The very real possibility that Tottenham Hotspur will win the Champions League is something I am dealing with in a grown-up manner. The application for a transfer to the Borneo jungle has only been filled out, after all, not actually sent to my bosses yet. And while all email and telephone contact with the outside world will thereafter cease, it would be rash to rule out a PO Box in Bandar Seri Begawan for genuine emergencies.
As my cherished Arsenal continue their — let us go with “chrysalis phase” — local rivals Spurs will play Liverpool in the first final between English clubs in this pan-European tournament since 2008. But the finalists share something rather more interesting than their Englishness, which, in a sport of multinational squads and coaches and sometimes owners, is only nominal anyway.
Both teams are collectivist in the extreme. They subject the individual to the system, and not just in the rhetorical there’s-no-I-in-team way of a Deloitte off-site weekend. Through some of the most intensive coaching in the sport, they operate as units in which even the most gifted players are dutiful cogs. Christian Eriksen, say, or Mo Salah, will do a small number of prescribed things over and over again — diagonal aerial passes, late runs into particular zones — rather than an infinite range of things at their own discretion.
When the teams lose these jewels to injury, the understudies, drilled in the same “automatisms”, fill in seamlessly. And all are required to “press” — harry — their opponents, again according to strict triggers and cues.
If there is a star, it is the coach, whose job it is to impose a system, or as football’s preening argot has it, an “identity”, on disparate individuals. This is the modern way. It allows teams to compete with better-resourced opponents. Clubs that do not do it, such as Paris Saint-Germain, increasingly underachieve.
But it also spells the sad passing of the maverick. Theories have always circulated as to why football became so popular a sport. One is economic: with such low barriers to entry, everyone can play. Martin Amis prefers to dwell on the scoring system instead. Because it is the only game that is so often decided by a single goal, what he calls the “pressure on the moment” is addictively intense.
I wonder if the real reason lies a layer deeper than that. Football allows for individual expression. (Is it an accident that it was codified in England, that safe harbour for the eccentric?). A player can move in any of 360 degrees. He or she can do anything with the ball bar touch it with an arm. Nor is the sport even divided tennis-style into structured points or phases. In this flux, the premium is on the individual act. The pass no one else can see, the baroque dribble: these swing games. Size and athleticism count less than originality. Perhaps the most revered player in the history of the game, Diego Maradona, the subject of a new film by serial documentarian Asif Kapadia, was original to the point of ungovernability.
If Abraham Maslow was right that the highest human need is self-actualisation, then football, surprisingly for a team sport, and actually more than some solo sports, answers to it.
For how much longer? The systematisation of the sport has already seen off the most individualist roles on the park. In the 1990s, the sweeper, a defender with license to attack, disappeared. More recently the regista, similar to the quarterback in American football, who directs play from deep, has given way to tireless runners. Now the number 10, Maradona’s position, in truth a sort of anti-position, whose occupant can roam and probe, is more or less obsolete.
In a celebrated column for the Irish Times last month, Ken Early chided football pundits for their continuing obsession with individuals in what is now a “contest of systems”. He is right, of course, but did not suggest whether the trend was good or bad. “Mixed”, I fear, is the answer.
The 2019 Champions League final is a triumph of coaching over money, teamwork over ego. But it might also mark the taming of the footballing free spirit, once and for all. It will not be the only anxiety as I watch on June 1, from behind the sofa, the ink not yet dry on my Liverpool tattoo.