It’s a hard thing to motivate yourself to write about a match which finished with 3 shots on target. It’s harder still when your aim is not to write some stifled piece of reportage (say it as if the word is French, to add some exciting Romance European exoticism to it) or tactical analysis, but a match story, transcending the fact to reach a higher, more powerful level. Fiction.
We don’t like the truth, we can’t (to quote the ancient wisdom of Sorkìn, circa 1990) handle it. Truth is normality, truth is dullness. Truth is necessary.
Football is not necessary. So we can be permitted to write about football as fiction.
Zlatan, clearly, was the character on the billboard for this match, face emblazened thirty feet high surrounded by threatening Italians. A lone hero, he could carry the Swedish team.
It turned out that they didn’t need carrying. Partly, this was Italy reverted to stereotype with packed defensive enthusiasm, though this may be out of necessity. Having Graziano Pellè in the team as a player relied upon to contribute to build-up play suggests that the Italians could do with a better cast list.
Tactical coincidences also contributed. Sweden had a high line, Italy deep. Sweden were able to keep the ball easily, though the Italians stopped them once they’d got to a part of the pitch that mattered; Italy struggled to keep the ball, but didn’t seem overly fussed.
Zlatan, Rooney-esque, began to drop deeper into midfield to collect the ball, John Guidetti at times a lone front-man. Guidetti, the man of Lose Yourself football parody lyrics ‘fame’, will feature later. In fact, heck, he’ll feature right now.
They say, in fiction, that the three-act structure is universal. An introduction of characters and themes, a problem, and a resolution. The first act in this match was the establishment of the tactical stalemate, the boring footballing backdrop upon which the real action was played. The second, which coincidentally coincided with the start of the second half, was John Guidetti running into people.
He was thrust, as all the best heroes are, unwillingly and unwittingly into the spotlight. Chasing a slightly weak backpass by Bonucci, he, suddenly, found Chiellini’s shoulder making acquintances with his face. The Italian, with slightly more force than was strictly necessary, had stepped across him.
Less than ten minutes later, the Swede was making his first steps towards revenge, closing down his aggressor and forcing Chiellini into a squirmed clearance. Guidetti raised his arms, facing the crowd, who to their credit mustered something like three-fifths of a roar. Minutes later Guidetti shoved over Bonucci, and minutes later again he clattered De Rossi. He was picking off the Italians one by one, making his way up the ladder as the story progressed.
Yet he never got a satisfactory ending. Guidetti was substituted off, taken too soon from the eyes of viewers when his character arc was still incomplete, and replaced by Berg. And thus was ushered in the third act.
Hollywood third acts are generally a large, expansive fight scene, with which the winner of this long drawn-out piece is decided. It was the same upon this stage as well.
Italy, for some time in the second half, had seemed to have introduced a plan B in possession. If they weren’t able to break through Sweden’s lines conventionally, as they may have liked, they would play a long ball forwards, and either play from where they got it or chase down Sweden deep into their own half.
The goal was somewhat, though not wholly, similar; Chiellini launching a long throw down the left to Zaza (a wonderful name for a bit-part role), who knocked it down to Éder, who dribbled through the Sweden defence into the centre and shot and scored from the edge of the box.
That was that. Once Guidetti was lost, so was the battle. The Swedes had fallen. Italy – patient, knowing, strong – had done enough.
The rest was but a quick wrapping up and a hastily put together end-credits sequence, Granqvist falling over in the box after a knock-down from Zlatan, appealing in half-hearted hope.
We can be permitted to write about football as fiction. But not all fiction is any good.
FT: Italy 1 (Éder 88′) – Sweden 0