About 20 years ago, I was in my mid-20s and about as fit as I would ever be and the Sunday league team I played for had been together for about six years. We knew each other pretty well by that stage and could clearly identify the strengths and weaknesses of every single player in the squad. We weren’t a bad side and we had three or four really good players who could easily have been playing at a much higher level but it was more of a social thing for them.
One week we played a local pub side called “The Waggoner’s Arms”.
We’d just bought a new kit: purple and black stripes with yellow trim. Absolutely hideous but so off the wall we knew we’d never need a second strip so it was actually a pretty good investment. We looked great as we knocked the ball about during the warm up, the banter flowing on from the night (out) before … and then they ran out: the opposition.
They were in tatty old green shirts that were way too tight for them and most of the blokes in the team were in their late 30s and there were some spectacular beer guts on show. Think Lord Of The Rings and think Gimly: these guys could have played extras in the dwarf army scenes.
… and yet, fast forward ninety minutes and they’d slaughtered us as easily as a goblin scouting party.
We lost 4-0 and that was only because they eased up once the game had been won.
As we trudged off the field, I looked at my mate and said “Do you reckon we’ll be like that when we’re pushing 40?” and we both brightened up for a moment, safe in the knowledge that by then we might actually know how to make the ball do the work.
The three portliest players were in midfield and none of us could get near them. It wasn’t just their spectacular girth that was stopping us, but their awareness and the ability to lay the ball off to a team-mate as we lunged in for a tackle, almost in slow-motion. The movie we were in was now less Middle Earth and more like something directed by John Woo …
Good players are important and you need a certain standard, but the best players play as a team. Maradona won the 1986 World Cup for Argentina almost single-handedly – he dragged the team through the tournament at times, and yet he didn’t score that many goals and none at all in the final. He knew when to release the ball if a team-mate was in a better position.
Gazza went pretty close till he got himself booked in the 1990 semi-final for England.
Roberto Baggio almost repeated Maradona’s feat at USA 94 for Italy.
Recently, Gary Lineker went on record by saying the only time Gascoigne would pass him the ball would be either when he knew he’d get it straight back or if he was exhausted.
Team players don’t do that …
This year’s World Cup has highlighted the importance of togetherness and teamwork more than anything else.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Yaya Touré and – don’t laugh – Wayne Rooney seemed to be carrying the burden of expectation not just for their team, but for the entire nation back home.
Each one of them had several moments of potential glory yet each either made the wrong decision or simply failed to deliver.
Even those masters of defensive organisation, Italy, seemed too reliant on a 35-year old Andrea Pirlo.
The sides that have succeeded so far have been those with a strong team ethic – and maybe one or two superstars – to raise the overall standard of play to the point that the result is way more equal than the sum of the parts.
Holland are the perfect example: in Robben and van Persie they have two undoubtedly world-class players, yet most of the rest of the squad is made up of previously unheralded talent from their own domestic league. Club familiarity plays a part here as team-mates know each other’s game better than most … though it didn’t work for England (Liverpool) or Italy (Juventus).
France have proven that by removing a rotten apple (Samir Nasri) the rest of the barrel can taste a whole lot sweeter. Similarly, in losing talismanic playmaker, Franck Ribery, on the eve of the tournament, they actually found more ways of expressing themselves rather than just looking to play through one man. Likewise, Colombia have shown that even without Falcao they’re still a major threat and by freeing up James Rodriguez to play through the middle rather than out wide, they may actually be a better team without the Monaco man.
Costa Rica, Greece and Algeria have all shown how a well-drilled team can outplay one chock-full of superstars, despite having wildly differing styles of play.
And then we come to Germany .. perhaps the ultimate team.
The cliché-ridden way of thinking about Germany in general is efficiency and quality and their football is no different. The league is well regarded – with FC Bayern one of the strongest teams in Europe – and they play a fast, athletic and highly technical game. Often, the tactics are fairly simple – 442, 433 and 352 – yet the base levels of fitness and skill mean that with a decent coach and motivated players they often win through against supposedly superior opposition. They’re always there or thereabouts in the major tournaments and are actually due a World Cup win given they’ve not lifted the trophy since 1990.
However … there’s actually one team “out-Germanying” the original and that’s the US.
Given that their coach is one Jurgen Klinsmann – credited by many for creating the current German team, or at least laying the foundations for it – that’s hardly surprising. What was surprising was the fact he left out their star player, Landon Donovan.
Or was it ?
Here we have a great motivator and man manager who has been drilled in the team ethic for his entire life. A man who doesn’t just learn the language of the country in which he works … he immerses himself whole-heartedly into their culture and becomes a native. As soon as he finished playing, he moved to California with his American wife, whom he met as a player in Europe. Witness his self-deprecating celebratory dive on scoring his first goal for Spurs. He is a man very aware of his own destiny and – typical for a German – his timing is impeccable. He knew back then when to run into the box and he knows right now how to manage his team and keep a lid on the somewhat rampant expectations of US supporters. Criticised for stating before the tournament they couldn’t hope to win it, it seems now that Jurgen The German was simply damping down the fire. He didn’t extinguish it because he wouldn’t know how … he merely calmed it down, waiting for the right opportunity to stoke it back up …
With the US facing a disappointingly lacklustre Belgium side for a place in the quarter-finals, I wouldn’t back against them or Klinsmann to get the job done. The Belgian side is packed with up-and-coming superstars of European football and we all know how that’s worked so far …
One day, I’d love him to come back to England and manage the national team.
I’m not sure that can ever happen even if we have previously asked both a Swede and an Italian to do the same thing. I think the offices of The Sun would probably explode if he ever got the nod, but I can’t think of anybody in world football I’d rather see in the role after Roy Hodgson.
It couldn’t happen, though … could it ?