It’s quite hard not to be downbeat at the moment. Downbeat about your own health, the health of those close to you and the health of society in general. Downbeat about your job prospects. Downbeat about the economy in general. And, of course, downbeat about football.
There was plenty to be downbeat about football before all of this happened, but there’s a lot more now. There’s the simple fact of when football will come back. If football will come back, even. If clubs will survive. If livelihoods of those working in and around the game, Clive, will survive. What sort of shape the game will be in after all of this.
Another thing to consider is what we might learn from this, from the aching maw of no football, now stretching into two unexpected months without a sausage of the game to entertain us, unless you’re getting bang into the Belarusian league. But if you’re taking a downbeat approach, then it’s tempting to recall Homer Simpson’s line, when asked what he had gained from an episode in which he is accused of sexual harassment and cast as a babysitter-groping deviant. “Marge my friend,” he said, weighing up the lessons he had taken in, “I haven’t learned a thing.”
Hopefully, we will take something from all of this, and one lesson that most of us should learn – arguably a lesson that shouldn’t have required a pandemic and the shutdown of society as we know it to learn – is that we should stop taking football quite so seriously. Not in terms of what it means to us, because if the lack of football has reminded us of nothing else it’s that this game means a great deal. But in how we consume it, how we over-analyse it, complain about it, allow the stuff that doesn’t really matter to take over everything else and devour what’s important, like how these bees deal with a murder hornet.
The absence of football should remind us that it’s supposed to be fun. This is meant to be an enjoyable part of our lives, whether we realise it at the time or not. Of course, you can interpret ‘fun’ in as many ways as you want, but it’s broadly the reason most of us got into this whole thing in the first place, and it’s broadly why men like Zdenek Zeman are so revered.
Zeman managed 18 clubs over a 34-year career (his last job, a second spell at Pescara, ended in 2018), mostly in Italy, and has never won a thing. Well, that’s slightly unfair: he won Serie B twice, but in spells with Lazio, Roma, Napoli, Fenerbache and Red Star Belgrade, among many others, he has never won a major trophy.
And yet he’s revered in a way that few others aren’t in Italy, and was a subject of his own edition of Golazzo (the highest form of tribute there is), despite failing to achieve the only tangible measure of success that football managers have.
The people that revere Zeman aren’t particularly concerned with success, though. Or those measurable forms of success, at least. He’s revered because of his style, because of the way he absolutely insisted his team played football, and also of course because of how resolutely stubborn he is, and how influential he has been.
Zeman is also revered because, in so many words, he understands that football is supposed to be fun. “He was always an outsider,” said James Horncastle on Zeman’s edition of Golazzo. “He was very counter-cultural. He came in and said ‘you guys have got it all wrong, you focus on the wrong things: you focus on the result, but what people come to the stadium for is to be entertained. And that’s what I want to do.'”
Zeman once said that football should be prescribed by pharmacies, that its primary purpose is to be something people want to watch to the extent that it had healing powers, and then if winning comes along with that, then great. “I want my team to entertain the fans and bring them closer to the team, giving them strong emotional responses,” he said, when reappointed to the Roma job in 2012.
His approach wasn’t pragmatic, or at least not pragmatic in the sense that many more conventionally successful managers – Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte – have been. It may have been romantic, although there was some debate on Golazzo over Zeman’s intention: James Richardson suggested that “he represents another ideal, a more romantic way of doing things,” whereas Gab Marcotti argued that his way of doing things was simply the best way of doing things. In his mind, at least.
A possible middle ground between those points of view is that Zeman’s approach came from the head but appealed to the heart. He probably didn’t manage his teams like that just because it warmed the cockles of a footballing nation, but that’s what the ultimate effect was so, to a point, who cares what the intention was?
Zeman’s football was fun. It’s not that he didn’t care about winning, and he probably would have been delighted to have a couple of trophies to his name, but he understood that winning isn’t the most important thing about football. The most important thing is that we enjoy this beautiful, stupid, infuriating but, in the end, fun game.
Hopefully we remember that when football returns. Let’s be more like Zdenek Zeman, and less like Homer Simpson.
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