Players of note

October 23, 2014

The parallels between football and classical music. 

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For all the tools devised by clubs to gain that competitive edge—Prozone, psychologists, scientific recovery procedures—a more old-fashioned element may have slipped under the radar. Giovanni Trapattoni, now 75, once said that an appreciation of the complexities of classical music could educate professional footballers. “If you listen to Mozart, you’ll play better football,” he said. “You learn a lot about intervals, tempo, rhythm. You learn the logical skills you need to read a game.” The potential beneficiaries included Il Trap’s players, though how many took up the advice is unclear. “They sit in the dressing room with their MP3 players, and get far too worked up,” the Italian coach said. He would ask them: “Why aren’t you listening to Bach?”

Classical music was a central part of Trapattoni’s childhood. He was born in the town of Cusano Milanino, a 30-minute drive north of Milan and, as such, in close proximity to La Scala; Milan’s fabled opera house. Aged 10 he played the horn in a small band, an instrument reluctantly shelved once his footballing career began. He collected classical LPs while playing in the youth academy of AC Milan, the club he would represent as a hard-running defensive midfielder throughout his career, save for a sunset season with AS Varese. He took the opportunity to go to La Scala, and started listening to Beethoven, then Vivaldi, Mozart and Schubert. Tracing the evolvement of the genre, he came to appreciate its increasing intricacy. Today, he reportedly owns a collection of more than 2,000 classical CDs.

The temptation—especially for disgruntled Republic of Ireland supporters—is to dismiss Trapattoni’s musical conviction as an absurd reflection of what some perceive as an archaic style of management. But the roots of classical music within football’s consciousness run deep. In the 1930s, shortly after the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay and decades before the first European Championship, the skilfulness of the slick Austrian centre-forward Matthias Sindelar needed the name of a revered composer to be justifiably described. The slightly-built Sindelar was born in the village of Kozlau, now part of the Czech Republic, but spent his career in Vienna and became an inspirational playmaker for the legendary Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930s. The combination of his background and brilliance gave birth to the nickname, ‘The Mozart of Football‘.

Other players have attracted a similar tag. Among them is Tomáš Rosický, ‘Little Mozart’, and the now-retired Brazilian defensive midfielder Mozart Santos Batista Júnior, best known for spells with Reggina and Spartak Moscow, and simply known as ‘Mozart’.

Eighty years after Sindelar’s heyday, analogies about classical music have long become part of football discourse. Many centre on the role of the playmaker. They ‘dictate the rhythm’, ‘orchestrate the play’ and ‘set the tempo’. Dribblers and individualists are ‘soloists’, while in fine collective performances, the players all ‘play to the same tune’. These phrases are not just used by crowds and columnists. Alessandro Del Piero, when asked why Italy had won the 2006 World Cup, produced a classic metaphor to underline the importance of team spirit. “It was a victory for the choir, not the soloist,” he said. “Or, it may be better to say: many soloists did their best for the choir, each and every one played his part at the right moment.”

Few have contemplated the correlation more than Trapattoni. In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German national newspaper, in June 2008, he elaborated on the parallels between a team and an orchestra. He was asked: Is a coach a bit like a conductor? “Ah certo!” he said. “And a good conductor must make it clear they are all playing for a common goal.” That point also led to lament. An orchestra, Trapattoni said, is more disciplined and less selfish; the participants know their roles and do not step out of them. A second violin will not request to play as the first. Footballers, he said, are more predisposed to egoism, because of advertising contracts, fame and media pressure. This truth may well have brought a sense of longing for simpler times, particularly for a self-confessed romantic such as Trapattoni, committed to composing the footballing equivalent of what is, in his mind, the perfect symphony. “Sometimes I wish I had the power of a conductor,” he said.