World Cup and the wingers

As we look ahead to the Brazilian World Cup, we find three of unquestionably the best wingers in football all keen to move into the middle. This, no doubt, because they feel that from a more central position they can dictate matters, rather than, out on the flanks, being dependent on someone giving them the ball. By Brian Glanville.

When is a winger not a winger? Answer, I suppose, when he wants to come off the wing. So as we look ahead to the Brazilian World Cup, we find three of unquestionably the best wingers in football all keen to move into the middle. This, no doubt, because they feel that from a more central position they can dictate matters, rather than, out on the flanks, being dependent on someone giving them the ball.

The three relevant wingers in this category who come to mind are Portugal’s prolific Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and, though, alas, there will be no World Cup for him, Wales’ Gareth Bale. When he so emphatically broke through at Manchester United, Ronaldo was essentially a winger, usually on the right, though he could move when necessary to the left.

Now with Real Madrid and Portugal, he is what you might call an all court player. Like Messi with Barcelona, though not with Argentina, he simply goes where he wants, dynamic and prolific. His power and elevation in the air would do credit to any centre forward. It is his goals which have enabled Portugal to squeeze through into the Finals, after an uneven period in the qualifying group.

Messi, as we know, began with Barca as a left winger, with precocious success, but as time went by one found him moving more and more into the middle, usually striking with deadly effect from just behind the actual frontline. As he drifts about with acute perception it is very hard for opposing defenders to pick him up, as he glides into scoring positions. But as we know, while he can enjoy virtually a free role at Barca, things have been very different and indeed frustrating with Argentina, where, in the last World Cup he was “exiled” to the left flank and was inevitably marginalised.

Since Argentina enjoy an abundance of formidable strikers — Carlos Tavez, Sergio Aguero badly injured just now, alas, but sure enough to be fit for Brazil, and, Gonzalo Higuain — it is hard to see Messi being allowed the free rein he gets in Spain. As for Bale, it is sad to reflect that he won’t, with his pace, drive and supreme control, be at this World Cup and in all probability not in any other, Wales having only once reached the World Cup Finals. And that in 1958 was only because they were allowed to meet and beat Israel in a playoff when the Afro-Asians refused to play in the same group as Israel.

How ironic it is, though, that Brazil themselves, who, over the years, have produced some of the finest wingers ever known, now have dispensed with them entirely. Instead they tend to rely on overlapping full-backs and it just isn’t the same. However fast, skilled and strong those full backs may be, and they traditionally are, they seldom can do what the true winger does; which is to beat the full back on the outside, roar on to the goalline and from there pull back into the middle the most dangerous pass in the game.

How well do I remember the astonishing Garrincha doing just that when I saw the 1958 World Cup final in Stockholm. Brazil had quickly gone a goal behind to Swede, but then Garrincha on the right flank tore past the Swedish defence, and cut the ball back for Vava to score twice. Yet, in the 1962 World Cup in Chile, after Pele dropped out injured, Garrincha as often as not moved into the middle, even, in Santiago against the Chilean hosts scoring from outside the box with his supposedly weaker left foot.

Before him in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland there had been the dynamic Julinho, who scored an astonishing goal in the ill-starred quarter-final against Hungary in Berne. And at the 1970 World Cup there was the dynamic Jairzinho, who could beat an opposing left back with explosive ease, going on either side to set up a scoring chance for a teammate or to score himself as he memorably did in the Mexico City final against Italy.

George Best is another star who never played in the World Cup Finals, Northern Ireland never qualifying in his time though they’d do so subsequently when second placed group teams got through. Best was a teenaged phenomenon on either flank for Manchester United but as time went by he would increasingly come off the wing, even though he stood a mere five-foot eight inches, scoring spectacular goals with his head. Note, now that Bayern Munich, the European champions, play with two exceptional wingers both off whom will be going to the World Cup. At the last tournament in South Africa, France’s right-winger Franck Ribery wasn’t remotely the player he had been four years earlier in Germany, but his form this season for Bayern and France has been ebullient.

His fellow-winger Arjen Robben of Holland is that rare phenomenon, a right-winger with a formidable left-foot. This he turns into an advantage, cutting in to shoot left-footed and often to score.

Curiously, David Beckham, who has now retired, won a record number of England caps at outside-right, though he hadn’t either the skill or the speed to beat the back and preferred to use his exceptional right-foot to send the ball into the box from a distance. This, for me, meant that with England he blocked the way for a more natural and effective winger. But now England have the exuberant young right winger Andros Townsend. He may, as the manager Roy Hodgson says, have something to learn about positioning and defensive duties, but his sheer pace, his ability to beat his back and, as we’ve seen at Wembley, to score spectacular goals are qualities that can’t easily be learned.