A few weeks ago, I was on Salt Spring Island, to give a talk about both television and soccer. The people there were kind enough to invite me, so I did some extra preparation. I knew I’d be asked about Canada’s chances at the World Cup, and I did a realistic assessment in advance.
When the question about Canada’s prospects inevitably came, I told the audience Canada’s best chance for a good result was against Belgium. The team would struggle against Croatia and find an underrated Morocco hard to beat.
That proved accurate, but not exactly uncanny. My first clue was the state of Belgium’s team. The average age of Belgium’s likely starting lineup was 29.9. More important, its best older players were declining in effort and effectiveness. Long, gruelling seasons had diminished the dynamism of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. This looked like a team just waiting to collapse in exhaustion and when Belgium, ranked No. 2 in the world, left the tournament early, its star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne said plainly in an interview that his team “never had a chance” to win the World Cup because the players are “too old.”
Canada overran Belgium with swaggering attacks, but there are no kittens and rainbows at a World Cup, only cunning works. What Canada lacked in its three games was cunning. By that I mean, shrewdness, guile and a scheming attitude.
The game, as this crazy World Cup has proved again, is as much mental as it is physical. It’s hard to believe that Uruguay and Ghana managed to knock each other out of the tournament, while South Korea moves forward. Until, that is, you grasp the mental machinations that unfold.
Cunning comes from a mixture of youth and experience. The teams doing well have a blend of older players and younger players. The older ones are there for their shrewdness, not skill. Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, both 35, are no longer the dynamos they once were; now they use accumulated knowledge. It didn’t work this time, because Uruguay lacked the younger players to create the dynamism to match the wily attitude of the older players. As for Ghana, it was dead-eyed deviousness that made it deny Uruguay another goal to progress.
France, which might well win this tournament again, looks as though it relies a lot on the speed and creativity of Kylian Mbappé (23 years old) but when it counts, it is canny old-timers such as Olivier Giroud (36) who stabilize the attack.
Look at the shock results and often you will find the losers were out-thought. Japan stunned Spain to secure a last-16 spot. What Japan spotted as a weakness was Spain’s insistence on playing the ball out from the back, on the ground, over and over again. It’s Spain’s orthodoxy but Japan’s coach, Hajime Moriyasu, saw that pattern and made a double substitution for the second half, with players instructed simply to disrupt that pattern until it broke down. Previously, Japan had taken Germany apart by preying on the weaknesses of German goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, who was stopping shots but not catching them, allowing an attacker to meet the rebound.
Sometimes it’s the mangers who have the cunning and sometimes it’s veteran players. In Canada’s case it was nobody having that Machiavellian understanding. Sure, veteran Atiba Hutchinson looked commanding, in terms of age and experience, but he wasn’t marshalling troops on the field to ruthlessly take advantage of a weakness he’d spotted. He was solid in performing and it’s not his job to write, or revise instantly, the script.
What coach John Herdman and the players seemed to believe was that a story was unfolding, a powerful narrative force at work that would reach a happy ending. That’s kitten-and-rainbows stuff. Stories are great, they keep us going and optimistic. We’re drenched in sports stories from movies and TV drama to the mini-drama of TV commercials. As the literary theorist Peter Brooks, who studies narrative patterns, has written, “We have fictions in order not to die of the forlornness of our condition in the world.”
Too true. We exist on stories of clearly defined heroes and villains, but in life, as in soccer, the cunning win, not because they’re villains but because they’re shrewd and scheming. Look out for Japan at this World Cup; it has already beaten Germany and Spain by scheming its way to victory.