SPORT

Power and Creativity – Women’s Euros 2017

In the build-up to the Women’s Euros 2017 the FA posted a video on its website of the England team’s preparations, entitled Brutal Football Fitness Test. Performance coach Ben Young, previously with Saracens and England Men’s rugby, said that, ‘Everything we’re doing, on the pitch and in the weight room, is essentially underpinned by the fact that we’re completely determined to be the fittest, strongest and most powerful team in the world.’

The video showed the players in the gym lifting outlandish barbells and dragging lumpy weights, or ‘intense running without the ball’ outside. Each session was carefully designed to improve players’ ‘strength, power or speed.’

Physical outputs were measured minutely. A 23% improvement was achieved over the course of six weeks preparation. Head coach Mark Sampson preached bullish positivity and the mood amongst the players was upbeat to the point of mania. A new gymnasium was installed at the team hotel in Utrecht, an expensive cryotherapy chamber was hired. England – whose FA budget for the women’s game is more than twice that of France or Germany, the other continental forces – had come to the tournament not merely to win it, but to crush it.

In Match One, England steam-rolled a Scotland team enfeebled by injuries to key players. England played with power but also, in attack, with deadly finesse. Striker Jodie Taylor scored a highly accomplished hat-trick, Jordan Nobbs a sweet volley, Barcelona-bound Toni Duggan a poacher’s header. Ellen White, hefty, tireless worker up and down the left, scored too. 6-0.

In Match Two opponents Spain presented a different challenge: they liked to keep the ball. England launched the ball forward at every opportunity and usually thereby lost it. By the end of the game Spain had acquired an unsettling 78% of possession, but foundered on the rock of England’s defence, marshalled superbly as ever by captain Steph Houghton. Afterwards Ellen White said, ‘We knew that Spain would have lots of possession, but we stuck to our game plan.’ England created just two chances, and Fran Kirby and Jodie Taylor duly took them. 2-0.

Mark Sampson had been a precociously accomplished coach. At just 25 he was Head of the Boys Academy at Swansea, where the Men’s squad was managed by Roberto Martinez, an ideal mentor, whose team gained promotion from the Championship with superb passing football. Less than three years later, in 2009, Sampson became manager of Bristol City Women just as the Women’s Super League was inaugurated, and instituted a revolution similar to Martinez’s at Swansea: the provincial club reached two FA Cup finals and a runners-up in the WSL. Sampson got the best out of his Bristol players with relentless passing football, an ethos that was extended down through all the age groups in the Girls Academy.

A logical and popular choice as England manager in 2013 following Hope Powell’s long, pioneering but latterly dysfunctional regime, Mark Sampson brought his passing ethos to England, along with an openness to players’ opinions and a tactical acuity. The mood of the England camp brightened perceptibly. Previously shunned players such as Katie Chapman and Jodie Taylor were brought back into the fold.

With two victories in the 2017 tournament, meanwhile, and other results going England’s way, they had already qualified from their group, and so for Match Three with Portugal wholesale changes were made. Only Millie Bright, the galumphing young centre-back, was retained. The style of football, however, remained the same: England ran up and down the pitch at high speed, with remorseless stamina, chasing long balls. In a bitty game, few players furthered their cause for a place in the first eleven (though the suspicion remained that the readings of their heart-rate monitors might be more significant than the accuracy of their passing.)

Toni Duggan took advantage of the Portuguese keeper’s poor clearance with a delicious chip, Portugal cheekily equalized, but eventually Nikita Parris powered through the middle to score a nervy winner. 2-1.

Back in 2014, England’s initial games under Mark Sampson had gone well: they won all ten of their qualifying matches for the 2015 World Cup. But two friendlies brought Sampson and his coaches down to earth. In November 2014 England played perennial titans Germany at the new Wembley Stadium. Germany won 3-0. England did not merely lose; they were brushed aside by the German women’s superior power. Looking back on the game, Sampson said, ‘We wanted to go toe-to-toe… but we got punished. After that game we needed to find a balance between when we can force our style on opponents, and when we need to respect and make sure we can manage the game. We learnt some big lessons.’

A couple of months later England lost to the USA. The score was only 1-0, and England had a Jodie Taylor goal erroneously ruled offside, but again there was a clear physical disparity between the sides.

As Mark Sampson and his assistant Marianne Spacey pondered what had happened, the visionary was replaced by a pragmatist. In the 2015 World Cup, England set up to match the power of the USA, Germany and hosts Canada. With Fara Williams in a Pirlo or quarterback role in front of the defence, in front of her a midfield pair of Katie Chapman and Jade Moore, augmented as required by Jill Scott,  England were not going to be rolled over by anyone. In addition, Sampson juggled his starting elevens and substitutions with enterprising ingenuity. England beat Canada and Germany along the way to a highly creditable 3rd place.

In the 2017 Euros quarter-final, meanwhile, England met pre-tournament favourites France in a game of high-intensity and little imagination.

At free-kicks it appeared that England’s tactical innovation was for all the players to congregate on the near post except for tall Millie Bright, who loitered beyond the far post. Jordan Nobbs dropped the ball into space for Bright to run into and head for goal. The first time, she narrowly missed the target. The second time, French keeper Sarah Bouhaddi trotted out and calmly plucked the ball out of the air. The moment seemed symptomatic of England’s predictability.

Fortunately, France were equally poor. Despite providing both Women’s Champions League finalists in Lyon and PSG, the national team played without verve or belief. The deadlock was broken when Lucy Bronze, England’s dynamic right-back, pounced on a loose French pass, drove forward and released Jodie Taylor. The striker advanced with one touch and shot past Bouhaddi. 1-0.

England were into the semi-final but their deficiencies were all too apparent. It’s a simple problem: when you’re running at full tilt, unless you’re a Messi or a Marta you can’t think clearly. It was a mystery why intelligent and technically adroit players like Jordan Nobbs, Fran Kirby, Fara Williams, Karen Carney and Izzy Christiansen were asked to hoof the ball into space and chase after it.

It seemed that the England camp genuinely believed that they could simply overpower opponents. England Men’s team believed this for many years. We could beat foreigners with our fighting spirit because they don’t like it up ‘em.

Perhaps it’s the case that women’s football, in playing catch-up to men’s after the FA’s disgraceful ban from 1921 to 1972, is obliged to go through a similar cycle of development, according to national archetype. The Spanish will play pretty powder-puff football, Austria will be not quite as efficient as Germany, and England teams are sent out not for play but for battle. As Carlo Ancelotti, having coached in three countries, wrote: ‘In England there is much more aggression and less obsession with possession. English teams and players have a strong fighting mentality. If I had to go to war, I would go with the English, not with the Italians or the French. It is absolutely essential to understand this culture, which is macho like the South Americans, but in a quiet, understated way.’

Fortunately for those whose patriotism is trumped by their love of the beautiful game, there was one team playing outstanding football: hosts Holland, England’s opponents in the semi-final.

Before the match Sarina Wiegman, the Holland coach, said of England, ‘They play long ball and they want to have a real intense game. We will take some pace off the game and play the possession game.’

Her midfield of tough captain Sherida Spitse, indefatigable player of the tournament Jackie Groenen and cunning Daniëlle van de Donk, had little problem standing up to England’s midfield power, while the defence dealt with the long ball threat by simply dropping off, denying Jodie Taylor and England’s other attacking players space to exploit – just as foreign teams have always dealt with England’s men’s team.

Up front Holland had an inspired trio of the beautifully balanced Lieke Martens on the left, turbo-powered Shanice van de Sanden on the right and Vivianne Miedema, canny and clinical, in the middle. Miedema headed Holland into a first half lead, and in the second half van de Donk took advantage of a loose Fara Williams header to score a second. In injury time Millie Bright deflected a Martens cross past keeper Siobhan Chamberlain. 0-3.

Mark Sampson, positive and provocative throughout the tournament, was magnanimous in defeat, congratulating Holland and accentuating the positives of the tournament for the women’s game. He thanked the media for their support and urged them to come to watch the Women’s Super League.

One of the joys of a tournament is the opportunity it occasionally gives us to witness the emergence of an exceptional team, and so it was with Holland in these 2017 Euros. In the final, Denmark, led by an inspired strike force of captain Pernille Harder and Afghan refugee Nadia Nadim, played with attacking intent. The two teams gave the world a thrilling exhibition of intelligent, incisive, attacking football, adorned with great goals. Holland ran out winners, 4-2.

For England supporters, it had been a familiar sight: an England team chugging into a tournament full of bang and bluster, departing it having been outthought and outplayed. It might be easy to bemoan our national destiny, and assume it to be fixed. But Mark Sampson’s early promise was surely not illusory. He is a natural leader, a clever and open-minded tactician. Expect him to ponder once again, and his England team to return, altered and improved, for the World Cup in 2019.

September 2017

 

Tim has also written a number of essays on sport, where an extraordinary athlete, or sporting occasion, has illuminated wider issues.

When He Was King, about Bjorn Borg and qualities great sports people share with mystics

 

Salvation Army, about the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and politics

 

The Time Machine, about Lasse Viren and the nature of time

 

Otto the Strange: The Champion Who Defied the Nazis, about Otto Peltzer, a German track hero in the Twenties, who was vilified and jailed for his sexuality in the Thirties, survived a death camp in the Forties, then found a remarkable new life in the Sixties.

 

‘My most beautiful game,’ about the 1982 World Cup semi-final between France and West Germany, a match of extraordinary drama, shot through with the legacy of the Second World War.

Shanice van de Sanden after scoring Holland’s first goal in the Euros

EBONY INTERNATIONAL

Wilfred de Baise was a charismatic six-foot-six Frenchman who hated Paris and fell in love with Oxford: so he stayed, Djing in the crummy nightclubs of this town and hiring out his own mobile disco, Ebony International. We used to kick around in the local park on Sunday afternoons and, gradually, recruiting players from the dance floor, Willy put together a team and organised friendlies against Bangladeshi waiters, Libyan trainee pilots and tutorial colleges of European students.

Ebony won them all – as the team improved, by increasingly embarrassing margins. Instead of entering a local league, Willy decided to organise a new one of his own. Articles appeared in the Oxford Star and rumours circulated in clubs and bars. The league started in 1985, with two divisions made up of new teams from banks, pubs and company social clubs.

Often I was the only Englishman in Ebony International. There were so many languages spread amongst our illegal immigrants and transient visitors that to avoid confusion we played in silence, our small North African midfielders passing in triangles around opponents yelling at each other: ‘I can’t hear you! Fucking SHOUT!’

We played everywhere: in the mudbath behind Botley Allotments; on the winter windswept wastes at Horspath; the college lawn on Mansfield Road; at Marston where the only spectators were seagulls lined up on the crossbar; at Lucy’s, on a single pitch marked out in the middle of a vast field of grass so that more time was spent retrieving the ball than kicking it; on the top pitch at Cutteslowe Park surrounded by a play-park, aviary and steam train, and hundreds of fleeting watchers.

The first goalkeeper was my best friend Philip, a both fine art and martial artist, who made his footballing debut at 38, performed as if he’d done it all his life, and retired at 40. He was succeeded by Eric, an American at Oxford University writing a graduate thesis on Renaissance theatre. Eric possessed the reckless, morbid courage necessary for a keeper; he was also both astonishingly agile and naïve. He was worth a goal a game: one for us and one for them.

Eric had the positional sense of a moth. When an attacker broke through one-on-one, Eric came out widening the angle – the opponent stroked the ball past him into a yawning goal. When Eric turned and saw where the goalposts had been moved to, he did a double-take of paranoid disbelief, threw off his gloves and stalked after the ball. He retrieved it from the net and punted it towards the clouds, venting his anger and despair upon it.

It took us weeks to persuade Eric not to hoof the ball upfield for clearances but rather to throw it to a defender so we could play out from the back; and it took months to teach him to call for the ball on crosses. Unfortunately this demanded so much of his concentration that he lost his already flimsy grasp of the ball’s flight. Over it came from the wing, this stentorian American accent roared ‘KEEPER!’ stunning colleagues and opposition alike into startled immobility, and in slow motion Eric rose and flapped in mid-air as the ball sailed over his head.

He could be a liability, Eric; but more often he was an inspiration. Every game there came an instance when the ball was headed for the net, opposition players already celebrating, only for Eric to soar like a salmon and miraculously scoop the ball over the bar; you could feel their will being sucked out of them, and ours energised. Or he’d hurl himself head first into a blurred melee of frantic boots like a blind man in search of the slithery ball, and emerge clutching it like a baby. Afterwards, with grimacing pride, Eric would display that week’s broken finger or loosened tooth.

Goalkeepers are oddballs, outsiders, peculiarly masochistic, brave and vulnerable. When the ball’s upfield they lose interest – they make lousy managers. When we scored at the other end Eric felt as sorry for his opposite number as jubilant for us: his perfect score was 0-0. And we never had a 0-0 draw.

Radko and Ramon were Slovak brothers. Whenever we scored, Ramon yelled: ‘Ebony! Ebony! Ebony!’ Radko was always the last of our team to arrive, traipsing across Cutteslowe Park trailing a line of kids and dogs, like Yosser Hughes. Their father was a dancer and Radko had inherited a whiplash body: when we were lined up ready for kick-off he did a standing back-flip for good luck.

Radko was a full-back, and a mercurial defender. If a winger ever dribbled past him he recovered so quickly the guy would have to beat him again; and few beat him twice. The sad thing was that where Radko really wanted to play was in goal – if Eric was injured, Radko filled in – and unfortunately he wasn’t very good. During one memorable defeat he watched the ball trickle over the line for goal number six and, in one of those weird silences that sometimes occur, we all heard his voice croak: ‘I’m ‘avin’ a nightmare.’

When Eric returned, Willy put Radko back outfield, and Radko played wearing his goalkeeper’s gloves, whether in silent protest or simply as protection against the cold it was hard to tell.

Sean was our Scottish central defender. He lived on the estate overlooking Cutteslowe, where we played our home games, but Willy always had to dispatch someone to drag him out of bed and a drunken stupor. He stumbled over, paint-splattered from his latest moonlighting job, and began games bleary-eyed, beer thick and sweet on his breath as he shouted ‘Sean’s ball!’ crunching into an only slightly mistimed  tackle.

We had our share of violent players. Like Sam, a skilful full-back who when he was made to look stupid – by an opponent’s trickery or his own error – flew off the handle and kicked out at the nearest opposing player like a petulant child. Eventually he had one temper tantrum too many and Willy came rushing on to the pitch, trenchcoat flapping, and hauled him off for good. Or Martin, a gentle strongman, who once on a pitch in the grounds of Blenheim Palace inexplicably stamped on an opponent who happened to be lying on the ground at the time. Without waiting for the referee, Martin walked off the pitch, collected his clothes, drove away and was neither seen nor heard of again.

Sean was never violent: he was a true hard man. He made every tackle with equal vigour, whether against a spindly seventeen-year-old or a fourteen-stone bruiser. Uncompromising and fair. When he won the ball he gave it to someone else to do the fancy stuff, like passing it.

Once, playing against a police team, Sean and the player he was marking turned in a crowded penalty area and ran, face to face, smack into each other. A freak accident. Sean’s nose flattened against the other guy’s forehead; the sound of bone and gristle snapping and tearing made my knees go, never mind theirs. They both dropped poleaxed to the ground. There was blood everywhere. I knelt beside Sean thinking: Phone, someone, 999. Ambulance, Casualty; while registering amazement that he appeared to still be conscious, his hands over his face. Blood pouring. Then this Scottish-accented voice emerging from under the mess: ‘Ah’m intending tae register a complaint against police brutality.’

Then there was Mark, a cussed Yorkshireman, now a BBC film-maker, and the most immaculate defender I ever played with. He not only won fifty-fifty tackles and headers but was annoyed unless he made passes out of them; under the most extreme pressure he never simply cleared the ball but cleared it to a colleague. When he joined Ebony it became possible to play out from the back because there were now two of us who wanted the ball off the keeper.

Salim played central midfield; Salim was our playmaker. A stocky Algerian in his thirties, he was past his best, but his best must have been something to see. He’d played semi-professionally back home (an engineer, he was also working as a youth coach with Oxford United). Salim roamed around the middle of the pitch playing easy first-time passes but now and then suddenly turning, shrugging off his marker, and slicing the ball through their defence.

Salim was both our colleague and our teacher. The only thing he couldn’t stand, and wouldn’t tolerate, was stupidity. He didn’t mind missed chances or lost tackles, he was endlessly encouraging: ‘Unlucky. Well played. Good boy. Try again.’ But if someone over-elaborated or hoofed the ball upfield when there was a simple pass on, Salim glowered and scowled and tore strips off us.

Losing possession irked him. He told us that you can always get out of trouble by playing simple one-twos, and move around the pitch with a series of wall passes. It’s a simple game, he told us: pass and move, pass and move, that’s all. The brain’s the most important part of a footballer’s anatomy. The key’s movement off the ball: football is geometry in motion, human beings creating patterns Euclid never dreamed of.

Most of us were in our late twenties or early thirties, hardened football nuts from all over the world. Like Mario, a free-scoring Brazilian who mangled his arm in the pasta-making machine in the pizza place where he did the washing-up. Like Iranian Mohammed and Sala the Iraqui Kurd, who played either side of Salim in midfield. Like Moroccan Rashid, who could miss from two yards with his right foot but score from anywhere with his left.

But the best player by far was a sublimely talented, sixteen-year-old local boy. Kenny was on Tottenham’s books, and travelled to London for training once or twice a week. He played for a top-class Oxford team on Saturday and then turned out for us on a Sunday, like a kind of guest superstar. When Kenny received the ball it became part of him. He accepted it lovingly, caressed it, looked up, and saw a vision that was different from the rest of us. He’d pass the ball into what appeared to be aimless space, and it would take a second or two to realize that he’d prised open their tight defence, had invited our winger to run clear. Kenny was able both to anticipate and to prompt the unfolding geometry into a new phase. The moment one appreciated what he’d just done was breathtaking.

Our league was constituted so that the top two teams in each division had to play off for the title, and we met our arch-rivals, the Nag’s Head. When a player commits a nasty foul it provokes instant rage, but when someone’s seriously hurt, when you hear the crack of bone, anger doesn’t even rise. Midway through the first half Kenny had an innocuous collision with their captain, and his right thigh-bone snapped.

Willy said afterwards he wished he’d abandoned – and forfeited – the game. Our hearts weren’t in it. Kenny was in hospital for weeks. He didn’t kick a ball again for another year and he was never quite the same. He played for Ipswich reserves and went on to a minor professional career on the Continent. Our grizzled dreams were with him, and we saw them dashed. It was the saddest thing.

Willy worried all week about selecting his team. At our level, friendship complicated the process, but, although he had our affection no less than our respect, Willy had that strange measure of aloofness necessary for leadership. He gathered us together before games and read out the starting line-up from a wrinkled scrap of paper. And then he said: ‘Play, guys. Play football.’

An Oxford paper covered our results, scorers and league tables with an additional round-up, and during our second season the local FA got in touch with Willy to request a meeting. I accompanied him and Geren, our league secretary, to a conference room in the Moat House Hotel. We sat across a table from three men in blazers worried by the success of a league outside their monopolistic control. They offered us inducements – insurance, contacts, qualified officials – to come under their umbrella. It would have meant agreeing to all their rules, which included, once becoming affiliated ourselves, being unable to play even friendlies against unaffiliated clubs; and also women being banned from playing. This wasn’t merely an academic point, since a couple of American women had played for one of the tutorial college sides. But even if they hadn’t, Willy wasn’t keen on banning anyone.

Willy listened to the FA functionaries’ arguments, and declined to join. They responded with threats, warning all players and officials that anyone who part in our league would be banned by the Football Association. Whether or not they found out by sending spies, the following season a couple of referees and a number of players (in FA teams on a Saturday, in ours on a Sunday) were suspended. It was a spiteful action, and it turned out to be needless: Willy was stitched up in a business venture and had to start commuting to Paris to work, leaving no time to lead the  league he’d started, which wound down at the end of that season. We’d had three great years together.

Football is so compelling an activity partly because like any sport it requires utter concentration of mind and body – in the act there is no duality and no ego, only total absorption in the moment, pure individual expression – and also because of its nature as a team game. Football combines two quite different human endeavours in the act of defence and attack. The one – anticipating danger, racing back, getting behind the ball, marking, covering, blocking, tackling – is that of mutual support in a crisis, working together with courage and selflessness in an emergency. The other – constructing the complex improvised patterns of passing movements, running off the ball, offering options, dribbling, crossing, shooting – is collaboration in creative expression.

These two different activities are contained seamlessly within the same game; play oscillates constantly between them. When it’s successful the result is a profound communion, an intimate fellowship with one’s colleagues, with, in Ebony, our French leader and his rag-tag team of migrant workers, odd academics, artists, Oxford lads, asylum seekers, and other gentlemen of the beautiful game.

(A Book of Two Halves, ed. Nicholas Royle, Victor Gollancz, 1996)

Oxford blues… Ebony International line up before their fateful play-off against Nag’s Head. Key players, back row: Wilfred de Baise, player-manager (fourth from the right); the author (third from right); front row, from left: Sam; Scottish hard man Sean; Slovak Ramon; goalkeeper Philip; star player Kenny, who had his leg broken midway through the first half; Ramon’s brother Radko.