How can we predict the outcome of today’s Euro final? My own feeling is that “unpredictable” results show that in the end we can never completely override the essential feature of being human – our variability and changeability. No amount of training can take that away for ever.
Think of an athlete as a system. In order to reach peak performance that system has to find a balance, a homeostasis where it is operating at peak not only over one match but over a period of weeks in order to achieve at the highest level. Homeostasis is the property of a system to regulate its internal environment, for example – temperature. As mammals we humans need to regulate internally yet have a relationship with the external environment. We are “endothermic” and seek to maintain a constant temperature whatever the environment we find ourselves in, whatever climatic variations we encounter. In fact we can only survive if we do so.
An athlete faces this same task at an extreme level day to day. On the practice pitch and courts he repeats the same action again and again in order to impress it into muscle memory, to create powerful neuron paths so they will “know” exactly how to survive and how to react in a given situation. The task is even more complex for a team which seeks to bind – in football say – 11 individuals into one organism working and regulating as a unit or similarly for a racing driver and his car.
The extreme difficulty of this task can be seen in the problems Jenson Button has faced this season with the setup of his car. Button and Hamilton have similar cars , they are merely pieces of machinery and should be predictable in their behaviour. Yet each car is a finely tuned and complex system. A change at one end can have unpredictable consequences somewhere else. Once the car has been setup up it is then required to integrate itself with the driver, who represents another, much more unpredictable system. The hope is that the combination will synergise and work as one and Buttons results this season show how a solution has evaded him and his technical team so far this season.
A football team is a complex organism that will create its own internal balance, a balance which helps it best survive and face the interface with the outside world – the opposing team. This can be shown in the contrast between the Spanish and Italian football teams. For the Spanish maximum effectiveness/survival is found in an approximately equal balance between the players, in constant repeated rhythms which wear down the opponent until a break appears.
This is the core of Del Bosque’s philosophy. The team create a regulated stable platform, a crucible to support the moments of magic provided by Iniesta, Fabregas, Torres. The players have ingrained the ability to pass, to hold the ball when surrounded by opposition – see the incredible photos of Iniesta in the group stage surrounded by five Croatians and Italians – and to work as one. http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2012/jun/29/euro-2012-andres-iniesta-spain. The Italian system on the other hand is based round on an axis of two players. The regulator is Pirlo, focused, thinking, dominating the centre and spreading passes two the more erratic genius of Cassano, Balotelli and Diamante.
Italy’s victory over Germany was an example of this system working at its peak. Much has been written about Balotelli, suffice to say that he in particular was able to contain, to regulate and focus with efficiency and clinical play. With Balotelli regulating himself, the larger organism – the team – was able to create homeostatic balance with devastating results for the Germans and their much admired system.
Who will win today? These two systems could not be more different, they represent markedly different solutions to the problem of homeostasis and organismic survival on the football field. I would be reluctant to stereotype this as a clash between the predictability of the Spanish, their ability to grind down their opponents and the freedom of expression of the Italians. There is a virtuosity in the Spanish team working as an organism which no other team has been able to achieve in the history of football but it is not focused on any one individual. It represents a different way of “being”, a humility and a community of purpose from which we could a take lessons in our own lives.
With the Italians we think about personality and the “big” individuals. It makes for a fantastic prospect. I don’t know any more than anyone else who will win, but be sure that this represents a struggle between two ways of “being” that hugely overrides any sterotypes about similarities between Latin cultures.