In all photographs, there is a constant. In some of the images, the Spanish players look to the floor, disconsolate, as they reflect on their defeat against France in the final of the League of Nations. In others, they give interviews, with heavy faces and a little desolate. In one, Luis Enrique, his coach, offers a respectful applause to the winners of his team.
However, in all of them, Spanish footballers have thin navy blue ribbons hanging from their necks. Each of the players had walked to the elevated platform built at full speed over the field after Sunday’s final at the San Siro stadium in Milan. Each had taken the medal they had been offered. And each had carefully placed it around his neck.
Of course that shouldn’t be worth any particular attention. In most sports, the athlete or team that finishes second regards their silver medal as a source of pride. In some occasions, it can be with the eyes covered with tears. Sometimes it’s through clenched teeth. Often times, it is with an air of lingering remorse, an idea of what might have been. And it always takes a while to ease the pain. More than anything, second place — narrowly — can hurt.
However, only in soccer are silver medals treated as if they burned. Players and coaches often give the impression that they would rather not touch them. Last summer, most of England’s players insisted on not wearing the medal they had earned for finishing second at the European Championship.
A few weeks earlier, most of his colleagues at Manchester City and Manchester United had perceptibly refused to wear the pieces they had received after losing both the Champions League final and the Europa League final. José Mourinho has made a habit of discarding any reminder of all the losses in some important final.
This is, roughly, a phenomenon that hardly manifests itself outside of football. The finalist defeated in a major tennis tournament does not emphasize, in front of the watching world, on giving the prize he won to a fan. Olympians generally do not refuse to stand on the podium without their silver or bronze medals around their necks, nor do they throw them out to the public on their way out of the stadium, pool or velodrome.
In fact, disdain for silver medals is not even a trait of all football. In 2019, female footballers from the Netherlands who had just lost the women’s World Cup final to the United States kept their medals on. Many walked out of their dressing room to speak to the media, their eyes a bit teary and the bittersweet swag of their wonderful and inspiring summer decorating their necks.
However, men’s football seems to have welcomed the idea that second place only comes after first and has made it a dogma. Perhaps that is due to the message it sends: the act itself is undoubtedly somewhat performative, a little play, a flourish for fans to show that just total victory is enough.
Or maybe it’s due to the absolutism that motivates so many of the defining characters in the men’s game. Many of the most successful coaches in the sport have placed an emphasis on telling their players that they shouldn’t even enjoy their winning badges. Alex Ferguson, like Brian Clough and Bill Shankly before him, used to tell their squads to forget about winning a league or cup almost immediately, that they had only served as a springboard to more success. Soccer has long been consumed by a desire for dominance so intense that, when viewed in the cold light of day, it is a bit unsettling.
And as much as Mourinho is too often and easily blamed for all the ills of modern football, it shouldn’t be too difficult to connect some of his most public repudiation of anything but gold with the more widespread acceptance of the practice, with the belief that once he made it clear that silver was not acceptable to him, it was almost inevitable that others would follow. After all, a coach who values second place in some way would seem beardless in comparison.
It may well have been easier for Spain to enjoy a little the memories they gave the team in Milan due to the circumstances in which they had achieved them: in the final of the Nations League, a tournament barely a step higher than a tournament. of exhibition. All athletes are competitive, but it is unlikely that Luis Enrique and his team were experiencing the same kind of pain that England’s players suffered at Wembley this summer.
However, despite everything, perhaps it hints at a subtle shift in the landscape, away from the brutal belief, which adds up to nothing, that victory can only have one form and that therefore everything else of course it is a failure, abject and shameful. Sometimes coming in second is an achievement on its own. You’d think capturing that could make the sport a little healthier, a little more joyous, as a whole.
Memory plays with you
Perhaps Lionel Messi was trying not to hurt his friend’s feelings. He has known Sergio Agüero for years, so when Agüero asked why he had never won a Ballon d’Or, Messi chose his words delicately. For example, he didn’t tell him: “You haven’t won it because I and Cristiano Ronaldo exist.” Instead, he was a bit more diplomatic. You win the Ballon d’Or if you win the Champions League, Messi told Aguero, according to the latter. His failure was tied to that of his team.
According to Messi’s logic – and Messi knows something about winning the Ballon d’Or – this only leaves one winner for this year. Four members of Chelsea’s team from last season have been nominated, but only one of them also won the European Championship. By extension, this should be Jorginho’s year (the honor for women could go to any of the five nominees from all of Barcelona’s conquering team that won the Champions League, but Alexia Putellas, their captain, seems to be the choice of the consensus).
It’s interesting to consider what that will look like in hindsight. This week, there was a particularly bizarre situation on Twitter when fans debated the merits of the 2003 award winner: Juventus midfielder Paved Nedvěd (exactly what is the origin of those hell gates of unreason, and what do you think? attracts them, it is still a mystery to me, but it does not matter). It was decreed that Nedvěd did not deserve it, particularly in a year in which Thierry Henry had scored 32 goals in 56 games for Arsenal.
That comparison is irrelevant, of course – Nedvěd was a midfielder, not a forward, so he wasn’t actually hired to match Henry’s numbers – and it doesn’t take the context into account: Nedvěd propelled Juventus to the final of the match. Champions League and to win Serie A. That season, Henry’s genius did not deliver any trophies to Arsenal.
Back then, no one was shocked that Henry hadn’t won; If there was one player with a greater right than Nedvěd – considered one of the best players of his generation – it was Andriy Shevchenko, the AC Milan striker who scored the Champions League-winning penalty kick.
Now this seems unusual, of course, because it is a testament to the cultural primacy of the Premier League; of the more imperishable greatness of Henry, compared to that of Nedvěd; and, perhaps, the nature of our way of remembering. Assessing individual contributions to team sports can be difficult – where Messi and Ronaldo aren’t involved, to be sure – so what lingers, as time passes and memories fade, are the numbers. And yet the numbers, as Agüero and Henry can attest, don’t tell the whole story.
A long road, a short trip
Now the image is starting to come into focus. We have the first two teams qualified for the next World Cup; Predictable but heartfelt congratulations to Germany, who always rate easy, and a respectful surprise at the Denmark team who now appear to be invincible. Meanwhile, the rest of the field is beginning to take shape.
In Asia, it’s hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia – with four games and four wins – will not qualify. In South America, Brazil and Argentina they can almost be taken for granted, but the identity of the two countries that are going to be added by ranking directly is much more intriguing. In North America, barely a glimmer of a gap has opened between Mexico, the United States, and Canada and everyone else.
In Europe, the concern about whether France, Belgium and England will not classify gives the impression of being invented – they will; stop worrying – but several of the other favorites face moderate stress in November: Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are by no means guaranteed automatic spots.
Only Africa is missing – where the qualification structure makes the whole process unsatisfactory, arbitrary, but undoubtedly dramatic – and Oceania, where with just over a year to go before the tournament starts, it hasn’t even started. the qualifying process started.
It has already been postponed twice because of the logistical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic; the most recent plan is to hold a qualifying tournament in Qatar next spring, but what format it will take and whether clubs will let their players compete in it has yet to be established.
New Zealand, the region’s heavyweight, hadn’t played a single match in nearly two years before a pair of friendly wins against Bahrain and Curaçao on this FIFA date. It is still not entirely clear how Danny Hay, the country’s coach, is supposed to forge a team capable of not only beating the rest of Oceania but also winning a knockout round against a team from another confederation, scheduled for June of next year. Hay has not lost hope. According to him, the friendlies of the most recent FIFA date were the “start of the road to the World Cup” for his team. Given the circumstances, it is hard to believe that this path will end in Qatar.