Yesterday in the busy world of social media, left reeling in the wake of the massive Phillippe Coutinho deal, two things happened almost simultaneously, both involving highly respected journalists as supporters reacted to the news of the day, based solely on tribalism.
While discussing the Coutinho transfer, Michael Cox Tweeted the following:
Liverpool have got an extraordinary deal. He will be perfectly suited to Barcelona, where he can float around and be pretty without either controlling games or deciding them – a la Iniesta.
And people lost their minds. “He doesn’t rate Iniesta,” and the like went flying about. Without claiming to be some sort of sage, anyone who read the Tweet and understands how Cox approaches the game, which is purely from a tactical worldview, understood exactly what he meant, which he later explained in the responses, but the SS Tribal had long left the harbor.
He meant, obviously, that Xavi and Busquets were responsible for the controlling while Iniesta was the associative elegance, the catalyst who worked in half-spaces and drove defenders insane. From a tactical sense, this makes perfect sense. But on the SS Tribal, it became, “He hate Iniesta, he said he isn’t decisive, doesn’t matter as a player.”
Cox is among a group of agnostics who view the game from a particular place. Just as I am not a fan of any player, Cox sees the game through a tactical prism. Much as the professor says something potentially outrageous in the form of a lecture thesis, tactical notions can sometimes upset supporters who like a player.
We all know that Iniesta is fantastic. We also know that his light shines on a career of exquisite “almosts,” moves that would have been the greatest thing ever if only that last defender hadn’t … if only his force field wasn’t in place in front of goal …
Iniesta’s most amazing moves are to find space so that he can liberate a teammate with a tasty pass. He isn’t creating assists or scoring goals, isn’t deciding a match in the same way that Messi does. This doesn’t mean that he isn’t a fantastic player, or every bit as essential to the team as any other superstar. But from a tactical sense, Cox wasn’t wrong about Iniesta.
But in a world where tribalism means that you can’t say anything even allegedly negative about a member of the tribe. few looked at the Tweet as a simple expression of a tactical notion. It was an assault on all that is holy, and people reacted in the expected manner, because football is running out of space for the agnostic, for the journalist who views the game through a prism unaffected by fandom.
In another Twitter conversation I ran across, Independent football writer Miguel Delaney noted:
Media – fairly – get a lot of stick, but too much modern football support is hair-trigger responses, looking at whatever latest development as “how can I respond to this to make me feel best about my club”. Too many people view everything through the prism of their club.
And football support was never about that. Turning up regularly and shouting abuse never meant a dislocation of logical thought.
Think about your club analytically. In many odd ways, Barça has become like a church. People come to it, don the colors but you almost wonder if they actually like football.
On any given weekend, my home man cave will feature the sounds of Liga, Prem, Serie A, Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Eredivisie and anything else I can watch: Brazil, Mexico, even Ecuador pro matches sometimes. It’s what an addict does. On Twitter, I have exchanges with people who I even wonder if they watch Barça, even as they say they support the club. Perhaps they come because of Messi. He, like Ronaldinho, draws fans to the club because of his otherworldly magnificence.
But football voraciousness, coupled with a journalist’s curious mind and being player agnostic, puts me in a weird place in a world of tribalism.
In 2014, people were starting to ask questions about Messi. Physical ones about a lost step, etc. We hadn’t yet figured out that he is a football vampire who doesn’t age. So purely in the spirit of an intellectual exercise, I asked if people would be willing to sell him to acquire Oliver Torres, Ilkay Gundogan, Jackson Martinez, Kun Aguero and Marco Reus. At the time, those were five of the hottest names in world football, and Barça supporters talked constantly about them, and how they cuold improve the club.
The first response, from someone who interacted regularly with me on Twitter, understood the question and why it was posed, and dealt with it in that vein. As the ripples spread in the game of social media telephone, it became, “That guy wants to sell Messi for Jackson Martinez,” a notion that persists in corners of Twitter today. Tribalism of the same sort that has people attacking Cox for allegedly slagging Iniesta.
Discussing anything is an intellectual exercise. Without approaching it in that fashion, it is difficult for a discussion to even take place. Prima facie, five players for one should have sparked an intellectual exercise. Where would you play them? What might be a potential XI? Instead people circled the wagons. And it’s a good thing I wasn’t running Barça, because it would have been the stupidest move in the history of the club. But it was also never going to happen, so what was intellectually wrong with a bit of speculation?
Football is an amazing game. It can transport you from amazing highs to gut-wrenching lows, if you let it. But even aside from your club it is endlessly fascinating, the cut and thrust of games, the signatures of different leagues, how individual players who are excellent but making their way through a lesser division make magic. It’s all amazing, even as it is, most of time for me and others like me, a passionless intellectual exercise.
Once, in a high school physics class, our professor explained how it might be possible for you to throw a rock into a pond, and have that water surface reject the rock, pinging it back at you. He did the math, and explained the theory. We were focused on, “Wait … you can’t throw a rock into a pond?” We stopped thinking right there, because something was said that essentially hamstrung our intellectual curiosity. We formed a tribe whose religion was calling bullshit on what Father Nicholas said.
He didn’t say it would happen, or even might happen. Just based on the laws of physics and math, a series of occurrences could, theoretically, make this happen. But we stopped listening, just as people stopped listening to Cox, and people still Tweet at me about wanting to sell Messi for Jackson Martinez.
But our lives, many of the great things in them, are governed by flights of fancy, intellectual and otherwise. The player who decides to hit and hope and score a golazo. The time you got up the nerve to approach a stranger at a party, and found a life partner. Talking to someone about another thing and discovering a lifelong friend. Our minds are amazing things, if we leave them open and accepting.
You aren’t supposed to not be a fan of players, like me, or view everything through a tactical lens like Cox. But you are supposed to allow those things to happen, understand that a journalist covering a team isn’t a fan of that team, allow a great many other things to happen and take them for what they are — this amazing part of a massive tapestry that is a game so many of us love. It isn’t about anger, or tribalism, or defending an opinion about something that doesn’t matter anyway. It’s about football and intellect. And that is pure.