Captains don't matter

There have been great, inspiring skippers. Johan Cruyff for Ajax and Holland and Franz Beckenbauer for Bayern Munich and West Germany. Yet arguably, all these are exceptions who prove the rule; that soccer captains of substance are by and large a rare breed and that in England, at least, there seems to be an almost superstitious obsession with them. Over to Brian Glanville.

As the controversy raged over whether the Football Association should have stripped John Terry of the England captaincy, some five full months before he went on trial for allegedly racially abusing Queens Park Rangers centre back Anton Ferdinand, I couldn't help ask myself, did it even matter?

And I was reminded of an old joke about the doubtful mother of a sea captain who asks her friend, “By you he's a captain, by me he's a captain, but by captain's is he a captain?” Not least because I was reminded that in Italy, among other countries, the captaincy of the national team simply goes to the player with the most caps. Which once, some years ago, brought the fiasco of the two Fiorentina full backs, Aldo Magnini and Sergio Cervato each had exactly the same number of caps!

What to do? The problem was resolved by giving the role to Magnini since he had gained one more B international cap than Cervato!

The Terry affair has been exacerbated by the fact that not only did the FA and their chairman David Bernstein demote Terry without a word to the England manager, Fabio Capello, it then transpired that Capello was strongly against the decision and insisted that Terry should remain.

I hold no particular brief for Terry, whose private life, if one can call it such, is littered with displeasing episodes, and it was Capello himself who deprived him of the captaincy not long ago, when it transpired he had been having an affair with the former girlfriend of the international left back Wayne Bridge. But English law has historically laid down that a person is innocent until proved guilty and the bizarre decision of the courts to postpone Terry's trial for so long means that however good their intentions — something to do with the European Championship finals being due this summer — they have created an intolerable hiatus.

Yet just how much influence does a soccer captain have on the field? He is not remotely like a cricket captain, who when his side is fielding chooses which bowler to use, and places the field himself. Broadly speaking it is the team manager or sometimes the coach who commands from the sidelines, makes the substitutions and at half time if not before, consider the tactics.

It is difficult to think of more than a handful of British players who have excelled in captaincy. Danny Blanchflower certainly, an elegant right half and supreme strategist for Northern Ireland and Tottenham. It was his inspirational leadership which had so much to do with little Northern Ireland knocking mighty Italy out of the 1958 World Cup eliminators. And Danny it was when a fog bound referee failed to arrive in Belfast for the first attempt to play the crucial eliminator and irate fans finally invaded the pitch who consigned each Italy player to the protection of an Irishman.

Yet even Danny was at the mercy of managers. In his case, so ironically, a transient and obscure manager of Spurs called Jimmy Anderson. To be remembered only for the fact that, after an FA Cup semifinal in which, against Manchester City in 1956, Danny, seeking an equaliser, moved big centre half Morris Noreman into attack, and lost. Danny was scandalously deprived of the captaincy and even dropped!

Around the same period, Fritz Walter a highly accomplished and versatile inside forward certainly had large influence of the German team which, with the help of jaundice provoking injections, won the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.

But what of a still more famous captain in that tournament, Ferenc Puskas, whose Hungarian team, beaten in the final, had been red hot favourites to win the title?

Puskas was with his superb left foot and strategic flair, always a dominating captain. Seldom more so that when in November 1953, Hungary came to Wembley and left England's hitherto unbeaten record against visiting foreign teams in tatters; 6-3. It has been told that, before the game, the Deputy Minister of Sports for Hungary Gustav Sebes gave the team a lengthy tactics talk in the dressing room before the game. And that as soon as he had left Puskas told his players to forget about all that and briefed them himself.

Which reminds me of the 1963 European Cup Winners Cup final in Rotterdam, between Spurs and Atletico Madrid before which the Tottenham manager, Bill Nicholson, who could be a gloomy figure at times gave his players a pre-match dressing room briefing in which he eulogised one player after an other in the Spanish side. So much so that Danny, as he once told me, could see the heads going down among his dejected players. So as soon as Bill had left the dressing room, he gave what might be described as a counter briefing, eulogising the merits of his own team; which went out and won 5-1!

As for Puskas, his dominating influence could work both ways. In that 1954 World Cup, he was badly kicked in an early game against Germany and forced out of action, till it came to the final itself. Meanwhile, even without him, the team had played extremely well. Yet he bulldozed his way back into the final, when clearly not yet fit and he was arguably a handicap. Yes, there have been great, inspiring skippers. What would the Real Madrid side, which won the first five European Cups, have been without the driving, autocratic influence of Alfredo Di Stefano, ubiquitous centre forward while when total football flourished in the 1970s, Johan Cruyff for Ajax and Holland and Franz Beckenbauer for Bayern Munich and West Germany were as inspirational — one an attacker, the other an attacking libero, as they were effective. Yet arguably, all these are exceptions who prove the rule; that soccer captains of substance are by and large a rare breed and that in England, at least, there seems to be an almost superstitious obsession with them.