When Pele named his 1977 autobiography My Life And The Beautiful Game, he was revisiting a phrase that has echoed down the decades ever since.
As a synonym for football, those last three words have become a cliche, trotted out ad nauseam, though at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico only the most churlish and curmudgeonly spectator could have denied it was a fitting description of Brazil’s supreme, almost balletic artistry.
But what did Edson Arantes do Nascimento mean by “the beautiful game”?
Ask a dozen fans and you might be given a dozen different answers. My reply pays homage to another great, this time from the island of Ireland. No, not George Best.
Try, instead, Oscar Wilde, who wrote:
“Simplicity is beauty and beauty is simplicity, nothing more, nothing less.”
Forget all the talk of tactics, styles, sports science, 4-4-2s, Christmas trees, false 9s and impact subs. The joy of football lies in its simplicity. That is why it’s the world’s most popular sport. Just about anyone can understand the rules (with the possible exception of the offside-interfering-with-play conundrum) and almost anyone can notice an outstanding performance or a shocker. Thus we are all entitled to pontificate, which helps us to be engaged with our passion, because we all believe the evidence of our eyes. Even when what we are seeing is almost unbelievable, Jeff.
Yes, each of us can be an expert. This week’s subject of choice for many pundits is the application, or lack of same, displayed by Newcastle United.
Mark Lawrenson, one-time defensive coach at St James Park, reckons half the current team are not trying. He says Steve McClaren is almost powerless to motivate the millionaire malingerers, with neither the carrot nor the stick seemingly having any effect.
Paul Merson predicts Liverpool will win 4-0 on Sunday. Only the most blinkered observer would be surprised by those comments. When a team are not giving 100% the likelihood is that they will end the match with nothing.
In our final game of last season, a spectacle nobody could describe as a classic, the players ran themselves ragged, driven on by fanatical support and the spectre of losing their Premier League status. West Ham were willing victims, already on their holidays as the saying goes.
Another hoary old chestnut suggests “form is temporary but class is permanent”. That one is used by apologists looking to excuse a poor performance by an individual such as Wayne Rooney, though his below-par run has persisted for so long that he might be better off taking up golf. I’m delighted to see his inclusion every week, for purely selfish reasons.
Sure, every player can have an off-day, when nothing goes right however hard he tries. I cursed Nicky Butt long and hard at the Millennium Stadium in 2005, each time he presented the ball to a member of his former employer’s team. In effect, the game was often 12 v 10 in their favour because of his almighty stinker. But he was clearly trying his best to do the right thing. To err is human; to forgive, divine.
What annoyed me far more than Butt’s nightmare performance that day was the failure of tactical genius Graeme Souness to address the problem. When Butt reappeared after half-time my heart sank. Anybody could see he needed to be replaced. Anybody except our former manager.
Few things on a football pitch are unforgivable, whatever you might feel as a loyal spectator watching yet another dire display. What does stick in the craw is a blatant no-show, when a player is so uninterested, so lacking in effort, enthusiasm and team spirit that the other 10 men would be better off without him.
Perhaps I’m lucky, perhaps I’m charitable to the point of folly but only twice have I been treated to that disgusting spectacle by a player in a Newcastle United shirt.
The first offence was committed (an utterly inappropriate verb) on Wednesday, February 21, 1996, against West Ham. The libel laws prevent me from naming the guilty party. Let’s just say that on his day he was a gem. And that on this day, for reasons he has never divulged, he was as devious as a Hatton Garden diamond thief.
Not off-key, not lacking match sharpness, not a little wayward with his timing. I will go to my grave convinced he knew exactly what he was doing at Upton Park; which was jeopardising Newcastle’s march towards the Premiership title. Football being a simple game, nobody could fail to notice. The beautiful game at its ugliest.
The second offence was in an almost meaningless fixture at the fag-end of the 2001-2 season. Different context (we were sure to finish fourth whatever the score).
Different opponents (Southampton rather than West Ham).
Different player (who again shall remain nameless).
But the same glaringly obvious disloyalty to his teammates, his supporters and his employers. Much of the talk before kick-off centred on the decision of Bobby Robson to field a full-strength team rather than blood one or two youngsters. Did he regret his choice? The travelling fans certainly did. To say this player was uninvolved only scratches the surface. He was as unwilling to help the cause as Thatcher at a Communist Party rally.
So two occasions, two so-called stars, both playing away from home. In more senses than one.
Football, the beautiful game, exposes the cheats all too clearly. Let’s hope we see nothing of that ilk against Liverpool.
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