Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Mateship and the Group Mind

In a way this is the third in a series of blogs attempting to grapple with the factors involved in the question of who will do well at the World Cup, Parts One and Two being The Gods Must be Cheeky and Getting into the Zone.

In Getting into the Zone I mentioned the factor of getting into a team zone, of developing group mind, and described it basically as too mysterious to describe. Well now, foolishly, I'm going to attempt to describe it a bit.

Firstly there's no real alternative to training in a system, which is what the Socceroos have been doing under Verbeek for two years, and last night's win over Denmark seemed to indicate that this was coming together. It's this time in camp, in the relevant environment with the same ball and with the team largely settled, which will see the Socceroos playing as a single intelligent unit or not. The third and last warm up friendly against the United States this Saturday will be the final indication to us fans whether or not it's happening.

It's been noted how different this World Cup build up is to that in 2006. In 2006 there was almost unanimous joy, optimism and faith in the coach and the team. There's a lot of reasons for the difference, including just the loss of novelty, but the fact that we haven't been able to watch the Socceroos play since the last World Cup unless we have FOX TV is not appreciated. I enjoyed watching the game last night at the Pig 'n' Whistle, but I left Jacob at home, Dawn had guests, and there was no kids there. The game would have had five times the Australian audience if it were on free to air.

Before I go on I want to emphasise that this difference (between 2006 and 2010) is not merely in the media and the response for us fans. There's no question that part of the overall winning formula in 2006 was the mass national support behind the team. The team is naturally affected by this. For them this campaign has a profoundly different feel, and they are going to need to find a different formula for finding their group spirit.

My thesis, re: the group mind mystery, is that as well as all the training together and team bonding experiences the team requires a singleness of spirit, a fiction in which they all unquestioningly believe. In everyday parlance this is called 'Ozzie spirit', and it's a real group-psychological phenomena, even though it's based on what can only be described as a fiction. Clearly Australia has no monopoly - many countries have a tradition of strong patriotic spirit - but it is fair to say that some countries have stronger patriotism than others. When it comes to it Australia's institutional egalitarianism helps, whereas in England that is compromised by the class system, and in Ghana and the African countries, I am guessing, it may be compromised by the tribal system. I can't see how North Korea can maintain any genuine team patriotism, especially since their fans can't even travel for fear of them defecting.

Anyway the thesis is not merely about patriotism, it is something, a group fiction which boils down to a belief that 'God is on our side' or more accurately, 'the gods are on our side', or more accurately still but with decreasing poetic impact, 'more gods are on our side than are on anyone else's'. Ok, it's a belief in your luck. It's a proposterous belief, but absolutely necessary for a winning team's mysterious ability to enter a group-zone on the field. It doesn't matter how it's understood, so 'Ozzie Spirit' will do me.

There is a reason I'm not unduly worried about the lack of support Pim and the Socceroos are getting from much of Australia. The media response - and I'm referring to large numbers of commenters as well as bloggers and 'football analysts' who have been busy elaborating on why the Socceroos are effed for months now - is in large part emotional cowardice, a version of cultural cringe fairly typical in Australia where we want to make sure we can appear superior even as we acknowledge the inadequacy of the society we come from. Much better for the whole situation to have a bit of belief, but risky to the old credibility. We can always be 'pleasantly surprised' afterward.

If the Socceroos fail to get through their group, Jesse Fink and others will be 'I told you so'-ing like a fog horn and belittling the ignorance of those who believed in Verbeek. But if the Socceroos do well the sound of mea culpa will be a very small, soft sound. I will not, if my optimism proves correct, say, "I told you so," and in my view nobody gets to do so with anything but the candour of, "I guessed right." What I will claim, is that it is in the national interest to support the team, that I will more likely be right in my optimism specifically because of my optimism. The pessimist also has this advantage, but does nothing for the team.

I have digressed too much. The reason I think the Socceroos can overcome the lack of nationalistic support from home is another Australian myth, that of mateship. 'Mateship' is overused, especially if we note its origins in the trenches at Gallipoli. It was over there, according to C.J. Dennis's character Digger Smith, one of the key popular sources for all these Australian myths, where "we learned what mateship really was."

Now I have probably already overused the war analogy for soccer and clearly, although there are many similarities between international soccer games and warfare, the lads are not actually under fire risking their lives. It is arguable that the profound feeling of solidarity the diggers called 'mateship' is only really possible in the crucible of ultimate risk, but there is another important feature of mateship which might be relevant right now. Again and again, from all manner of conflicts, we hear from old soldiers that when it came to the fight they were no longer doing it for what's right, or for country, or for their officers, or even for their families. On the coal face of conflict, the diggers found that the reason they gave their everything was for fear of letting down the blokes next to them, and that was it.

Can the Socceroos find that now? They kind of need to.

I think they are. Pim has no doubt sealed them from the media to a large extent and they know from experience the importance of deep team solidarity, which they reportedly enjoyed in 2006.

Last night I thought they did really well against Denmark. There may even be a bit of room for mea culpa already but I note the pessimists' doggedness. Some of the criticisms I'm reading are actually funny. One commenter is concerned that Kennedy up front was never chasing down Denmark's defenders, where that was quite clearly part of Kennedy's brief, as a lone striker, to preserve energy. Another lamented the lack of intensity, which was a feature of both teams and was clearly part of the 'friendly' agreement, to ensure no injuries on either side. The ball, and perhaps the altitude, was causing problems for both teams, as long passes would fly off the field, and at least once the bounce of the ball completely wrong footed Dario, but this is a major reason both teams are playing - so they can get used to the ball and the conditions.

What I saw last night was some really good triangles, moving together fluidly and working even in tight spaces, and several prolonged passages of possession play which demonstrated that the team is getting what Pim is asking of them. This is not a system that will attack a lot, but when it did it was coherent, Kennedy playing his central role well, and the three midfielders advancing together, often outnumbering and outwitting Denmark's defense. Our own defense looked much better than the game against New Zealand, giving Denmark's frequent attacks little chance. Schwarzer's skills were only really called upon once.

Now these are friendlies and can't mean much either way, but we should at least note that Denmark is a very good team, that we have only lost two of our last 19 games, that most of them (including last night) have had clean sheets, and most importantly, that the shape and cohesion of the Socceroos is visibly improving right now (good timing, let's face it) and therefore that the Socceroos are not easybeats. We are hard to score against and have effective, albeit infrequent, firepower up front - better than frequent ineffective firepower, and less work. Aside from bloody mindedness of some sort, there is no reason to be pessimistic.

Now even if this blog had a high profile the Socceroos would not be reading it because on the whole I doubt they're reading any media about them. I wouldn't if I were them anyway and if I were Pim I would advise them to ignore the media completely during this time. But with the vain conceit that they may read this, my only message is, ignore us all. We're a bunch of ignorant cretins. You are on the coalface of a great conflict and now is the time to play for one another. Australia is a bit insecure but we all really do love you and your success will bring us enormous happiness, but this is your gig now, and we can barely comprehend it.

I haven't actually made my predictions for the World Cup, or even for Australia's group. I'll do so after the third friendly against the USA this Saturday. It'll still be a guess, but it will at least be as informed as it can be.

Meanwhile, if one more defender and one more midfielder must be dropped, make it Moore and Grella. I love them both, but the new hungry faces look good, and it's their time, in my opinion. As always, the coach knows much more than me, and I will have faith in the decisions that are made (by tonight).

Just as a post-script, any regular readers of my blog will know that I am far from against criticism of coaches, teams and clubs. As Jesse Fink, Craig Foster and others will always point out in their defense, disagreement and debate is very healthy and fosters deeper understanding. It's just a question of timing. Right now, on the eve of competition, when the system is well into development and the personel have been chosen, there is no benefit to any outcome in criticism and pessimism. None.

Goodness what a ramble. For anyone who has got through this whole essay, get a life.

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