And those wingers…

Wingers tended to go into eclipse after England won the 1966 World Cup with what were nicknamed Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’. Ramsey tried orthodox wingers in the earlier stages of the competition but found them inadequate. An irony being that when England won that dramatic final at Wembley, after extra-time, it was in no small measure thanks to the pace, energy and effectiveness of little, young red-headed Alan Ball. By Brian Glanville.

Brazil won’t have them. Yet again turning their backs on a glorious tradition. Not a genuine winger has been announced in their World Cup squad, though we do know that the colossally expensive and precocious young Neymar often likes to drift out to do damage on the left. Yet again, however, the Brazilians will be relying on their overlapping fullbacks. 31-year-old Dani Alves of Barcelona on the right, Marcelo on the left, though he has had only limited opportunities this season at Real Madrid where his place has gone to the energetic Portuguese defender, Fabio Coentrao; adept both as a defender and an attacker, which is a somewhat rare attribute in today’s overlapping fullbacks.

But, how one mourns for the great Brazilian right wingers of the past. In the 1954 World Cup, ill-omened though it were for the Brazilians, there was the shining talent of Julinho, with his glorious pace, his elusive footwork and a colossal right-footed shot with which he scored a memorable goal from long distance in the otherwise notorious ‘Battle of Berne’ against the Hungarians, when all too many of his team ran wild.

Four years later, in Sweden, there was the incomparable Garrincha, a child of nature who came into the Brazil team only for the third match; when he tormented the Russian defence in Gothenburg. Born with a distorted right leg, Garrincha used it to his advantage, exploiting a mesmerising swerve to put opposing defenders on the wrong foot and then sweeping by them on the touchline. Father of no fewer than seven daughters, he loved above all to play pickup football in his village of Pau Grande on a field of beaten earth with a huge trench in the middle. The famed Botafogo Club had to tempt and cajole him to come to Rio.

I shall never forget watching him turn the 1958 World Cup final in Stockholm after Brazil had gone behind to what could have been a devastating early goal. Twice Garrincha flew past unbalanced defenders on the right wing, twice he pulled the ball back into the middle for Vava to score. Yet it had taken all the persuasion of the celebrated Nilton Santos, left back, and other senior players to talk him into the team. As the players lined up before the game, Nilton Santos tried to emphasise how much was now expected of him. But Garrincha’s reply was only, “Look at that linesman; he looks just like Charlie Chaplin!”

In 1962 in Chile after the fabulous Pele had dropped out injured, Garrincha was even more remarkable, electric not only on the wing but when he came into the middle, even scoring one fine goal from distance with his left foot and heading in a goal from a corner, a mere 5 foot 8 though he was, against the towering England defence in the quarter-finals.

But thereby you might say hangs a tale. Garrincha, who was sent off when badly provoked in the Santiago semi-final versus Chile, and was mysteriously amnestied so he could play in the final, was clearly no longer satisfied to stay out on the wing.

The same might be said by one of the world’s salient players, the little Argentine Lionel Messi. He first made a name with Barcelona as an elusive winger, but as time went by, moved more and more into the middle, becoming an all purpose striker, gliding past defenders from central positions.

In the last World Cup we didn’t see the best of him, since Diego Maradona, a chaotic as manager, however, great he once was as a player, obliged him to stay out on the left wing. It certainly will not be his fate in this World Cup. As for Brazil, the tendency of the highly gifted and vastly expensive Neymar to wander to the left wing, as have suggested, could compensate to some degree for the lack of a left winger. Such as the tireless Zagallo, who functioned there in the two World Cup victories of 1958 and 1962.

Bayern Munich, well beaten by Real Madrid in the semi-finals of this season’s European Cup, have two outstanding wingers, each of whom will figure in Brazil, Franck Ribery for France, Arjen Robben for Holland. Ribery loudly proclaimed that it was he who should be voted latest European Footballer of the Year, but he wasn’t. Just as well perhaps as he had a dismal game on the left for Bayern in the second leg semi-final. Robben, however, always looked potentially dangerous on the other flank, where he so insidiously deploys his stronger left foot, cutting in to shoot and often score.

Wingers tended to go into eclipse after England won the 1966 World Cup with what were nicknamed Alf Ramsey’s ‘Wingless Wonders’. Ramsey tried orthodox wingers in the earlier stages of the competition but found them inadequate. An irony being that when England won that dramatic final at Wembley, after extra-time, it was in no small measure thanks to the pace, energy and effectiveness of little, young red-headed Alan Ball.

Deployed in central midfield, a natural inside forward, as the game went on, he more and more drifted on to the right wing, where in those latter stages, especially in extra-time, he ran swift rings around the experienced German left back Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. Indeed it was when Ball, by that time gasping for energy, found enough of it to beat Schnellinger again and race to the byline to cross, that Geoff Hurst lashed in that shot against the underside of the crossbar, which was flagged by linesman Bakhramov as England’s third goal.

For some irritating years it has been all too common for English media to describe wingers simply as midfielders. True the fashion now is for wingers to drop back to help out their own fullbacks, but wingers they do remain. Some such as Chelsea and Belgium’s resourceful left winger Eden Hazard don’t fall back, to the displeasure of a manager such as Jose Mourinho.

There is a tendency among highly gifted wingers, as we have seen in the case of Messi, to desert the flanks, reluctant to depend on the service of more central players. Certainly it was the case of one of the finest attackers of recent years in George Best, originally used by Manchester United on one or other flank, but more and more inclined to move into the middle to exploit not only his superb speed and control but though a little man his prowess in the air.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, one of football’s refulgent stars, will like his present Real Madrid team-mate Gareth Bale — absent from Brazil alas as he plays for absent Wales — excel on either wing yet often move into the middle.