Antifútbol: in defence of destructive tactics

Posted: October 10, 2014 in football
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Introduction: the necessity of antifútbol

We can’t all be handsome, or cool, or stylish, or sexy.

And football teams can’t all be Brasil ’82, or Guardiola’s FC Barcelona, or Ajax ’73, or France ’86.

And if, like me, you are none of the above, then sometimes, to get through the day, there’s no option but to dabble in darker arts. To be sneaky, cynical, fiendish, clever : to know, as Machiavelli put it, when not to be good.

Nothing illegal, I should stress. There’s no need for any of that. But as human brings we deploy the resources we have to hand in order to pursue our goals, and we all have different resources. And football teams are no different.

Some teams just have it. We’ve recently lived through something of a golden age of footballing prettiness, and the reader will not struggle to think of examples of its most elegant practitioners.

The all-conquering Spain and FC Barcelona teams, orchestrated by Xavi Hernandez, represent the most highly-evolved expression of a broader shift towards technical excellence throughout the team, use of the full length and breadth of the pitch, and an insatiable need always to have more midfielders.

They really were (are?) gorgeous.

I love watching that intricate, symphonic style of play as much as anyone, and only the most intransigent thud’n’blunder Premier League fundamentalist would dispute Barcelona and Spain’s places in the pantheon.

But we can’t all be handsome, or cool, or stylish, or sexy.

And football teams can’t all be built around Xavi Hernandez.

By virtue of being a sport, and thus competitive, it is beholden upon the opponents of teams built around Xavi Hernandez (or Zico, or Cruyff, or Platini) to come up with a strategy for beating them.

In terms of the ‘resources’ available to them (whether money, or skill, or experience, or renown) these challengers are usually impoverished, often significantly, by comparison with their stylish opponents. So, how should they approach their task?

Some of the most memorable matches of recent years have seen tiki-taka confronted by something altogether more rudimentary. The 2010 Barcelona vs Inter Milan European Cup semi-final was a crucial tone-setter in this respect (of which more later). But throughout the history of football, teams have always found ways to win against more talented opponents.

In this post I want to talk about the other guys.

I want to understand the less skilful, less creative, less glamorous teams, and make sense of their achievements.

Specifically, I want to celebrate an undervalued, demonised and neglected strain of football strategy: antifútbol.


What is antifútbol?

Antifútbol is something of a portmanteau term, blending a multitude of supposed sins.

Antifútbol, itself a Spanish term of art, has crept into the footballing vernacular in Britain over the past fifteen years or so as “anti-football”. The original usage is more exciting though, somehow. Wikipedia follows Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti’s 2001 book Fear and Loathing in World Football in tracing the earliest use of the Spanish phrase to Argentina’s El Grafico magazine in 1968. And who am I to argue with that?

Fans, journalists, players and managers cry ‘antifútbol‘ in horror at the following practices (some of which overlap):

• all-out defence (or ‘parking the bus’);

• spoiling tactics, especially tactical ‘rotational’ fouling;

• concerted use of violence to intimidate the opponent;

• deliberate, planned deployment of more insidious aggressive behaviour, such as off-the-ball elbowing of players, verbal abuse, spitting, biting or similar;

• diversionary tactics, such as systematic time-wasting, feigning of injury, and other sundry ploys; and

• constantly working on the referee.

In what follows I will disentangle this definitional knot and consider the various anti-footballing strands individually. Each category is illustrated by a classic example of the genre, which may be a team, or a specific match, or a manager closely associated with the approach under discussion. Who may be called Jose.

Each section will be pitched as an answer to the following question:

Why play antifútbol, when you could play football?

As you will see, there are many answers to this question, all of them basically legitimate. And so, you are now invited to surrender to football’s guilty pleasure, and embrace: antifútbol!


A typology of antifútbol

The 1st reason for playing antifútbol: because you’re crap

Let’s start with the obvious one.

I write shortly before England are due to play San Marino, and I suspect I will get over the fact it’s not being broadcast in Scotland. San Marino are a particularly extreme example of the first type of antifútbol listed above: when faced with a superior opponent – and that’s basically every single game for the plucky Sammarinese – adopt all-out defence. Because you are rubbish, and will lose disastrously if you don’t.

The plan is to keep the score down; at the very best, to draw nil-nil. There are no thoughts of attacking the opponent. That would be stupid, because as soon as players start abandoning their defensive stations and heading upfield, the other side will win the ball, cut through the exposed players left behind, and score. So everyone is going to sit tight and hold their position across the back line. The football cliche for this approach is “parking the bus”; i.e. you line everyone up in the way of the goal, and would roll the bus in there in the manner of a barricade too if you could get away with it.

This is not to be confused with a counter-attacking approach, such as that perfected by Glasgow Rangers in their run to the 2008 UEFA Cup Final under Walter Smith. They actually attacked a couple of times in that campaign. No, I’m talking here about absolute, uncompromising defence. And no one takes that approach more seriously than San Marino, who continue to defend desperately even when they’re behind, as this clip shows. Look at the formation when it’s 5-0 to England!

This approach is also familiar from the early rounds of the FA Cup, when non-league teams get drawn against Premier League giants and set out to avoid a thrashing. Because who wants to lose 10-0 trying to attack (like Tahiti did in the Confederations Cup), when you can lose 1-0 by shutting up shop?

Actually, put like that it’s a wee bit of a boring way to approach a football match – we want double figures! But when you read about the lasting consequences of a really massive defeat on players who keep on attacking, such as El Salvador’s 1982 side, you can appreciate the urge to keep things respectable.

You don’t have to be crap to adopt an all-out-defence approach, though. To explain, we can turn to the second answer to the question of why play antifútbol.

The second reason for playing antifútbol: your defence is better than their attack

The defining act of all-out-defence antifútbol was the aforementioned Inter Milan performance in the Nou Camp in 2010.

Barcelona 1 (2) – (3) 0 Inter Milan

No one who saw this game will ever forget it. Leading 3-1 from the first leg, Jose Mourinho set up his Inter team to prevent Barcelona from playing. Rarely can such an approach have been carried out so successfully.

Mourinho’s demand to his players was for position, not possession. He didn’t want his team to have the ball. At all. Get rid of it. Concentrate on where you’re meant to be standing.

At one point Cambiasso controlled the ball in space and looked upfield. His manager’s response was to start shrieking at him to boot it downfield. He was convinced his defensive set-up would prove impregnable as long as the players never moved from the positions he had assigned to them, and the main danger posed to his plan was that the players might take an interest in the ball. That ball is not for you tonight!

And it worked (just). Barca scarcely laid a glove on Inter until the very end of the match, and although they were unlucky to have Bojan’s goal disallowed in stoppage time, Inter deserved to win for the sheer ballsiness and bloody-mindedness of their approach.

‘A Champion’s League semi-final?,’ Mourinho seemed to ask. ‘A glamour tie? In the home of beautiful football? Let me see how many fucks I give about any of that.’

The structure of the team was hilarious. The “back” four of Zanetti, Samuel, Lucio and Maicon was rarely any further back than the line of three (three!) holding midfielders, which comprised Chivu, Motta and Cambiasso.

Sneijder, Eto’o and Milito then occupied more notionally progressive positions, but none of them ever got much further forward than a normal midfield area. More often than not, Sneijder sat in the line with the holding midfielders, while Milito and Eto’o played as auxiliary full-backs.

And then Motta got sent off, so Muntari replaced Sneijder and sat in the block-hole in front of the defence.

It’s a wonder that Barcelona ever broke through all of that, even though almost the entire match was played in the Inter half.

Now, it’s worth remembering that Mourinho earned the right to adopt such destructive tactics by winning 3-1 at home (although Barca fans argue that their players were below par in the first leg after having to get a bus all the way to Milan on account of the Icelandic ash cloud). And it should also be noted that Inter actually committed fewer fouls than their opponents in the Nou Camp – just twelve. The tackles were clean.

(It is amusing to confirm that Inter had a grand total of zero attempts at goal in the whole match, and are credited with what strikes me as a generous 24% of possession. Jose was probably angry that they had the ball as much as that.)

But the key point to recognise is that Mourinho’s tactics were designed for the specific circumstances of the match. It was a tactical decision based on a rational assessment of the relative strengths of both teams.

Inter were a brilliant attacking team, as they proved in the first leg. However the prospect of 90 minutes on the Nou Camp’s massive pitch, with players like Messi being roared on by the Barca faithful, meant Inter had to be realistic. If they came out and attacked they’d leave space for Barca to exploit, and eventually they’d probably score the goals they needed to overhaul the deficit.

But Inter had the players to execute a defensive plan, and Jose trusted their discipline to win out over Barca’s flair.

So Inter sacrificed all of their attacking potential and forced themselves to play the entire match in hyper-defensive mode.

For players like Eto’o, Milito, arguably Sneijder, even Cambiasso, and certainly the full-backs, it must have been a bizarre intellectual challenge to keep playing like that for a full match. To abjure possession, to deny themselves progressive movement, to forswear attempts at goal – for 90 minutes! – must have been one of the strangest commissions of their careers. But Jose kept reminding them forcefully that the ball was their enemy, and they managed to see out the match.

It was a defensive master class, and utterly sui generis. Antifútbol doesn’t get much more extreme than purposefully trying to never have the ball.

That antifútbol victory was based on the absolute belief of a group of players in their coach’s methods. We turn now to another key managerial name in the history of antifútbol, and consider a third answer to our question.

The third reason for playing antifútbol: you are very effective at deploying violence

The key man here is Osvaldo Zubeldía. He was manager of the Estudiantes de La Plata team that dominated Argentinian football in the late-1960s – and it was in description of his team’s style that the term antifútbol was coined.

Manchester United fans may recognise the name. An Estudiantes side featuring future national manager Carlos Bilardo, and Seba Veron’s dad, beat United in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup (played between the reigning champions of Europe and South America). And I use the word ‘beat’ advisedly.

Tales of the violence from that tie are legendary, and represented the culmination of a few years of serious practice by Zubeldía’s team. They are remembered in Argentina as the first ‘modern’ side, that researched its opponents thoroughly and rehearsed attacking and defensive moves on the training ground – all innovative ideas for the time. And they were also prepared to win by any means necessary.

Estudiantes could deploy brutal ultraviolence in front of the referee, in the form of ‘mistimed’ tackles. They were equally comfortable dishing out less visible punishment, in the form of off-the-ball elbows, bites and other special treats. But none of this was done in the heat of the moment, under stress. It was a deliberate tactic to distract their opponents. And – oh look, George Best just got himself sent off. So it was executed with real effectiveness en route to the team being crowned world champions.

It became something of a trope to dismiss South American teams as thugs after the 1968 games – indeed, Celtic fans have nursed grievances for years about the circumstances in which they lost to Racing Club the year before United’s journey to Buenos Aires. The Intercontinental Cup actually seemed on the verge of dying out in the 1970s when Ajax refused to risk their players’ limbs in South America, but most of the hysteria seems to have been unwarranted.

The YouTube footage of the Celtic vs Racing Club matches, for example, suggests the Celtic players were very happy to have a fight, and if anything were more guilty of violent conduct than their opponents. And footage of Zico’s Flamengo side of the late 70s and early 80s makes clear that the South Americans were, simply, miles better than their European opponents most of the time.

But Zubeldía’s Estudiantes were another thing altogether. In their utterly rational, unemotional deployment of violence, they resemble nothing so much as a 1980s Serie A side. Gentile would have slotted into the Estudiantes team with no problem at all.

This sort of approach has largely died out now, due to widespread television coverage, better refereeing and a declining appetite on the part of a gentrified fanbase to accept wanton violence. But from time to time we see flickers of the corpse of Zubeldísmo – for example, the Netherlands team’s approach to the 2010 World Cup Final.

Occasional echoes apart, few teams these days adopt an entirely violent approach to antifútbol. But players themselves never tire of recalling tales of isolated examples of tone-setting behaviour by individuals – the “studs on shins early doors” philosophy. My favourite example of the genre is a story told by Ryan Giggs about his early years in the Manchester United midfield.

Supposedly he complained to his captain that the full-back who was marking him was giving him grief.

“Swap places with me for ten minutes, Ryan”, replied Bryan Robson (for it was he).

Ten minutes later Robbo resumed his place in the centre of midfield, assuring Giggs that “he won’t bother you again”.

It might not be pretty, and it’s certainly not practiced as systematically as it was by Estudiantes in the 1960s, but a little bit of violence may still alter the thinking of a certain type of opponent.

The use of violence as a premeditated tactic to unsettle a more skilful opponent is, therefore, perhaps the most primordial category of antifútbol. And, it works. Just ask Jose Antonio Reyes.

The fourth reason for playing antifútbol: the team is having an almighty meltdown

This is a rarer category, but memorable when you see it happen.

Nothing makes a team embrace antifútbol quite like the taste of fear. This may manifest itself in different ways, but a team that is terrified will often retreat into defensive, often strange on-field behaviours.

I’ll come to the most notorious example of this in a moment, but first let us consider the 1974 Zaire team.

No Nick Hancock bloopers video was complete without footage of Mwepu Ilunga’s booking for, er, faling to remain ten yards away at a free-kick.

For years this was Exhibit A for the racist prosecution case that African footballers were “naive” (by which they meant stupid and possibly subhuman). However we now know that the players had been subject to all manner of dark threats from the Mobutu government, not least that a four-goal defeat to Brazil would result in them not being allowed to return home.

Rather than being an example of that all-too-common creature, an international footballer at a World Cup who was somehow unaware of the basic rules of football (as people seem bafflingly to have believed), Ilunga was in fact (a) in fear for his life, and (b) trying to get the game over with. It’s a good antifútbol approach; prevent the match from occurring by hiding the ball.

Another, less explicable example of this dramatic form of antifútbol dates back to the 1990 World Cup qualifiers. Chile needed to avoid defeat to Brazil in the Maracana and were trailing 1-0 when a firework was thrown from the stands. It landed near the Chile goalkeeper, Roberto Rojas, who then did what anyone would in the circumstances: he dug out a razor, cut himself in the head, and rolled about in apparent agony.

The match was abandoned amid scenes of the shocked and scared Chile players carrying their stricken teammate from the pitch. Eventually, however, it became clear that his wounds were entirely self-inflicted. Chile were banned from the World Cup and Rojas was banned for life.

It’s a pretty extreme example of antifútbol, but trying to prevent the match from actually happening is certainly one way of avoiding defeat.

(A less dramatic but perhaps more high-profile example of diversionary tactics took place before the 1978 World Cup Final. The Argentina team sought to destabilise their Dutch opponents by having the match delayed for some time while they disputed the legality of the plaster cast on René van der Kerkhof’s wrist. These diversionary tactics may or may not have affected the Holland players, but they certainly won’t have done Argentina any harm.)

However, for a more comprehensive example of an entire team having a sort of footballing nervous breakdown, we must turn our attentions to the 1991 European Cup Final in Bari.

Red Star Belgrade 0 – 0 Marseille (5-3 on pens)

This was my first European Cup Final, a year after the Italia ’90 World Cup had captured me for football forever (sometimes I wonder how much I could have got done if I’d never got interested in the damn thing). I remember watching the build-up in my neighbour’s house on a beautiful summer evening, and being really excited. It was going to be great. Red Star were absolutely exhilarating to watch, and Darko Pancev was one of my favourite players. Marseille were brilliant too. I couldn’t wait to see the final.

Then I don’t remember anything. Not a single image from the whole evening.

Some misguided soul has put this final on YouTube and I tried re-watching some of it a while back. I thought perhaps it might be a lost classic, or at least an interesting exercise in defence vs attack. But it’s nothing like that at all.

Famously, Red Star vs Marseille stunk the place out – it is comfortably the worst European Cup Final, and maybe the worst final of anything, ever. But it’s not bad in a normal way. It’s really weird.

Nothing happens.

It’s almost indescribably boring. You will not be able to watch it, I promise. It’s beyond flat. Please don’t try to prove me wrong, it’s not worth it.

The background to the final is well known, of course. Yugoslavia was on the brink of civil war, and the multi-ethnic Red Star team would soon break up, one casualty among many of the most brutal conflict on European soil since WW2.

The first serious event of the conflict – the Battle of Borovo Selo – took place between the first and second legs of Red Star’s classic semi-final with Bayern Munich (a tie as brilliant as the final was awful). It soon became clear that the team’s coalition of Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bosnian Serbs would no longer be able to play together against this background.

One wonders what it must have been like for the Croatian Robert Prosinečki in particular, to play in front of a Red Star crowd hyped up on Serb nationalism in the early days of the Croatian War of Independence.

Either way, he played in the final and scored the first penalty in the shoot-out. Sadly it’s difficult to describe any further action than this, because the game seemed to grind to a halt after about three seconds.

I’m speculating here, but it was as if Red Star’s players were so overwhelmed by the crisis engulfing the country that they just wanted to hide. No one wanted to draw attention to themselves. So they just tapped the ball around and stared at the ground for 120 minutes.

Marseille had no idea how to react. The bizarre vibe you get from the footage of the match derives in part from the Marseille team’s spooked performance. They didn’t really do much attacking either – almost as if they thought Red Star were trying to lull them into a false sense of security by playing so passively.

You would say that neither side blinked for 120 minutes, but that makes it sound like a tense affair. It’s closer to the truth of the match to say that neither side opened their eyes.

The footage brings to mind nothing so much as a couple forced to attend a dinner party after a dreadful fight and just wanting the whole thing to be over. Let’s just turn up, eat our dinner, say thank-you, and get out of there. Try not to attract attention. Above all, don’t do anything stupid. That was the Red Star team. And Marseille played the part of the discomfited host who doesn’t know what to say to puncture the tension.

The match provided one further bizarre detail, which was the appearance after 112 minutes of Red Star’s greatest ever player, Dragan Stoijkovic. He was my favourite player when I first got into football, and it was my first opportunity to watch him play since the 1990 World Cup.

Except he was playing (in a discordantly urgent, frantic style) for Marseille.

It was all really weird.

Somehow, Red Star squeezed out of Bari with the cup, and some of the players celebrated by exchanging Serb paramilitary gestures with the crowd. (Poor Prosinečki). The team never played together again.

And so ended one of the strangest football matches ever played, and a worthy entry in the antifútbol typology. One of the most thrilling, penetrative attacking sides of the late 20th century reached the top of their mountain: and then played out a match of shadows, a contest without action, a game that feels like it isn’t happening even while you’re watching it.

A team on the verge of a nervous breakdown that hid in its cave during a European Cup Final – and still managed to win.

The fifth reason for playing antifútbol: your pride will not accept defeat but you have nothing left

We turn, finally, to perhaps the greatest antifútbol practitioners in football history, and my personal favourites.

No team ticks so many antifútbol boxes, and few are so hated. I’m talking, of course about Argentina’s 1990 side.

I’m Scottish, and like many of my fellow Scots I’m an Argentina fan. I wasn’t old enough to see them win in 1986, alas. Instead, it’s testament to the dark glamour of Argentinian football that I somehow managed to fall for them while watching their hilarious successors defend the trophy in Italy.

What a team that was.

The great Scott Murray had a go at defending the 1990 team in this Guardian article and captures their qualities perfectly.

The 1986 team is underrated too, albeit for different reasons. Some people – let’s call them England fans of a particular hew – resent them because Maradona scored a goal against their team with a handball. And elsewhere the consensus seems to be that the captain won the trophy by himself, accompanied purely for the look of the thing by a gang of hapless extras, because Maradona scored some all-time great solo goals.

Both interpretations are unfair, frankly. The former is simply bitter nonsense, while the latter merely reflects the relative obscurity of South American players in the days before exporting talented teenagers with YouTube showreel became central to the footballing economy. In Valdano, Burruchaga, Olarticoechea and Ruggeri, to name just four of his teammates, Maradona had players of real class around him. Argentina ’86 were an excellent, well organised side that bear comparison with the 2014 vintage. Clearly, they were there to lay a platform for their maestro, but we’re not in the realm of “World XI at one end, Ilford 3rds at the other”.

Argentina wouldn’t have won the 1986 World Cup without Maradona, but he couldn’t have won it without his teammates either. Just because he scored some of the goals single-handedly (if you excuse the pun), he didn’t actually win the trophy on his own.

He nearly won the 1990 tournament on his own, however, through sheer force of personality.

The 1990 team was absolutely horrible. The good players had retired or were passed it, and the newer additions to the squad were mostly stodgy and technically poor.

Maradona, meanwhile, looked about twenty years older than he had four years earlier. By 1990, his eight years of cocaine and alcohol addiction had caught up with him, changing his physique entirely, while his ankles were crumbling after a decade of punishment from brutal man-markers.

He still had matchless footballing intelligence though, not to mention an insatiable appetite for provocation. And nowhere was the latter better showcased than in Italia ’90.

I maintain that Italia ’90 was the best ever World Cup, but that’s because it was my first. Fairer observers thought it was an absolute dog of a tournament. So how about this for antifútbol – Argentina defined a tournament that negated football so effectively FIFA had to change some of the rules of the game afterwards to prevent it happening again. That’s pretty outstanding work.

Going back to my list of six antifútbol tropes earlier in the piece, Argentina 1990 in many ways perfected four of them, namely:

• spoiling tactics, especially tactical ‘rotational’ fouling;

• deliberate, planned deployment of more insidious aggressive behaviour;

• diversionary tactics, such as systematic time-wasting, feigning of injury, and other sundry ploys; and

• constantly working on the referee.

In terms of the former, consider the fact that the team that started the final contained four players who hadn’t featured at all in the tournament until that point. That was how badly the squad was affected by suspensions. That takes some doing – well played guys!

I’ll come back to the other categories in a moment, but first let us appreciate the lovely paradox of the tournament’s opening game. Argentina may have left Italia ’90 as global pariahs/ legends, but the competition began with them being trolled quite majestically by Cameroon.

The other side of the racist stereotype about ‘naive’ African players was a tendency to patronise the life out of them when they started to win. Look at those smiles! They’re doing a dance! What fun! This attitude to the Cameroon 1990 team enabled them to escape proper censure for some genuinely bloodcurdling tactics. Bloody hell they were a hard side.

Claudio Cannigia: meet Benjamin Massing.

As everyone knows, Cameroon won 1-0 even with nine men, and Argentina didn’t know what had hit them. (Clue: it was Benjamin Massing).

But then their indomitable professional pride and need to be worthy of the shirt enabled them to drag themselves to the final, despite playing well in literally none of their matches.

The tactics can be summarised thus:

1) kick everything that moves;

2) never let the game flow;

3) dive regularly and roll around pretending to be in agony to waste time;

4) surround the referee at every opportunity, palms together in supplication, in the hope that he will eventually get sick of dealing with you;

5) rotate responsibility for fouling opponents to share the disciplinary burden; and

6) practice your penalties.

I love that team and even I can’t find an example of positive footballing tactics in their approach. But what made that team special was an utter refusal to lose. If you were going to beat them it was going to be a deeply unpleasant experience for you.

They made it clear they were going all the way, and you were going to go down with them. They might not have been pretty to watch, but their uncompromising refusal to give up their trophy is surely worthy of celebration.

They squeezed out of their group in third place, assisted by another Maradona handball, and faced Brazil in an antifútbol classic:

Argentina 1-0 Brazil

The 1990 Brazil side is unloved where it has not been forgotten altogether. However I think they were at least as good as the 1994 world champions. The midfield was certainly better in 1990 – Alemão and Valdo were much more fun than Dunga and Mauro Silva. And up front Brazil featured the brilliant Careca at his peak, assisted by the unfairly forgotten Muller (think of Pedro in his emergent phase, or a young Thierry Henry). They were strong at the back too. Across the team they were miles better than Argentina. Well, ten of the eleven players were better anyway.

The eleventh Argentinian, Maradona, chose this match to unfurl his last great World Cup solo run. He didn’t score this time, as he probably would have done in 1986, but his weary legs did carry him far enough to roll in Caniggia for the winner. Just look at this.

The Bad Moon Rising song chanted by the Argentina fans at this summer’s World Cup was all about that goal
– about how Diego “vaccinated” Brazil. But what made the victory so special was that it was so unlikely.

Argentina never really had a kick. They were completely outplayed, and Brazil kept hitting the woodwork. But Argentina had no interest in looking good, or being seen as deserving winners – no shame whatsoever. They kept scrapping and hacking away at Brazil, until the ball eventually fell to Diego in what for him passed for space. And it became quickly apparent that there is skill involved in tactical fouling – because the very best efforts of three Brazilians to bring him down were unsuccessful.

Two more victories followed, both on penalties. The latter, against the hosts, was the scene of some world-class diversionary tactics by Maradona.

The semi-final was played in Naples, where Maradona was venerated as a god for his achievements as Napoli captain. So Diego decided to challenge the locals to support his team against their country, on the basis that Naples was sneered at and victimised by the north for the rest of the year.

Imagine trying a stunt like that! And it almost worked, too. But in the end the Argentina anthem was jeered, and the best the Napoli fans could do was sit quietly.

We’ll pause here to consider the staggering amount of self-belief Maradona exhibited when taking his penalty in the semi-final shoot-out. He’d rolled a terrible penalty, basically a back pass, into the arms of the Yugoslavia goalkeeper in the previous round, and then had all of the drama of the Naples crowd to deal with in the semi. And then he goes and rolls the exact same penalty into the net. The silence in the stadium after it goes in is hilarious. The whole shoot-out is worth watching again, here.

And then it was the final, perhaps the pinnacle of antifútbol.

West Germany 1-0 Argentina

This match gave rise to one of the most hilarious conspiracy theories in the history of football. There are people in the world who think Argentina were cheated of victory in the final by a corrupt referee. Truly, even David Icke would struggle to convince himself of this one.

While the video of the Red Star Belgrade vs Marseille game is one never to be approached, I can heartily recommend dipping a toe into the 1990 final (the whole thing is here).

You’ve never seen anything like it. Argentina are quite majestically demented for the whole game. Even the guys who hadn’t played in the tournament until that game are overwhelmed with battle fever.

The oddest part of the conspiracy theory concerns the 65th minute sending off of Pedro Monzon (who, it’s worth bearing in mind, was a half-time substitute – he did well to get this aggressive in just twenty minutes). People still seem to think that Klinsmann got him sent off by diving. They are so wrong. Watch this video from 5:20 to 6:20. The commentary is particularly amusing – Big Ron thinks it’s “a tangle”. Brian Moore doesn’t revise his opinion publicly, but listen for the little “oops!” when he sees the tackle again at the 6:20 mark. It’s a desperate, disgraceful tackle, and the referee was absolutely right.

It’s also hard to dispute the second Argentina red card, for Dezotti. He basically strangles Juergen Kohler. But never mind the incident itself – look at the response by the Argentina players! This is hilarious. (from 9 mins 35 seconds if you’re opening it on a mobile device).

Players take twenty yard run-ups to barge the referee, then jabber manically in his face. How he keeps it together I’ll never know. Again, the commentary is priceless: “The referee is winning no friends here!” claims Brian Moore, as his back is smashed into by the fourth and fifth players. If any team tried that these days there would be calls to shut their club down.

It’s clearly hilarious and brilliant. It didn’t work in the final – West Germany were far too streetwise for that – but at least they went down fighting in an all-too literal sense.

So Argentina 1990, then: the most fouls at the World Cup, the most bookings, just two goals in four games in the knock-out stages, four players suspended for the final, two sent off in the final (no one had ever been sent off in a previous World Cup final) and a new standard set for barging the referee after a red card, with five players nailing him in the same incident.

There is a throne for that team in antifútbol hell.


I’ve argued, then, that the phrase antifútbol covers a broad variety of practices and tactical approaches, which are often quite distinct.

The various antifútbol practices are unified in terms of the moral censure they provoke. That said, no one really blames San Marino for packing the defence to avoid a drubbing. They’re rubbish after all! Arguably their approach isn’t antifútbol at all – it’s an attempt to make a game of it when the odds are stacked heavily against them.

Greater distaste is reserved for teams and managers who, it is presumed, don’t have to play antifútbol. In this respect, Zubeldía’s deployment of physical intimidation as a rational, steady-pulse tactic by his Estudiantes side, and Mourinho’s pragmatic preparedness to do what is necessary to win, are more significant contributions to the antifútbol corpus. The former is antifútbol in the sense that it ignores the rules of fair play, and the latter in the sense that Inter’s win over Barcelona turned on its head the idea that football involves placing foot on ball.

I’ve also argued that antifútbol can involve the negation of football, usually in the context of a team facing bewildering upheaval. The Red Star Belgrade team, which basically pretended it wasn’t there for the duration of the 1991 European Cup final, is the classic example of this.

And finally, I focused in some detail on the Argentina side that defended its world title in the 1990 World Cup. Their antifútbol was characterised by an absolute refusal to pander to the crowd or to respect the spectacle. All they were interested in was defending their trophy, and they were prepared to do whatever it took.

Ultimately we might see antifútbol, in all of its various articulations, as the prioritising of effectiveness – of winning – over attractiveness. It is football rid of any sense of shame.

As long as some people approach football as a competitive sport rather than as a branch of the entertainment industry, those people will try to win.

And as long as some of the people trying to win are blessed less bountifully with the resources of skill, creativity, imagination and style – they will deploy the dark arts of antifútbol to aid their cause.

And what’s wrong with that?

  1. Pankaj Saini says:

    Quite a lot of matches that nobody wanted to remember!! Kudos! A great article and a fun read (even though I’d probably be tearing my hair out if I had to sit through the Red Star – Marseille game!! – it was much more fun reading about it than watching it!)

    Loved the article!


  2. Konsta Kärkkäinen says:

    Utterly brilliant piece. It was about time that someone with appreciation for the whole spectrum of footballing aesthetic wrote something like this- for a while I thought I was alone with my keenness for the darker arts of the sport! It’s often extremely frustrating to read the mainstream football media due to the sheer snobbishness of it all, if a certain strategy wins you football matches it’s a bloody good strategy, no matter how ”boring” it is. The rhetoric in most articles concerning teams with a more destructive mindset is something that really riles me up, as if the team is violating the sanctity of the game with it’s evil ways – it’s a competitive sport and not the bible for christ sake! Anyway, truly a breath of fresh air. Looking forward to more articles!


    • Thank you so much! That’s such a lovely comment – I really appreciate it 🙂

      I’m delighted my case for the defence has struck a chord with you 🙂

      I think you put the case better in your reply than I did in my essay though!

      Thanks again and have a great evening,



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  4. crel57 says:

    I love Brazil 70 beyond reason, but have also always had a place in my heart for catenaccio (as we used to call it). May I add to your hall of fame Inter Milan 67…The first European Cup final I saw. Whilst I was willing Celtic to win with all my heart, Inter’s antifutbol was a work of art 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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