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Soup of This Day #208: Now I Know How And When, I Know Where And Why

July 6, 2012

Circus Elephants in LA, 1953
Circus elephants on parade in Los Angeles, drumming up interest for their act under ‘The Big Top’, le magnifique chapiteau. This photo would have been ironic if the elephants had been riding the police motorbikes while the cops walked behind with minders – Los Angeles Daily News, 1953. The Los Angeles Daily News is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

I occasionally respond to good news by writing ‘chapiteau!’ in response. I am aware that a chapiteau is a big tent, most commonly associated with circuses – As in a ‘Big Top’. The word that would make a little more sense for me to use is chapeau, which roughly translates to ‘hat’ but is also used as a congratulatory response, sort of akin to ‘hats off’. And to be honest the 1st time I used chapiteau instead of chapeau it was a case of misspelling the latter – Surprising isn’t it? Je ne vois pas français? C’est unpossible!

See that joke works because the word unpossible is the same in French as in English. Well, that and the fact that the writers for The Simpsons are bloody funny. Mostly the latter actually now that I divvy up the credit properly.

That was just the 1 time though. Since then I have steadfastly stuck to wishing all and sundry a big tent whenever they have some good news to convey. And why not? Everyone should have a grand old palace of canvas in which to celebrate their good fortune. Still, every now and then I come across something for which I think the best response is a simple dip of the lid and at times like that I might offer a heartfelt chapeau.

On the 25th of November, 1953 there was a football match that had many in the sporting world not only crying chapeau but liberally doffing their caps as well.

The game was between England and Hungary. England went in to the match as the proud bearers of the legacy of football. This was seen as their birthright – They had after all invented the game that is modern football (soccer) and furthermore this game was at Wembley Stadium – At this point in time England had not lost at Wembley – A run that stretched back nigh on 30 years.

England in 1953 used a fairly standard WM formation. This was a rigid deployment of your team such that, if viewed from above with the opposition goal at the top, the players took on the shape of a ‘W’ (attackers) stacked atop an ‘M’ (defenders). In the offensive half of the park there were 3 forwards (9, 10 and 11) making the top points of the ‘W’. Behind them and forming the base of the ‘W’ were 2 inside forwards (7 and 8). The ‘M’ represented the defensive players – There were two half-backs (5 and 6) anchored protectively ahead of 3 fullbacks (2, 3 and 4).

The goalkeeper (1) maintained a fairly conventional position between the posts. Sort of like a full-stop-per. WM.

Hold your chapeaus.

You’ll notice that I’ve put numbers indicative of each role in the text above. That’s because in 1953 the English believed that your position on the park dictated what your number would be. It also dictated which opponent you would therefore stand, for this was a man-marking system somewhat akin to a foosball table – A player who bore the No.5 shirt for instance was bound to mark either a No.7 or a No.8 as surely as if he was fixed to a rotating bar of steel.

What you ended up with then was a 3-2-2-3 structure, a perfect balance between attack and defence, particularly given that the other side would field the same. Then, the game would become a set of 10 1-on-1 battles for supremacy – Each player pitting his skill against an opposite number – The shape of the game falling to a series of noble conflicts, like boxers towing the line and taking turns to punch.

Someone forgot to get the Hungarians to agree to not duck, weave and then hit back with a combo. You see England was a prizefighter stuck on following Broughton’s rules of 1743 – Hungary was Muhammad Ali lying back on the ropes.

This disparity of preparedness is perhaps best summed up by a wonderful quote from England’s Billy Wright:

‘We completely underestimated the advances that Hungary had made, and not only tactically. When we walked out at Wembley that afternoon, side by side with the visiting team, I looked down and noticed that the Hungarians had on these strange, lightweight boots, cut away like slippers under the ankle bone. I turned to big Stan Mortensen and said, ‘We should be alright here, Stan, they haven’t got the proper kit’.’

No they hadn’t. Theirs was better.

Those advances should not have been a surprise – That the Magnificent Magyars were Europe’s football kings was apparent to everyone but the English. They had not lost since 1950 and had won gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

The key to their success was that they were very fit and they played with a centre-forward (10) who sat between the 2 inside-forwards (7 and 8). This created a 2-3-3-2, delivering control of the ball where it mattered, in midfield. This was critical for here was the real estate on which the ball would be transitioned from defence to attack. Simply, if your opposition controls the middle of the park you can’t deliver the ball to that perfectly balanced attack you’ve run out with.

And there’s another problem. Their No.10 should be matched with your No.2. But their No.10 is sitting in the middle of the pitch and your No.2 has no alternative but to go there with him. Which leaves a flaw in your defence, that now consists of a left-back and a right-back staring at each other across acres of empty turf. It is, without question, a gaping hole in your system.

Through which, on the afternoon of the 26th of November in 1953, Hungary scored 6 goals in a fraction over 50 minutes of play.

1 goal, 1 of 2 scored by the Magyas captain Ferenc Puskás, resulted from Puskás dragging the ball back with the sole of his left boot, leaving an English defender to lunge at thin air while the ball was subsequently driven into the back of the net. The defender was Billy Wright, the man who had so recently lampooned the Hungarian boots.

The boot was surely on the other foot now though – After the match Geoffrey Green wrote in The Times that, ‘Wright was like a fire engine arriving too late for the wrong blaze.’

Which rather neatly encapsulates in miniature the harsh lesson in football the English got that day – That Puskás ripped pull-back was a novelty item for them.

To be fair to England they did manage 3 goals of their own but that was as close as they got. The final scoreline of England 3 Hungary 6 rang like an amplified cloister of bells through English football thinking. The pride of the home of football had taken a tactical beating the likes of which was to resonate for many years to come and which ultimately was to drive the nation’s only World Cup success.

That was 13 years later though – The immediate aftermath saw 6 of that England team never play for their country again. 1 of those was Alf Ramsay – He would lead England to that 1966 triumph from the sidelines, at least partially driven by the memory of that 1953 shellacking.

At this point I want to say that England, the home of football, losing at home to Hungary is ironic.

But that would be incorrect – 1 football team losing to another is not ironic – It’s not unexpected – Unless you’re a myopic English football official on the 24th of November in 1953. Nor is the outcome incongruous – Unless you’re a myopic English… I think you get the drift.

Of course I could be wrong about that – Irony is something that I struggle with sometimes. Not quite as publicly as Alanis Morissette, who famously wrote and performed a song called ‘Ironic’, in which most of the examples of irony were in fact not really text-book irony. Some of them, such as the death row pardon that’s 2 minutes too late, are just downright cruel.

You could also argue that a pardon arriving 2 minutes too late indicates that something is terribly wrong in the justice system. If so then good on her for highlighting it. Unironically.

You might take away from this that irony is a little subjective. And it is to a point, however there are some reasonable guidelines – The online Merriam-Webster dictionary suggests that 1 possible definition of irony is:

a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity .

A good example of this would be this post, which is part of a series where the title of each entry comes from the lyrics of a song usually related in some way to the content within. A single item soundtrack basically. This post heavily references Canadian rock-chick Alanis Morissette’s ‘Ironic’. The soundtrack lyric though is from New Zealand’s Split Enz, a romantic ballad called ‘Stuff and Nonsense’ which is covered by Australian songstress Missy Higgins. It’s not referenced at all in the post. That is a little bit ironic. Don’t you think?

And now it’s time to end this post and I thought I would have a go at doing so with some sporting irony. The following video comes from the 1953 Tour de France via the sometimes funny and always interesting The Guardian Online The Sport Blog’s Classic YouTube feature.

At 36 seconds there is a car made to look like a lion – It’s just a bit brilliant.

The irony here is that, despite the race being about cyclists piloting their 2-wheeled machines around France, the truly entertaining part of the parade is the support vehicles. That circus of wonderful madness and Gallic irony is fully deserving of a lusty cry of, ‘Chapiteau!’

Enjoy the weekend – Thanks for reading.

Now I Know How And When, I Know Where And Why

  1. Those support vehicles make you forget why you’re even there…the racers become secondary players.

    • It is a rather brilliant bit of footage and yes, I watched it 3 times before I noticed the men on bikes. Sadly they don’t put that kind of effort in any more.

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