James Lawton: Ugly truth that values victory above skill

Click to follow
The Independent Football

As Steve McClaren has been widely touted as the likeliest successor to Sven Goran Eriksson it was, naturally, depressing to hear him endorse Rio Ferdinand's mind-numbing assertion that it's OK to play rubbish "every game" as long as you win. But then let's keep some perspective. It could have been worse. McClaren could have urged the appointment of Fred Flintstone as team mascot.

As Steve McClaren has been widely touted as the likeliest successor to Sven Goran Eriksson it was, naturally, depressing to hear him endorse Rio Ferdinand's mind-numbing assertion that it's OK to play rubbish "every game" as long as you win. But then let's keep some perspective. It could have been worse. McClaren could have urged the appointment of Fred Flintstone as team mascot.

It's still bad, however, and shockingly so. Ferdinand has never been mistaken for one of the game's intellectual firebrands - his own report of ambling off for a shopping spree when he should have been taking a mandatory drug test was one giveaway - but McClaren is supposed to be the future.

His current job with England is to turn into reality the vision of his £4.5m head coach Eriksson, yet he says: "I read Rio's comments - and they were at the crux of the matter now, especially at this level. You have to win matches. The England team is set up to win matches. I don't like the word entertainment. I want a winning team. You only set an example if you win things or do well in things."

Where do you start with such gibberish? Maybe with a few simple truths. In the natural course of events great teams are, de facto, winning teams. Also, as an inevitable consequence outside of occasional barren spells when mediocrity briefly takes root, they are entertaining.

Let's take, as supreme examples, the teams who have won the most World Cups and the most European Cups, Brazil and Real Madrid. Brazil and Real Madrid, at least before they became a parody of what a great team are supposed to be, have never gone out to entertain. They went out to win, which is why they did it more frequently than any of their rivals. Their entertainment came from the highest skill married to maximum effect.

This is the credo McClaren should be embracing when he considers an England team that contains the combination of talent and effect that might be represented by the likes of Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Owen and, if he ever resurfaces in a meaningful form, Beckham.

What is rubbish as defined by Ferdinand and McClaren? We can only presume it is something which is created when players of great natural ability, who are well coached, suffer a collective off-day. This of course does happen from time to time, and when it does "great" teams tend to find a way to win. But then if you play rubbish every game your chances tend to run down. Ferdinand and McClaren apparently do not accept this. They say the road to the mountain top can be lined with garbage. In all the great ragbag of football cliché it is hard to imagine anything more nonsensical.

McClaren takes another leap when he says: "Sir Alex Ferguson has said that often you have to go through all those years of failure, the misery of going out in the quarter-finals and semi-finals to get what you want. England have suffered in tournaments and been criticised. I think it's all for a purpose. It's why the emphasis is on winning at the cost of entertainment - and why I think England can win the World Cup next year."

The implication here is that England are on a steady course, purging themselves of weakness and extravagance on an inexorable march to victory in Germany next summer.

How, then, does McClaren explain the fact that England's defeats in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 2002 and the European Championship last summer were so similar? Why were the faults displayed against Brazil still so apparent against Portugal two years later; killing faults like a failure of attacking imagination - particularly apparent when Rooney was injured in the Portuguese game - and a total failure to control games in which they had gained an advantage because of a basic inadequacy in controlling the ball? In both these games, which offered the chance to demonstrate the depth of their progress, England ultimately played rubbish. But they did not win, and how could they, playing the way they did?

The only way you can play rubbish "every" game and still win is if the other team do the same but more so. This, unfortunately for the theories of Ferdinand and McClaren, can never be guaranteed, except perhaps when you are playing teams like Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan.

In all of this is the basic illiteracy of suggesting there is a difference between winning football and that which is attractive or "entertaining". The greatest footballer the world has ever seen, most judges would say, is Pele. George Best was a rival in skill but not in discipline, which means that the verdict of history would probably have the Brazilian out on his own with his nearest rivals being Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano.

The relevance here is that the ultimate player never did anything that was for show rather than effect. His cutting edge was immense and relentlessly applied. Inevitably in his shadow, but down the years peeking out with great brilliance, have been other great Brazilian players and teams: men like Gerson, Tostao, Carlos Alberto, Garrincha, Zico, Socrates, Ronaldo, Romario. Their careers fused into one endless imperative - football that breaks down and overwhelms the opposition, and which on the way thrills the heart of any football lover.

McClaren asserts another view. He says that you can draw a line between beautiful and winning football. You can't. If football is fundamentally flawed, if the team are not well prepared, if their game goes on and off like a damp bag of fireworks, it can never be beautiful. Of course it can have its moments, it can fizz and flatter and it can deceive. Come to think of it, it can be rather like England over the last few years.

Comments