“He’s the greatest!”
“He’s NOT the greatest!”
Being a football fan is being exposed to reactions like an on/off switch in a world that often requires a volume knob. Maybe the player, coach or technical director is neither the best nor the worst. Maybe he just is.
No, your manager, your star player, your icon sucks because he is human. He sucks because he is subject to the frailties that humans suffer: mental errors, a failing body, aging, crafty opponents, teams who want nothing more than to get something, anything against him.
But most of all, he sucks because we as supporters understand so little about what really happens on and (more importantly) off the pitch. We think we understand what we think we know, and rush to judgment often based on little more than ignorance and a hunch. “He can’t be like that, I know him too well.” Sorry, but for all we know Xavi dresses like Genghis Khan in his private life, and worships Satan. It isn’t possible for anyone to be as good as their devoted supporters believe.
So much that we see about a team we support, the players we slavishly follow is artifice. Laurence Fishburne can’t fly off a building. That’s Morpheus, a character he played in a movie. The players, the coaches aren’t pretending to be what they appear to be. But they are controlling, crafting and creating something for us. What is so beautiful about a player like Messi is that he just wants to play, just wants the ball. But if you think that some of the negative stuff that is ascribed to him can’t have happened because “He would never do that,” if you rush to his defense based on nothing more than a sheepish grin and a love of the game, reconsider.
We don’t know. We can’t know. But that very simple statement will cause someone to think, “He hates Messi.”
Something strange has happened to our game. Before there was Twitter and a world that moved at the speed of a voice with thousands of followers, things seemed more measured. There was a volume knob rather than an on/off switch. “Greatest ever!” “Sucks!” In between those two poles is a chasm of thoughtful discourse that gets plowed over like a tank rolling through a daisy patch.
It’s now, it’s immediate, it’s a need for a right now reaction. When the Bayern physio resigned Thursday, nobody knew why. That didn’t stop people from knowing exactly why. Some asked questions, and were called haters. Others seemed to criticize Guardiola and were excoriated for being blasphemers rather than for people who committed the simple error of a rush to judgment based on incomplete data. Reasons are essential. Barça drew because Enrique made the wrong subs. It isn’t the goal conceded through an error but the goal not scored that is the culprit. And here are tactical diagrams to prove it!
Like Barça, Bayern is a roiling cauldron of a fanbase, a team that comes with an expectation set that is even more oppressive than that of the Liga big two because there is only the big one in the Bundesliga. Sport, MD, AS and Marca all combined to go wacky on a single team. The most money, the biggest stars, the brightest transfers and two seasons ago, the most desirable coach in the game. Put all that stuff in a pot and you have the makings of a stew called crazytown.
When something happens, when anything that isn’t supposed to happen happens, it all begins. Culers understand this because we live and perpetrate it. In November, Enrique was a dead duck. It was criminal that the board didn’t fire him. He was arrogant, hated the press and treated them like crap. Probably treated his players the same way. Lucho out, with vehemence, aggression and extreme prejudice. Woe betide the person who said that we didn’t know yet, that we should give it time.
But football is old, wise and patient. It knows even when we don’t, and there are so many things that we are never, ever going to know. Enrique and Messi were on the outs. Lucho out! Just a training match row over a call? No! Never! How real was the crisis that the team faced after the inevitability of dropping points after an international break away to La Real? It depends on who you ask, but the simple thing is that we have absolutely no idea.
In many ways what the 24-hour news cycle, fueled by social media has done is create unmeetable expectations, a hunger that fuels extremism. A fanbase hears that a respected physio has resigned, a Vine of a manager reacting to something gets out and before you know it, lines are drawn and villains created.
What made Sir Alex Ferguson so extraordinary is that for decades, in a tempest of a league, he remained at or near the top. If you look at the Premiership champions list over the last two decades plus, United won 13 of 22 times. That is stupefying. What makes it even more incredible is that money and talent came to the Prem. Chelsea had a turn, then United resumed. Arsenal had a glorious year, then United returned. City got a couple, then United returned. And when Ferguson left, United stopped winning titles.
This is so astonishing not because of what United is and what it accomplished, but because that just doesn’t happen in this day and age. Strong squads, weak squads, injuries and clunky transfer decisions and United kept winning, defying the odds of everything that makes a manager suddenly suck. A couple of key injuries can reduce a contending squad to a Europa league aspirant. Through it all, Ferguson kept on winning. Guardiola amassed a crazy pile of titles during his Barcelona tenure, but time caught up to him, and he moved on to Bayern. Mourinho strikes sparks in the places he goes, but never stays long enough to establish a record, a tenure that makes a colossus. Wenger has stayed, but hasn’t won in a matter attendant to his status.
This all happens as men in short pants scurry about in a sea of expectations. Bayern lost 3-1 to a Porto team that played out of its mind, and capitalized on a couple of defensive errors. Sound familiar, culers, in that world where a draw is a loss?
The simple reality is that sustained excellence of the type that sees off challenger after challenger, that allows a single coach to keep winning and winning at the same club, is as impossible as supporters having a clue what is going on. The whole game has become like the transfer rumor business. “X player is coming for Y million. Talks are ongoing.” X player’s representative says that “Nothing is happening.” Supporters who are against the transfer say, “See? There?” Supporters who are for the transfer say, “But what else would they say?” Nobody knows and everybody knows.
In this space we have seen posts that there is no real right, no real knowledge until something actually happens. Suarez to Barça popped up and many including me called it crazy, based on what? Nothing at all, not even anything purporting to be logic. Wild-eyed supposition? Sure, why not? A doctor resigns, and sides are drawn. “Pep is right, Bayern’s injury record is ridiculous.” “Bayern started having a lot of injuries when Pep took over. His fault!”
The arguments fly, based on nothing more than like or dislike, because we don’t know and nobody will ever say for sure. So we chase logic and answers like the powder-faced fiends in Mack Sennett silent shorts. “It’s over there!” “No! Wait! Over there!” And the people who know don’t say, and don’t show.
Step back, sit tight. Because if this Bayern medicos business hasn’t taught the game something, it’s doubtful we will ever learn – not only about the value of knowledge, but about moderating a worldview. It isn’t what we like, it’s what we know. Not knowing should give us pause, rather than making us charge into a battle armored in little more than supporter-forged confirmation bias.