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Classical versus Modern Poetry in Football

The Criteria

I’ve set the demarcation line between classical and modern at the year 1700, picking poets born before and after that date to compose my teams. I’ve also been kind of liberal with the term poet, in that I’ve included playwrights in there. And as long as I’m making arbitrary decisions I might decree that every paragraph has to end with the phrase “in accordance with the prophecy”, just to get on your nerves.

With no further adue, then, this is what the two teams look like, in accordance with the prophecy.

1. The Classical Poets.

The formation, what else could it be, is a classical 4-4-2. The goalie selects itself, really. Homer is at the back of any poetry team in the West and no-one else could take that position in his place (ok, so he’s blind, which doesn’t really help a goalkeeper, but still…). Virgil and Petrarch also represent the bedrocks, and they’d make for great defenders. Virgil has the technical ability to play in several other positions as well, so he could potentially play as a libero, while Petrarch is somewhat more limited in terms of his tricks on the ball, but far more influential: it’s really very difficult to get past him, which makes him an ideal centreback. His talent for throwing long balls ahead can come in handy too.

Placing those three together makes for a defensive triangle of exceptional talent and authority. Arguably the world’s greatest goalkeeper and two legendary centre-backs – on the whole this would be a daunting prospect even for a team as talented as that of modern poetry.

And yet the classical team’s fulcrum of strength lies in central midfield: Dante and Shakespeare put me in the embarrassing position of having to describe two players in terms of propagandistic hyperbole. They are inarguably the most dazzlingly skilled pair of players in the game. Dante’s position in the midfield is a given – his obsession with the (typically medieval) notion of centrality draws him to a spot where he can make full use of his tremendous arsenal of skills. We’re talking about a player who has quite possibly the best sense of tactics and vision in the history of the game, a tremendous passer and play-maker, domineering in possession, and with a murderer’s long- and short-range shot to boot. It is true that he is not the fastest player around, and at 747 years, he may be a touch old for the frantic pace of the modern game – at the very least, he could lose some energy in the last parts of the game, which opens some opportunities for the younger team of the moderns. Nonetheless, a genius midfielder whose only parallel is perhaps his own team-member – a Mr William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare needs no presentation unless you’re teaching advanced literary history to Liberal Democrats, who don’t have a clue about not having a clue. Potentially the number 10 of this team (but the position is not quite right for that), Shakespeare’s versatility is compounded with a set of dazzling tricks that are effective both defensively and offensively. Unlike his fellow, he is anything but slow, and his abilities allow him to create danger from virtually any position on the field. The presence of Dante alongside him suggests that Shakespeare’s duties would be more offensive, with the Italian acting as the playmaker and Ol’ Will making runs into space (the combinations between the two would be gorgeous to watch). But it would be a shame to waste his defensive skills, and the man can be counted on even if the game is just about defending a result.

The wings are tough. While the classical poets have greater players overall than the moderns, they do suffer from a comparative lack of variety – you can throw in such talent as Milton, Lucan or Lucretius, but what are they adding to the game that isn’t already provided by Virgil and Dante? Hence the controversial decision of fielding Ronsard on the left, mainly for his abilities at running into his space and his speed on the dash. Ariosto and Lope De Vega are both ambidextrous, but the former was preferred behind Ronsard for his defensive skills – the Frenchman’s forays going ahead are likely to leave his flank exposed to counters, meaning that someone is required who can hold the line on his own. Ariosto is a player who has the potential for some truly damaging and creative runs, but in this formation he’d probably have to curb them back in favour of his defensive abilities – which are truly great. By writing an epic that’s as long as War and Peace but rhymes and scans everywhere, Ariosto has created one of the great fortresses of literature. If he can bring the same qualities to the actual pitch, there is no doubt that he’d make for a great complement to Ronsard’s harmonious offensive runs. (Incidentally, Ronsard’s ability to cut himself a space – even when he is outclassed, as he was in international Renaissance literature – is one of the reasons he earned himself a spot among the starters. You need some unpredictability out there).

The other side sees in Lope De Vega an enormous resource for the team. A better and more balanced fullback than Ariosto, De Vega can be expected to move more in the offence, liaising with Ovid’s sustained runs. Both of these players play a very beautiful game (the latter too much so, perhaps – some cynicism may sometimes be desirable). De Vega is in fact one of those multi-talented players who would have fared very well in the midfield, had the spots not been occupied by the Big Two. His positioning as fullback is mainly due to his stamina – De Vega is the Gareth Bale of poetry, able to run twice as fast and as long as anyone else on the pitch. He is not perhaps the most original player, but coupled with Ovid, it should mean that offensive opportunities (or just openings for the passes of Dante and Shakespeare) should always be provided on the left hand.

The coupling of Ovid and Lope De Vega is untested and questions remain as to whether it would work properly.

Finally, the offensive duo represents a bit of a gamble. Neither Sappho nor Sophocles are pure strikers, and their nimble build suggests they might struggle against more physical defences. They are, to some extents, limited players – and sort of similar, not just because they’re both Greek and both of them have names that begin with the letter S. Sappho has a better shot from the distance, Sophocles is better at playing on both sides of the pitch. In the end, however, they’re both electric strikers – able to create sudden chances by dashing in and freezing everyone. Their middle- and short-range shots are piercing and they’re both outstanding in one v one scenarios.

Sophocles would probably play a little further back and help in connecting gameplay, with Sappho charged with finishing plays. Their ability to swap positions might be a real asset, but their partnership is even more uncertain than the one between De Vega and Ovid, and there is some internal evidence that the players do not get along with each other. Personal differences may in fact be one of the weaknesses of this apparently impregnable team – if England can fail with a midfield composed of Gerrard and Lampard, maybe even the duo Dante / Shakespeare might turn out to be abortive in spite of the enormous individual talents of the two players. But that’s something that only practice can tell.

(I imagine most people by now will have figured out that this is one of those articles where I write and drink simultaneously… and I’m about halfway through my stack, and halfway through the article. The pace is working out.)

2. The Modern Poets

The modern poets are less talented individually, but they provide a much wider array of skills – allowing, at least in principle, for a stronger overall team. Let’s take a look.

There are plenty of candidates for the position of goalkeeper, but Pablo Neruda, if only for his tremendous international reach, probably takes it. I can’t imagine anything that he would not be able to “reach” in that sense, never mind an adversary’s shots. The guy’s fucking Dhalsim.

The central defence is handed to Jorge Luis Borges and TS Eliot, my personal favourites from this team, and also the two guys who would much rather have played for the other side. Eliot may come across as the kind of poet who would play as a striker, but really he is the most conservative and backward-looking guy out there, and Borges is not very different in this sense. Together they make for a fine defensive pair (allowing for the fact that, again, Borges is blind). Rainer Maria Rilke is a very defensive choice as far as fullbacks go, but he is probably necessary as the formation is on the whole slanted going forward. John Keats, possibly not the most obvious choice for a defender seen how he could barely defend his own self in his time, makes it into the team for his altruism – something quite rare and therefore most welcome in this team.

On to the midfield, it’s worth spending a few words to discuss the formation – the 4-2-3-1 is much more original and complex than the archaic 4-4-2, but it demands players with very specific attributes from the midfield upwards. The right wing tends to fall back with the midfield trio, while the central offensive midfielder is expected to make a great deal of runs both forwards and back. The left winger is in some ways a decoy – s/he functions as a wide striker, really – while the actual striker plays in a false nine position. The two midfielders need to be a playmaker and a defensive mid.

Goethe’s position is obvious – he’s possibly the only one in the post-1700 pool of talent who can stand to the classical midfielders in terms of sheer multi-tasking abilities. He’s the playmaker here, with Federico Garcia Lorca as the defensive mid (another guy who wasn’t especially good at defending himself, but he should be fine on the pitch if nobody decides to shoot him). Lorca is a splendid talent, strong both in breaking another team’s offensive traditions and also in imposing his own game. There’s no way that the modern midfield pair can hold in a comparison against the duo of Dante and Shakespeare, but their slick players might be able to dominate the game by relying on the numerical superiority offered by the 4-2-3-1 in that part of the pitch – especially when they can count with the French pairing of Baudelaire and Rimbaud.

Rimbaud is a highly imbalanced player, being extremely offensive and quite poor at covering spaces, which is why Rilke is clearly a necessity behind him. Yet his ability to do unpredictable things with the ball makes him an asset that even Lope De Vega might have trouble dealing with. If the classical team is caught on the counter and Vega is left alone to cover Rimbaud, this may result in some very real goal opportunities. As for his partner, Baudelaire (will there be chemistry?) is clearly more wide-ranging, which makes him a better fit for the position. Technically he’s one of the better players in the team, and his presence in the advanced middle should allow him to bring that technique to bear in combination with any of the players that surround him. The results are anyone’s guess, though he does tend to get dispirited when he’s losing, and his athletic condition – like Dante’s, but for different reasons – is not of the best.

The moderns are playing with fire by placing Dickinson on the right and Plath as a striker. They are, in some ways, similar players. Plath is somewhat mono-dimensional, a great striker, but not necessarily the best fit for the false nine position (Baudelaire himself might have taken that role). In a different formation, she would have been the perfect striker, but here she’s a gamble. Still, no-one can close quite as effectively as she can, and faced to the defence of the classicals, a single moment of poaching genius by the American poet might just make the difference. As for Dickinson, in the right-wing position she’d have to provide a lot of breath to the team – if Rimbaud goes forward all the time on the other side, then Dickinson will have to compensate for that by offering support to Goethe and Lorca when they need it. Considering that she’s got Keats behind her it’s unlikely that most of the opportunities will emerge from that side of the field, but they’re both very fast players, meaning that they should at least be dangerous on the counter.


Who would win? I actually don’t have a clue. I suppose I could try finding out, but by this point I’m all out of wits and beers, and I’m expected somewhere. Plus, I suspect not everyone will agree with my decisions in terms of who should play and where – plenty of options on both sides. I think I’ll close this article here.

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