PARIS — Money talks in global soccer, as it does everywhere else, perhaps more so. The sport is big business. The likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are international brands, as recognizable as any Hollywood star. Compare a club’s wage bill to its success rate: the correlation is overwhelming. When billionaires acquire clubs like Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or Chelsea, their fortunes change. When a very rich country like Qatar wants to host the World Cup, it gets its way even if entirely unsuited to the undertaking.
All this often undermines the beauty of the game. Sulky and overpaid stars, dubious deals and rapacious players’ agents are now part of the scenery. Football has been no exception to the inexorable process that sees the authentic and the genuine undermined by big money and manufactured images.
Until along came Diego Simeone and his “socialist football.” Think of him as the Thomas Piketty of the soccer world. It is impossible to understand what has been happening at the remarkable World Cup in Brazil without considering his impact.
Simeone, an Argentine, is the manager of the Spanish club Atlético Madrid that, against all the odds and all I have described above, won La Liga (the Spanish league title) this year, triumphing over Barcelona (home to Messi and Neymar) and Real Madrid (home to Ronaldo). Here, the normally reliable wage-bill indicator of success broke down. Atlético’s players earned a fraction of the salaries of their illustrious rivals.
What Atlético had was unity, cohesion, determination, energy and self-belief. The culture of the group vanquished the culture of the superstar. Simeone spoke with pride of his working-class side in a Spain of massive youth unemployment. “We see ourselves reflected in society, in people who have to fight,” he said. “People identify with us. We’re a source of hope.”
Every trend produces its countertrend. Soccer is no exception. This World Cup has not been about the stars, for all the brilliance of Neymar and Messi. It has been about unsung teams in the Atlético mold playing an intense, cohesive, never-say-die game. Their constant pressing has sent the likes of England, Italy, Spain and Ronaldo’s Portugal home, while giving Brazil and the Netherlands a real scare. I am thinking of Costa Rica (now in the last eight), Chile (very unlucky to lose to Brazil in a penalty shootout), Mexico (cheated of a deserved victory in the last minutes by the Dutch) and, in its own way, Jurgen Klinsmann’s gritty United States.
Here in France, whose team only just qualified for the World Cup, there has been much talk of how victories have stemmed from the absence of its stars. Franck Ribéry, a brilliant winger, was injured, and Samir Nasri, a wonderfully creative playmaker and goal scorer, was omitted because he was deemed a troublemaker. (France had a disastrous last World Cup campaign in South Africa that collapsed with players in open revolt.)The result of their absence has been a more “socialist” French side with many good players but no stars, and a tough work ethic in the image of midfielder Blaise Matuidi. Intense tempo and cohesion have produced improved results. (I write as France prepares to play Nigeria in the Round of 16, a game that will test its true caliber).
France has already scored eight goals in three matches in the image of a World Cup that, before the quarterfinal stage is reached, has seen as many goals (145 as I write) scored as in the entire South African World Cup. This reflects a changed game. In every area there has been a reaction: refereeing (less restrictive, more inclined to let matches flow); style (more attack-minded, less cautious); and teamwork (the ascendancy of the high-tempo, all-for-one Simeone model).
I doubt that Ann Coulter, the conservative American commentator, had heard of Simeone’s “socialist football” when she recently lamented the “moral decay” she sees in Americans’ growing interest in soccer. Still, it was intriguing that she saw a liberal agenda being pushed by a sport in which “individual achievement is not a big factor” and “there are no heroes.” Like an idiot-savant who stumbles on a grain of truth through total ignorance, she was onto something. This is the anti-individual World Cup.
(Coulter fails to see that soccer is growing in popularity in the United States because the national team keeps getting better, Hispanics now make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, and America is getting globalized just like everywhere else. America’s core strength is constant reinvention, in part through immigration; soccer’s surge is no sign of weakness.)Of course, multimillion-dollar bids from billionaire-owned clubs for the best of Simeone’s socialist stars are about to unstitch the Atlético team; Simeone himself may be lured elsewhere by some fat contract. Money will go on talking. But before it does, enjoy this revolutionary World Cup and the hope it embodies.