Leading the charge

Football captains have to give their best, CONTROL THE GAME and provide the manager inputs about tactical patterns and formations that could be tweaked. They also have to keep their cool and manage their young players during situations that could potentially be explosive, writes N. U. ABILASH.

In the early 1990s, former England player Phil Neville — all of 19 and having made a mark in age-group football as well as Lancashire Under-19 cricket where he was supposedly better than his teammate called Andrew Flintoff — approached Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson for a place as a United trainee. "He was confused choosing between professional football and cricket," Ferguson wrote later. "Because he was talented in both, I told him his choice should be football if his dream was to become a captain in the future and still be counted as one among the boys." Ferguson's statement to Neville — made when cricket was still a sport in which the captain exercised authority over his team undiluted by the subsequent development of having coaches as alternate power centres — is important in that it emphasises the vital role of a captain in football. It also indicates that camaraderie, not authority, is the attribute top British football managers seek in their captain's relationship with his teammates. This is a far cry from cricket. The bat-and-ball game, unlike football, has had a long history of upper-class batsmen captains, who hardly caused much worries to rival bowlers, bossing over the hard-working and meritorious plebian bowlers of his team.

Cut to the qualifiers of the 2006 World Cup. The Argentinian national coach Jose Pekerman — a manager from a totally different football culture — had this to say about what he told his veteran defender Roberto Ayala while stripping him off the captaincy and handing it to fellow defender Juan Pablo Sorin: "I told him he did not need the armband to discharge the duties of a captain which is to inspire youngsters in the team by his skills and force of personality and to pick up the tactical patterns of the game by his experience."

Pekerman's brief to Ayala and Ferguson's advice to Neville are useful points of reference in a start-pack for all the 32 World Cup captains in Germany. One can certainly argue that life is easier for a captain in football. The sport, unlike cricket, has not compartmentalised the tactical and inspirational functions of a leader in one player alone. For instance, a Roberto Carlos or Ronaldinho will have no hesitation in discharging the duties of official captain Cafu without consulting him and the veteran right-back will take no objection to it.

There is another way to look at the picture. Football captains have a tougher job than their cricket counterparts because they have to combine their playing — mind you, even Twenty20 cricket is as fast as a snail compared to football — with their speaking and their thinking. Their role is not just to play well and control the game but also to give the manager inputs about tactical patterns and formations that could be tweaked. In addition, they have to keep their cool and manage their young players during situations, which are potentially explosive.

Portugal captain Luis Figo recently said the biggest challenge for a captain during the 90 minutes was to help his youngsters keep their focus — unlike in cricket the captain's role in football is minimal outside the pitch as the strategising and motivational projects are undertaken exclusively by the manager. For Figo and his England counterpart David Beckham, managing talented but temperamental youngsters such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on the field is as much a responsibility as their runs down the right and accurately finding their man in the box at the end of their passes and crosses. The two former Real Madrid teammates, though, must be happy that they are not in the World Cup shoes of another Real Madrid `Galactico', French captain Zinedine Zidane, who has a tenuous relationship with coach Raymond Domenech.

There are speculations that Domenech wanted only Zidane, the player, to come out of international retirement — which was forced after Euro '04 because of differences between the icon and the newly-appointed Domenech — and that the French hero of the 1998 World Cup insisted that he had to be named captain if he were to play in Germany. Zidane, it is widely believed, also put forward the condition that `his men' — midfielder Claude Makelele and defender Lilian Thuram — who had retired along with him should be part of the French set-up in Germany.

Figo and Beckham, on the other hand, completely enjoy the trust and confidence of Luiz Felipe Scolari and Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Portugal and England managers back their captains to the hilt. For backing Beckham, widely believed to be residing in the bubble of celebrity lifestyle and therefore far from being "one among the boys", Eriksson has had to face much flak from the English media, which also reported that late last year there was even a minor revolt against the captain and manager spearheaded by Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and backed by the public outburst of Wayne Rooney against the captain during England's disastrous World Cup qualifying outing in Dublin against minnows Northern Ireland. Beckham's disposition then to pick up `soft' bookings for both club and country did not give him the moral authority needed for any leader to make a talented, hot-tempered youngster like Rooney see reason.

Beckham and fellow `Galacticos' Zidane, Figo and Spanish captain Raul Gonzalez are the most influential players of their national teams because of historical, social and commercial reasons. Raul, Zidane and Figo are past their prime and are no longer the best players of their national teams. Beckham never was England's best player. German captain Michael Ballack and his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Shevchenko, though, are men currently playing at their best who have to inspire and lead by example.

In Germany, we will also see the continuation of the time-tested `Italian model' of captaincy in which the armband goes to an experienced defender or goalkeeper, two departments of the game that have been central to the success of Italian teams over the years.

Juventus captain and central defender Fabio Cannavaro will wear the Italian armband in World Cup 2006, keeping alive the tradition set by illustrious defenders such as Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Guiseppe Bergomi and the great World Cup winning goalkeeper Dino Zoff. Italians prioritise a defender's or a goalkeeper's positional advantage to visualise the game better and thereby tactically read it over the predominantly creative and inspirational attributes of a midfielder or a centre forward. Holland may hardly be known for Italian attitude or style, but manager Marco van Basten decided to do it the Italian way in Germany by naming experienced goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar as his captain instead of opting for Van der Sar's Manchester United teammate Ruud van Nistelrooy, the striker perceived as being too moody to be a skipper.

They may be there for different reasons, but all the 32 captains of the World Cup will agree that the one thing common to them all is keeping the coach happy. Is Zinedine Zidane listening?