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For Africa Cup of Nations, Embrace the Unknown

It was the No. 8 who first caught the eye. He was tall, languid, just on the border between rangy and ungainly. It was not the way he moved, so much, but the way he did not. In the middle of all the bustle and hurry, he was unusually still. He did not sprint. He did not dash. He did not even run, not really. He strolled. He meandered. He moseyed.

He was playing in midfield, but he did not look much like a central midfielder. There are, in modern soccer, precisely three acceptable profiles of central midfielder: slight and inventive; dynamic and industrious; physically imposing.

The No. 8 was none of them. He towered over almost everyone who drew close, but he was slender, almost fragile. In another world, he might have been a mercurial playmaker who refused to leave his local team — Robin Friday or Tomás Carlovich — but, while his technique was flawless, his energy was not especially chaotic, particularly magical.

But the No. 8 was, in theory, the team’s defensive linchpin. And yet he did not throw himself into tackles or busily chase down opponents. He played simple, unwaveringly accurate passes, and then he stood all but still, waiting for the game to come back his way.

To an eye raised on watching European soccer, with its blend of tactical influences and its faintly South American inflection, the initial assumption was that he was not following instructions. But he was. Or, at least, he seemed to be. He was there to occupy space, to act as a fixed point, an anchor. He did it well. It worked, too.

His name was Asrat Megersa, and he was, in 2013, a 25-year-old playing in midfield for Ethiopia in its first Africa Cup of Nations in three decades. The team’s first game was a match with the reigning champion, Zambia, in the South African city of Mbombela.

On the surface, Ethiopia stood little chance. Zambia could call on a sprinkling of players with experience in Europe. It had a coach, Hervé Renard, of international repute. Ethiopia did not. All but three members of its squad played in their homeland, for teams like Dedebit and Saint George and Ethiopian Coffee.

And yet that was not how the game played out. In the bright summer sun, Zambia found Ethiopia entirely confounding. Megersa and his teammates did unexpected, unorthodox things. Their style was not recognizable, and often, neither were their intentions. They made choices they were not supposed to make.

It seemed to unsettle the Zambians. An uncertainty, a doubt crept into their play. Zambia took a delicate lead. Megersa kept standing still, kept passing the ball, kept occupying space. Ethiopia struck back, then held on for a draw. In the stands, the fans who had made the long journey from Johannesburg on packed buses, out to the fringes of the Kruger National Park, blew happily, incessantly on their vuvuzelas.

Ethiopia’s fortunes changed swiftly after that. A few days later, Burkina Faso held its nerve, and beat Megersa and his team, 4-0. Defeat to Nigeria in the final group game in Rustenberg meant Ethiopia was eliminated. But that day against Zambia left a lasting impression; eight years on, I can still remember the name of Asrat Megersa.

It endures, I think, because it is so rare, in modern soccer, to see something truly different. Special happens all the time; Lionel Messi is beamed into our homes every week. But different is precious. Good ideas travel quickly in elite soccer. Best practice spreads rapidly. Some small advancement made in Argentina one week will have made landfall in Europe the next.

The result is not homogeneity, not exactly, but a narrow spectrum of variety. Players fit specific, familiar molds. Teams pass or teams press. They play deep or they play high. There are those who absorb pressure and those who apply it and those who do a little of both. Some do it well and some do it badly, but they are all trying to do the same things.

That will be true of this year’s Cup of Nations, too. Most of the 24 teams gathered in Cameroon for this year’s tournament, which opens with two games on Sunday, will know that their hopes rest, to no small extent, on how the stars they have called back from Europe perform over the next month.

If Algeria is to retain its title, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez will be a central part of it. Egypt will invest much of its faith in Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. The backbone of Nigeria’s team plays in the Premier League. Morocco will lean heavily on Youssef En-Nesyri of Sevilla. Senegal, the paper favorite, can call on Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly and Idrissa Gueye and Sadio Mané.

But they are just the headline acts. Their supporting casts have largely been drawn from Europe, too. Every member of Senegal’s squad plays in Europe. Cameroon has called up 22 players who do. It is not limited to the continent’s traditional powerhouses, either. Guinea has 22 players from European teams. Cape Verde has 21. Burkina Faso can call on 18.

That is testament, of course, both to soccer’s rampant and to some extent rapacious global reach and to the development of the sport in Africa; the talent has never been spread quite so broadly across the continent as it is now. There are 10 teams, perhaps, who have arrived in Cameroon with a realistic hope of emerging victorious.

But that intercontinental connection brings with it, too, a risk of losing something valuable. Soccer has long been a common language, the game the world plays, but as it has grown more global it has started to lose its accents. Style and taste no longer shift across borders; everything is subsumed by the Platonic ideal of soccer as preached by the Champions League and the Premier League. An orthodoxy has taken hold: Soccer has become the game the world plays the same way.

The Cup of Nations, though, retains just a couple of pockets of resistance. That was what made Megersa, and Ethiopia, special. This was his interpretation, their interpretation, of the game, the game as they wanted to play, not the game as they had been told it was played.

Perhaps the same will be true, this year, of Sudan — with only two players drawn from abroad — or Malawi, with just two squad members called up from Europe. Or perhaps it will be true, once more, of Ethiopia. None of its players have come from Europe this time around, either. That diminishes the team’s chances of winning the tournament, of course, but it also makes it a much more enticing prospect.

The only sadness is that Megersa is not in the squad. He is 34, now, still playing in his homeland, the place where he played the game as Ethiopia played it, a uniquely bright and joyous memory.

The first drips of poison came on Tuesday morning, as Manchester United was still absorbing the previous night’s defeat to Wolves into its bloodstream. Apparently, the club’s players were unimpressed by Ralf Rangnick, the bespectacled 63-year-old German coach who replaced Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a couple of months ago.

By Wednesday, it was emerging that one or two of the players had not even heard of Rangnick before he was appointed; despite being professional athletes with many cars and houses, they had been forced to Google him to find out who he was, had been required to spend time on Wikipedia with the general public to work out his background. Drip, drip.

By Thursday, it was a flood. Chris Armas, the former New York Red Bulls coach hired as Rangnick’s assistant, had yet to teach United’s coterie of international stars how to — and there is a little paraphrasing here, but not too much — play soccer while in possession of the ball, and they were troubled that perhaps he did not know how to do it.

Rangnick, meanwhile, was reported to be aloof and cold and also making them train at night, or at least in the dark — it is winter in the north of England; it is never anything but dark — and they did not like that at all. He lacked charisma, the whispers went. He lacked authority. He had fallen out with leading figures in the changing room. He had not impressed them in training. Drip, drip, drip.

Whether any and all of these complaints — all of them let slip to various journalists on condition of anonymity — are true is, unfortunately, of secondary importance. What matters far more is the fact of their existence, the sad reality that at least a portion of United’s players are already doing what they can to ensure that the finger of blame for any future failure is pointed squarely at the coach who has been there for a few weeks, and not the players who have been there for several years.

Those drips are what happens when something in a club — any club, not just Manchester United — has turned, when the atmosphere is toxic, when the strands of accountability and mutual support and collective responsibility that in ordinary times bind a squad and a staff together have snapped. That is always the rule: It is not the content of these pernicious leaks that matter, but the fact of them.

Quite how United will proceed from this point is not entirely clear. Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman, announced on Friday that he is leaving at the end of the month. He will be replaced by Richard Arnold, the club’s managing director. Rangnick has six more months before moving on to become a consultant. There will be a new manager, a new regime. The damage done by those drips, though, suggests that may only be the start of the upheaval.

There is, strangely, an answer to how Barcelona — in debt just a few months ago to the tune of $1 billion, as you may remember, and so concerned by the scale of their financial breakdown that they wanted to join a European Super League — could afford, right at the start of the month, to pay Manchester City $60 million or so to sign Ferran Torres.

It is not an especially satisfactory answer, admittedly, encompassing as it does a loan from Goldman Sachs, some creative accounting, the sale of some players who have not yet actually been sold, and an odd loophole in Spanish soccer’s financial regulations that nobody had mentioned until Barcelona decided it wanted to pay Manchester City $60 million or so to sign Ferran Torres.

But, still, it is an answer. Far more mystifying was the reaction of the Barcelona president Joan Laporta, a man who has spent much of the last year delivering tremulous warnings about the club’s dire finances, to the completion of the deal. “Everyone else should prepare themselves because we are back,” he said. “We continue to be a reference in the market.”

This is a man, it should not need pointing out, who said those words at a time when his club could not officially register its new signing because of its ongoing financial difficulties.

That Laporta should be feeling a little bullish is understandable: Torres is an astute signing at what is, by modern standards, a startlingly low fee. Laporta is in an elected position, too, and it is never too early to start campaigning.

Indeed, in one sense, it is to be hoped that it is little more than hot air, that his refusal to dismiss the idea of signing Erling Haaland in the summer is little more than pride and defiance.

The alternative, after all, is much more troubling: that rather than rebuild the team organically around the richly-talented cadre of teenagers it has produced over the last 12 months, Laporta is prepared to mortgage the club’s future once more, all in some quixotic pursuit of immediate success in a game now dominated by teams backed by nation states.

Barcelona has been down that road before, and not long ago. It has only been a few months since it stood on the very edge of complete financial meltdown, after all. It is still only just starting to deal with the consequences. Barcelona does not need to be back, not in that sense, not for some time.

This is the problem with having a little time off. You unwind, you relax, you allow your mind to drift, and then all of a sudden you’re back at work and none of it makes any sense at all. For example, why is Manuel Buchwald emailing me about the shape of the penalty area?

“The logical alternative to the rectangular penalty box is the semicircular one, as is used in most other sports,” he wrote. “Field hockey, handball, lacrosse, basketball and ice hockey. In the latter case it’s the area protecting the goalie.” That is a valid point and would work at least as a basis for a new shape of penalty area in soccer, but why tell me?

The fact that Will Clark-Shim has also been in touch to complain about the “increased frequency of penalties in the game” jogs a memory. We were talking about something to do with penalties, weren’t we? “The game thrives on open and active play, honest industry, and clever coordination,” he wrote. “Increased penalties seem the result of incidental handballs, manufactured contact, and tedious reviews. They result in unexciting goals.”

That’s a good point, too: Not all goals are created equal, and getting more goals through having more penalties is not necessarily a unilaterally positive thing. There is definitely a theme developing, because Bob Rogers has mentioned penalties, too. He is a (self-professed) “low-level referee,” and he would like to confess to calling fouls as outside the box even if they have occurred inside it, “when that is the fair value of the foul.”

Ah, yes, that was it. We were discussing whether there are now too many penalties, and whether there might, perhaps, be a way of better distinguishing between fouls that warrant that level of punishment and fouls that just happen to take place in a fairly arbitrary area of the field. It always takes me a while to get up to speed, that’s all.

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