The Poetry of Spanish Soccer

The incomparable XaviThe incomparable Xavi 

Sports Saturday

Spanish sports is having a great year. First of all, Spanish forward Pau Gasol was a major reason why the Los Angeles Lakers won their 16th championship in an archetypal series against the Boston Celtics. Then we were officially ushered from the Age of Federer into the Age of Nadal as Rafa followed up his convincing win at the French Open with an equally convincing win at Wimbledon. A Spanish cyclist, Alberto Contador, is the current holder of the Tour de France trophy. And now, in the biggest championship on earth, Spain plays the Netherlands tomorrow in the World Cup final.

Once the soccer teams close to my heart were all eliminated (the U.S., Slovenia and—zut!—France), I gravitated to Spain. I first watched them play in the European Cup finals against Germany, which they won, and I fell in love with their “tiki-taka” (tippy-tappy) style. I had never seen such ball control and never seen such passing. I’ve witnessed individuals with these skills (various Brazilians, France’s Zinedine Zidane) but never an entire team. Xavi has been compared to a magician, managing to both receive and deliver passes while surrounded by three defenders. Spain terrifies opposition teams to such a degree that they hunker down and defend, pinning all their hopes on the quick counterattack, but Spain has learned to be patient, figuring that it just needs to keep chipping away until suddenly, bang, a ball is through a seemingly impenetrable line and a player is making a shot on goal.

I’m also pleased that the Netherlands are in the finals for they too are known for beautiful soccer. In fact, we may be seeing the world’s two most accomplished teams meeting this year. The question on people’s minds is whether Holland will play as Germany did, sitting back and waiting for an opening (which didn’t work for Germany—it only got two or three good looks at goal as Spain controlled possession) or will it play a more wide-open style. Everyone wants the second. But even if Holland limits Spain’s scoring chances by playing a hunkered down defense, we will still get to see the artistry of Spanish tiki-taka.

So can literature add anything to the beautiful game? After acknowledging that virtually everyone would rather watch the game than read a poem about it, let’s also acknowledge that literature can do more justice to the event than any other use of language. After all, as I’ve noted before, “wow” and “omigod” take us only so far.

Spanish soccer is poetry but what kind of poetry? I compare it to Alexander Pope’s rhyming couplets. Pope was the English master of this tight verse form in iambic pentameter (also used by classical French writers). Here’s an example from Rape of the Lock, with Belinda about to play a hand of ombre, an 18th-century version of bridge:

The skillful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;
Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.

Tight as the verse form is, an accomplished poet can twist and turn it in innumerable subtle ways. For instance, in this couplet Pope signals that Belinda is not only calling trump but about to embark upon a battle of the sexes, with her cards functioning as a surrogate army.  In addition, the second line echoes the passage in Genesis, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’  And there was light.”  Pope is implying that this self-absorbed society and the narcissistic Belinda are deifying themselves.  Rape of the Lock is a mock epic, with Pope’s comedy puncturing his society’s self-importance.

In “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift,” Jonathan Swift good humoredly (but with some exasperation) expresses his jealousy of Pope’s skill:

In Pope, I cannot read a Line,
But with a Sigh, I wish it mine:
When he can in one Couplet fix
More Sense than I can do in Six
It gives me such a jealous Fit,
I cry, Pox take him, and his Wit.

Pope wielded his poetry in some pretty tight political spaces. He knew he couldn’t be too open in his criticism of George II or of his prime minister Robert Walpole, but he made subtle jabs through his couplets, whittling away with small tiny cuts. Often there wasn’t anything that those in power could point to—and yet they found themselves bleeding nonetheless.

That’s how Spain plays soccer. It pokes here, pokes there, always within very tight constraints. (Here is an example of a Spanish goal in a pre-World Cup “friendly” against Poland that involves nineteen touches in fourteen seconds.)  There is nothing like Ghana’s goal against the U. S. or Germany’s first goal against England—a long kick that extremely accomplished strikers run up to and slide past goalies. There aren’t too many goals scored in the manner of the brilliant Uruguayan Diego Forlan, who runs well outside the box and, if allowed a foot or two of space, turns and booms a blistering shot towards goal. Even in those games where Spain emerges victor by only a single goal, the other team feels utterly trounced.

Interestingly enough, Spain’s winning goal came on an un-Spain-like header from its 5’10” fullback Carles Puyol. Unimpeded as he ran in from the top of the box on a corner kick, he threw himself at the ball and planted it into the upper right corner.

And yet, even this goal was a vindication of Spain’s tiki-taka style. Previous to this, the Spanish had been delivering short corner kicks, forcing the Germans to defend closer to the goal. Thus the Germans uncharacteristically left Puyol unmarked, and Xavi, who almost never misses a pass, lifted the ball to him. The rest is history.

If I were to talk about other teams in terms of poetry, I would say that the Argentines are the Romantics, living and dying by great goals. “If they score two, we’ll score three,” said coach and soccer legend Diego Maradona, who then saw his team give up four to Germany. Everything was about offense—“I burn my candle at both ends,” as Edna Vincent Millay would describe the Argentine strategy—which meant that Germany just had to play suffocating defense and then, in lightning-like blitzkriegs, send five players running full tilt into the spaces behind the attackers.

Brazil was Faust, sacrificing its beautiful soccer soul for a World Cup trophy (Coach Dunga emphasized defense over the offense that has made Brazil beloved among fans the world over—and then still lost to Holland). The U.S., as I have mentioned before, was a Hollywood cliffhanger, always giving up an early goal and always fighting its way back. Asamoah Gyan, the brilliant striker from Ghana, is the tragic hero of the tournament, fighting valiantly for 120 minutes before missing a (for him) routine penalty kick in the final seconds that would have put an African team in the semi-finals.

I’m having trouble characterizing Holland. Wesley Sneijder, its brilliant midfielder who is tied for most goals in the tournament, is a short balding man who seems hardly a terror. Holland is also dependent upon the indefatigable Dirk Kuyt, the modest forward who runs constantly, is entirely selfless, and seems in the middle of every important play. For a soccer nation that has produced some of history’s great footballers, maybe Holland’s dependence on these unassuming men gives us a working class drama, grit instead of glitz. Only Holland also has glitter in its brilliant striker Arjen Robbins.

But say that it’s the dogged Dutch against the elegant Spanish. The narrative you prefer may help account for the team your root for tomorrow.

Other mentions of literature in the sports news

Always on the alert for writers who turn to literature to capture the drama of sports, I came across these three instances this past week.

Sport Illustrated’s Georgina Turner quoted William Congreve (in The Double Dealer) to capture the lack of drama in the group stage and then the drama in the knock-out stage:

English playwright William Congreve was the author of more famous lines, but none seems as apt at the moment as his assertion that “Uncertainty and expectation are the joys of life. Security is an insipid thing.” Despite a few jolts — Spain’s defeat to Switzerland, Denmark being soundly beaten by Japan, New Zealand holding Italy, France … being there — the group stages offered us a fairly mundane ride.

But the quarterfinals have been a rollercoaster, spinning us into a few heart-thumping loop-de-loops and casting the security of pre-tournament (even pre-game) predictions to the wind. The apparent dominance of the South American nations has been filed under M for myth; three of the four semifinalists are European. As we’ve been thrown about in this direction and that, there’s no denying it’s been an exhilarating ride.

New York Times columnist Geoff MacDonald, meanwhile, turned to Adrienne Rich to capture Rafael Nadal’s Wimbledon victory:

A wild patience has taken me this far,” is a line from the great American poet Adrienne Rich, and it perfectly describes how Rafael Nadal plays tennis. Watching his straight set win over Tomas Berdych, I was struck by how Nadal plays with unbridled energy and passion, but he’s also calm and contained mentally. In his match with Murray in the semifinals, and again on Sunday against Berdych, there was a sense of inevitability to each match. The scores of each set were close, but you just knew that Rafa wouldn’t get broken, and that at some point Murray and Berdych would blink.

And finally, a prize for best literary headline: While basketball superstar LeBron James held an hour-long television special to announce which team he was going to switch to, another basketball superstar, Kevin Durant, used a quieter means to signal his intention to stay with his Oklahoma team. The New York Times sports page paid homage to T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”:

This Is the Way Durant Signs: Not With a Bang but on Twitter

The original, of course, is “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.”  Given that Eliot’s poem laments the rise of shadowy hollow men (his scarecrow contemporaries) over brilliant but flawed (and sometimes evil) geniuses (like Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness), does this headline mean we should prefer James’ egotistical grandstanding to Durant’s quieter approach?  That thought is enough to make one question Eliot.  But I suspect I am overinterpreting the headline.


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  1. Hieu
    Posted July 10, 2010 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your sports commentary. YOU had just scored. Gooooalllll! Thank you for taking the time to write. May the best team win tomorrow. -Hieu

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted July 11, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much, Hieu. And hearing from you reminds me that I should devote a couple of “Sports Saturdays” to running and kayaking.

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] against Poland , involving nineteen touches in fourteen seconds) … Read more here: The Poetry of Spanish Soccer Share […]

  2. By The Year in Sports Literarily on December 31, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    […] soccer in the world won its first World Cup. I compared the breathtaking artistry of Spanish to Alexander Pope’s elegant couplets and their win over the thuggish Dutch team to Prospero’s beat down of Caliban in The […]

  3. By Spanish Soccer as the Lady of Shalott on July 7, 2012 at 1:00 am

    […] style—enthralled us all and tested our poetic powers. (In past posts, I have compared it to Alexander Pope’s elegant couplets and Prospero’s magic in The Tempest.) This year, however, the style suddenly came under attack. […]


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