The Neutral’s Dilemma

As a neutral soccer fan, there are certain characteristics that tend to draw me in to a team, that get me to reserve my seat on the bandwagon.

Remember when these guys were new and fresh? Me too.

Many of these I’m sure you can guess. I like teams that attack the opposing goal. I’d rather root for players who seem likable than douchebags and prima donnas. And like most post-modern sports fans, I tend to pull for teams with some sense of coherent narrative, with an idea of their place in the sport. For the past three years, all that means I’ve rooted for Barcelona.

The Catalans tick all the boxes. They’re offensive-minded, feature a cast of likable characters ­­— from Captain Caveman Puyol to still-lives-with-his-parents Xavi[1] ­— and play with their own style, something completely unlike what everyone else was doing at the time[2], something developed and nurtured in house and enhanced through (very expensive) injections of outside talent.

Put simply, they’re fun to watch.

The best comparison, sporting-wise, are the mid-2000’s Phoenix Suns, the run-and-gun, seven-seconds-or-less NBA squads coached by Mike D’Antoni and led by Steve Nash, whose goofy Canadian charisma is near-impossible to root against.

See? He's very rootable, right? Assuming that that's a word.

They checked the same boxes: putting up staggering point totals, featuring the likes of perennial good guy Grant Hill and lightning-fast Brazilian Leandro Barbosa and playing in a way that seemed completely foreign to what most of the rest of the league was doing, namely by trying to put up as many shots as possible, especially high-percentage layups and wide-open three-pointers.

The big difference is of course that the Suns never won anything, never even made it out of the then-loaded Western Conference, due to a gamut of bad officiating, bad league policies and bad luck.[3] Eventually, that got to ownership and management, and they started breaking up the team, beginning with D’Antoni’s firing and the signing of the last person in the world you’d want on a seven seconds or less team, Shaquille O’Neal.

Barcelona, on the other hand, keep humming along. Three league titles, two European ones. The cast has changed; the days when Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure and Thierry Henry were major contributors seem much longer ago than 2009. But the style remains the same, and one suspects it will until one of the three of Messi, Xavi or Pep Guardiola retires or departs.

Too bad I’m bored with it.

Granted, better that tiki taka than this tiki taka.

I’ve been watching tiki-taka for what amounts to three straight years — the European Championship, then the first Pep season, the Confederations Cup, another season, the World Cup, and this last one. For the greater part of the first two,[4] I had no complaints. Now, it’s not the same. The combinations that were once thrilling now seem nice, but routine. The “how’d they do that” passing is impressive, but expected. Aesthetically, there’s no team out there that’s as pleasing to watch as Barcelona, but rarely is Barcelona as pleasing to watch anymore as they used to be.

This is probably the fault of Jose Mourinho, who taught teams that their best chance was to park the bus, the charter jet, and the kitchen sink in front of goal and hope to hold out. Last summer, I found myself defending Spain to people who thought teams like Germany or Argentina were playing better, more exciting soccer. It wasn’t their fault that the other teams had reached the same conclusion as the computer from “WarGames”, that the only way to win was not to play the game.

The only winning move is not to play.

That’s still the case, but my willingness to defend them has slipped. So many of the games seem so similar. Plus, I, as I imagine did many neutrals, still have a sour taste in my mouth after the QuadroClasico. I’m not the kind to suggest they disgraced the game or any of that silliness, but for someone sitting on the fence, a little push like that was really all I needed.

Now, I face the neutral’s dilemma. By nature, we’re flighty, fickle, or else we’d have already found a permanent team. We get bored easily, and that leads to us pining for another, someone newer, fresher, sexier. But who is there? What happens when we lose interest in the teams we’ve come to root for, only to find there’s no one to take their place?

I’m not asking for someone to come along and do what Barcelona does only better, and I’m certainly not the type who fetishizes the short passing game they practice as the evolutionary apex of the game.  What I want ­— what I’ve discovered are the most interesting teams to root for — are teams that use their players in ways that best take advantage of those players’ unique characteristics, not ones who say, this is the best right winger we can get, the best central defender we can get, so this must be the best team that we can get.

I want someone to sign Theo Walcott, Gabby Agbonlahor and Nuri Sahin and build an offense around the two speed demons galloping after the Turk’s long passes.[5] I want Everton to sign 6’8” Lacina Traore and send him to the Tim Cahill School of Finishing. I want someone to buy an entire mid-level national team[6] and drill them year-round into a cohesive unit. I want teams with themes, with a recognizable style.[7]

Not this kind of style.

There’s good news. One is the opening of the transfer window, which means the possibility for these types of teams to be formed is out there once again.[8] The second is that my requirements don’t necessitate picking a team in the upper echelons. An MLS team, Primeira Liga or Eredivisie squad stands just as good a chance — maybe even a better chance — of meeting these requirements.

So I’m asking for your help. You know what I’m looking for. Let me know in the comments or on Twitter who’s going to be worth watching, at whatever level, and why. If I get enough good ones, we’ll run an analysis feature on the suggestions.

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[1] I realize my evidence is five-years-old, and that there’s a good chance he’s moved out by now. It’s a great video anyway.

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[2] Minus Spain, which we’ll forgive for aping that style.

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[3] Also, Gregg Popovich sold his soul to the Devil.

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[4] I.e. Not during the Confederations Cup.

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[5] I don’t actually think this would work, but if it did, geez it’d be a lot of fun.

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[6] USA! USA!

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[7] Our Formation Renovation feature, where we insert new players into old styles of play, is fun to write in large part because it involves watching lots and lots of footage of teams hailed (or in the case of catenaccio, vilified) for their style.

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[8] Unfortunately, instead of that happening, all the players who are any good are just going to go to Barcelona and Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea.

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One Response to The Neutral’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Trading Places: The Real-Barca Swap | The Other 87

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