My freshman year of college soccer at Brown the team took a trip to a Rhode Island beach, but instead of paying our way in, we mucked it through the backwoods and beach-swamp, over razor grass and wet diapers to arrive at our final destination: a pristine spot of sand with a volleyball net set up and not another soul in shouting distance. We played soccer-volleyball for hours, swam, climbed rocks, kicked balls at the “keep off the rocks” sign, and ran around with our dicks out. On the way back our star forward ripped his foot open on some razor grass and had to miss a game, but that’s beside the point.
That season we went undefeated in the Ivy League, 7-0, and were ranked going into the NCAA tournament where we hosted Old Dominion in the second round and got devastated in overtime. But that season was a hell of a ride, and those moments of bonding and a healthy dressing room are what knitted the group to a higher purpose, and made it just as memorable as runs we would have deeper in the tournament in future years.
A healthy dressing room is key to team success. Look at the 2014 German national team in Brazil lounging in their own little Xanadu -- taking "health" literally here. There was Italy in 2006, spearheaded by veterans like Gigi Buffon. There was Leicester City 2016, who celebrated their Premier League title at Jamie Vardy's house. The Arsenal Invincibles. Neymar, Messi, Suarez. Most seasons under Sir Alex at Manchester United. I mean look at these guys off the pitch, or during goal celebrations, or late in games when a guy should bust back for an 80 yard-recovery run or lay nuts on the line for a shot block – these guys are enjoying the game, enjoying their friendships, enjoying sacrificing legs and lungs for the team.
Conversely, look at Chelsea under Mourinho ‘15, United under Van Gaal, most recently the US Men’s National Team under Klinsmann. There was practically mutiny under Mourinho, loss of faith from under and above Van Gaal, and a clear lack of effort under Klinsmann.
Many casual observers of the game don’t recognize how much goes on outside of the player lineups, that just because you have 10 guys on the pitch with FIFA 2017 ratings over 90 you aren’t guaranteed a cohesive squad.
Jurgen Klopp is on to this, and while the connection between 2016-17 Liverpool and the aforementioned championship squads is thin, Klopp is at least proving to be a man who can get the best out of locker room intervals, if not always out of his players.
This is why you see him taking the lads to a Barcelona game after a tough Sunday loss like a youth coach taking his team out for ice cream after they got pummeled by the Gateway Lilypads.
If the Chapecoense story taught us anything, it is that life is much more precious, and fickle, than a game or a job. Given the immense corruption within the FIFA ranks, and the human rights violations going on in Qatar as they prepare for a potentially restructured World Cup 2022, we have a game that has been long enjoyed for its simple purity growing into an ever more relevant commentary on the downsides of global capitalism.
Ronaldinho had it right all along, play the game beautifully, with the fun of children, and the fans will follow. It starts in the dressing room.
“Football is a simple game, based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.” Bill Shankly