How a team loses actually matters

Unlike the French, the Germans and the Italians owned up to their loses. They’ll be champions again one day.

Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Winning isn’t everything. It’s not the only thing, either, as Vince Lombardi would have us believe. It is, in fact, a rare thing. (Just ask the Dutch, who have now flubbed out of a record three World Cup finals. Their loss was rough and they took it badly, whining about the referee without cause.) The World Cup in South Africa 2010 produced one winner and 31 losers, many more if you include all the teams that never made it to the tournament. And while Spain will go down in history, the rest will all be forgotten. Which is a shame. The losers, after all, make up the bulk of the competitors and the way they lose is so much more revealing than the way they win, each defeat a minor insight into national characteristics. To steal from Tolstoy: all victories are alike; every defeat is miserable in its own way.

Even though the favourite won in the end, when compared to other World Cups, South Africa 2010 was a tournament of especially gruesome flame-outs and disasters. It was a year of massive upsets, when a psychic German octopus had better luck picking the outcomes of matches than the bookies and pundits. The French squad had the most ignominious exit from any World Cup in recent memory. When they lost 1-0 to Senegal in the World Cup in 2002, it was amusing. But even the most devoted Gallophobe has to feel sorry for the grotesque fiasco of les bleus this time around. After cheating their way into the tournament, with Thierry Henry’s vile handball against Ireland, on arrival they promptly surrendered. Their collapse began in the game against Mexico during the half-time discussions between Nicolas Anelka, the enfant terrible of French football, and the French coach Raymond Domenech, in which the player suggested that the coach should indulge in self-love, or words to that effect. After the comment was leaked to the press, the French Football Association sent Anelka home, the captain Patrice Evra speculated about a “traitor” in the team, and the rest of the French squad refused to attend practice in protest. Meanwhile, they were losing with dreadful soullessness to teams with half their talent.

What could be more perfectly French than this footballing disaster, combining equal parts revolution and farce? It seems that the French footballers, like the rest of the country’s citizens, have decided that the best way through crisis is striking. The French failure on the pitch has sparked profound soul-searching. The sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, called a news conference to discuss what she called “the disaster.” Thierry Henry asked for and received an audience with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to explain the fiasco, as if there were not more important things for the president of France to do.

While France exploded under the intensity of internecine squabbling, Italy presented the world with a much more muted disaster. Their play was, to give it a charitable description, restrained. The team that won the World Cup four years ago inexplicably could not manage to beat New Zealand, a team with a full-time bank manager on its roster. Unlike the French, whose team blamed the coach and whose coach blamed the players, the Italians took a self-flagellating approach to defeat. “I take full responsibility,” said coach Marcello Lippi. “If the squad went out with fear in their legs and hearts it means the coach didn’t prepare the match well tactically or psychologically.” Every single player asked about the defeat was open about his shame, but it was perhaps Andrea Pirlo who put it best: “We didn’t win a game and it’s everyone’s fault. We’re a team and we’ve got to assume responsibility all together.” Though histrionic, in failure, they acted like champions. The same is true for the Germans, although they were much more ruthless and rational about their defeat. When the brilliant run of their very young team ended with a crushing display of Spanish dominance, Joachim Loew admitted: “They were better than us.” The Italian and German recognition of collective and personal responsibility is why they will be World and European champions in the future. In their different ways, they both acknowledged their disasters.

The English defeat was more intense and more stinging. Some losses at the World Cup are not losses at all. New Zealand’s three draws at the tournament—not sufficient to advance them—was considered one of that nation’s greatest sporting achievements. The fact that North Korea managed to score a single goal in their match against Brazil was a victory of sorts. The size of a defeat or victory has to be balanced against expectations. The English team possesses five of the world’s 20 highest-paid players and their manager, Fabio Capello, was paid more than double the salary of any other manager at the tournament. Despite these advantages, the lions played a lackadaisical, insipid, uninspiring brand of soccer, which barely slipped them through to the round of 16. The English loss at South Africa 2010 will probably have more long-lasting effects than any other national side’s humiliation at the tournament. It coincides with the Conservative government’s 40 per cent gutting of the public service and promises of “decades of austerity.” For England and for English football both, the inflated sense of self-worth brought on by huge pots of money and imported talent has suddenly, brutally popped, leaving an emptiness. The soul-searching has gone into existentialist mode and will require more than merely firing the coach for expiation.

But both the best and the worst flame-out of South Africa 2010 has to belong to Argentina, which made the gorgeous, inevitably doomed choice of picking Maradona as its manager. In hindsight, the pick was brilliant because it immediately converted the defeat of Argentina into Maradona’s defeat, denying the loss a national resonance. The ridiculous brilliance of his personality was a perfectly distracting display after the loss to dazzling Germany. He reportedly scuffled with opposition supporters, and at the post-game conference he was the portrait of devastation: “This is the toughest moment of my life and the only thing I can compare it to is the day that I stopped playing football. We had so many good players that it is a real kick in the teeth and I don’t have any more energy for anything.” In his defeated childishness, Maradona is football’s ultimate beautiful loser.

Anybody can join in a victory parade. Only failure reveals true passion for the game.

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