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Tactically Naive: Soccer’s return date has become a guessing game

The Premier League has already pushed back its deadline for soccer’s return. La Liga didn’t even bother setting one.

Photograph of the exterior of Camp Nou through a locked gate after Spain imposed a lockdown on Catalonia. Photo by Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hello, and welcome to another edition of Tactically Naive, SB Nation’s weekly soccer column. You might think that the almost-total lack of soccer would hold us back, but no: we soldier on. Is “hero” too strong a word? That’s not for us to say.

Football news: there is no football

Well, that’s not quite true. Australia’s A-League is pottering along in front of empty stadiums. Angola, Belarus, and Myanmar seem to be carrying on as well. But if you’re not already feeling emotionally vulnerable enough, a quick scroll down Saturday’s page will tip you over the edge.

However, it’s possible to see different countries doing “no football” differently. The Premier League is doing deadlines. First they were aiming for April 3. Now they’ve pushed that back to April 30. The message is: this season will return at a time where it still feels like this season. Announcing his club would financially support casual matchday workers, Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish noted the club were not expecting the fixtures to go unfulfilled.

La Liga, meanwhile, is taking a different tack. The league announced today that Spanish football is on hold indefinitely, and will remain so until the government advises them that it’s safe to restart.

That feels like the more realistic approach, though it’s hard to tell what reactions are a symptom of our general paranoia.

Between them, the Premier League and La Liga neatly frame the volatile mood of football at this moment, a pendulum swinging back and forth between “Ah, they’ll be back soon, it’ll be fine” and “Everything’s broken and nothing’s coming home”. You can understand why the Premier League, a necessarily Panglossian institution built on momentum and powered by hype, has chosen the former tack.

But we note with troubled interest that Arsenal, who were supposed to return to training today after 14 days of self-isolation, have told all their players to stay at home. This is not a good time for deadlines.

Foundational texts: The Battle of Nuremberg

In the absence of most of football, Tactically Naive is going to spend the next couple of months trying to assemble a list of what we’re rather pompously calling Foundational Texts. Not necessarily the most important games, and certainly not the best, but games that bring out some aspect of football which seems worth celebrating.

Sixteen yellow cards. Four red cards. A couple of other red cards that would have been given in any other game, but were allowed to slide here. One of the most obvious penalties of all time, not given. A shot into the crossbar. A forehead to the face. More handbags than a complete run of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Just the one goal, though, but never mind that. Some games, the result really is the least important thing.

There is a ritual for games like this. A commentator will say something like, “Oh, these are scenes nobody wants to see.” And even as they say this, the lie will be given to their words by the waves of cackling glee sweeping the world. For games like this are the illicit flipside to football played well: a sport falling apart, and everybody involved powerless to stop it.

”Everybody involved” doesn’t quite do the scenes justice. This was, after all, a World Cup knockout game, with players of reputation and stature to match. You’d let a rabble of schoolchildren off, just about, but there were Ballon d’Or winners out there. Indeed, one of the oddities of the game is 16 of the players involved had met just two years beforehand, in the semi-finals of Euro 2004. That game? Five yellow cards, no reds.

After the Battle, Sepp Blatter blamed the referee (before later apologising). But Tactically Naive has always held that the Netherlands were the primary antagonists. Mark Van Bommel got a yellow after just two minutes, and the fact he avoided a second for the rest of this game stands as one of football’s more baffling miracles. Then, after seven minutes, Khalid Boulahrouz went through Cristiano Ronaldo with evident intent to harm. He succeeded, too, as Ronaldo went off before halftime in tears.

But there have been spiteful games before, and few have rattled out of control as quickly and spectacularly as this. And that’s the key: control. Everybody lost it. Players, officials, even coaching staffs were simmering along at far too high a temperature. Notoriously, Portugal manager Luiz Felipe Scolari came out after the game and stated his approval for the headbutt — well, firm headprod — Luís Figo directed toward Van Bommel.

What the Battle of Nuremberg reveals is football is structured by an architecture of control. It is carefully constructed, assiduously maintained, and, for the most part, invisible. Beneath it seethes an eternal carnival of blood and chaos: the medieval village game is still there, bound in place by the rules. But it writhes; its sleep is fitful. And every now and then it reaches up through history, finds a sympathetic host, and gets to have a couple of hours of fun. And so do we.

Old goal of the week

Head like a traction engine.