Australia’s women’s football team locked up qualification for the Tokyo Olympic Games with an at-times shaky win over an outclassed Vietnam, in a match played in bizarre circumstances on Wednesday (AEDT).
Aristotle and I were watching the FIFA Women’s World Cup footy the other night and old “Totes” (his philosopher mates call him Totes) bloody nearly choked on his beer when Italy scored that last goal in the last minute of injury time.
“You call that defence?” he bellowed at the television screen.
“A dozen cats in a hessian sack could play better defence than that,” he sprayed, fine particles of Peroni attaching themselves to the television screen.
“Defence isn’t exactly brain surgery. All ya gotta do is practice and execute the Golden Mean.”
“The Golden Mean, Totes,” I responded. “Isn’t that one of your high-folutin’ philosophical principles. What the hell has that got to do with soccer?”
“Everything, Socrates,” he hollered back. “Bloody everything! Soccer isn’t brain surgery. Philosophy isn’t brain surgery. They are both about practicing and executing basic principles. Ignore the basics and you are dead.”
“Alright, mate. I’ll bite. Fill me in. Explain your Golden Mean and how it applies to soccer defence,” I prompted.
“Okay, Socrates. It goes like this. Every desirable virtue lies somewhere on a continuum between undesirable and ineffective extremes. Courage is a desirable virtue, right?”
“Yeah… I’ll buy that.”
“Well would you describe a single Athenian soldier, armed with nothing more than his toothbrush, who attacked a hundred Spartans, armed to the teeth, as a brave man?”
“Nah. I’d call him an idiot. Those Spartans are big, ugly, mean bastards!”
“Precisely! And what about a dozen or so warriors who turned and ran for their lives when confronted by a very angry possum. Are they courageous?”
“Of course not. Lily-livered poltroons, more likely. So, what’s the point?”
“The point is that the virtue of courage lies somewhere between the excessive position of being foolhardy and the deficient position of being cowardly. That is the Golden Mean. Every virtue lies somewhere between an undesirable excessive or undesirable deficient position. Strength is an important virtue, right?”
“Sure. In sport… or war… or work… strength is very important. It’s a critical virtue.”
“What happens if an individual trains and exercises too much?”
“They get injuries, illnesses, worn out, reduced immune system, aches and pains?”
“Correct. And what if they focus too little on exercise?”
“I get it. Overweight. Unfit. Weak.”
“So, strength is a virtue that lies between the extremes of excessive exercise and inadequate exercise. Like I said, it’s not brain surgery.”
“Fine. All of this makes sense. But how does it apply to soccer defence?”
“The Golden Mean applies to everything, Socrates, my old friend! Tell me, what do you see as being the primary concerns of a soccer player who is defending her or his goal?”
“Two things, I guess. Well, maybe three, I would say. The two primary ones are the ball and the opponents we are meant to be marking. We need to know where the ball is, and we need to know where the attacking players are. Of course, the goal itself is a consideration. We need to be aware of where the ball is and where the attacking players are in relation to the goal itself.”
“Excellent, Socrates! Precisely! The Ball. The attackers. The goal.”
“So, what are the consequences of excessive interest in the ball, my friend?”
“I see what you mean. If the defender gives all their attention to the ball, they have no idea what the attacking players are doing, and that can have catastrophic consequences. I suppose the opposite extreme is also a problem. If the defender only has interest in what the attacking players are up to then they have little time to react effectively when the ball turns up in difficult places.”
“Correct. As I said, it ain’t brain surgery, but the virtue of effectively defending your goal is to find the Golden Mean between paying too much attention to the ball and not enough attention to the ball. At every given moment, as the ball and the attacking players move in relation to the position of the goal, the correct reaction of the defender might change. It’s not about the defender giving exactly equal attention to the three concerns all the time. How the player should react depends on the changing circumstances.”
“Okay, Totes. I take your point. You are arguing that a defender needs to be aware of the ball, their opponent and the goal all the time – but not necessarily equally. The primary emphasis (and hence where the defender puts their body) shifts as the situation changes but the reality that good defence lies somewhere between the excesses of ball watching and the deficiency of not having any idea of where the ball is always holds true.”
“That’s about the gist of it, ol’ buddy.”
“So that’s all a defender really has to think about, then?”
“No, Socrates. I hope I didn’t give the impression that it’s all just about thinking and saying. You hear coaches and players all the time say that they have reviewed and talked about this problem or that problem and they think that they have sorted it out. Idiots! You can’t find the Golden Mean by reviewing it, or thinking about it, or talking about it. Talking, in itself, is useless. Thinking, in itself, is useless. You must practice it. A team needs to practice the art of finding the Golden Mean on the training pitch until it becomes second nature. When you merely talk about a skill, the skill is never mastered. Work on the skill, in a thousand different ways, with your team-mates and the skill will come! Mastery will come.”
“So, when the Aussies allowed that final goal from the Italians, they had forgotten the Golden Mean?”
“Well, what would you say? How many of the Australian defenders in the box had any idea of what the Italians’ most dangerous attacking player was up to?”
“Well, now that I have looked at the replay a couple of times it seems to me that none did! It seems to me that none reacted at all to her run. Most were just watching, and jumping at the incoming ball.”
“And the commentators were all abusing the poor old keeper. True. She could have done better, but it wasn’t her fault that Barbara Bonansea got the ball on her head without a single Aussie being between her and the goal. The Matildas are cracker players and they might just end up lifting the Cup, but this was not their finest moment. To knock over the Seppos and the French they will have to find their Golden Mean!”
“You know what, Aristotle. You’re not as big an idiot as I thought your were!”
“Mate, I’m Greek. If there is one thing I know about it’s philosophy and footy.”