With Soccer’s Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Clutching his phone in one hand and his passport in the other, Ruben Gabrielsen sprinted through his apartment. Duty had called, and he would answer. He had even tied a makeshift cape around his neck for the occasion. He would be the one to save his country in its hour of need.

A 28-year-old defender playing in France’s second division, Gabrielsen probably would not have chosen these to be the circumstances in which he made his first international appearance. Not long ago, he probably would not have been able to imagine them.

Gabrielsen was one of a host of players called up by Norway this week after its entire first-choice squad was forced into quarantine after one of its members recorded a positive coronavirus test. One game, against Romania, had already been forfeited, but the country’s soccer authorities did not want to sacrifice a second, in Austria.

And so in came the shadow squad, Gabrielsen included, as the only alternative. Most of the players had never played for their country. All but one played outside Norway. They donned their capes, grabbed their passports and flew to Austria so the game could go ahead. The game, as the whole episode made clear, must always go ahead.

Bars and restaurants across Europe are shuttered. Offices stand empty. City streets are deserted. Much of the continent is locked down again, in one form or another, as the second wave of the pandemic bares its teeth. And yet soccer barrels on, bullish and determined, if not unaffected then grimly undeterred.

It has been impressive, in a way, how smoothly elite soccer has transitioned to its new reality, a nonnative species thriving in a hostile land. In the spring, a single positive test — that of Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach — opened the eyes of the Premier League to the fact that it was not, as it had previously believed, immune to the coronavirus.

Now, when 16 Premier League players test positive after the international break, not a single eyelid is batted. Occasionally, games are postponed — Olympique Marseille has three fixtures backdated, the result of outbreaks either within its ranks or those of an opponent — but mostly, soccer plows on, plays through. Shakhtar Donetsk took a team of teenagers to Real Madrid in the Champions League, and won. The game must always go ahead.

That perseverance occasionally drifts into the realms of the absurd, but soccer has a remarkable ability to tolerate that, too. As mentioned last week, Denmark played Sweden even though both teams’ managers were self-isolating, and both teams had been deprived of a raft of players. England considered playing Iceland in Albania. Norway cobbled together a last-minute team.

Indeed, Norway’s case was something of an anomaly: a rare example of reality intruding. Norway needed to take emergency measures because the country’s government insisted it could not make an exception to its stringent quarantine rules even for the country’s national team.

That is unusual: Soccer, generally, is given a pass. Players cross borders without needing to self-isolate upon arrival. Rules are changed and allowances made so the game — this great cultural phenomenon that absorbs so many of us so much of the time — can go ahead.

In almost every other sphere of life, the problem now is that there is too little: too little culture, too little business, too little foot traffic, too little social contact, too little hope. Only in soccer do managers, players, executives and fans worry about whether there is too much.

At times, it all feels a little brazen, a touch gauche. It is easy to see why some have fallen out of love with the game. It is even easier to see why those who never had much time for it feel vindicated by the crassness, the chutzpah of soccer during the pandemic.

There are moments in empty stadiums and in vacuous controversies when it seems as if its mask has slipped and its inner workings are laid bare: a grinding, grasping, cash-grabbing machine, a sports-industrial complex locked in a spiral of “abusive self-addiction,” as the writer Jonathan Liew put it.

And yet for all that soccer determined it had to continue because of an inflated sense of its own importance and an immediate understanding of its own financial model, its decision has been tolerated only because of something else. We accept it, in all its absurdity and gall, because none of that completely clouds its worth.

As the Marseille owner, Frank McCourt, put it when we spoke a few weeks ago, a club is “a societal symbol of sorts.” What has struck him most forcibly since he took charge of France’s most popular team four years ago is how it is at O.M. — he is studious in referring to the club as its fans refer to it — that “the whole city of Marseille comes together and functions.”

“Someone said to me a little while ago, and it has stuck with me, that not everyone in the city of Marseille loves football, though of course a lot of them do,” he said. “But everyone loves O.M.”

That is what gives every team — and by extension, the game of which each one is a small but significant constituent part — its power. That affection enables soccer to be an exception, even in the most trying times. It is the guarantee that, no matter how much the sport might try our patience with its egotism and self-reverence and greed, we keep coming back.

But it is not only a source of power; it is a source of responsibility, and one that ought to be more keenly felt now than ever. “It is in moments of crisis that sports, and soccer particularly, shows up,” McCourt said. “It’s when you see the great importance of it all.”

The last few months have brought plenty of examples of that, too, from the advocacy of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford in helping to feed the vulnerable to Jürgen Klopp’s urging residents of Liverpool to take part in a mass testing program. Countless players have made donations, or used their platforms to promote the work of others.

In 2017, McCourt set up an educational foundation, to use O.M. as a way of helping the city; the pandemic, and its economic consequences, has convinced him that it has to be not a sideline, but central to the work of the club. “In times of crisis, what we give back to the community is crucial,” he said.

“We have to demonstrate who we are, what we stand for. At a time when some of the civic institutions we used to lean on do not have the strong shoulders they had before, sports still shows up as a way for us to work together. It does not replace the thrill of winning, but it brings energy. The more you win, the more impact you can have.”

There have been plenty of moments, these last few months, when soccer has been hard to love, when it has tried our patience to its very limits with its petty squabbles and its headstrong self-absorption. We allow the game to go ahead because each of its teams, its tiny empires, matter to so many of us. We are there for soccer when it needs us. But we expect the favor to be returned. We expect soccer to be there for us, too, in our hour of need.

Löw, Lower, Lowest

Really, it is a little strange that Joachim Löw was still in charge of the German national team even before its 6-0 humiliation by Spain this week. The world’s major soccer nations are not exactly paragons of patience, so national team manager is rarely a job with a long shelf life.

It was understandable that he survived in 2016: Germany had won the World Cup two years earlier, and losing to France in the semifinals of the European Championship was hardly a humiliation. And it was kind of admirable that Löw was forgiven — surprisingly easily — for 2018, when his team, the reigning world champion, exited the World Cup in Russia after the group stage.

Since then, Germany’s fortunes have been — at best — mixed. It finished at the bottom of its inaugural Nations League group, failing to win a game against France and the Netherlands. It qualified with ease for the delayed European Championships, as it qualifies with ease for basically every major tournament.

And yet now it must prepare for next summer on the back of its heaviest defeat in 90 years, the evidence of its decline laid bare in Seville. It is easy — and not entirely wrong — to suggest that Löw’s employers have been too contented, too slow to read the warning signs, to believe that disappointment in Euro 2020(1) will be punishment for institutional stasis.

But it is also testament to a very specific problem the major nations face. For those countries, like Germany, that qualify with ease for tournaments, qualifying is almost too much of a cakewalk. It makes it difficult to gauge exactly where the team is in relation to its rivals for the crown. Running up the score against Estonia and Andorra can disguise a multitude of sins.

Perhaps, then, it is in Germany’s favor that Spain should have exposed its flaws in such brutal fashion. Germany can be under no illusions, now, of where it stands in the pecking order. The question is what Löw, or his bosses, intends to do about it.

The Final Frontier

Pep Guardiola has already conquered Spain, Germany and England. He has transformed the way all three countries play soccer. He has shifted our horizons of what is possible. He has recalibrated the way we think certain positions work. He has — and it is not too much of a stretch to say it — redefined the sport’s very concept of beauty.

What he has not done, at any point in his career, is rebuild: to tear down one successful team and establish another, even more successful one in its place. In England, certainly, this is held up as the ultimate challenge for any manager, something only a handful of greats — Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly — have ever managed to do.

Now that he has signed a two-year contract extension at Manchester City, Guardiola must add his name to that list. This is already the longest job of his career; if he sees out this new deal, he will have spent more than twice as long in Manchester than he did in Munich.

Previously, Guardiola has always insisted that after three or four years a manager’s message grows repetitive, starts to lose its power. At Barcelona and at Bayern Munich, he walked as soon as he sensed that moment. At City, if he is staying, that means some of the players will have to go.

That process has already started — in Ruben Dias and Ferran Torres, City has the outline of its next team — but it will be a challenging one.

Guardiola has already waved farewell to David Silva and Vincent Kompany, two of the cornerstones of City’s rise. Fernandinho and Sergio Agüero will probably be next. It is not just, then, that Guardiola must demonstrate that he can refresh a team on the move. It is that he must do so without the players who have contributed so much to the very identity of the club. In a way, this may be his greatest test.

Correspondence

An excellent point from James Armstrong, who took issue with my assertion that perhaps the international break we have just endured should not have happened. “To that, I say: Scotland,” he wrote. And he’s right: seeing the Scots qualify for a first major tournament since Bannockburn was heartening. That’s the important thing to remember about international breaks: They aren’t really for the dominant teams. They get their moment in major tournaments. These windows are about everyone else.

Daniel Jones has been indulging in a little soothsaying: “It appears the men’s national teams for both the United States and Norway have the potential for a golden generation. A bold prediction for the 2026 World Cup final: United States 2-1 Norway.” Bold is the word for that, to be honest — because success at a major tournament is as much about having a mix of good generations, rather than being great in one age bracket — but both should be peaking around then.

And Ed Taylor wants to add Diego Forlán to the list of unfairly maligned players, alongside Patrick Bamford and James Rodríguez. In the 2010 World Cup, he wrote, “the pundits were dismissive of a player who hadn’t shown the best of himself at Manchester United at a young age, but who had scored over 120 goals in the six seasons after leaving, and who was named Best Player at the tournament.” Forlán is an extremely good example of the phenomenon. Fine work.

That’s all for this week, other than to remind you all that the best story in soccer this year should have its conclusion in the next couple of days: Bodo/Glimt will, most likely, win its first Norwegian championship by Sunday evening. This newsletter is, like the rest of The Times, entirely impartial, but makes no bones about its long-held passion for Bodo.

Remember that [email protected] is the place to send the constructive kind of feedback; Twitter is the best place for the unconstructive sort. This week’s Set Piece Menu asks what makes a great game, but begins with a whole thing about teeth that I neither condone nor advocate. And, as ever, it’s hugely appreciated when you tell your friends and family and Tinder dates to sign up to receive this newsletter.

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