Football’s problem with silver medals

Football - Nations League - Final - Spain v France - San Siro, Milan, Italy - October 10, 2021 Spain's Aymeric Laporte in action with France's Kylian Mbappe REUTER
In all the photographs, there is one constant. In some of the images, Spain’s players stare at the ground, disconsolate, chewing over their loss to France in the final of the Nations League. In others, they give interviews, lead-faced and faintly forlorn. In one, Luis Enrique, their coach, offers respectful applause for his team’s conquerors.

But in all of them, Spain’s players have thin, navy blue ribbons draped around their necks. Each of the players had walked to the raised platform hastily constructed on the field after Sunday’s final at San Siro in Milan. Each of them had taken the medal offered to him. And each of them had carefully placed it around his neck.

That should not, of course, be especially noteworthy. In most sports, the athlete or the team that finishes second sees its silver medal as a source of pride. Occasionally, it might be with eyes glazed with tears. Sometimes, it is through gritted teeth. Often, it is with a lingering air of regret, a sense of what might have been. And it always takes the pain a little while to subside. Second — close, but no cigar — can hurt most of all.

But only in football are silver medals treated as if they burn. Players and coaches frequently give the impression that they would rather not touch them at all. Last summer, the majority of England’s players made a point of refusing to wear the medals they had earned for finishing second in the European Championship.

A few weeks earlier, most of their counterparts at both Manchester City and Manchester United had conspicuously refused to don the tokens they had received after losing the Champions League and Europa League finals. José Mourinho has made a habit of disposing of any reminder he might have that he ever lost a major final.

This is, at a rough guess, a phenomenon that manifests very rarely outside football. The beaten finalist at a tennis major does not make a point, in front of the watching world, of handing whatever prize he or she has been awarded to a fan. Olympians do not regularly refuse to stand on the podium without their silver or bronze medals around their necks, nor do they hurl them into the crowd on their way out of the stadium/pool/velodrome/whatever the place where the horse disco takes place is called.

In fact, the scorn for silver medals is not even a feature of all football. In 2019, the Netherlands players who had just lost the Women’s World Cup final to the United States kept their medals. Many emerged from their locker room to speak to the news media, eyes still a little raw, with the bittersweet spoils of their wondrous, uplifting summer draped around their necks.

Men’s football, though, seems to have embraced the idea that second is just first last and turned it into a dogma. Perhaps that is because of the message it sends: The act itself is, without question, somewhat performative, a little piece of theatre, a flourish for the fans to demonstrate that nothing less than total victory will do.

Or perhaps it is because of the absolutism that drives so many of the defining characters in the men’s game. Plenty of the sport’s most successful managers have made a point of telling their players that they should not savour even their winners’ medals. Alex Ferguson, like Brian Clough and Bill Shankly before him, used to tell his squads that they should forget winning a league or a cup almost immediately, that it was to serve only as a springboard for further success. Football has long been consumed by a desire for dominion so intense that it is, when looked at in the cold light of day, just a little deranged.

And as much as Mourinho is too often, too easily blamed for all of modern Football’s ills, it would not be desperately difficult to trace a line from some of his more public rejections of anything short of gold to a wider embrace of the practice, to believe that once he had made it clear that silver was not acceptable to him, it made it almost inevitable that others would follow. A coach who cherished second, after all, would seem somehow callow in comparison.

Why it came about, though, is perhaps less significant than what it implies.

It is curious how unrelated strands of loose narrative can coalesce. Last week, there was a minor commotion over Norwich City, the team rooted to the foot of the Premier League. A former player had wondered if Norwich added a vast amount to the league, what with the club’s insistence on being stable and sensible and cautious, all traits that act as synonyms for “boring” in the hyperbolic soap opera of England’s top flight. A couple of days later, Newcastle was bought by Saudi Arabia. Oh, no, sorry: by the sovereign investment fund of Saudi Arabia. The two are not linked. No, really.

Newcastle’s fans greeted the club’s new owners as its saviours. Their appeal lay not only in detaching Mike Ashley, the hated former proprietor, from the club, but in the promise of what the new owners might do: Lavish money on the team, propel it toward the summit of the Premier League, fulfil all of the ambitions and the dreams of the long-suffering — for a given value of suffering — fan base.

The juxtaposition of the two was curious. It was Newcastle, a team now owned for nonsporting purposes by what is most definitely not the financial arm of a nation-state, that was portrayed as living some sort of fantasy. It was Norwich, a team that is run with a long-term plan, a clear vision and no little affection, that was having to justify its existence in the Premier League.

These are, of course, the wrong way around. Norwich should be held up as the aspirational model — in conception, if not in results — rather than Newcastle. But then this is a sport that disdains silver medals. It is not an industry, an ecosystem, that is adept at gauging comparative success, at understanding that there is not only one winner, and lots and lots of losers, but that lots of teams can win or lose depending on their own horizons. It is not a place that fully grasps the idea that the journey matters — give or take — as much as the destination.

It may well have been easier for Spain to take some small pleasure in the mementoes the team was handed in Milan because of the circumstances in which they had been attained: in the final of the Nations League, a tournament that is just a step above an exhibition tournament. All athletes are competitive, but it is unlikely that Luis Enrique and his squad were experiencing the same sort of sorrow as England’s players at Wembley this summer.

But even so, perhaps it hints at a subtle shift in the landscape, away from the brutal, zero-sum belief that victory can take only one form and that everything else is therefore necessarily failure, abject and shameful. Sometimes, coming in second is an achievement in itself. Grasping that, you sense, might make the sport just a little healthier, just a little happier, as a whole.

Memory plays tricks on you

Lionel Messi was, perhaps, trying to save his friend’s feelings. He has known Sergio Agüero for years, and so, when Agüero asked why he had never won a Ballon d’Or, Messi picked his path delicately. He did not, for example, say, “You have not won it because I exist, and so does Cristiano Ronaldo.” Instead, he was a little more diplomatic. You win the Ballon d’Or if you win the Champions League, Messi told Agüero, according to the latter. His failure was linked to that of his team.

By Messi’s logic — and Messi knows a thing or two about winning the Ballon d’Or — that leaves only one winner this year. Four members of last season’s Chelsea team have been nominated, but only one of them won the European Championship, too. This should, by extension, be Jorginho’s year. (The women’s honour could go to any of the five nominees from the all-conquering Barcelona team that won the Champions League, but Alexia Putellas, as captain, seems the consensus pick.)

It is interesting to consider how that will look in hindsight. A particular rabbit hole opened up on Twitter this week in which fans debated the merits of the 2003 winner of the award: Juventus midfielder Pavel Nedved. (Quite what spawns these hellmouths of unreason, and quite what draws you in, remains a mystery to me, but no matter.) Nedved was, it was decreed, undeserving, particularly in a year in which Thierry Henry had scored 32 goals in 56 games for Arsenal.

That parallel is irrelevant, of course — Nedved was a midfielder, not a forward, so was not really employed to match Henry’s numbers — and it leaves out the context: Nedved pulled Juventus to the Champions League final and won Serie A. That season, Henry’s brilliance did not earn Arsenal a trophy.

It was not a shock, at the time, that Henry had not won it; if there was any player who had a greater claim than Nedved — regarded as one of the finest players of his generation — it was Andriy Shevchenko, the AC Milan striker who scored the winning penalty to claim the Champions League.

That it seems unusual now is, of course, testament to the cultural primacy of the Premier League; to Henry’s more enduring greatness, in comparison to Nedved’s; and, perhaps, to the nature of how we remember. Assessing individual contributions to team sports can be difficult — where Messi and Ronaldo are not involved, certainly — and so what lasts, as time passes and memories fade, are the numbers. And yet the numbers, as Agüero and Henry can testify, do not tell the whole story.

Long road, short journey

The picture, now, is starting to drift into focus. We have the first two confirmed qualifiers for next year’s World Cup; predictable but sincere congratulations to Germany, which always qualifies easily, and a respectful raise of the eyebrow to a Denmark team that, it would appear, is now invincible. The rest of the field, meanwhile, is starting to take shape.

In Asia, it is hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia — four games, four wins — will not qualify. In South America, Brazil and Argentina can almost be taken as a given, but the identity of the two countries that will join them as direct qualifiers is much more intriguing. In North America, just a glimmer of a gap has opened up between Mexico, the United States and Canada and everyone else.

In Europe, there is a confected air to the fretting over whether France, Belgium and England will not qualify — they all will; stop worrying — but several of the other favourites face moderately stressful Novembers: Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands are by no means guaranteed automatic slots.

That leaves Africa — where the structure of qualifying makes the whole process unsatisfactorily arbitrary, but undeniably dramatic — and Oceania, where barely more than a year out from the tournament, qualifying has not even started.

It has already been pushed back twice because of the logistical challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic; the latest plan is to stage a qualifying tournament in Qatar next spring, though what format that will take — and whether clubs will release players to compete in it — has yet to be settled.

New Zealand, the regional heavyweight, had not played a game in almost two years before a pair of friendly victories against Bahrain and Curaçao in this international window. Quite how Danny Hay, the country’s coach, is supposed to forge a team capable not only of seeing off the rest of Oceania but then winning a playoff against a team from another confederation, scheduled for June next year, is not entirely clear. Hay has not lost hope. The last window’s friendlies, he said, were the “start of the road to the World Cup” for his team. Given the circumstances, it is hard to believe that is a road that will end in Qatar.

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