England Channel Stoke to Beat Spain at Wembley

Finally, Italian and English Minds Come Together.

Stoke is invoked again. In their fourth consecutive season since promotion to the Premier League, they can be cited as a success story and model for ambitious clubs in the Championship or recently promoted teams searching for the key to staying at the top. Not a pretty thought, but true. Blackpool is the dream, Stoke the gritty reality.  Not only has Stoke survived long enough to plant roots, but the strategy of survival has been replaced by ambition.

Survival—doing whatever is necessary to stay alive—lies in the back of most minds, but has hijacked the quotidian of the money-drenched world of football. The biological and financial realms of survival have merged in Stoke. There is Stoke the collection of brutes and dystopian thugs; Stoke the leg-breakers and molesters of opposing goalkeepers; Stoke the mid-table masters; Stoke and their simple-minded obedience to the Pavlovian ritual of towel-wiping and long-throwing—a summary of their unidirectional response to a ball bouncing in front of them;  Stoke the throwback to a provincial, working class, pre-global era of football that one would have thought extinct in today’s hostile international, middle-class game.

It is no coincidence that Stoke’s success can be attributed to calling the physical grinding, immobilizing, and eventual clubbing of their opponent a style of play. To be fair, Stoke’s mastery at times did elevate their style into something aesthetic; they played great direct football. It’s brutish, but even brutishness has its nuances or it wouldn’t be possible to see that Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn was a poor man’s Stoke. This slight difference has created stability and presented the opportunity for Stoke to become a more creative and technically proficient club and, as its wealth has grown, sign players who reflect this sophistication, i.e. Peter Crouch.

In football’s parallel world, there have been efforts over the last three seasons to measure the exceeding greatness of Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. Immeasurably better than any of the next best clubs, they have been distinguished out of comparison. With the game having significantly evolved over the years, great squads of the past don’t make good comparisons either.

This leaves only two ways to measure Barcelona. The first references—or perhaps reaches—beyond the human world either into the firmament of the gods or into the attributes of the animal kingdom. One has to look no further than Ray Hudson, the voice of La Liga in the U.S., who describes Barcelona’s play as “magisterial” and Xavi Hernandez as “Chameleon Eyes”. These are repeated so often that they qualify as criteria for a drinking game.

The second measurement references Stoke, at least from across the channel. Here is a second occasion for the Potters to shape an international discussion of the game by merging two worlds. How would the baroque tiki-taca, the thespian writhing, the almost erotic strangle of a thousand passes fare on a cold wind-swept night at Stoke? What wind the club may ask. You mean this? We hadn’t noticed. Stoke, as the embodiment of the weathered strength and endurance of the English character, may well be the measure that brings Barcelona down to earth or out of the rain forest (wherever it is that Chameleons live). Curiously, here’s a character not encountered in Barcelona’s successive meetings with Chelsea and Manchester United back in the 2009 Champions League and Manchester United again in 2011.

Well built for the long haul of a season beginning in July, Stoke is slowly advancing through Europa League qualification. While the striped horde has been taking the spoils across Eastern Europe, the spirit of the club has arrived at Wembley Stadium, as a stodgy (boring, uncreative), defensive (technically inferior) England squad beat Spain. The name of Stoke may not have come to mind, but nonetheless, they were there—paid the high compliment—when it was determined that England “had turned Italian”. Stoke will take it, and so will England. It is an odd expression of nationalistic sentiment fit for what was a dreadful match, but one that will certainly boost England’s confidence, backhanded compliment or not.

11/14/11

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