Friday, 27 January 2012

Football Imitates Life

Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand, evaluating on his team’s sound defeat at the hands of FC Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League Final, exclaimed that Barça had played without a forward, thus making life difficult for the Manchester defense.

Indeed, on that glorious evening, Barça played without a recognizable point-man, and yet managed to score 3 goals. Not only that, we had two wing defenders (Alves and Abidal) who spent more time in midfield than in defense; a center back who frequently made vertical, penetrating runs (Pique), and a midfielder who often sat as the last player on the defensive line (Busquets). Of course, most importantly, we managed to make the Red Devils look like a second-tier team, playing a football void of positional discipline.

The Barça attacking force comprised of David Villa, Pedro, Iniesta, Xavi, and the most-awesome Messi. Some would argue that Villa is a forward; but he’s certainly not what comes in mind when we think about the Ibrahimovichs, Shearers, or Drogbas of this world. Messi scores goals by the bunch; but he often is demanded to play the role of creator, usually dissecting the opposing team with blisteringly brave diagonal runs. Pedro is certainly not Bierhoff, Van Basten, or Rush; he’s much shorter, and plays more like a winger. And then, there’s Xavi and Iniesta; definitely not forwards.

It was then – right after reading Ferdinand’s lament – that it struck me. A revelation. Yes, Barça – with its small, fast, and technical midfield-strikers – was not only entertaining to watch, but very potent in real life. But more so, Barça didn’t play with a “true” forward that night because we were playing a new breed of football.

While many like to call Barça’s game as something out of this planet, I’ve come to realize that it is not so. The truth is that the club of my heart is mortal. But mortality has never been the hurdle to progress. Barça is simply at the forefront of this continuum called “football tactics”. Just like Italy’s catenaccio and Ajax’s “total football” in their respective eras, Barça’s play is the new revolution in football tactics. Without wanting to be forcibly humble, Barça simply is the next generation in football.

In his book, “Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics”, Jonathan Wilson confirmed my views. Wilson explained the following about the evolution of football tactics: “As system has replaced individuality, the winger has gone and been reincarnated in a different more complex form; so too, has the playmaker; and so, now, might the striker be refined out of existence. The future, it seems, is universality.” In a world as imagined by Wilson, players will no longer be identified simply as strikers, midfielders, or defensemen; these identifications will be interchangeable, thus making play more fluid. What’s so great about this quote is that Wilson’s book was printed in 2008, a year before Pep Guardiola took over as manager of the Catalan team. What a prophecy!

I’ve always regarded football as something more than just a game. And even if it was truly a game, then it was never just about scoring goals. Football represents the evolution of cultures and the mixing of ideas among great nations. Football is also about the struggle between individuality and the system, between traditions and avant-gardism. Practically, football is about life. And when the final whistle is over, when one talks about the game that has just ended, it’s not only about the score on the newspaper headlines. It’s about the dreams… fulfilled or ended. It’s about passion… won or lost. It’s bigger than the player. Bigger than the club. It’s as big as life itself.

To understand more beyond the score line, it is important to understand the evolution of tactics in the history of this beautiful game. To understand international relations, one would have to read about the theoretical debates between realism and liberalism. To measure the size of energy, one would need to make calculations based on the laws of physics. Well, the same could be said about football.

If you’re happy simply with the sight of an acrobatic goal, then enjoy them. If you prefer to focus on a particular bad call by the referee, than so be it. But for me, football is more than just Maradona-like solo runs or Beckham-like bended free kicks. Football is not only about the player with the ball, but also those who are not, making runs into open space. Football is designing a movement encompassing the whole team, in synch, and with a common purpose. Football is about the bigger picture. And the bigger picture always has some deeper meaning to it. Deeper than the replay of a missed Baggio penalty.

This is when I turn to writings like Wilson’s. This is not the first time, though. There’ve been a number of good books on football that I’ve read. David Winner's Brilliant Orange was a good companion of mine during my short stay in Holland, as I try to understand Dutch culture through its football tactics. Steve Bloomfield's Africa United attempted to explain the lives of people in many different African countries through football. And of course, Phil Ball’s Morbo is a bible to understanding La Liga in Spain, the history, rivalries, and ethnical anecdotes related to it.

“Inverting the Pyramid” is a detailed, comprehensive study of the evolution of football tactics. From the early times of organized matches in England to the Dynamo Kiew scientific approach and the end of the enganche era of players like Riquelme. I learned about the early 2-3-5 formation, which led to the way shirt numberings became (i.e. why a right defender wears #2, and a left winger #11). I learned about the difference between a trequartista (Seedorf) and a regista (Pirlo) in AC Milan’s winning ways. And how a 3-4-2-1 formation (with one less defender) may end up being more defensive than a traditional back four (i.e. 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations). I also learned about the thoughts of great coaches from Viktor Maslov, to Helenio Herrerra, to Arrigo Sacchi, and Johan Cruyff.

What’s more, I enjoyed immensely Wilson’s analysis of how football tactics evolved in accordance to the different cultures and lifestyles of the football players. The Italian catenaccio evolved during a period of lacking confidence, an Italian society that had lived through invasions after another. As the Italian society dug deep, defended its nation, and waited for the best opportunity to pounce, these sentiments and feelings were transpired into its football tactics.

At the same time, it is no wonder that the free-flowing, bohemian, and democratic play of Ajax’s total football came about at a time when Amsterdam became the hippie capital of the world. Neither is it surprising that the scientific approach of Dynamo Kiev’s legendary coach, Valeriy Lobonovskiy, grew amidst the growth of Kiev as one of the centers of technology and science for the Soviet empire. Nor the reason that many African countries have strong midfielders capable of making vertical runs (think Yaya Toure and Michael Essien) is because football pitches in Africa are mostly long, narrow, clogged by players, and hugged on its sides by a sewer or garbage dump.

I also enjoyed the recurring themes framing football tactics over the years. The debates between the pragmatists – who’d do anything for a win – and the idealists – who only has a beautiful game in his mind, win or lose. As well, the debate between those who favor a system of tactics and those who highlight the individual brilliance of players. How to strike a balance between these extremes to come up with not only the best team, but most importantly, the best-looking team.

To some, this would be observed simply as a matter of the football pitch. But to me, this looks so much like our society. The contests between realists and idealists in international relations. The tensions between individual freedoms and communal responsibility, between democracy and authoritarian efficacy.

In ending his book, Wilson quoted Arrigo Sacchi who said: “As long as humanity exists, something new [football tactics] will come along. Otherwise football dies.” In life, people must progress. We invent new things, come up with new ideas. All for the purpose of survival. Those who can, will proceed. And those who can’t cope with the changes will be left behind, lamenting that the other team “didn’t play with a forward”. The same is for football.

More than a game, football should be seen as a form of art, and football players as artists. The managers, the people with the music sheet, are the music conductor, leading the entire ensemble on a musical journey. Of course, the music written is often colored immensely by the culture, experience, and lives of these musicians, particularly the conductor. Once a while, a violinist or pianist would be asked to rise for a solo, but in the end, those solo occasions are simply parts of the orchestra’s repertoire, a splat of red highlighting the bigger picture. Messi’s runs are magical, but they often don’t stand alone, but as a precursor to a nice pass to Pedro, which often ends with a goal, on the bottom corner of Casillas’ net.

And so, if football is art, and art imitates life. Then, would it mean that football imitates life? I certainly think so.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Why Fantasize China...?

When I was posted in Beijing, I was always impressed at how much time western diplomats dedicate to analyzing the domestic politics of China. It was during one of our weekly lunch discussions that I learned about the corruption charges on Chen Liangyu, the former Shanghai Communist Party boss, thus deepening my understanding on party frictions within the CCP. And it was during another exchange over coffee that I learned about how a cook was fired for having revealed that a certain Chinese leader cannot have too much sugar in his diet.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am also a keen learner of Chinese politics and everything under the sun related to this giant nation. However, such keenness is mostly the result of my academic upbringing. My diplomatic job description does require me to understand China, but not necessarily an in-depth inquiry into Chinese political machinations. We’re simply requested to follow trends, particularly those possibly impacting China’s foreign policy, and thereafter, its repercussion on Indonesia’s interest at the international stage.

Hence, it is only natural to assume that regular, in-depth analyses of Chinese domestic politics are mostly carried out as a precursor to attempts at interacting with China beyond the “regular” notions of state-to-state diplomacy. I don’t think that it’s a secret that many countries would like to have more knowledge on how things are internally run in China. Neither do I think it’s a secret that there are agendas among certain countries in the world to advocate, if not instigate changes within the domestic structures and policies of the Chinese Government; changes that would better suit the interest of these countries, of course.

In “The China Fantasy”, James Mann argues that US foreign policy has over the years been based on the false assumption that engagement (or integration) would somehow induce changes to China’s domestic political conditions. It’s all a fantasy, according to Mann, because capitalism will never bring democracy to China. The Chinese leadership will continue to prolong the present political status quo, allowing semblances of reform only when they don’t in any way rock the boat. Therefore, Mann continues, Americans should stop dreaming about cultivating change in China – well, at least not using the ways and means they’ve pursued since the Nixon era.

An interesting argument. Nevertheless, the premise of the argument is something that I can't seem to understand fully (maybe because I'm not American). Why is US foreign policy towards China framed within the agenda of cultivating change in China's domestic politics? Why does it mean so much for the US to see greater forms of democracy settling in China? Why can't the Americans accept China for whatever it is, and not for what they wish China would become?

Mann gave four reasons popular among the American people. First, an undemocratic and militarily-stronger-by-the-day China is dangerous for democratic countries like those in the West. Dangerous because it doesn't fit the infallible-like notion that "democracies don't go to war with other democracies". Second, an undemocratic government in China will plunge the country into chaos as a result of the continuous abuse of the ruling elite towards the general population. Third, an undemocratic China will cause western countries difficulties by supporting "unsavoury" regimes across the world. Of course, unsavoury for the western palate, but not necessarily for the entire 7 billion people on earth.

And fourth (my favourite), the Americans would not be fulfilling on their own promise, because ever since the time of President Nixon, the US Government has always propagandized that US foreign policy is aimed at making China more open, more liberal, more western, maybe even more American. As in many speeches by US leaders, the American people has been led to believe that their foreign policy goes beyond interests (e.g. developing an ally to counter the Soviets during the Cold War, developing markets and productions centers for US products in the post-Cold War era). Americans are made to believe that their foreign policy works as a platform for disseminating American values to every corner of the earth, including – and probably, most importantly – in communist China.

What values? To me, all four reasons above smack of the US and its western allies' self-serving interests, including the second one. These days, any chaos in China would not bode well for the gargantuan sums of western investment already planted on the Mainland. If US foreign policy was truly running on values (democracy and human rights, I assume), then the Americans should pay less attention to Iran's nuclear program, and more to the Saudi Arabian Monarchy.

Regardless of the way Mann approaches his analysis, I still find the book an interesting read, well worth the time, especially if you’re a self-claimed sinophiliac like me. But more than learning about the Chinese, the book actually has taught me more about the Americans. Although describing the progress of democratization (or the lack thereof) in China, the book is more of a critique on the US Government's inability to encourage more substantive democracy in China. It is meant as a wake-up call for those who had believed that economic liberalization would nourish Chinese democracy.

Indeed, as I’ve learned from Michael Barr in “Who’s Afraid of China?”, an American’s study of China often reveals more about the US than about China. About American concerns towards China’s growing power, and more so, the formers’ inability to predict, let alone control, such development. How frustrating it must be, to not be in control of everything!

Mann argues that it's time for the Americans to end their “China fantasy”. But would this mean that the Americans are in the end selling themselves short on their relations with China? What about the need to expand American, or at least, western values? Then again, who’s to say that these values are something that many would want to buy into. Even American IR theorists preach that international relations are governed by interests, and not values. The problem is that in today’s international relations, interests have too many times been cloaked in the feel-good, morally high-grounded notion of values.

Mann’s probably right; the American “China fantasy” should end. But, in my view, it was wrong in the first place to fantasize about China. China is as real as can be, and dealing with it requires an acceptance of who the Chinese really are, and not who you wish they’d become. Maybe then you wouldn’t be too disappointed in the end.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A World of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope

In 1993, Samuel Huntington introduced the theory that conflicts would emanate from frictions along race, ethnic, and religious lines. In particular, he outlined the potential clashes among the western, muslim, Confucian, and orthodox civilizations. I still remember the first time I read that article for my Intro to IR class at the University of British Columbia.

Indeed, many debates came about from Huntington’s theory. Some people voiced out views in favor of Huntington, while others thought that his argument was flawed at many levels. Regardless, the “Clash of Civilizations” theory has provided a basis for many studies and analysis of the post-Cold War era. A starting point for practitioners and academics to discuss today’s globalized world.

In these times of uncertainty, we are all hungry for ideas that could theorize our complex existence into plain patterns. How can we explain problems in a more simple way, so that we can find ways to solve them? How do we make sense of the world, in a time when we are often unable to differentiate our friends from foes?

In The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope Are Reshaping the World, Dominique Moisi tries to explain the state of conflict in international relations through an exploration of human emotions. Our fear, anger, and hate; the feelings that often pushes us to the brink of conflict and war.

Moisi wrote: “Who are we? …In an ever changing world without borders, the question is intensely relevant. Identity is strongly linked with confidence, and in turn confidence, or the lack thereof, is expressed in emotions – in particular, those of fear, hope, and humiliation”.

The world, the nations and countries of the world, can be divided into groups of people who embrace a culture of fear, humiliation or hope. And we are seeing conflicts emerge along these lines. The humiliated carrying out attacks on those with hope. And those who are fearful lashing out against the hopeful ones.

In discussing the culture of hope, Moisi talks about the peoples in China and India, and their striving for a better world, although some times at the cost of frictions with others. In general, Moisi called Asia “the continent of hope”, highlighting that economic progress and the burgeoning of hope has attributed to more peaceful conditions among the countries in the region.

The culture of humiliation is represented by feelings emanating from the Middle East. Moisi argues that while the Islamic civilization continues to grow worldwide, the Arab culture is actually in decline. Unable to cope with the advent of modernity, the Middle Eastern people are constantly feeling humiliated by the tragedies and losses that they have suffered, including the creation of the Israeli State and the continued meddling of the United States in regional politics. As a result, this shared sense of humiliation has provided the most potent ingredient for aggression towards others around the world, particularly those thought to be responsible for their current state of existence.

In responding to the cultures of fear and humiliation growing in various parts of the world, the West (Europe and the United States) have become regressed, developing a culture of fear. Fear of those with hope, and fear of those humiliated. And this fear has been the main source of the West’s frictions with the rest of the world.

Of course, Moisi’s theory is not perfect. He actually doesn’t pretend to develop an infallible way of looking the world. But what he has done is to make us, the reader, view the world through different perspectives, actually, different feelings.

Realists say that conflict, or the onset of conflict can be predicted by a calculation of power (be it economic or military) and the imbalances of power among nations. What Moisi tells us is that regardless of power (no matter how powerful or seemingly powerless people are) or the relations among powers in the world, friction and conflict comes from differences in emotions.

That, in spite of our culture differences, emotions can unite people to act in one way or another. That, at the end of the day, our world would be a better place if fear and humiliation could be supplanted with the feelings of hope. Simple enough, right? Then again, the simple things in life are often the hardest to achieve.