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Further evidence of the infinite flexibility of the Melian Dialogue; it’s clear that its general principles can be applied to absolutely any situation in which there is an imbalance of power between two parties. When the news of arrests of senior and former FIFA executives on bribery charges broke, my immediate response (on Twitter, naturally) was something to the effect of “FIFA exacts what it can, and UEFA endures what it must” (okay, the original tweet was a little less refined). I’m relieved to hear, via Paul Cartledge, that I’m not the only person who thought of Thucydides in this context. One Matt Kaiser offers a substantial summary of the Melian Dialogue and its historical context in a blog post on ‘Soccer, International Criminal Law, and Thucydides’. The conclusion:

Clearly, the United States is riding high. We’ve got the power of Athens and then some (we can cripple a country’s banking abilities without loading a single rifle). But the lesson of the Melian debate is that when power trumps reason it’s deeply problematic.

We seem to be following the Athenians not just in our accumulation of power, but also in our interest in talking to others about how we use it.

Well, yes, I too thought the most crucial aspect of this whole affair was American imperialism…

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Football has long since become an all-purpose symbol of the decadence and dysfunction of globalised late capitalist society and culture. Perhaps this is because it retains traces of its more virtuous and popular origins so we feel its transformation more keenly (plus of course there’s the Land of Cockayne where the stadiums have terraces and the lager is cheap, aka the Bundesliga, mocking us from across the Armelkanal), whereas we don’t honestly expect bankers and the like to be anything other than unscrupulous, avaricious tax evaders. So we despair over modern football because it makes us acutely aware of what has been lost in the transformation.

It’s scarcely surprising, therefore, that discussions of higher education regularly evoke modern football as their touchstone for the evils of marketisation. (more…)

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“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?

 

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First in an intermittent series (since discussing football is almost as good for my viewing statistics as insulting well-loved writers of popular history and fans of Richard III…).

It’s clear that Thucydides’ analysis offers not only a sound basis for forecasting the results of football tournaments on the basis of the qualities and psychological tendencies of different teams, but also a rich source of advice on the nature and dynamics of the game – including some maxims that foreshadow, with remarkable accuracy, the pronouncements of some of the great figures of the modern game.

1.78: “Consider how unpredictable are the fortunes of the struggle.” A persistent theme in Thucydides – seen not only in the pronouncements of figures like these Athenian ambassadors, but also in the way that confident claims about the future made by other speakers are then undermined by the subsequent course of events. Thucydides’ attitude could not be further from that expressed by Gary Lineker (“22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and then the Germans always win”), with its fatalistic acceptance of a deterministic universe. It is far closer to the gnomic maxim of the great German post-war coach Sepp Herberger: “Der Ball ist rund”. The ball is round; it can roll in any direction; the flow of the game and the fortunes of the two sides can switch in a moment.

“Thus ended the summer. In the following winter…” (passim). Not, on the face of it, a terribly inspiring statement; Thucydides’ organisation of his history around a relentless chronological pattern has often been criticised, on the grounds that it undermines the flow of the narrative of a particular incident to switch half-way through to what’s going on elsewhere. But how better to emphasise that individual games are never to be understood in isolation; through most of the tournament, the ultimate outcome will be determined not by the result of a single game but by a series of different sequences of events which will only later intersect – and in any case, as Herberger sagely noted, “Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel”; after the game is before the (next) game, and that holds true even for the World Cup final. The importance of Thucydides’ apparently simple, repeated phrase was recognised by one of the greatest modern football novelists, Peter Handke (see Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter), who adopted it as the structuring principle for his novel Kindergeschichte.

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