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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, April 23, 2003
    Thinking about space
     
    "If you didn't like what you saw tonight, then you don't like football." Des Lynam's closing remarks after ITV's screening of Man Utd 4 - Real Madrid 3 (Madrid win 6-5 on aggregate), were typical tabloid TV, but apposite. It was a cracking game.

    Such on-pitch poetry took me straight back to an article in the current Harper's Magazine, Ajax is all about attack, by Jim Shepard, one of the best pieces of football writing I've read for a long time.

    He writes in the persona of Velibor Vasovic, Yugoslavian captain of the legendary Ajax team which won the club's first European Champions Cup in 1971. That Ajax team demonstrated a new way of playing which transformed European soccer, and which this evening, in elaborated and refined forms, we saw again. Shepard (as Vasovic) describes it beautifully:
      Few remember that before Ajax became Ajax, Holland's football record in internationals had been the equal of Luxemborg's. It took all of us - coach, Communist, and longhaired boys - all of thirty minutes that first day to realize that what we'd collected was a group of people who thought about space. The ultra-aggressive football in which players switched positions and rained attacks from every angle was worked through and worked out on that pitch over the next three years. It was a collective. During rest breaks we all talked. We all listened. Suppose we tried this? What happened when we tried that? We started letting midfielders and defenders join in attacks, and saw the ways in which forwards would have to support such flexibility by flowing back to cover. Position shifting came easily and provided opponents, once we started playing matches, with a chaos of movement and change with which to deal. The first Dutch word I really learned to speak was "switch."
    Funny, that word was quoted on the commentary this evening as being Steve MacManaman's first Spanish word learned on his move to Madrid.

    While opponents see this fluid football as a chaos of movement and change, spectators see it as a form of poetics, teammates as perfect geometry: Vasovic said of teammate Johan Cruyff, "He was a Pythagoras in shorts".

    Thinking about space. Switching. "Envisioning whole geometries." Football at this level transcends, inspires, and formulates lessons for life.