The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.



Djokovic’s Tears Reveal the Charm of Sport

The charm of top-class sport was on display over the last two days. It didn’t just inhere in the mental fortitude and technical brilliance on display during the matches themselves, but also in the immediate aftermath of the matches when the players let their guards down and revealed the impact of the released weight of realised dreams, broken ceilings, shattered hopes and crushing defeat. Nowhere was this conflictual mass of human emotion that underpins the wonder of these sports more poignantly evident than Novak Djokovic’s reaction to the applause the French Open crowd gave him upon receiving his loser’s medal. Aware of Djokovic’s history of disappointments and close calls at the French Open, the crowd lavished him with a full-hearted round of applause that continued past the ordinary length for such events. Djokovic acknowledged their applause with the grace and decorum that a champion is expected to muster, but it was only upon the breaking of the third wave of their applause that stretched beyond the conventional limit that the crowd’s affection for him and his disappointment became too much for him to handle. He visibly broke down under the weight of what he was feeling, and had to struggle to fight back the tears amidst his gracious smiles. He wasn’t alone either, and therein lies the majesty of sport: its ability to raise in us the same hopes, fears, dream and herculean responses to challenges. With the startling contrast between his controlled grace and subsequent visible emotion during those two long minutes, Djokovic made his way into our hearts. Stanislas Wawrinka was a worthy and heroic champion, but both players in their attitude on and off the court were a testament to tennis and the fine attributes sport can invoke in men.

Juventus 1-Barcelona 3: Thoughts from the Final

Juve Show Another Way

At a time when it has become fashionable for teams of all levels, regardless of the occasion or the strength of their resources, to “park the bus” against technically superior opponents, Juventus showed that it is not only possible to take on a team like Barcelona with courage and positivity but also desirable. Thanks to their determination to attack and not be pressed back for any considerable length of time, the final was a high-quality, gripping affair that occasionally produced thrilling passages of play when the teams moved the ball from one end of the pitch to the other at a searing pace. Juventus’s approach made the game close and fascinating to watch as each team fought closely to press the advantage in a contest studded with high-quality turnovers, ball play, vision, improvisation and athleticism. It was everything a match between big teams should be and was a welcome relief after the approach of some of the teams’ counterparts in recent times. Both teams would have won themselves, and possibly football, a lot of new fans last night in a way less courageous opponents than Juventus would not have made possible.

Speaking of finals living up to their billing, there were two other thoughts that came to mind. One was that the style and slickness of the football did justice to the magnificent aerial shots of the Olympiastadion, showing a gleaming pitch below and a crimson sky as dusk slowly made its way across Berlin. Everything was gleaming: the football as well as the stunning shot of the resplendent stadium with its backdrop of a reddening sky.

The second was that any final adorned with the rare talent of Lionel Messi was likely to be elevated to greatness. His every touch was a sight in itself, while it was fascinating to experience how someone so apparently casual in his movements can carry such a great menace. Even when he was not doing much, we were anticipating his next burst of pace, shimmy into life. It was a pleasure and privilege to watch him.

Pirlo’s Tears and Barcelona’s Joy Make Us Love Football Again

To see Andrea Pirlo in tears at the end of the match, and a young successor to the greatness he embodies in Paul Pogba also fighting back the tears as he tried to console him, was to appreciate once more the gamut of human emotion that football can provoke. Pirlo’s tears were a particularly powerful and laudatory illustration of professional pride, given that he has won two Champions Leagues and a World Cup before. Alongside their skill, it is the size of the heart of men like Pirlo that makes them so special to the game. His tears and hunger for what he had lost lent a poignant gravitas to complement what had been a superb final. Pogba’s tearful consolation of Pirlo was yet another fitting, heart-rending image of the camaraderie and heroism that football can inspire in its players and through them, its fans. For such unguarded displays of emotion following their lion-hearted efforts in the finale to the most prestigious club competition of the year do their part to endear fans to football alongside the brilliance of their on-pitch displays. On the one hand, the veteran was crying and on the other, the youngster’s tears besides him showed a marvellous continuity with the game’s best traditions, of wonderful talent maximising itself, coveting the best trophies the game can offer and inspiring the next generation. Bravo, Pirlo and Pogba, for showing us all why it matters.

Equally powerful was the unaffected outpouring of joy with which Barcelona rushed towards their supporters after Neymar’s goal, almost forgetting to wait for the referee’s whistle, and converging with them in a bubbling mass of claret-blue, red and yellow. The spontaneity with which the players reacted to that final goal once again stripped football of all its trappings and reveal the beating authentic heart that still drives players, its fans and is brought alive by finals such as this.

On a similar note, Xavi bowed out last night after a seismic career, and it was also wonderfully apropos to see him embracing Pirlo at the end of the game, given how much these two great artistes have done to raise their clubs and grace the game with their immeasurable, inimitable skills.

How Truly Great Are Barcelona?

Barcelona’s second treble has prompted inevitable comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s team. However, despite their deserved triumph this season, doubts still linger about the current line-up’s true claim to greatness. If greatness is measured by a style of play as well as great players, then it is arguable that this Barcelona team falls short of the Guardiola team that has left such a mark on football and contributed so much to the Spanish national team that have dominated international football over the last decade. Guardiola’s team dominated the game from first minute to last in a way that required more of the ten players apart from Messi; Luis Enrique’s looks more porous during games and appears to rely disproportionately on the three individual talents in their forward line, with the remainder relegated to a supporting cast. As with “parking the bus”, using a counter-attacking tactic may seem sensible when Messi and Neymar form part of your forward line but also comes across as the obvious, uninventive, easy way out. Part of what made Guardiola’s team great was that they presented a vision of football that was so radically different from all that surrounded it, which seemed to elevate itself above the stratosphere in which other teams could play. It was riskier but also harder to pull off and its uniqueness was what merited titles such as “great”. Barcelona under Enrique appear to be deliberately jettisoning some of of that cherished ability to nurture the ball in possession through technical talent and footballing intelligence, in favour for a blitzkrieg version of football which, whilst admittedly exhilaratingly effective, looks like a copycat of the approach of many other teams in Europe throughout the last five years. Instead of being the innovators, Barcelona have bought really well and become the imitators. While they have deservedly been successful, such a jettisoning of their higher aspirations may see the club shorn of its sheen and unique identity that have made them a pioneer and a paragon over the years.

Murray’s victory captures hearts and minds like few other

There can be few career arcs in tennis that resonate quite as sweetly, and with quite as much tangible inspiration as Andy Murray’s from a talented young player struggling to put it all together to a supreme champion of the game, who reached his thrilling apotheosis in the shimmering atmosphere of Centre Court last Sunday. For Murray’s career has been studded with the kind of juddering emotional setbacks that would have caused a lesser man to crack, to discard all the hours of sweat and toil he had put in over the years through a feeling of helplessness. He had been in countless semi-finals against the other members of the top four club he has so convincingly made himself at home in, and four crushing finals – each closer than the last and therefore harder to deal with physically and emotionally. The agony that was increasing with each defeat nearly bubbled to the surface in losing to Roger Federer in the 2010 Australian Open final, before bursting out of him in a torrent of tears at his defeat in the Wimbledon final last year. Here was a man who had dedicated his whole life to the pursuit of his goals, from moving to a foreign country as a teenager to learn tennis and sacrificing the comforts of his home and friends to building up his body through agonising sessions of physical work to taking that fiendishly difficult hard look at himself and replacing his mental demons with a new calm, a new belief. Yet even after he had exhausted all those steps he was still coming up short and there was no guarantee after Wimbledon last year that he would ever find a way to cross that last barrier. It is therefore to his enormous credit that he never gave up the quest to improve himself, and continue finding the slimmest margins of self-betterment despite the dark hole that must have been growing wider and gnawing harder at him with each excruciating Grand Slam final defeat. There can be fewer worthy, more deserving or more heroic champions than this young man from Dunblane who has left no stone unturned in his quest to maximise his talent and nurture his gifts. Reflected in his shining eyes by the furiously clicking photographers on Sunday was that blissful happiness that accompanies the feeling that a human being has overcome crushing setbacks and moved past the fear of never knowing if what they dreamed about was possible, to transforming it into reality and experiencing the warm glow of fulfilment along with it. The way his career has run the full gamut of emotions to arrive at this giddy precipice of happiness invests his victory and the feelings around it with a sweet joy and a special significance.

This constant struggle against mental demons, this paragon of dedication to self-improvement resonates far beyond the tennis court in any walk of life. Anyone ever facing a difficult professional or personal obstacle, and doubting their fortitude in the face of apparently insurmountable odds, can look to Andy Murray as an example of how sweet a reward can taste if one never shirks the challenge, but instead rises taller to meet it as it grows ever greater in front of one. Anyone ever facing an apparent brick wall and struggling to find the bravery required to knock it down can draw a link between how Andy Murray must have felt after losing important match after important match to the world’s top three players, and then the soaring, sweet joy that would have engulfed him upon realising how he had overcome the great labour of his life to stand victorious at last. His is a tale of talent alloyed to the greatest human qualities: fortitude of heart and mind, ultimate dedication and constant self-improvement.

There will be people on the tennis courts as a result of his victories, but his shining eyes upon realising what he had done carried a message far and wide to all that finding the bravery to confront life’s great challenges can also bring tremendous rewards. Bravo, Andy Murray, for winning Wimbledon at last and bravo, for winning over and inspiring all of us in the greatest possible way.

Barcelona and Neymar’s hasty marriage signals ominous return of club’s worst practices

Whilst undoubtedly exciting, the signing of Neymar by Barcelona smacks of everything that is wrong about the club coming to the fore once again. No matter how alluring the raw talent of Neymar may be, any decision made to satisfy the ego and self-serving ends of one man – the president, Sandro Rosell -, rather than the more pressing needs of the football team will be tainted from the start. With the signing of an unproven starlet whose football career often appears to be suffocated by the sheer weight of public attention foisted on him, Rosell has single-handedly overwritten the importance of reinforcing the defence, providing Lionel Messi with a more reliable foil and prioritising the breakthrough of Barca’s much-vaunted La Masia graduates.

Worse, it shows a disrespect and lack of deference for the forces that have made Barcelona such a paragon over the last four years, by pursuing a trophy signing in a headstrong manner that presumably paid no more than lip service to the consideration that this new signing has the ability to unsettle the form and happiness of the most important player of this generation and many others in Lionel Messi. If Neymar struggles to adapt immediately, the circus that follows him may well coalesce into a chorus of disapproval for the way Messi fails to work with the players brought in around him – from Villa, Sanchez and possibly their beloved heir apparent. That would fail to take into account that the right type of player would find the correct mix of tactical awareness and range to flourish alongside Messi, and if Rosell had the team’s best interests at heart, he might have considered that Luis Suarez (now pursued by Madrid) or Eden Hazard would have been the better fit. Regardless, the paramount duty upon every Barcelona manager and president to attend to the needs of Messi – a true genius with whom they are fortunate to share such a special bond – should have been the first consideration in any signing, yet it is more than plausible that Rosell was thinking of his presidency rather than the needs of the club that he is supposed to serve in making his decision.

There are rumours that Pep Guardiola did not approve of the pursuit of Neymar, and it is no coincidence that Barcelona’s greatest period of success coincided with them ceding to the wishes of an astute manager rather than the normal modus operandi of allowing a president with delusions of his own grandeur to ride roughshod over everyone. Other concerns Guardiola had about Neymar have yet to be dispelled; his talent is indisputable but the question of the sufficiency of his strength of will to make the most of his gifts – raised by his reported tendencies to dive in difficult situations or fail to make the right pass at the right time – is open to debate. Barcelona have Gerard Deulofeu in their ranks, a player of similar gifts and growing problems, but have effectively just paid at least 60 million euros to acquire a player they still need to work on with no guarantee that it will bear fruit.

Even if he proves all the doubters wrong, it still does not shake the impression that the club are returning to the bad old days – reinforced by their inability to learn from their mistakes of overplaying stars, the fighting and scenes of drunkenness witnessed amongst players on their supposed open bus celebration, the contradication between players and management in Pique’s assertion that they needed reinforcements and Rosell’s dismissal of those concerns after the Bayern match, as well as the uncomfortable fact of the president’s business links to Ricardo Teixeira – a man of immensely dubitable integrity whose has been proven to abuse football’s privileges for his own benefit in the past.

O’Sullivan’s conflicted relationship with snooker adds gravitas to the game

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest instalment of his hate-love affair with snooker has been the subject of much debate within the game, compounded as it was by his inability to emotionally reset himself following his sabbatical from the table and a crowning as world champion that gave the fullest possible exposure to his discordant feelings towards his own sport. However, those concerned with the image of snooker need not fear; O’Sullivan’s frank and fascinating portrait of a man struggling to negotiate the vicissitudes of his own temperament is a resounding testament to the drama and poetry of sport.

Instead of reading with dismay negative connotations into his talk of “snooker not [being] for [him]” or how he can’t “keep putting [himself] through being unhappy”, the game’s well-wishers should treat these as articulations of the timeless, exquisitely cathartic negotiation between the blessing of a sportsman’s talent and the burden of his temperament. When O’ Sullivan, following a flat opening four frames, missed a simple red in his 2008 semi-final with Stephen Hendry and walked off, the initial reaction on his face to that error spoke volumes to the expectations human beings put on their talent, and the subsequent pressure that can swallow them whole if they allow the dam to break. O’Sullivan raised himself from the table ashen-faced, shook his head in an entirely instinctual expression of mingled frustration and self-loathing, and called it quits; his dam had broken, and so was he. Off he walked, leaving a nonplussed and aghast Hendry to also shake his head, collect his cues and walk off an unsatisfied winner.

Yet the regular sports viewers among us would have recognised that fury and frustration O’ Sullivan felt at his sport at that moment as a necessary component of the fierce desire of all artists to produce something of the sort of soaring quality that returns an intangible, almost spiritual satisfaction to its owner ; without this frustration at the immense difficulty involved in producing such virtuoso performances at one’s beck and call, the satisfaction accrued on the rare occasions on which it all falls sweetly into place would also be non-existent. The drama of sport owes much to these raw depictions of the psychological struggles that consume most human beings, whether it lies in O’Sullivan’s inability to cope with the frustration of inevitable dips in his flawless snooker exhibitions, or Luis Suarez’s primal, subconscious urge to bite Branislav Ivanovic following a perceived injustice, or Sergio Garcia’s collapse on the 17th hole of the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass under the knowledge that he could best Tiger Woods in a high-profile battle and surmount the mental hurdles that have haunted him throughout his career, or Richard Gasquet’s tendency to only unfurl his full repertoire of shot-making artistry when he has built a lead and the pressure has subsided.

Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist charged with exorcising Luis Suarez’s demons, has described how human beings struggle to overcome the negative emotions weighing them down as they are often unable to perceive the root causes of those emotions, yet the transparent depiction of this inner struggle through sporting contests is vital and compelling theatre. There are lessons to be learned in Adam Scott’s recovery from a traumatic abdication of his grasp on the British Open Claret Jug at the death, to win the Masters in a nerve-wracking play-off this year, or even the fact that O’Sullivan’s frustration stems from engagement with the highest forms of creative endeavour through the medium of snooker. Sport is a distilled microcosm of the struggles of human life, in which the goals to be attained are clearer and more morally laudable, making the efforts of the protagonists attempting to accomplish them more open to evaluation and reliable as sources of inspiration. Which politician’s success or failure, built on the back of wider forces than himself, can ever be regarded as sincerely or purely as that of the sportsman struggling to overcome his own person to achieve something he knows to be of intangible, immeasurable wealth?

In this respect, O’Sullivan has rendered a great service to snooker by placing it in that hallowed club of sports which by their nature demand the greatest engagement of human talent and spirit from their protagonists, and which carry stories of miraculous successes and heart-wrenchingly heroic failures that will continue to enthrall for generations to come.

Chelsea might pine for Mourinho’s return, but others may shake their heads in dismay at the prospect

If Mourinho really is going to come back to English football, and thus switch on the perfect and most wanton receptacle for his unashamedly debased circus act of mocking others, stirring up hostility and pettily reducing the vastly imaginative and enriching scope of football to nothing other than a beaten and flayed donkey by which to enhance his self-image, then British football fans could do worse than to read this Guardian article on the subject by Barney Ronay. There is a boorish, confrontational, divisive streak in a vast tract of football fans in Britain that is awakened and swollen by someone like Mourinho, and clumsily articulated in their monopolisation of the word ‘legend’ and strident attribution of it to him. Some of these so-called ‘legends’ who see their worst traits glorified in this demagogue occasionally pop up on Facebook or other online forums to post pathetically derogatory comments about other teams and fans. Reading this might serve as a much-needed look in the mirror for them, and an absolutely necessary pre-emptory sedative for the rest of us from the anger, recriminations and fractiousness that will inevitably follow the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’s’ return to England: