy altogether, in fact – places Brazilian genius far above, indeed beyond, the most masterly talent. Yet his selections did not, so far as their criteria were concerned, differ very much from Sir Alf Ramsey’s 1966 selections: Hoddle’s 1½ games corresponded to what Ramsey did to Greaves, and Brooking should have played more than about half an hour against Spain; the independent Greenwood I know would have brought him on, at the latest, at half-time. Brooking owes his entire footballing life to Greenwood’s talent-spotting, and to the subsequent education he enjoyed at West Ham. But there is another side to Greenwood’s mind – an uneasy conscience about not playing it tough enough. At West Ham, it was the assistant manager (and current manager), John Lyall, who supported his guilt feelings – and in Spain, it was, I suggest, the much-praised coach, Don Howe. Much praised by everyone, that is, except Jimmy Greaves, who reminded us of what Howe had done at Arsenal, and left the rest to our own footballing philosophy – which, in its turn, will depend on our philosophy of life, now developed, it is to be hoped, by what the Brazilians allowed us to experience.