An Interpretation of Football

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.
— Stephen King

We are in dire of critical thinkers in football development. The types of thinkers who are willing to delve into matters that go past the superficiality of the game. Where most people stop at the scoring opportunity missed in the 86th minute as the reason for a team losing, the critical thinker analyses everything that came before, not just within that sequence or the match but instead is willing make the effort to further understand, and possibly uncover certain uncomfortable truths about the way something has been done in the past or is being done at the moment.  

This kind of critical analysis requires one to look within the problem, and in many cases look outward towards a greener pasture. However, the gaze towards more successful external paths can never be with thoughts of jealousy or resentment because this leads to excuses and dismissals of impossibility. The investigative search of those who appear to be on the right track should be with objectivity and critical reasoning. They require such skills that allow the findings to include the root of the success, the principles behind the magic. Not to copy the final product but to understand how the product was created and apply the fundamentals to our own situation. This is not easily done and few professionals are capable of this. 

I believe that Ignacio Benedetti has this ability. He is a Venezuelan sports journalist, although this title doesn’t do him justice. I’d go as far as to call him a football scholar, intellectual, and academic. His knowledge of footballing history is outstanding but as if that wasn’t enough, he has the wordsmanship of a lyrical savant. He’s written some of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. Needless to say, I hold his opinion in high esteem. 

Read: Learning to Learn: How football can teach us

Upon the finalisation of this World Cup’s quarterfinals phase, when the four European semifinalists were known, Ignacio discussed the matter on a live video. Instead of criticising the South American federations, the coaches, the players, he dug deeper and believed to have identified the difference that makes European football the world’s elite. 

In the following eight-minute video, which I have translated for my English speaking audience, he begins with some history of international football. He discusses the greats from the 1930’s and the 1950’s, teams like Hungary and Austria, who are currently irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. He makes a case that Europeans and South American sides have always been on a level playing field, technically, physically, and tactically. 

However, in the last 20 years, European football has undergone an intellectual renaissance which has left other countries lagging behind. The type of development which adds another element to the traditional three aspects, technique, tactics, and physical, and in my opinion, encapsulates the whole of the game. Europeans have fully accepted and implemented comprehension and the cognitive process required from the game into their player development. Benedetti strongly believes this is the reason for the European dominance in recent years. 

He describes this interpretation as such “Interpretation is to know what the game demands in certain situations. It doesn't always demand to run, to tackle, a long pass, a short pass, or a dribble. But yes, the game has all that and much more, and from each starting point, each situation the game emerges, the footballer should be equipped to decide, to decide with what they've been trained in and what they have within themselves. The footballer isn't a machine nor a robot. That's why when we talk about automatisms, we're very mistaken because automatisms only have to do with computers. Human beings react to what we have, what we've practiced, what's within, but we don't react to an instruction. Instead, everything that is trained or practiced is archived within our being. So the decision-making process is so fast and instantaneous that the footballer is going to decide without thinking but because they've trained, they've made it their own, and they feel it in a certain way, and they identify each emergence and situation to apply every one of their resources.”

The parts are not the sum. The pieces are not the whole. The separate aspects are not the game. 

I have been fortunate enough to see the European renaissance in practice. Having been a frustrated American coach starting out six years ago, I decided to take my learning to Spain. Two UEFA courses and several years experience coaching within the Spanish system later, I now understand exactly what Mr. Benedetti is referring to. 

Read: The Principle of Play

Technique requires tactics, and vice-versa. These are elements of the game that cannot be broken away like Lego blocks from the finished toy to later be fit back in. They are interdependent, they need one another. And not only has European football kept them together but they’ve applied certain interpretations of the game which serves as their blueprint for how those elements work together. 

Above all, behind the curtain, the foundation of everything is the importance to teach footballers to decide. European countries have consistently focused their player development on the decision-making process. Because at the end of the day, no matter how athletic, technical, or tactically competent you are, if you cannot decide correctly every time within the milliseconds the game provides, you will fail in modern football.  

Benedetti gives us the example of the Venezuelan player performing his preseason training on the beach with a parachute. This is so far removed from the context of the game, it can’t even be the same sport anymore. The more and more we add, the more we distance ourselves from the game, and the further we are from ever comprehending it, from conceiving our own interpretation of it. As Benedetti points out in the last sentence of the video, “To comprehend and understand football, one has to adapt and to adapt one must have knowledge.” I’d go a step further and say that knowledge has to be peeled away to reveal the basics. For when we fully grasp the principles of the game will we be capable of comprehending the complexity of what we see.

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ArticleDavid Garcia