CLUSTERS IN CLUBS

There is a Eurocentric belief that clusters of national players in complementary positions at a given club enhances the country's chances in premier tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Nations Cup. Though empirically unsound, the belief is very important to foster a `feel good' factor among the public during the run-up to a World Cup and to bring in a general feeling of optimism among managers and players, writes N. U. ABILASH.

It could be said of Spain manager Luis Aragones, in the words of 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, that he rarely "deviates into sense". Aragones, who hurled racist obscenities about Thierry Henry at a training session of the Spanish national squad in 2004 "to motivate" the Frenchman's Arsenal teammate Jose Antonio Reyes, recently proclaimed that Spain's history of World Cup underachievement would end in Germany. "Thank goodness, we have now three or four players together at Liverpool and two of them are our regular midfielders. Similarly we have two valuable players in the Arsenal midfield. These guys know each other very well and can combine effectively, which was lacking in previous Spanish teams to the World Cup," said Aragones. The Spanish manager added that the predominance of Latin Americans in the top Spanish clubs had resulted in the country's top players spreading themselves thin across clubs rather than plying their trade in blocks in top clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid.

This trend, according to Aragones, had affected the country in the World Cups of the recent past but would help the nation inadvertently in Germany because defensive midfielder Xabi Alonso, attacking midfielder Luis Garcia and striker Fernando Morientes have been Anfield regulars for the last two years. The first two even were part of the club's historic Champions league triumph last season. The presence of Francesc Fabregas and Reyes in the Arsenal central midfield and wing would also help Spain in Germany, according to Aragones. Aragones was certainly not endorsing a new football theory; he was merely being the latest European advocate of what is inappropriately called the `cluster theory', which is more a belief that groups of national players together in complementary positions at a given club enhances the country's chances in premier tournaments such as the World Cup and the European Nations Cup. Though this `theory' is very important to foster a `feel good' factor among the public during the run-up to a World Cup and a general feeling of optimism among managers and players, it cannot be empirically endorsed. This is because international football involves players from across clubs and even if a cluster of two midfielders and a striker playing for a particular club inspired their country to a World Cup win it cannot be said that the combination of the three alone fashioned the victory.

It is widely acknowledged that the success of the Dutch team in Euro 1988 all but validated the Eurocentric belief that having players together at clubs would help the country win; the team had the trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten playing for Serie `A' giants AC Milan and groups of influential players from Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven (defenders Ronald Koeman and Barry van Aerle and goalkeeper Hans van Breukelen) and Ajax Amsterdam (midfielders Aron Winter and Jan Wouters). The great Dutch team of the 1974 World Cup in Germany — spearheaded by the legendary Johan Cruyff and coached by Rinus Michels, who was also in charge of the successful 1988 Euro campaign — comprised many players from Ajax. Even though the country had faltered at the last hurdle to Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany, its brilliant run and fascinating style of constantly interchanging positions within a formation had given rise to the view that it pays to have a clutch of national players together at clubs.

However, in the 1970s, the European leagues were very continental in composition; Latin American players started playing in Spanish and Portuguese leagues only in the 1980s and the process intensified in the 1990s with a large number of South American players joining the top-end stars from Brazil and Argentina who had started plying their trade in Europe in the 1980s.

Top European leagues retained their national character prior to the 1990s. The transfers from other European leagues were limited due to the unfavourable market rules; hence the Italian League mainly comprised players who were eligible to play for Italy, and so were the cases with the English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese leagues.

In the late 1980s, when top European clubs started losing their national character and in the wake of the increasing culture of individualism in European society and among the continent's rich footballers, came the Dutch triumph and the inflection of the `cluster theory' in European public consciousness. It got entrenched two years later when neighbours and rivals West Germany won the World Cup in Italy with the Inter Milan trio of Andreas Brehme, captain Lothar Matthaus and Juergen Klinsmann combining with the clutch of players from Bayern Munich (Guido Buchwald, Stefan Reuter, Jurgen Kohler, Klaus Augenthaler) and FC Koln (Pierre Littbarski and Thomas Hassler). France, the next European World Cup winner in 1998, drew its squad from players scattered all over top European clubs. By then, the current economic dispensation at European clubs and leagues had been well entrenched and even getting a cluster of two influential players in complementary positions in clubs was considered positive by national managers and the European public.

Manager Aime Jacquet, before the 1998 tournament, aroused expectations when he said that the strength of France lay in the midfield, where captain Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane played for Juventus and Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit were Highbury regulars. Deschamps and Zidane combined brilliantly during the course of France's historic maiden triumph. Small wonder that during the lead-up to the World Cup in Korea and Japan in 2002, France made much about their solid cluster of four Arsenal players — Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sylvain Wiltord and Thierry Henry. Though Pires missed the tournament due to injury, the rest of the three could not do much as the defending champions crashed out in the first round. The 2002 tournament also witnessed much optimism in England, as the national team, with Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, virtually had the Manchester United midfield. But, the `cluster theory' exploded in the quarterfinal against Brazil, a nation that cares about it as much as a philanderer cares about morality.

The world-view of the Latin American giants, Brazil and Argentina, has always been that no matter where their players play, when it is time to wear national jerseys their hearts will beat the same rhythm. "We are a nation of proud footballers who speak in the same voice as that of our country's public," said Luiz Felipe Scolari a few months before he managed Brazil to triumph in Korea and Japan. "Most of the boys keep in touch on a regular basis while on club duties and they have common friends back home. Those who are in Europe but in different clubs go out together, and they are united by their past and the humble origins they came from."

Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo recently spoke at length about missing fraternising with the Argentinians and Brazilians playing in European leagues after he returned to Chelsea at the beginning of the season after being on a year's loan at AC Milan. "There are not too many Argentinians in London to go out with," he said. "There is Gabriel Heinze, but he is in Manchester, and we talk whenever we can. In Italy, there were a lot of South American players and most of us hit it off well. But I am a professional and I am happier at Chelsea because I am winning trophies," said Crespo.

In the last 20 years, Brazil and Argentina have won three of the five World Cups played and have been in the final in two tournaments. Come July, it may well be proven yet again that Aragones mostly does not like deviating into sense.