A few months ago, a friend and I had an argument about Roger Federer. Both of us are Federer fans, and the argument wasn’t about his greatness. Instead, it was about a parameter of that greatness. Federer, my friend said, was the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in his sport partly because his tennis was so beautiful. His aesthetic appeal was a key part of his GOATness.
I disagreed. No one would deny that Federer plays beautiful tennis—but sport is about winning or losing. To be considered great, you have to win a hell of a lot. To be considered GOAT, you have to win more than anyone else, and achieve dominance in your era. Federer fulfills all these criteria, his record against Rafael Nadal notwithstanding. The beauty is a perk.
GOATs of other sports—a phrase I never thought I’d use, by the way—weren’t all pretty. (Don Bradman was thought of by some as being unorthodox and even ugly.) Also, beauty is necessarily subjective, and I know people who find Nadal’s tennis prettier than Federer’s. (Fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh, for example, mentioned in an email conversation once that he found “genuine artistry in some of Nadal’s cross-court play and running forehands.”) To some, form follows function, and the beautiful player is the effective one. Also, perceptions of beauty vary depending on one’s understanding of the sport as well as one’s approach towards it. As a teenage chess player, for example, I found great beauty in some of the explosive tactical play of Mikhail Tal—but as I grew older, found a more enduring grace in the subtle positional machinations, in seemingly quiet positions, of the likes of Anatoly Karpov. Beauty depends.
I thought of beauty in sport, of course, because of the ongoing football World Cup. This is one game where debates about beauty and efficiency are old hat, and it is almost fashionable to bemoan the death of artistry at the altar of results. The teams we remember with the greatest fondness are the ones that gave us beautiful football—Brazil in 1982, for example. But they weren’t necessarily the teams that won World Cups, who were sometimes uninspiring and ugly, such as Germany in 1990. This is inevitable—we associate beauty with an open game, with players given the space and the canvas to display their artistry, but in the modern game, no good team will give an opposing player that space. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, “The dribbling technique of Garrincha or Stanley Matthews doesn’t exist in today’s game, not because the skills have been lost, but because no side would ever give them the three or four yards of acceleration room they needed before their feints became effective.”
Modern football is about pressing for the ball, about controlling space, about formation. Brazil’s team of 1970 was perhaps the last great team of the pre-modern age. Football like that, beautiful as it was, would not win World Cups today. In his book, Wilson pointed to the Brazil-Italy match of 1982 as the day “a certain naivete in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible to simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for.”
Diego Maradona, as a coach in this World Cup, seemed a throwback in the sense that he seemed to “simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it.” It’s ironic, because in 1986 he helped Argentina win the World Cup under a coach who believed in efficiency over beauty. Carlos Bilardo summed up the modern ethic when he said: “Football is played to win… Shows are for the cinema, for theatre.” (The quote is from Wilson’s book.)
Perceptions of beauty change with the times, of course. I watched Spain’s semi-final win against Germany with my father last night, and he was disappointed at the seeming lack of action in the middle. I was enthralled, though, by Spain’s pressing game, and the manner in which they controlled possession, and set the rhythm of the game. (Much like Barcelona vs Arsenal not long ago—and this Spain side is more or less the Barcelona side.) There was some astonishing, subtle artistry on display—and I dare say it was beautiful. It was also effective. Same difference.
To end on a personal note, that also sums up my ethic as a writer. I’m one of those who believes that style must always be a slave to substance, and that writing that draws attention to itself is bad writing. Rather than lose myself in self-indulgent dribbles and feints, playing to the gallery, I’d prefer to move relentlessly towards my goal—and if you’ve gotten so far in this piece, I’ve scored. Now bear with me while I remove my T-shirt and do cartwheels.
Previously on Viewfinder