Up for the Kup with Dr. K.

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries Frederick Kempe’s report on Henry Kissinger’s “guide to watching the World Cup” (subscribers only). This is strictly Paul’s territory, but I was afraid he might miss the article. Kempe reports on Dr. Kissinger’s “tutorial on the fine points of soccer”:

“Soccer gets me at a relatively high pitch of attention,” he says. He plans later this month to attend a World Cup semifinal match and also the finals, regardless of who is playing. He’s fascinated with how national characteristics translate into playing styles: Brazil’s unbridled joy, England’s noble purpose, Germany’s grim determination.

Dr. Kissinger keeps an eye on the TV and the Swiss team’s surprisingly strong first-half showing against a French team that on paper is far superior. “I don’t want to say anything anti-Swiss, but this is against expectations,” he announces. As the match continues, Dr. Kissinger offers up some up other tips for appreciating this year’s Cup:

Take your eye off the ball. “Soccer is a game that hides great complexity in an appearance of simplicity,” he says. “It looks like 10 people chasing a ball. But they have to be coached scientifically so that they know where to move when the ball is in play.”

Dr. Kissinger studies the patterns that teams try to create with their movements, whether they are predominantly attacking teams (which he prefers) or defending teams (which has become more the norm, to his chagrin).

“Oh, my God,” Dr. Kissinger says, interrupting himself, as a French player fails to kick the ball into the net when he receives a perfect pass in front of the goal. “A deadly striker would have scored there.”

Note the three primary playing styles — but also the way globalization is homogenizing them. Dr. Kissinger separates the approaches to the game into three broad types: English, European continental and Latin. The traditional English style focuses on winning through athleticism — kicking the ball deep and long and then outrunning the opponent, with defenders and attackers well-defined. With the European style, six players typically move forward and pass skillfully and four players remain back. That said, they often shift positions so that defenders can become attackers.

His favorite is the Latin approach, which is about style as much as substance. “When a Brazilian team is in good form, it looks like a ballet coming down the field. There are two troubles with the Brazilians: One is they get so infatuated with their dancing and acrobatics that they sometimes forget to shoot goals. The other is they often don’t have a good goalkeeper. My explanation is that he doesn’t like staying back and not joining the fun.”

Dr. Kissinger worries that globalization is “brutalizing” the Brazilians, who have lost some of their Latin panache. All but three of their 11 players have had their styles dulled by playing in the highest-paying but more-conformist European leagues, he says. The English have also shifted to a more European style. Meanwhile, Dr. Kissinger says Germany is playing a more spontaneous and cheerful attacking style this year, which contrasts with the country’s history-laden pessimism.

He has high praise for the Argentinians. “They have many of the skills of the Brazilians, but are ruthlessly oriented toward scoring goals and doing whatever is necessary to win,” he says.

Don’t underestimate the element of exhaustion in close games. Mr. Kissinger notes that goals are often scored late in the match when players are most fatigued.

It’s near the end of the French-Swiss game, and though the French have improved in the second half, there still is no score. Dr. Kissinger delivers his verdict: “The French, while still elegant, have become stodgy,” he says. “The French don’t have the killer instinct or the killer capability.”

PAUL adds: Readers who check out my soccer posts (bless you) have probably noticed that I stay away from the big picture, “soccer explains everything” stuff that Dr. K. and the Franklin Foer favor. I try to write narrowly, as a sports fan rather than a geo-politician. That’s not to say there isn’t value in the other approach, but I do think it’s overrated. In my view, the identity of a national team’s coach (and how he perceives the stengths and weaknesses of his players) has more to do with how a team plays than the country’s culture does. There have been World Cups (though admittedly not many) when Brazil has played cynically and Argentina has turned on the style, and World Cups when it’s been the other way around. Germany is known for defensive play and lack of flair, but as Dr. K notes, under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a free spirit who chooses to live in California, they have played stylish attacking football so far this Cup. England often plays artistic football when Wayne Rooney is present and fit, but tends to revert to the long ball into the box when 6’7″ Peter Crouch replaces him.


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