Defence is the best after all?


WELL, was I wrong? Wrong to write in these pages recently that in soccer attack might well be the best form of defence after all? Giving as chapter and verse the struggles of Real Madrid in at least three matches when their defence shipped water. As against their victories at the Bernabeu when Manchester United and Juventus played them in the Euro second legs at home.

The European Cup Final at Old Trafford might on the surface have torpedoed my argument, for, there in the game were two Italian teams, Milan and Juventus, in which defence was the absolute watchword. The 0-0 draw in which it ended, so tediously in my view, had been predictable almost from the start. Defenders were beyond doubt on top throughout the game, and if Milan after the earlier stages had what could roughly be called the edge, how many strikes on goal of any consequence did they achieve? I logged only one, after 17 minutes, when the Dutch international Clarence Seedorf, about to win his third Euro Champions Cup medal with three different teams, crossed from the right, striker Pippo Inzaghi got his head to the ball, and Gigi Buffon made a glorious one-handed save.

Other than that, one recalls only the moment in the first minute of the second half, when Alex Del Piero crossed from the Juventus left, Antonio Conte, the veteran midfielder, who had only just come on as a substitute, got his head to the ball, and it flew past Dida in the Milan goal only to strike the bar and bounce away.

It astonished me next morning to read the eulogies on this dull game, which ended after extra time with an ineptly taken series of penalties, no fewer than five of which were missed, exalting its supposed qualities, glorying in the superb defending. Yet as the TV commentator Clive Tyldesley remarked on air and later in print, "the match was notorious for a plethora of cynical, almost automatic, fouls which, though often punished by the referee Herr Merk of Germany, were free of yellow cards".

None for Conte when he ploughed into the back of Milan's international centre-back Alessandro Nesta. None for Nesta though as Tyldesley said "he might have had one on half a dozen occasions". And no penalty given after 16 minutes of extra time when Nesta brought down Conte inside the penalty box.

The Juve pair of attackers, David Trezeguet and Alex Del Piero, were criticised for their lack of incisiveness but again, to quote Tyldesley, what are attackers to do when shirt pulling seems to become an accepted and unpunished feature of the game? I submit that with a better, harsher referee than Herr Merk, forwards might have got more room and the game might even have become entertaining.

Certainly the bland response of English critics was not shared in Spain. Ronaldo now of Real Madrid, Brazil's hero of the '92 World Cup, called the game "ugly and boring", which it surely was. True he might have had something of an axe to grind, his Real Madrid team having been eliminated by Juventus in the semi-finals, but the charge seems objective enough.

Some bias, no doubt in the response of the leading Spanish sports paper, MARCA went somewhat too far in demanding that the Cup be immediately returned to Real Madrid, last year's winners, happily forgetting that in fact Juventus had beaten Real 3-1 in Turin to knock them out in the semi-finals. "They should prohibit two Italian teams from playing in a European Final," the Madrid sports daily pursued. "Because, as Johan Cruyff has said, the presence of just one Italian team is a tragedy for football."

Ace attackers, David Trezeguet (left) and Alex Del Piero were criticised for their lack of incisiveness in the final, which was won by AC Milan on penalties. _Pic. GRAZIA NERI/GETTY IMAGES-

Really? Cruyff may be remembering Ajax's easy win, himself did the star turn, when they beat Inter in Rotterdam in the Final back in the 70s, but is perhaps cheerfully forgetting the 4-1 thrashing Milan handed out to Ajax in their first ever European Cup football when Total Football remained a glimmer on the far horizon. Or what about the superb display by Milan, inspired by the present manager of Serbia, Dejan Savioevic, in Athens in 1994 when Barcelona were routed 4-0?

This year was the first time two Italian teams had ever met in the European Cup Final, and perhaps it was indeed a recipe of negativity. Of the two derby semi-final matches between Milan and Inter, one was dour and the other quite lively. Yet my mind goes back to the 1960s when in Italy Catenaccio, the gritty, negative sweeper type of defensive, was king: and I remember watching a Milan-Inter derby which was a horror. Hardly half a minute went by before a foul was committed by one or the other team. True, the referee duly whistled for them, as Merk quite often did in Manchester, but it made no difference; expulsion and its warning to the rest of the players would probably have been the only answer. A nightmare to behold.

For the fact is that football can indeed be made impossible to play. In 1968 I was in Buenos Aires to watch Manchester United play the first leg of their so called Intercontinental Trophy as European Cup holders against Estudiantes de la Plata, a rare old bunch of thugs, who had won the South American Libertadores Cup. After the game United's George Best told me that "when a quarter of an hour had gone he just stopped playing, realising that every time he got the ball and tried to beat his man, he would be fouled in one way or another".

It was an appalling spectacle, in which Argentina's future manager and World Cup winner Dr. Carlos Bilardo headed Nobby Stiles above the eye and cut it, in which Pachame, who would become his assistant coach, hacked Bobby Charlton on the shin, obliging him to have stitches; and Estudiantes won 1-0. At that moment I did wonder whether international football could even survive. The Argentine cynicism had been all too evident in the World Cup of 1966 when at Wembley in the quarter-final versus England their skipper Antonio Rattin was sent off and Alf Ramsey famously or notoriously said he hoped England's next opposition would not "act as animals". It was a blessing when Peru knocked Argentina out of the 1970 World Cup eliminators.

Juventus v Milan, then, was less an object lesson in defence than a dismal display of refereeing incompetence. In such circumstances, however blameworthy the defenders, a permissive referee will always make things worse. Quite why Herr Merk was so tolerant, who can say? But the combination of his ineptitude and the two teams' defensive cynicism made it the rotten game it was. Whatever the English reporters may so mistakenly have said.