National Identity as Tactics, Tactics as National Identity

Curator's Note

This post is an organization of preliminary thoughts regarding a few simple and interrelated questions involving national identity and soccer tactics. As a recent North American convert to the beautiful game, in the past few years I’ve listened to commentators say things like, “every once and awhile a Spanish team comes to England and their technical ability destroys the English side,” or “this manager brings his Italian defensive approach to the English league,” with curiosity. Similarly, I wondered why positions in the world’s best clubs are more commonly associated with certain nations than others—Germans produce world class defensive midfielders and defenders, but rarely in top European clubs do you see a German center forward. Meanwhile, Brazilian and Argentinian national teams often suffer from a lack of quality goalkeepers or other defensive minded players, but their players dominate forward positions in Champions League squads.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is famous for what his fans might call a steadfast conviction to a footballing philosophy and what his detractors would suggest is a stubborn commitment to a tactical dogma. He said at the beginning of the 2016/17 Premier League season, “success without playing the way you like to play means nothing to me.” For Guardiola, winning truly isn’t everything. The game needs to be played in a certain way. Guardiola might be one of the more famous figures to express this sentiment, but he is not alone. In the context of the World Cup, what do we make of this, for lack of a better expression, value-based soccer mentality? When Brazilians play in the tournament, do they both have to win and properly represent their national identity, or does their identity organically emerge—Brazilians just like to play soccer a certain way, perhaps. Or, do national identities inform the way we interpret tactics that are merely different approaches to the game we might see in any other sport? I’d like to briefly profile a few teams to try and understand how their tactics and style act as performances of national identity, and thus how the World Cup becomes the largest stage for such performances.

Uruguay’s national team plays with a tenacity in make-or-break moments they call ‘la garra charrua,’ a phrase that references the Charrua people who resisted European control before their genocide in the 19th century. The physically aggressive style of play is perhaps best personified by Luis Suarez, who has been repeatedly banned and red carded throughout his career for verbal abuse, biting, and racial harassment. The post, “Lo Mejor de la Garra Charrua,” helps us understand how international soccer can act as a performance of national identity and, perhaps, a display of a particular regional masculinity. It is unclear where tactics informs national identity and where identity forms tactics. This video, in the Uruguayan context, offers an example where the physical, confrontational tactics and style of a national team is associated with a perceived sense of native Uruguayan-ness. Like the New Zealand haka in rugby union football or innumerous U.S. team names from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Washington Redskins, the mostly European-Uruguayan team is somehow given an indigenous zeal—racist fantasies of ferocious and innately violent first peoples inspires the athletic display.

Finally, the German national team’s nickname, ‘Die Mannschaft,’ alludes to the cohesiveness and chemistry that many cite as explanations for their impressive past few years in the international spotlight. Lacking true super stars like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, German teams are usually referenced as being incredibly organized, controlled, and efficient, at times seemingly playing without forwards, overloading the midfield with pinpoint passing. Meanwhile, teams like Brazil or Argentina are often populated with some of the world’s greatest dribblers, the aforementioned Messi and the Brazilian winger Neymar as prime examples. One might recall Volkswagen commercials that claim its “German engineering” that somehow sets their cars apart from others—German-ness as efficiency is performed in the tactics of the German national team. They win games, but is it the beautiful game, is it the right way to play, to echo Pep Guardiola?  

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