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Technical Innovation Contest

May 19, 2010

Innovation at work

I only came across this term today. Brilliantly, it’s the name of North Korea’s primary football championship – running during the first half of the year before the top six of this august gathering  peel off to contest a ‘Republic Championship’ of their own.

Even better – not even RSSSF can tell us who won the 2009 Technical Innovation Contest. Nor that of 2008. Nor any of its most mighty from between 1960 and 1984. Of North Korea’s World Cup squad, a remarkable 20 play in a league that yields barely a single secret to the average surface-scratcher. I’m not quite sure why you’d expect anything else from this discomfiting, unknowable state – so the fact that this data void caused me some surprise is a reminder that, these days, we expect football to hand us the knowledge we want, as soon as we desire it. Twenty years ago, Honduras’ qualification would have appeared at least as exotic and intriguing as that of North Korea. Here in 2010, at least four of its pivotal figures are eagerly offered up to us, beseechingly, on a weekly basis as clubs from the Premier League and Serie A make imaginative use of the free market.

Back to that Technical Innovation Contest. I think I’d pay good money to check out one of its fixtures. The mind fondly conjures up a pitch accommodating 22 flawlessly-drilled, Lobanovskiyoid marionettes in a clash of immovable algorithms, all trooping as one to the 4-4-2. Perhaps that’s why we see no competition winner – perhaps some of the world’s most tactically rigorous, athletically supreme football elevens are shrouded within, in a state of eternal deadlock. We’ll assume North Korea were keeping their powder dry when fighting out a succession of drab draws, sans several (apparently) key players, in a mouldbreaking tour of France last year – and that they know they have…errr…standards to match.

But again, ‘Technical Innovation Contest’. It sings of aptitude laced with newness, or at least attempts towards both. Perhaps, to impartisan watchers at least, it’d be a good, clean-cut moniker for the World Cup. For as well as new names and faces – which, as mentioned, grow scarcer year on year – the competition’s legacy has always included fresh thinking on both the technical and tactical sides of the game. It’s a one-stop-shop where, as Arsene Wenger observed about the European Championships two years ago, everyone can check out what everyone else is up to. Jonathan Wilson pretty much says it in ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ – World Cups have historically showcased the latest, the most modern, in football thinking before it becomes absorbed by a willing and receptive public. The World Cup teams and players that live longest in the memory are those that have technically and tactically innovated – from England’s ‘wingless wonders’ to Holland’s total-footballing sides of the 1970s, even to France inadvertently winning in 1998 without a striker worthy of the name. And then from Pele’s dummy, to Cruyff’s turn, through to Blanco’s trap-jump and, hell, Milla’s wiggle, there are those moments of individual spontaneity that inspire emulation by generations of devotees. I can’t think that the European Cup or Champions League have provided as many things that we, and those in football, all hang on.

Everyone will have plenty of examples. The overarching point is that the most important bequest of a World Cup is often what it has provided that is new – be it a footballing nation, a tactical revelation or one single, fleeting attempt at the incomprehensible – rather than the fact of its winner’s achievement. Perhaps the North Koreans have it right when they neglect to list a table-topper.

What will we see this year? Firstly, it’ll be interesting to know whether we do see much that is fresh – partly because of football’s growing portability, partly because the lifespan of an international coach appears shorter than ever and you wonder whether a Sven-Goran Eriksson-style hired gun really has the time to come up with anything that is profound. It’s possible that movements in a certain direction will merely be confirmed. Personally, I’m going to be keeping a particular eye on the role of the striker and that position’s replacement (notable even in one or two of the squads named thus far) by breaking midfielders and reborn wide players. I’m also – seriously! – going to be pretty transfixed by the tabula rasa that is North Korea. Ignorance, ahead of a World Cup, can really be bliss.

It’s a fascinating topic and one that this blog will be keeping a weather eye out for, in bite-size chunks, as the 2010 FIFA Technical Innovation Contest nears and kicks in. Next up, I reckon I’ll outline my movements during June and July in a little more detail, just so that anyone remotely interested can see where these pages are headed.

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