On Sunday, the Russians didn’t just put what had been the most widely admired international soccer set-up of modern times out of business. They also killed an idea.
The first part will get the headlines, and deservedly so. Fielding a team of honking-big, brawler types, the Russian team embarrassed the nimble aesthetes of Spain.
It was a game that was hard to like and impossible to look away from.
Spain pinned Russia in its own end for most of 120 minutes. The Russians – and you’d like to make a Stalingrad reference here, but know better – repulsed all but one attack.
The game ended 1-1. The Russians had one shot on goal – a converted penalty.
So they tried a few more of those. Russia’s goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev – the sprightliest member of the team – came up the hero. It ended 4-3 after penalty kicks.
It was not the greatest victory ever in Russian/Soviet soccer, but it was very close.
Russia went into this tournament on the worst run of form of any of the 32 participating nations. It hadn’t won a game in eight months. Now, after beating the 2010 world champions, it is in the quarter-finals.
Some things are unlikely, some are unthinkable and then there’s whatever this is. In the film version, Russia rides its collection of castoffs and chop artists all the way to a title. The reality will probably be quite different.
But the Russians will at the least have accomplished several things in their home country. They’ve given this tournament some real underdog flavour. They’ve shown there is a difference between being better than your opponents position-by-position and being the better team.
Most important, they’ve finally, fully exposed the Spanish way of doing things. The model has been naked for a while, but now we can all see it.
Over the past decade or so, Spain refined a version of the game that amounted to an art happening.
Until that point, most teams went A-to-B. Spain did every letter in the alphabet before it got anywhere near the opposing goal, pausing briefly on each to remind you how hard that is. They called this style of short, endless, horizontal passing tiki-taka.
No one is exactly sure who coined the term, but former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola is credited with popularizing the concept. Though it made him the most famous tactician alive, the Spaniard later distanced himself from it.
“I loathe all that passing for the sake of it,” Guardiola told his biographer. “All that tiki-taka.”
Nobody on the Spanish team got the memo. Tiki-taka was too busy spreading through the world game like a contagion.
It had worked at Barcelona because of players such as Lionel Messi and David Villa. Crucially, these were men who didn’t like passing for the sake of it. They wanted to put the ball in the net.
When Spain was at its best, Villa was also playing on the national team. He was less an aesthete and more of a human hole-punch. Once he saw a space, he went through it.
Once Villa left, Spain could not replace him. It drafted in forwards who couldn’t break up everyone else’s jazz noodling 40 yards out from goal. Spain has been going sideways ever since.
But now, driven by the desire to copy a winning formula, tiki-taka is everywhere. The Germans deployed a Teutonic version of it in Russia. Portugal went with it, too, as did Argentina.
(What worked for Messi with Barcelona, where he was surrounded by genius, does not with his national side, where he is surrounded by lead-footed goonery.)
Each of those teams was quite happy to stroke the ball around the perimeter for forever and a day, waiting for an opportunity that never presented itself. The entire enterprise was carried out at the pace of a slow march. Pass-pass-passpasspass. Hit the first hint of resistance. Then cycle back out to start over again.
It’s Waiting for Godot soccer. It never gets anywhere.
All those teams have three things in common – they think of themselves as the elite; they didn’t field a true striker, the sort who gets in behind opponents at speed; and they are all out of the World Cup. This is where putting on airs gets you.
France went its own way, as did Uruguay. Their set-ups are built around darting moves up-field that catch opponents in disarray. They’ve concentrated their talent where it can do the most effective damage – right up front.
The goal isn’t to look elegant in midfield. It’s to score.
Just at this moment, the most electrifying player in Russia is France’s 19-year-old forward, Kylian Mbappe. Paris Saint-Germain paid $290-million to procure his services just last year. It’s beginning to look like a bargain.
Mbappe is the preferable counter to tiki-taka. While you’re milling about in the offensive end trying to look cultured, he’s going in the other direction, caroming through your back-half like a cannonball with feet.
The less attractive way to beat tiki-taka is the Russian way – compact your team into an 11-man knot in front of your own goal.
Once upon a time, teams wanted to come out and play with Spain. It was pride that killed them. Now they let them have as much of the ball as they want and dare them to go through a human wall.
They are two very different philosophies, but both are effective deterrents.
By the next World Cup, tiki-taka will be dead and people will have finally figured out a basic truth. That skill, no matter how great, is meaningless without clear and ruthless ambition.
It’s not just been ineffective in Russia. Now, it’s starting to look like showing off for its own sake.