“We always base our preparations against an opponent on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.” (1.84)
One of the most interesting aspects of Thucydides’ account in respect to football is the way that he depicts different styles of play and management, in both their strengths and weaknesses. The Spartans, for example, represent the application of a system, in which individual players – however talented – are subordinated to the discipline and needs of the whole. The system is not necessarily rigid, but it is flexible only in its own terms, rather than being adapted to respond to a particular opponent. In such a system there is little inclination to worry endlessly about the threat posed by individual opposition players (will Suarez play? is Ronaldo still carrying an injury?), but simply the confidence that training, discipline and preparation will win out over erratic genius on most days. Such a philosophy does not necessarily imply a defensive approach; the Spartans build slowly from the back and absorb pressure before launching devastating counter-attacks. It’s Germany, isn’t it?