Watching Ghana play Germany during the group stages of the 2014 World Cup put me in mind of a pivotal moment in CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary. After a slow first half, the game came alive. Germany’s Mario Götze gave his side the lead with a header that hit his knee on the way into the Ghanaian net; André Ayew, not a player renowned for his aerial power, replied for Ghana with a superbly directed header. Asamoah Gyan cruised past the static German defense to beat Manuel Neuer with a fierce strike to give Ghana the lead. And then Miroslav Klose did what Miroslav Klose does: he nicked a goal from close range. The ball was bobbing around in Ghana’s six yard box from a Bastian Schweinsteiger corner, and Klose was on hand to tuck the ball in. German coach Joachim Löw had played a hunch, bringing on Schweinsteiger and Klose for Sami Khedira and Götze, respectively, and it paid off as the Germans avoided defeat.
Klose’s goal brought his World Cup total to 15, joint top in the history of the competition with Brazil’s Ronaldo. I am pretty sure I’ve seen most of Klose’s strikes, but can’t say I remember a single one of them. Ronaldo? I can still see him, big, burly, buck-toothed and fast, bearing down on goal. He won the World Cup in 2002. Against Germany. Brazil lost the final of the 1998 World Cup to France when, and possibly because, he was ill. Joy oozed from Ronaldo’s every pore when he was on the football pitch. Klose performs somersaults after tap-ins, more often than not from about three yards out. They’re poacher’s goals, the kind every side needs, but they always leave you empty. Cheated, really, as if you should expect more from a World Cup goal than a routine finish, as if every goal should have the panache of a Tim Cahill volley (for Australia against the Netherlands), or the flourish of a Robin van Persie header (for the Netherlands against Spain), or the curling beauty of a Jermaine Jones strike (for the USA against Portugal). Of Polish extraction, Klose is supremely German in his efficiency. His somersaults are memorable, his goals are not. Besides, it is hard to root for a player who stiffs his club (Lazio) in order to save himself for his country. Apparently, he takes the notion of “Deutschland über alles” literally.
Joy – Ghana played with joy. They played with no fear. This is not the same as fearless, which is the absence or overcoming of fear. To play with no fear is to approach the game in such a way that fear has no part in a team’s reckoning. It is to approach the game as an opportunity to enjoy the game, to give full expression to every player’s array of talent, ability, skill. It is not to play with reckless abandon, but it is a commitment that has no place for the José Mourinho mentality: defend as though your life depended on it, and then hope to hit your opponents on the counter. “Sucker punch” them, is the phrase; draw your opponents in, and then punish them for playing with joy. The old English centre-half Jackie Charlton used to say, “I can’t play football, but I am good at preventing people who can play football from doing so.” Or words to that effect, uttered in his thick Northumberland accent. (No wonder his Leeds United manager Don Revie, him of the kick-first-ask-questions-later mindset, loved Big Jack so much.) Charlton not only won a World Cup with that approach, he led an Ireland made in his image to two World Cups. Big Jack won the hearts of a nation as a manager, but there was already the reality of defeat in the acknowledgement of his limited ability. His opponents played football; he didn’t, and saw no reason to change his philosophy – strange for so thoughtful a man as Charlton, a man so enamoured of a good read.
CLR James was a bookish man. Too much so, according to his close friend, his one-time club cricketing rival (James played for Maple, Constantine represented Shannon on the Queens Park Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, more than 100 years ago) and fellow Trinidadian Learie Constantine. A wonderful all-rounder, and later knighted by the Queen, Constantine sponsored James’ first visit to England. In conversation about cricket and the state of West Indian politics, Constantine turned to James and said, “You believe too much what you read in those books.” And then, the phrase of record: “They are no better than we.” James was taken aback and sputtered something in return, but he could not counter Constantine. The point had been made. James, the fervent anticolonialist and sometime Trotskyist, would have to rethink his position on colonialism, British politics and culture (in which Victorian literature held a special place), and sport. No matter his politics, James had, without ever fully processing it, been more successfully interpolated into colonialism than he was aware. Constantine shook him out of it, rudely. “The people of the Caribbean,” James remarks self-consciously in Beyond a Boundary, “were rougher in the methods.” There was apparently a great need for those “rough methods”.
Despite his radical politics, not quite fully formed in the Constantine moment, James had succumbed to the notion of English superiority. According to James, the English did not cheat at cricket – they played fair. Theirs was a history – what with the cricketing genius of WG Grace and the literary talents of William Makepeace Thackeray – to be admired, to be held in esteem. Constantine was a man of lesser education but possessed of a fierce racial pride, inculcated by his father, Old Cons. James was a well-educated Trinidadian, at home in the world of letters, first, as it existed in Port of Spain and then in London and the United States, but during that pivotal conversation, he had none of Constantine’s radical belief in racial equality. “They are no better than we.” Hearing that from a man whom he respected greatly was a shock to James. It changed how he thought about everything he thought he knew.
The Constantine principle has come to life with special verve during this World Cup. It is not evident only in the spirit with which Ghana played Germany, but it was abundant in Costa Rica’s memorable victory over Italy, when Chile beat Spain, when Costa Rica triumphed over favored Uruguay, and in Australia’s refusal to lie down in their 2-3 loss to the Netherlands. Costa Rica has qualified for the round of 16 by playing with utter self-belief. Meanwhile, England and Italy, previous World Cup winners, are headed home.
And, then, of course, there’s the joy, which is never uncomplicated in relation to Luis Suárez, of watching the half-fit Uruguayan striker put European teams to the sword. This process began with Suárez’s two goals in Uruguay’s 2-1 victory over England. Here’s the rather lovely thing about Suárez: fully fit, he plays with abandon, as likely to chase back and help out his left-back as he is to careen around hapless defenders in attack. As we saw against England, he is clearly still hampered by his injury, and in that game was a model of ruthless self-preservation. He barely touched the ball. None of those swerving, darting runs; nothing extracted from his extravagant bag of tricks – just a man playing within himself. He had two chances and he took them both with authority. A well-placed header from an Edinson Cavani cross in the first half, and a rasping strike from a long clearance by his goalkeeper in the second half put paid to England. His five Liverpool teammates in England shirts were no doubt heartbroken but intimately familiar with his particular brand of genius. Meanwhile, the Portuguese showman, “Scuba Ron” (see grass, sense opponent’s tackle, will dive), has yet to even hint at a goal. Just now and then, the football gods get it splendidly right. We all enjoy a smidgeon of justice, properly served in the Brazilian sunshine.
The Costa Ricans are quick, inventive and they play with a passion that is lovely to behold. In their victory over Italy, they made the Azzurri look like what they are: old, susceptible to pace, and lacking imagination. Entirely dependent on their technical nous, with no commitment to joy, the Italians were caught unawares. They expected that simply by stepping on to the pitch they would awe the Costa Ricans into submission. But they thought again. The Italians believed, as James did of British culture, that they were better than the Costa Ricans; so did the Uruguayans, who had no Suárez to rescue them in their opening game. The Costa Ricans are preparing less for their final group game against homeward-bound England than they are for their first game in the knockout stages.
The Germans, too, believed in their superiority in their game against the Ghanaians. The Spaniards, defending Copa Mundial champions, were sent home early by a Chilean side that would not indulge the desultory niceties of tiki-taka. The Chileans are confident on the ball, they pass with alacrity and confidence, and in their wingbacks Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena they have players who can drive down the line and whip crosses in; Charles Aránguiz is full of clever runs and very adept at getting into good position in the six yard area. The smallest team in the tournament at an average height of 1.75m (Gary Medel must be the tiniest central defender in international football), they seem to win their share of aerial battles.
Most importantly, the Chileans have a ruthless self-belief. They knew, as if their lives depended upon it, that the Spaniards were shell-shocked after the 5-1 hammering they took against the Netherlands. And with their ability to quickly close down the Spaniards (Arturo Vidal and Medel were in the mood, as they say, their tackles biting) and the insouciance of Alexis Sánchez up front, this was never really a contest. The Chileans had this one won long before they notched the first goal. The Spanish were caught between two worlds, unsure about whether to remain faithful to tiki-taka (and its aged exponents) or to trust to the long-ball approach, spearheaded by the powerful – but ponderous – Brazilian-cum-Spaniard Diego Costa. When Costa was substituted, in consecutive games, for Fernando Torres (a player who can barely get on the pitch for his English club side, Chelsea), the confusion was complete and the jig was well and truly up.
Chile were the more inventive side against the Dutch, who were in a semi-park the bus mode, and the two goals they conceded were hardly the reward they deserved. But they played their game to the very end. Unlike the Netherlands, who seemed petrified of qualifying second in their group and then having to face the hosts, the Chileans’ game suggests that they’d face anyone, hosts or otherwise. Brazil have of course knocked them out of the last two World Cups, but this is a different Chilean team. They’re not exactly shouting, “Bring on Neymar,” but they’re not scared of him.
Ghana have a battle on their hands to qualify. They lost to the USA in the dying minutes, an encounter that they were on top of, except for the scoreline, until a late John Brooks header. But win or draw, the Ghanaians play the game the same way: with skill. They play their game in such a way as to suggest that how they play matters more than the outcome. In defense Jonathan Mensah has grown up, before our very eyes. The uncertain kid at the start of the USA match was replaced in the second half by an assured performer. Against Germany he marshaled the defense through his lanky presence, making several goal-saving clearances. In Sulley Muntari the Ghanaians have a midfielder who loves to orchestrate, who will try to outfox an opponent at the edge of his own penalty area as readily as in the opponents’ half. It can raise the blood pressure, but what a sight it is: a player who has supreme confidence in his ability, no matter the circumstances, regardless of where he is on the pitch. In the two Ayews, Jordan and André, Ghana have quick forwards who love to run at defenses. In their skipper, Gyan, they have a striker who is hungry for goals and keen to outwit defenders or just beat them with his pace.
Ghana play according to the Constantine principle. It belongs on the World Cup stage. Contrast this with teams such as England, Iran, Greece and Algeria. The English, possessed of supremely talented players in Raheem Sterling, Luke Shaw and John Strong (not even in the squad while comatose defenders such as Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka grow more stodgy and immobile by the minute) are afraid of their own shadows. Footballers who are breathtaking for their clubs seem to dissolve into woeful players in an England shirt. In truth, manager Roy Hodgson seems an anachronism: a Fordist manager in a high-tech world. Hodgson inculcates Taylorist methods in a free-flowing, highly inventive era. England’s goal against Italy is a case in point. Attacking, from his favoured central position, at pace, a Sterling pass found Wayne Rooney on the left flank and played the ball to his weaker left foot. But so perfect was the pass, so perfectly weighted, that all Rooney had to do was make good contact, without a moment’s hesitation, to the far post where Daniel Sturridge was lurking. Rooney’s cross bounced once, and there to latch on to it, on his weaker right foot, was Sturridge, playing – like Sterling – in his first World Cup game. Sturridge swept the ball into the Italian net. The Azzurri were undone by pace, their technical smarts rendered useless in the face of a swift, exquisitely orchestrated attack. Sterling, Sturridge and Rooney made the Italians look like what they are: old. But never again in that game did England trust that approach. They attacked sporadically, never at pace. The Italians, past masters at just sitting back and absorbing pressure, struck once more, and that was that. Why did England not unleash Sterling again? Why was he shifted out wide right to accommodate a listless – apart from that cross – Rooney?
The Belgians, who are everybody’s favourite dark horse, looked uninspired until they pumped a few balls into the middle against Algeria, a team clearly convinced that football is not football unless one “parks the bus”. Eleven men behind the ball – that’s the anti-principle followed by Algeria and Iran, to name just two. But the Algerian dilemma, as I’ll get to, runs deeper than that.
With their tricky winger, Eden Hazard, their midfield lynchpin Axel Witsel, and their array of attacking options, it is hard to fathom why the Belgians would risk their golden generation to pedestrian football. Do they believe they’re as good as we think they can be? If so, what are they afraid of? If they do not possess the belief to match their obvious talents, then surely Marc Wilmots has already failed as a coach. Wilmots, among the best attacking midfielders of his generation, was never afraid to drive forward, especially in his Standard Liège days. He does a pretty enthusiastic touchline celebration. It’d be nice if he could inject some of that enthusiasm into his team’s play. Against Russia they were again tepid, saved only by a late goal by the 19-year-old striker, the wonderfully named Divock Origi. 1-0. Inspiring stuff.
Watching Greece, Russia and South Korea is to give oneself over to a creative void. The Iranians and the Algerians, who have a few guys who can play, risk nothing. They absorb pressure, and then they absorb some more. They hope to hit their opponents on the break, and when they do, we fear the very worst: that they will score. That, we know, will be the absolute death of the game. It’s like watching, as I said, a Mourinho-coached team: there is little attention to football but a deep commitment to converting footballers into stationary objects who repel, with their heads or feet, any round object that comes into their path.
If a team such as Algeria scores, as we saw against Belgium, they’ll defend even more resolutely, and we’ll watch in frustration as the game peters out to nothing. Or, as in Iran’s loss to Argentina, when it seemed against Iranian law to have more than one player in the opposing half, it takes a very late moment of Lionel Messi magic to undo what they presume to be resolute defense.1-0 Argentina. Granted, Iran created a few chances on the break, but, in the main, it was painful to watch. Iran-Argentina made especially tiresome viewing after what Costa Rica and Chile had already done, and Ghana was about to do – play the football they’d like to watch.
It might be necessary to broadcast a newsflash to Iran, Algeria and Russia. If it wasn’t clear before, it is more or less certain now: none of you is going to win the World Cup. And you certainly won’t win it if you score only one goal every three games. So think like Constantine and play as though you belong. Anything else is already a capitulation. You have failed to meet the standards of the Constantine principle. You play as if they are better than you. Or, more accurately, in refusing to play, you are saying, in the least articulate way possible, that they are better than you.
Here’s the irony of Algeria’s 4-2 thumping of South Korea. The Algerian victory affirms, it does not contradict, the Constantine principle: the Desert Foxes beat the Koreans because they believed themselves to be better than them. In the terms of Constantine logic, teams beat those whom they consider inferior opposition by playing football without fear, and they lose, by playing with fear, when they play those nations who they think are better than them. It is unavoidable, of course, because there’s a perverse colonialist logic of the Fanonian variety in play here: the “wretched of the Earth” perform wretchedly against teams from the metropole and perform, as James said of the great Trinidadian batsman Wilton St Hill, “in excelsis” against their fellows from the periphery, as though North Africa (the Maghreb) versus Asia is a matter of fratricidal strife. Against the South Koreans, the Algerians played as though they believed that “they are no better than we”. The Belgians are as much a postcolonial hodgepodge of identities as the Algerians themselves. How could the Algerians not have recognised their fraternal relations to the Belgians? There is something profoundly disturbing at work here, as Fanon would surely recognise; something that would make him, as it should make us, uneasy about the Jekyll and Hyde performances delivered by the team from his adopted homeland. The foundation of the Constantine principle is simple: play against all, not some, as though they are your equal. Approach every encounter on this principle, as the Ghanaians do – they played the Germans, champions three times over, as they played the Americans, footballing neophytes.
In Anglophone anti- and postcolonial terms, it seems appropriate that Ghana, the first sub-Saharan country to achieve sovereignty, should incarnate the Constantine principle. There’s a nice symmetry to this: the first to independence, under Kwame Nkrumah, should be the first pronounce themselves equal in play – this time on the playing field, a venue Constantine so loved. Win, lose or draw, the Ghanaians play without fear because they belong.
The message from the Costa Ricans, Chileans and Ghanaians, whatever World Cup fate awaits them, is equally clear: we are as good as anyone. (The same could be said of the Mexicans and the USA.) We are as good as anyone and that is why there is no place for fear in our preparation or in our play. The English (for whom it seems to always to be too late) and the Belgians (who have a fabulous chance, with their innately postcolonial team, to do well, for them it is not too late) could learn from the Costa Ricas of the world as much as James learned from Constantine. The Spanish, the Germans and the Italians have already been given an object lesson in equality. Or is it in inequality?