The tireless & the ubiquitous

Published : Oct 28, 2010 00:00 IST

Yes, one man can indeed make a team and sometimes, such as in the case of Lionel Messi against Germany in South Africa, undermine it when he is marked out of the game.

Does one man make a team? A question which must be almost as old as football itself and one which is not easy to answer. Look at the most recent World Cup, and one thinks especially of Argentina's Lionel Messi and England's Wayne Rooney. Both, before the battles began, were expected to be outstanding figures in the tournament. Messi indeed was generally recognised as the best player in the world, the pride of the Argentina team even though virtually the whole of his footballing career had been spent in Spain, Barcelona having brought him there as a flimsy 13-year-old; then built him up.

Rooney was England's great hope, as precocious a player as Messi in his different more robust way, a teenaged phenomenon with Everton in his native city of Liverpool, quickly snatched away by Manchester United. Like Messi, a major international star while still in his teens though unlike the even tempered Messi — a winger or an attacking mid-fielder — his temperament was explosive, his language, not least for referees, often lurid. Physically stronger than Messi, both a creator and scorer of goals. Having quite recently added to his wide repertoire a power in the air which made him even more formidable.

In the previous German World Cup, never fully fit, Rooney had ultimately disgraced himself being sent-off in the quarterfinal versus Portugal. But in the previous European Championship in Portugal he had shown some irresistible form, only to be kicked off the field in the quarterfinal against the host team.

But by the time it came to South Africa, his form had been waning and he, the one player likely to galvanise an ordinary England team, would be the “one man” who would sadly let them and himself down. As for Messi, no one could doubt his supreme, elusive, inventive talents, but it remained to be seen whether he could at last express them under the aegis of one man who had unquestionably made an Argentina team: Diego Maradona. Right through a qualifying tournament in which Argentina had struggled to survive, Messi, reportedly at odds with Maradona, had seldom shown his qualities, seemingly played out of position. Which could best be either on the right wing, cutting in, or, as it would successfully be in South Africa, ideally just behind the strikers.

Rooney didn't have a decent game in any of England's mediocre dour displays. Without that one man in his true form, the team never had a real chance. As for Messi, his performances for a revitalised Argentina all the way to the quarterfinals were masterpieces of invention, speed and finishing power; even though goalkeepers would bravely thwart him, and other players would feed off his scoring efforts.

Messi, with a licence to roam behind the strikers, was in dazzling vein in the opening group game, won only 1-0 against Nigeria, and went on to excel in the ensuing matches against South Korea — he was involved in all four Argentine goals — Greece and, in the second round, Mexico. But if one man can make a team, that team can suffer badly if he can be stopped, and stopped even Messi was when in the quarterfinals, Germany subdued him. “We knew Messi would play deeper in the midfield,” said Germany's shrewd young coach, Joachim Low, “and we managed to take him out of the game. He was always under pressure, and we did not foul him or give up many fouls.” So Germany won crushingly, 4-0.

But no one, in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups (at least till he hobbled through the 1990 final) was able to subdue Diego Maradona. True his first goal against England at the Azteca in Mexico City was deviously scored with “The Hand of God”, but his second was an amazing solo slalom, past man after man, a triumph he repeated in the ensuing game at the same stadium against Belgium.

It's impossible to imagine Argentina winning that World Cup without him, while four years later in Italy, though reduced by injury to be playing virtually on one leg, his brilliance enabled them to beat the eternal rivals, Brazil, and to reach the ill-starred final.

Yet if I were to single out the salient example of the one man who made a team, it would be another older Argentinean in the shape of Alfredo Di Stefano. Who never played for his country in a World Cup because in his early twenties he decamped first to Colombia then to Spain, where as an astonishingly versatile centre forward — playing Total Football before it was ever thought of, you might say — he galvanised and inspired Real Madrid: to the first five European Cup titles in succession. Tireless, ubiquitous, a supreme polymath, he covered vast areas of ground, shot goals, headed goals and made them for others. He brooked no rivals on the podium. The famed Brazilian schemer Didi was frozen out. Raymond Kopa who was arguably the one man, who made the France team in the 1958 Swedish World Cup at deep lying centre forward, was when he joined Real obliged to play in what you might call exile on the right wing.

I'd always call Di Stefano that tireless force of nature the second greatest footballer of all time. The first? Surely Pele, a coruscating World Cup winner and scorer in Sweden in 1958 at age 17. Yet did he “make” the Brazilian team? When, early in the 1962 World Cup, in Chile, he dropped out injured, things might have looked bleak for Brazil. Yet his replacement, the inside left Amarildo, infinitely less versatile though quick and incisive, took his place, got important goals and materially helped Brazil retain their title.

When it came to Total Football itself, two outstanding players certainly “made” their respective teams. The real inventor, the original attacking sweeper was Franz Beckenbauer, first with Bayern Munich when still a teenager later when Helmut Schoen finally gave him his way, with West Germany. And of course his great rival with club and country Johan Cruyff as a ubiquitous centre forward with Ajax and Holland.

So yes, one man can indeed make a team and sometimes, such as in the case of Lionel Messi against Germany in South Africa, undermine it when he is marked out of the game. Rooney with his superb show against Bulgaria at Wembley showed how much he could have meant to England in South Africa. But when the man who makes a team loses form, there is little alas, to be done.

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