The great contradiction in football is that of beauty and functionality, of aesthetics and results. Since tactics began to play a significant part in the game, there has been an interlocking tension between what appears to be two opposing ends of a spectrum.
This apparent dichotomy was perhaps best encapsulated by the ideological rivalry between Argentinian coaches Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo in the 1980s. The former, who led his country to victory in the 1978 World Cup, was a romanticist, erudite and liberalistic, an advocate of aestheticism.
Bilardo, meanwhile, was considered the opposite. He guided Argentina to success in the 1986 World Cup and was entirely unconcerned by the public perception of his approach. An ardent realist, he was influenced by the theories of anti-futbol, the origins of which lie with Victorio Spinetto and his Argentina side of the 1960s.
The rivalry between Menotti and Bilardo was, however, drastically oversimplified. There is a perception that the two represented, in effect, good football vs bad football, that Bilardo was entirely opposed to any joy in football and that Menotti was undyingly devoted to entertaining the people, as if in some footballing utopia.
There were, inevitably, crossover points. On occasion, Bilardo’s teams were capable of playing expansively, even entertainingly. And Menotti was not averse to adopting pragmatism if necessary: His Argentina side were certainly not considered the idealists when they defeated Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands in the 1978 World Cup final.
It was indicative, too, that it was Bilardo who, in 2005, bemoaned the paucity of technically gifted players in the modern game. “Not one player, not even in the Brazilian national team or the Spanish team for that matter, could be described as truly creative,” he said. “Modern football is all about running. Technique is a foreign word. Nowadays even 12-year-olds are obliged to win. Actually enjoying play is immaterial. Rushing, running, wrestling and writhing are top of the bill; creativity and ingenuity are now old hat. Unfortunately, it is the truth.”
There were differences between Bilardo and Menotti, certainly, but they were perhaps not as pronounced as suggested. At heart, both wanted to win.
It is also clear that what constitutes pragmatic football need not necessarily be defensive. The word has increasingly become a euphemism for ugly, functional, football, but it is dependant on the players at the disposal of the coach and the manner in which a result can best be achieved.
As Jonathan Wilson puts it in Inverting the Pyramid: “Brazilian football is all about flair and improvisation, but it looks yearningly at the defensive organisation of the Italians. Italian football is about cynicism and tactical intelligence, but it admires and fears the physical courage of the English. English football is about tenacity and energy, but it feels it ought to ape the technique of the Brazilians.”
Pragmatism, then, can depend upon circumstance. It is not a philosophical view that lends itself to playing one way and one way only, in the same way that idealism is not. It differs, too, across borders, where different footballing cultures lead to different tactical nuances.
That was evidenced by Helenio Herrera’s apparent distaste for the English style in the early 1960s. The Italian was the greatest exponent of the famed catenaccio – a system that ruthlessly and unapologetically attempted to stifle the opposition and win narrowly – but disliked the rugged, direct approach of English teams. “You in England are playing in the style we continentals used many years ago, with much physical strength, but no method, no technique,” he said.
Six years after his comment, England had won the World Cup, the pragmatism of Alf Ramsey paying dividends. He had been influenced to adapt a new style following a 1-0 defeat to Argentina in 1964, after which there was a quiet admiration of the efficiency of their opposition. “If you do not give a damn about the game,” wrote Brian James in the Daily Mail, “and are prepared to leave entertainment to music halls, you can win anything. Argentina have simply taken logic and pushed it to the limit.”
Pragmatism is certainly nothing if not based in logic. Football’s history is littered with instances of coaches, often considered principled idealists, approaching games with the intention of winning over entertaining. It is, in fact, more common an occurrence than a coach selecting a system and team on its aesthetic merits.
There will continue to be a distinct dichotomy between the two philosophical extremes: pragmatism and idealism. But, while the importance of winning cannot be discounted, there is undeniably more to football than simply achieving victory at all costs. There is always room for the Magical Maygars, the Total Football, the Juego de Posicion. And conversely, there is room for the less revered but perhaps no less effective styles: catenaccio and parking the bus.
The diversity of styles is what provides the intrigue in football and, after all, style remains very much subjective. As influential English coach Jimmy Hogan once put it: “I don’t care whether a pass is long or short, forwards or backward. I just care if it is right.”