Where are the centre forwards?

Holland's Robin van Persie, scorer of this spectacular goal against Spain, was one of the few true centre forwards in the World Cup in Brazil.-AP

Holland have Robin van Persie, who began the World Cup with a superlative headed goal against Spain but had faded by the end; physical condition again, but a true centre forward. The ever more common use of a solitary striker does make life hard for a natural centre forward. But the best of them will always win games. By Brian Glanville.

Once upon a time Brazilian football was famous for its centre forwards. Go back as far as the 1938 World Cup in France and you find the marvellous little Leonidas, alias the ‘Black Diamond’, famed for his deadly bicycle kick. He would finish top scorer of the tournament but alas it would avail Brazil little, since inexpiably, irrationally and in a fit of strange hubris, they left him out of the team, which met Italy in Marseilles in the semifinals.

So confident were they of success that they had even booked every seat on the plane which next day should have taken them to Paris for the final. But they lost and when Leonidas returned with a flurry of goals, it was only in the irrelevant third place match.

The spectacular Balthazar initially led the Brazilian attack in 1950, but when it came to the third group match against Yugoslavia, Brazil dropped him and fielded the dazzling and prolific trio of Zizinho, Ademir and Jair. Ademir had previously played at inside forward, but now, leading the attack, became virtually irresistible, quick, lithe, elusive and with a deadly shot. He scored no fewer than four goals against a Sweden team overwhelmed 7-1, bringing his overall total to five. Though, a gallant Uruguayan defence managed to stop him scoring in a first half dominated by the Brazilian attack in the final game.

When Brazil won the World Cup in 1958 in Sweden and 1962 in Chile, the incisive centre forward was Vava. Sturdy and quick in what was then a novel 4-2-4 formation in which he played beside the precocious Pele. When Brazil so quickly went one down to Sweden in the Stockholm final, Vava scored twice after dynamic bursts from Garrincha on the right, and Brazil went on to win 5-2. In Chile, four years later, Vava came back after a couple of good years with Atletico Madrid to regain his place in the Brazilian attack. He scored against England in the quarterfinals, scored again, this time with a header, against Chile in the semifinals and knocked in Brazil’s third goal when they won the Santiago final against the Czechs after goalkeeper Schroiff dropped the ball.

In Mexico in 1970 a glorious Brazilian team had the versatile Tostao at centre forward, a far happier experience than when he as a youngster figured in a disintegrating team in England, though he did score a goal in the defeat by Hungary. Things would be very different in Mexico, where he recovered in time from a serious eye injury when he’d been hit by a ball in training, detaching a retina. A player of supreme technique, subtlety and courage, he splendidly complemented Pele, scoring twice against Peru in the quarterfinals.

The 1982 Brazilian team was a remarkable one but injury to a fine centre forward in Reinaldo meant they relied on a superb midfield; and lost narrowly to Italy in a thrilling quarterfinal. Italy’s Paolo Rossi was the star, a centre forward with a hat-trick.

Romario, short, sturdy and supremely balanced, pulled Brazil’s chestnuts out of the fire when they were in danger of failing to qualify from their group in 1994. Always confrontational, he’d justifiably been incensed when Carlos Alberto Parreira, then the manager, dragged him all the way home from Holland for a friendly and then didn’t use him.

Just in time, Parreira recalled him for the vital last qualifier against Uruguay in Rio. Romario, with his touch, turn and speed off the mark, scored twice to take Brazil through 2-0. In the USA he would form a memorable partnership with Bebeto, inadequately supported from midfield. They were a formidable pair but in the final against Italy, Romario missed a real chance early on, when heading Dunga’s cross into the goalkeeper Pagliuca’s hands. Dour Big Phil Scolari didn’t pick him for the next World Cup, though he was still in form.

The teenaged Ronaldo was a mere non-playing reserve in America. Son of a Rio drug dealer, wretchedly impoverished, he still made his way, excelling in time with Barcelona and Inter Milan, despite endless knee trouble. But he should, after a seizure, never have been forced to play in his dazed condition against France in the final in Paris. Four years later, in Yokohama, this immensely talented player would score both goals in Brazil’s 2-0 conquest of Germany in the final. A splendid survivor.

And now? We know all too well that for many years now Brazil despite their glorious tradition of wingers had dispensed with them. By 2014 they had virtually run out of centre forwards whether they wanted to or not. The best they could do was poor, put upon static Fred, jeered even, alas, by his own fans. And to replace him, sporadically, the ineffectual Jo, once discarded by Manchester City and Everton.

As for Germany, whose previous World Cup teams had included such memorable centre forwards as Uwe Seeler in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, they won in 2014 largely using the 36-year-old Miroslav Klose. He would overtake Brazil’s Ronaldo’s 15-goal World Cup record, though it should be remembered that in Tokyo in 2002 he scored, as I saw, a cornucopia of goals in an 8-0 win against a feeble Saudi Arabia.

He was certainly an efficient leader till the final itself, when he looked static and inevitably short of pace, yet even here he played the bulk of normal time. In his earlier days he had certainly been far more mobile, teaming up well with his fellow Polish-born striker Lukas Podolski, no more than a bench warmer in Brazil. But the very fact that Loew should include him showed the paucity of centre forwards even in a country which had produced by 2014 so many fine young attackers.

Seeler most people would say would run through a brick wall. He back-headed a remarkable and crucial goal against England in the 1970 quarterfinal in Leon, Mexico and was unlucky to be on the losing side in Mexico City against Italy. As for Gerd Muller, alias ‘Der Bomber’, he was a phenomenon, scorer of 68 goals for West Germany, including the winner in the 1974 final in Munich versus Holland, and having another wrongly disallowed for offside.

Spain? At the 2012 EURO they used Cesc Fabregas as a “dummy” centre forward and mysteriously have kept deploying Fernando Torres years after he has lost his once majestic form. In Brazil, Spain purloined the Brazilian international Diego Costa, of Atletico Madrid and now Chelsea, but he wasn’t fully fit, and it failed.

Italy at least had the moody Mario Balotelli, who scored against England, but with all his power, pace and skill he has always seemed to be more of a secondary striker than a natural target man. Holland did have Robin van Persie, who began with a superlative headed goal against Spain but had faded by the end; physical condition again, but a true centre forward. The ever more common use of solitary striker does make life hard for a natural centre forward. But the best of them will always win games.