The End of Football?

This article first appeared in The Blue Bird on February 14th 2015

In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published a book whose title did little to conceal its daring ambition. Through the course of The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama suggested that the advent of Western liberalism might indicate the concluding moment in humanity’s sociocultural development. This thesis had originally been advanced by Fukuyama in an earlier essay, ‘The End of History?’ published in The National Interest in 1989. Within its pages he claimed:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. (‘The End of History?’, p. 3)

Following in the wake of the disenchantment of modern society projected by Max Weber and an anticipation of the inevitable emergence of Alexandre Kojève’s ‘universal and homogenous’ state, Fukuyama claimed that the West had arrived at the ‘end’ of its history. Properly conceived, the ‘end of history’ announced not the termination of any future event—the content of history, as it might be expressed—but the appearance of the final form of history itself—liberal democracy as the ultimate telos for all systems of governance. Once this liberal democracy has been reached, so the logic goes, there can be no progression to an alternative system. It was in this sense, then, that Fukuyama deemed the ‘end of history’ to have been achieved in the final decade of the twentieth century.

This heralded ‘universalization of Western liberal democracy’ which seemed so palpable during the 90s, with its mass mobilisation of capital markets and the burgeoning appropriation of neoliberal principles fomenting into an effervescence optimism about the future possibilities for society in the West, would come crashing down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 2001. Nevertheless, vestigial remainders of the ‘end of history’ narrative continue on even within our present society, forming the implicit obverse of much of the media discussion in the aftermath of the tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Whilst the existence of such narratives beneath the surface of the mass media’s political commentary might provide a fruitful avenue for stimulating debate, I want to turn instead to a perhaps more unexpected iteration of the ‘end of history’ narrative in the world media which emerged within the relative backwater of football journalism (I say ‘relative backwater’ because, in spite of the space devoted to discussion of the beautiful game in our present culture, the dearth of any real discussion of anything approaching insightful analysis is painfully apparent.)

Viewed through the hermeneutics of a hindsight bias, the history of European football can be divided into crude periods of national dominance. The English domination of European football in the 70s gave way in the 80s and 90s to an Italian ascendency: in the years running from 1989-1998, there was an Italian team in every European Cup final except for one. The decade of football which opened the twenty-first century can be read as the growing hegemony of Spain as a footballing power; the early part of the decade in which the English Premier League made a brief resurgence soon becoming overshadowed in the latter years of the 2000s by the complete supremacy of Spanish football both domestically, continentally and internationally. Barcelona’s Champions League wins in 2006, 2009 and 2011 correlated with a Spanish dominance at the international level with a World Cup in 2010 sandwiched by European Championship wins in 2008 and 2012.

Within a very short stretch of time, the world media became besotted. Even the usually unruffled Henry Winter, a seeming instantiation of the British stiff upper lip, appeared to have left his sangfroid in his other jacket pocket when he wrote:

Joyfulness pervades Barcelona’s play, seen in the passing between Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, disciples of a glorious gospel… Glamour suffuses the white shirts of Real Madrid, evinced in the style and heavyweight substance of Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso, much-missed alumni of the Premier League. (Daily Telegraph, 09 Apr 2011)

Before long, it became de jure to wax lyrical about los conquistadores, rolling the exotic names off the tongue and citing possession statistics with wild abandon. In pubs where the concept of the ‘tactic’ had barely been raised as a conversation topic, old men in flat caps were now speaking of tiki-taka as if it were as quotidian as the pork scratchings that hung behind the bar. Yet with the arrival of Spanish football, a more insidious feeling arose within the coteries of football journalism. For it did not seem to be the case that a new period of football had emerged which might, in the course of history, be replaced by another form; rather, it felt as though there was no progression that could be made that might topple the Spanish from their position of dominance. There was a ‘best’ way of playing football and it had finally arrived in incarnate form. It was as if the end of football itself had been reached. As Barney Ronay would later express it,‘at the closing of the Age of Iberia it does seem certain that no team has ever come as close at its best to being simply unbeatable, as this Spain at its best, if only because winning a match must, by definition, involve being allowed to kick the ball occasionally’ (Guardian, Thursday 19 June 2014).

As is so often the case, ‘end of history’ narratives are brought into clearest relief in the light of their own failure. The World Cup in 2014 burst into life as a football arched through the air off the boot of Daley Blind, met the head of Robin van Persie at full stretch, flew over the despairing fingers of Iker Casillas and nestled in the back of the net. The Spanish collapsed to a 5-1 defeat and the ‘end of football’ which had seemed so tangible in the preceding years lay in tatters at the feet of the global media who had championed it. The Independent’s Jack de Menezes summed up the general feeling as he wrote:

Some have claimed that the end of Spain’s six-year domination of world football does not mean the end of tiki-taka, but simply a new dawn in the history of Spanish football as the old guard come to the end of their careers. This simply is not true. (The Independent, Thursday 19 June 2014)

The narrative of the ‘end of football’ could no longer be maintained. It was not the case that by filling old wineskins with new wine the old form would be revivified and the Spain of the past would return.

Instead, there was a growing recognition that tiki-taka had failed through the development of counteractive footballing tactics which exposed the frailties of the Spanish footballing style. In the latter years of the 2000s, opponents of Barcelona or Spain had ostensibly sat back in a bid to absorb pressure, seeking to prevent the inevitable but offering very little in the way of an attacking response. Such approaches were self-defeating: the tiki-taka style relied on retention of pressure around the halfway line and deep defences did little to prevent that, simply inviting wave after wave of forward play from the team with the ball. With the introduction of younger coaches who brought with them new styles of play, the parameters were changed and the balance of power visibly shifted. Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund began the revolution which reached a crescendo in Diego Simone’s accomplishment of the seemingly-impossible with Athlético Madrid: winning La Liga against a Real Madrid and Barcelona still at the height of their powers. What these teams had discovered was that by pressing high up the pitch, destabilising the midfield possession of the opposition, tiki-taka lost its threat. Without the capacity to control the ball around the halfway line, the slow build-up necessary for the Spanish style became effectively useless. Now little notice was taken of possession per se, with attention shifting to assess the areas in which this possession occurred. There was a growing recognition that possession that was not directed towards an end was not necessarily desirable. A new age of football was born in which the Germans began to dominate.

In drawing to some sort of conclusion, then, by tracing the narrative of the ‘end of football’ which dominated the media in the past half-decade, we are able to raise the question as to what it is that makes football work tactically (or not). The failure of Fukuyama’s prognostications about the ‘end of history’ was realised in the face of the non-Western world’s ‘otherness’ to his paradigmatic proposals—the incapacity for liberal democracy to account for those non-democratic societies lying beyond its boundaries. In fact, it was this very expectation—that there might be an end towards which sociocultural history was moving—that led to its absolutely catastrophic failure in the end. The Arab Spring which had promised the ‘democratisation’ of the Arab world through the implementation of liberal ideologies had collapsed within a couple of years as spring rapidly turned to winter. In due course, the inherent logics which structured the ‘end of history’ narratives were called into question. For it was becoming increasingly apparent that society is not teleological, it does not move towards a common end, but is dialectical, structured around opposites that cannot be synthesised into a more universal political system.

In many respects, the same failure can be perceived at the heart of the demise of tiki-taka. As we saw, the downfall of Spanish football initiated with the emergence of reactive styles of play which refused to be intimidated by the hegemonic powers of Barcelona and Spain. In light of this, the failure of tiki-taka can be seen to arise from its necessary reliance upon the opposition to conform to a particular mode of play. And yet herein lies its problem: for football is not a game (like, for example, golf) played primarily against yourself, but a game played against an opponent. At this point, the positive and negative aspects of football strategy are brought into view. For it is not simply the case in football that a positive style of play is adopted in order to achieve victory as an end in itself; there is also an important sense in which your tactics function to prevent the opposition from winning in the manner in which they seek to win. During the Spanish dominance of tiki-taka, the dual nature of footballing strategy was muted somewhat—the Spanish team adopting a positive approach with their opponents predominantly implementing a negative tactic in an attempt to prevent defeat. What has emerged in more recent years is the rising recognition that, in order to beat tiki-taka it is not enough to instigate a negative coping strategy, it is also necessary to execute a positive tactic so as to force your opposition into a response. In so doing, the incapacity of tiki-taka was revealed as the inability to react to ‘other’ styles of play.

There can be no ‘end of history’ for football, then, precisely because football is not teleological—aimed towards a particular end—but dialectic—structured around two opposites which are antagonistic to one another. There is no resolution into a higher synthesis here, only a never-ending opposition which will endlessly generate new possibilities. If the history of football teaches us anything, it teaches us that the search for its final telos is unproductive. For it is precisely the oppositional nature of the game that propels the history of football. As soon as a hegemony is achieved, those teams at periphery begin their machinations, plotting the downfall of the dominant sides by frustrating them in their attempts to play. Success can only end in greater opposition. The circle continues. In the end, therefore, football will have no end. Long live the beautiful game.