Earlier today I watched Roger Federer win his US Open Semi-Final match against Robin Soderling. I was hugely impressed with both the Fed, who hammered his Swedish opponent in the first two sets, and Soderling, who fought back admirably to take the second two to tie-breaks, and become only the second player to take a set off Federer in this Open so far. And while I’m well aware that Tennis and Football are wildly different sports, in fact perhaps for the reason, I couldn’t help but think that we could learn something from Federer.
This one Swiss guy has pretty much dominated the sport for years now, when it comes round to the big tournaments he’s always right up there and though Rafa Nadal is a big threat when fully fit, it’s fair to say that Roger Federer is the world’s best right now, and what’s more, one of the greatest sportsman – in any sport – ever to have lived. Federer is popular too, and gets lots of neutral support – including myself – because you just want him to keep winning, which suggests that the domination of this one individual doesn’t detract from the sport as a whole.
Roger Federer has won 15 grand slam titles in six years – since 2003, and given that there are four each year that means that he has won more of the big tennis competitions than he’s lost in that time. The equivalent in football would be for one team to consistently win not just the Premier League, but the Champions League and the FA Cup too. While teams can dominate – as Manchester United have for large parts of the Premier League era, no team has ever come close to establishing that sort of dominance.
And that’s most definitely a good thing. In tennis, Roger Federer is popular because he is an incredibly talented player, and watching him win is really enjoyable. He is simply better than almost every other player in the world and so it almost doesn’t feel right when he doesn’t win. For that reason, it’s OK that he’s had such a spell of dominance. It doesn’t get boring or undermine the sport because watching Federer win is to watch tennis at its purest, at its best, and those tennis fans who love that sport as much as I love football doubtless feel honoured to have been able to watch such a great player dominate so much.
But that simply couldn’t ever be the case in football, because it is a team sport. You can never simply look at a match and say that one team deserves to win based purely on their talent. Sometimes a team with far more talent than another team will lose, and that’s because the other team may have more team spirit, they may work together better as a unit, and so ultimately they deserve the victory. Of course, it could be that the better side had a bad day – Federer has those too, because he hasn’t won 24 Grand Slams in six years.
Of course, that observation I’ve just made won’t stop people from trying to assemble a team that they consider to be objectively the best in the world, and that should theoretically beat everyone they play. In fact, every club would like to do that, but few have the resources to do so, and only two are currently actively engaging in such an operation: Real Madrid and Manchester City. They’re spending ludicrous amounts of money to acquire the best players in the world, but they’ll never achieve what Federer has.
And even if they did, it wouldn’t be a true success. Federer is loved by tennis fans around the world despite is dominance, whereas if Madrid or City won 10 Champions Leagues in a row as a result of what they’re doing they would be roundly hated. That’s because it is not, and in football can almost never be anymore, a question of pure talent. We admire and respect Roger Federer when he wins because he is the most talented player there is, and he’s worked really hard to develop that talent into success.
The players that could bring such success to Manchester City or Real Madrid though, could never have that admiration or respect. Because they have been bought, paid for their services and forced to combine their talents with other talented players. Thus the overall result is not something natural, it’s no longer the natural fulfillment of ability, it is altogether too forced. An external force has manipulated the talent of the players in order to create some kind of super-dominance.
Indeed, the only way that Federer-like dominance could ever be achieved in football would be if a team were to come along that had played together from a young age. When Manchester United won the treble in 1999 it was a huge achievement because the core of the team – the Nevilles, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs, & Butt – were homegrown, and had come through the club’s academy together. It wasn’t quite the same because there were foreign players brought in and of course they didn’t dominate for long, but it shows you what it would take.
The fact is though, that such a thing even if it did occur, would be bad for football. Tennis, as an individual game, is all about proving which single player is the best. Football is different, because it’s a team sport and thus a collaborative effort. For one team to dominate as Federer has would take eleven players of supreme ability operating at an incredible level of consistency, a level of consistency in fact, that could never be achieved. The imperfect nature of humanity and the law of averages combine to dictate that of those 11 players, some of them would have bad games often enough to prevent such dominance.
Thus the only way that Manchester City or Real Madrid will achieve this is if their team is not flawlessly talented like Roger Federer, but that everyone else’s team is below-par. All that could hand one team such dominance would be the sub-standard quality of all of the other teams they compete against, and that could only ever occur if the successful club had somehow acquired all of the quality players in the world to stop their competitors from having them.
This would effectively kill the sport, because no one would want to watch one team demolish all of the others week after week, while the other poor teams played low quality football week in week out. Football isn’t simply a contest of talents, it’s a battle, of wills, of determination, of tactics, of spirit, and so if you take that away then there would be nothing left. Football would die if it had a Federer-equivalent because it’s very nature depends upon the competition between the teams that play it.
So I urge you to sit back and watch Roger Federer play his semi-final at the US Open, and I hope that he beats Djokovic to advance to the final. There he may meet Rafa Nadal, a player who is probably his equal and could one day challenge Federer’s position as the greatest in the sport. Watch that match, if it occurs, and enjoy it as a spectacle and as an epic battle of pure talent, then change the channel and find some football to watch and savour in its unpredictability, in the fact that the best team doesn’t always win and shouldn’t always win.
Then hope to hell that the tycoons in charge of Manchester City or Real Madrid never achieve their aims, because it could only ever be a bad thing for football. Such large amounts of money are already distorting the competitiveness of our sport – ‘big four’ would not be a football phrase if it were not for money – and with the ridiculous investment seen at Eastlands this summer, that just looks like continuing. For the sake of our sport, lets hope their money dries up before the damage done is permanent.
Have your say:
What are your thoughts on Federer? Do you agree that the wealth of Manchester City and Real Madrid could destroy the game? Please leave a comment with your thoughts below…