For every hard-core football fan the summer months can be long and arduous. League season in Europe winds down with the Champions League final in May and unless you are an aficionado of the Icelandic or Russian leagues, June-August will most likely be spent in a state of hope/despair, depending on the performance of your chosen team in the corresponding season.
Of course, every two years, you have either the European Championship or the World Cup to keep you busy, but often even these heady tournaments take a back-seat to the single most important activity for the summer; transfers.
Transfers are a unique activity and it would not be wrong to say that they are almost football’s lifeblood. People talk about them, the press jump on them and the clubs see it as a way of improving their playing staff while at the same time appeasing their demanding fans.
The blood-thirsty nature of transfers mean, that every off-season (and for a short while in January) fans are baying for new blood. Newspapers are abound with rumours of fresh recruitments by big clubs and all this means that the clubs are always under undue pressure to sign up the next big star name to their books. The short time span, lack of proper planning, and high competition mean that more often than not a lot of transfers turn into busts.
Take the case of AC Milan for example. In the early 1980’s, a Milan scout spotted a feisty young black forward playing for English upstarts Watford. Rumour has it, that the player was John Barnes. But the poor scout, suffered from a case of mistaken identity and instead roped in the hapless Luther Blissett for the princely sum of 1 million pounds. Suffice to say, Blissett’s time at the San Siro was acrimonious, and his name is now synonymous with anarchy, in the fashion capital of Milan.
But those were the halcyon days of the 80’s. As football gained more professionalism and as scouts were increasingly fed with information gleaned from every corner of the globe, you would expect transfer activity to have been perfected to an almost exact science. Right? Wrong.
The truth is, clubs continue to rope in players with hardly any thought to proper planning. Small wonder then, that a high percentage of transfers end up being expensive failures. For a more recent example, one only has to look at the supposedly infallible Sir Alex Ferguson. After the World Cup in 2002, much was made of the decision of the Scot to rope in Brazilian midfielder Kleberson. The previously unheard of midfielder had, according to Ferguson, won Brazil the World Cup. Many were shocked, since Kleberson had played in only a few games in the finals. But Ferguson was convinced, and Kleberson it was, who strutted his stuff in the Theatre of Dreams for two seasons; with understandably tragic results.
For an even more recent example, one only has to look at the case of the Portuguese starlet Bebe, signed this season by United. A former homeless World Cup player, Bebe was secured by Ferguson for the princely sum of 7.5 million pounds. So far, he has even failed to crack the reserve team, with his control and touch apparently not good enough. Ferguson admitted, he had never seen Bebe play and this is astonishing for someone who splashed that kind of cash on a player. Yet, Ferguson is not the only example. Clubs often splash out on unknown talent and are left with egg on their faces.
Yet, paradoxically, it is this inefficiency (and in some cases wanton disregard) that makes the transfer market and the buying and selling of players so interesting.
It’s important to remember that in football, there are two crucial “markets” “the wage market” and “the transfer market.” Wages are generally considered to be an efficient marker of a player’s ability, i.e, the better a player the better he will be paid.
A recent study conducted on the league position of English clubs (in the Premier League and the Championship) through the 1998-2007 period showed that spending on salaries by clubs explained their league position to a variation of 89%. Stripped of statistical jargon, what this means is that the higher you pay your players, the higher you generally finish. In the period sampled, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal were the top three clubs in terms of salaries paid. Compare that to their average league positions over the same period and it doesn’t take a genius to understand the link.
Hence, we can come to the general conclusion, that the market for wages is quite efficient.
Thus, if you are paying Cristiano Ronaldo, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas big bucks, you can be certain you won’t finish far from top spot.
The market for transfers though, is an entirely different story.
Take the case of the second most expensive player in history; Kaka. The Brazilian’s first season at the Santiago Bernabeu has been insipid by his own lofty standards. And now, with a new coach at the helm it seems that his opportunities may well be very limited and that he may even be forced out of the club. It seems like a classic case of overpaying for a player past his peak. And Kaka is just one glitzy example of an overall inefficient transfer market.
The truth is that often clubs buy just the wrong players. Many often raid the South American and African leagues to find the next uncut diamond. Players are bought at an increasingly young age and often never mature. Prima donnas often never settle into the club they were bought in to.
But herein is the paradox. Since the transfer market is inefficient, it automatically means that some clubs are underperforming while others are over-performing. In most cases, clubs that fall into the latter category are smaller clubs than your Real Madrids or your Manchester Uniteds.
And for the sake of competition it is vital that these small clubs over-perform, because otherwise, they would never be able to compete against the giants of the game.
But, why not?
Because the truth is that at the end of it all, football is actually an unfair game. The bigger clubs have massive budgets and mega wage structures. Their stadiums are generally bigger and their fan bases are also larger and more global. Yet, they are all competing in a single league with other smaller counterparts, and all for one single prize.
For big clubs, it is the equivalent of playing Monopoly with Fleet Street and Mayfair already in the bag; there are only very few ways in which a small club can compete with that.
And one of those ways is by mastering an inefficient transfer market.
It is not really rocket science, and a lot of small clubs have already jumped on this and become masters at manipulating the market to secure the best deals. These small clubs cannot afford to pay their players to success, so they choose the route of transfers.
The best example is serial French champions Olympique Lyon, but more on that later. First, let us run through some of the more obvious inefficiencies in the transfer market, that these clubs have been able to spot.
Honestly, it really does not take someone like Lyon general manger Jean-Michel Aulas or Arsene Wenger to figure these kinks out, but they still exist, mostly due to the conventional belief held by clubs to stick to the tried and trusted ways of doing things. In short, traditionalists are held in high stead and reformists frowned upon in the general structure of club football.
More importantly, though, what are these obvious inefficiencies?
The first is that tournament (World Cup or European Championship) stars are almost always overvalued. It is fitting to start with this since the World Cup has just concluded. And the first name that would jump off the block is Mesut Oezil.
Now, Oezil is a supremely talented player and has been one for quite a few seasons now. But the fact of the matter is that with a single year of his contract remaining, Werder Bremen (more on them later) would have been lucky to get into the two-digit millions for him. As it happened though, Oezil cost Real Madrid as estimated 16 million pounds, with the figure expected to rise into the early 20 million range.
Now at the end of it all, Oezil might turn into a huge success, and people will not be complaining. After all, Real have enough cash to burn. But the fact remains that Oezil’s value peaked and only peaked so much since he was a star of the World Cup.
Another classic example is that of El Hadji Diouf. The Senegal star rose to prominence on the back of a stellar World Cup in 2002, when they famously beat France. This forced through a dream move to Liverpool and Diouf was expected to light up the Premiership. Eight years later, he remains a decent, yet journeyman striker, with dreams of dominance long over.
The fact is that as a mark of a player’s ability, the World Cup is a frighteningly short sample size to draw from. Seven games if you make it to the final and many players can look very good in seven games. But ask them to maintain that consistency over a league season for a number of seasons and many will fail the test.
Secondly, centre-forwards or attacking players in general are almost always overvalued. This is surprising because any manager worth his salt will tell you that strong defences are what usually win you championships. There is a famous mantra, “offence wins games, defence wins championships” and often you will see that the team who wins the league has the best defensive record. In spite of this, forwards or attacking players are always overvalued. Nemanja Vidic was arguably as important as Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United’s Champions League win in 2008, but put them side by side on transfer value and Vidic will cost only a fraction of what Ronaldo would.
In the infamous, Galactico era, Real Madrid had players of the like of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo adorn the same pitch. But the brilliance of Iker Casillas is what often kept them in games. Yet, in terms of transfer value a goal-keeper is valued far lower than a forward, despite having more longevity and playing in a more demanding position.
Thirdly, certain players, Brazilian or Dutch for example, are in vogue in the transfer market and are considered, for want of a better term, brands. Both the nationalities are traditionally associated with attractive football and clubs end up dishing out far more on them, than their talent deserves. Take the case of the Dutchman Giovani van Bronckhorst or the Brazilian Sylvinho. Both players were considered failures at Arsenal after joining from smaller clubs. Yet their next big moves, ended up being to Barcelona, arguably a bigger and better club than the Gunners! Brazilians evoke a sense of mystique. Clubs reckon that having a Brazilian in the team is fancier than say a Belarussian of equal talent, only because of the positive connotations attached with having the former in the squad. Or how else do you explain, Real Madrid being reluctant to buy the brilliant Serbian Aleksandr Kolarov for a trifle more than they used to buy the error-prone Brazilian Marcelo?
Finally, new managers often always waste a lot of money buying up players who understand his system or he is familiar with. This is almost always easily avoidable, and to be honest, a manager is often a very poor judge of a club’s long-term needs. Managers come and go, but clubs remain. Hence, many managers have roped in expensive stars only to be fired few months later. The new man, then again, wants his own players and all this means that there is often a question of expensive turnover, which is hardly beneficial for the club.
These are some of the most common asymmetries that are prevalent in the market and this is what makes it possible for some smaller clubs to succeed. As aforementioned, the likes of Lyon and Werder Bremen are the perfect examples of how clubs have identified these inefficiencies and manipulated the transfer market to carve out an existence in a highly competitive game.
Lyon first, since their success is one that every small club should look to model.
Even a decade ago, Lyon was a small club in a fashionable city where football was not the rage. Their neighbours St Etienne were once the biggest clubs in the land and Lyon was never more than a satellite to their planet. However, in less than ten years Lyon have emerged as the biggest force in France and won seven consecutive titles. How?
Much of the credit should rest with Jean-Michel Aulas.
Aulas, who took the club over in 1987 has a simple theme; over time the more money a club makes, the more matches it will win, and the more matches it wins, the more money it will make.
Aulas has almost perfectly abstracted the time factor. Short-term losses mean little to him because Aulas reckons that in the long-term there is rationality, even to football.
His rationale is simple. If you buy good players for less than they are worth, you will win more games. You will then have more money to buy better players for less than what they are worth. The better players will then win you bigger games and so on.
Of course all this is easier said than done, but Lyon’s track record is impeccable. They continue to triumph based on these principles.
Lyon hardly overpays for players and instead is known as the best wheeler-dealers in the business. They know when to buy a player and when to sell him. And often most of the players they sell are not as successful in their next clubs, because they also sell at the right time. Michael Essien and Eric Abidal are examples of the former and Mahmadou Diarra and Karim Benzema examples of the latter. Essien and Abidal were sold at massive profits to Chelsea and Barcelona respectively, and both have shone. Diarra and Benzema on the other hand have struggled to replicate their form for Lyon at Madrid.
Considering the profile of the players that Lyon has sold over the last decade, you would think they would be languishing in the bottom echelons.
But Aulas always has a ready-made replacement and this past season, for the first time, they even cracked the Champions League semifinal. It is easy to put this down to a manager but Lyon have had four to five in the last decade and their results have been roughly similar.
It is almost always Aulas’ superior dealings that make the difference.
In Germany, Werder Bremen is quite similar, but maybe not as successful. Their general manager Klaus Allofs is a master at manipulating talent and finding players at the right time. The Brazilian Diego is a good example. A burgeoning talent, Diego was struggling in his first stint at Europe as a teenager. Porto had relegated him to their B team and his talent was rotting. But Allofs stepped in, buying him for about 4 million pounds. A German Cup title and a UEFA Cup final later, Bremen sold him on to Juventus for 18 million pounds.
Both Lyon and Bremen work under similar premises and avoid the pitfalls mentioned earlier. They never overpay for a player or buy him on the basis of success at a big tournament. New managers hardly have a say in transfer dealings, in Lyon’s case, while Bremen have had the same manager for more than a decade. They hardly ever buy players in vogue and even when they do; it’s almost always one who is undervalued. Juninho Pernambucano is a Brazilian and a Lyon legend, but he was picked up at a pittance, similar to Diego and served the club very well.
But most importantly both clubs always know exactly the right time to sell a player. Mesut Oezil arrived from Schalke for about 3 million pounds and was sold for five times that. Next season he would have left for free and Bremen’s model might then have been adversely affected. Some might say, that Oezil would have been worth it, but Bremen thought only of their long term growth.
In the end though, it is worth remembering that clubs like Bremen and Lyon can only exist under such a system because their supporters are more understanding than your usual Madrid or Manchester lot.
But suffice to say, we need more clubs like this, because otherwise, football would be a boring game restricted to a group of elitists.
And no one wants that fate for the beautiful game.
Four years ago, post Germany 2006, the English Premier League was on the crest of a wave. Chelsea had just roped in Michael Ballack, John obi Mikel and Andriy Shevchenko and in much protracted negotiations, Ashley Cole.
Over in East London, West Ham had pulled off the biggest of all transfer coups, managing to secure the services of talented Argentenian duo Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, both of whom had impressive World Cup’s.
Elsewhere, Cristiano Ronaldo, tagged as the winker, strutted his stuff at the Theatre of Dreams and Xabi Alonso pivoted the Liverpool midfield.
English clubs had just been in two consecutive Champions League finals and all the stars chose wintry England over sunny Spain, as evidenced by Thierry Henry’s decision to stay put at Arsenal following their Champions League final defeat against Barcelona.
Jose Mourinho was still the darling of the English press and Rafael Benitez’s meticulous if unpopular methods were bringing success to a starving Anfield.
In short, things in England had never been better.
Fast forward four years, and there is the lingering feeling that the English boom has just about come to an end.
Shevchenko and Ronaldo are long gone, Ballack setting off on to the sunset. Xabi Alonso could not resist the overtures of Madrid and Javier Mascherano is pleading with Liverpool for a transfer. Mourinho is just a whimsical memory and Rafa Benitez has also set sail for Italy.
As far as names are concerned, the Premier League is just about facing a dearth in quality.
And it is showing in the results as well.
After having a finalist in five consecutive editions of the Champions League, last season was a landmark of sorts. Chelsea were admonished by champions Inter Milan, while finalists Bayern Munich put paid to Wayne Rooney’s Manchester United.
The press, the players, the fans are all worried; but the key question is, should they be?
Optimistically speaking, this may just be the shot in the arm that the Premier League needed. For all their talent and flash, most of the success in the Premier League was restricted to the top four clubs, so much so that the Premier League had been labelled as the “Big Four versus the rest.”
And in the final two seasons of the decade, it had almost boiled down to a Big Two as Chelsea and Manchester United were often the only two left standing come spring. And as anyone will tell you, no one likes predictability (except perhaps the fans of the clubs being successful!).
With so many of the big clubs losing ground, the time is ripe for a new challenger to come to the fore and disrupt the monotony or better still, for a number of new challengers to arise and for once increase the competitiveness of the league.
Tottenham and Manchester City seem like the perfect candidates to break the oligopoly although there are still concerns about how Harry Redknapp’s Spurs will cope with the added burden of the Champions League.
Manchester City though, are the biggest story and could well be for the rest of the year.
Roberto Mancini is at the helm but who knows for how much longer? The Citizens are on a different plane to the rest of the clubs, in England and Europe with spending reaching unparalleled levels in these times of prudence.
Unfortunately though, for clouts sake, none of their names roll of the tongue, apart from Spanish World Cup winner David Silva. But who says that is a bad thing?
Yaya Toure is inexplicably the highest paid player in the league and that will always be an albatross around his neck. However it should not take away the fact that he is a fantastic midfield player who could add steel and resolve to the City midfield.
But the defence is where City have strengthened the most with two very interesting acquisitions; Jerome Boateng from Hamburg and Aleksander Kolarov from Lazio.
While Boateng’s skills as a defensive all-rounder were on show during the World Cup, Kolarov’s Serbia were dull. The left-back is however a precocious talent, with a fantastic left foot. And he can strike a dead-ball like few others.
Elsewhere, Chelsea seem like emerging from their transfer shell with the wise capture of Brazilian midfield Ramires. Solid and unassuming Ramires is the perfect replacement for Ballack, a tactically astute player who can make others around him tick. The Blues are also seemingly in the frame for Neymar but that is one move that might not materialise.
Manchester United too have focused on young, upcoming talents. Javier
Hernandez, the quick and strong Mexico forward, has arrived from Chivas and one-time homeless World Cup player Bebe is a total unknown endorsed by Carlos Quieroz. And if Rooney can keep up a modicum of last year’s form the title might be heading to Old Trafford this season.
Aston Villa have over the past few seasons threatened the big clubs on a timely basis but the departure of Martin O Niell might signal the break-up of this talented bunch of youngsters. Randy Lerner needs to make some big decisions.
Elsewhere, Fulham have lost Roy Hodgson to Liverpool as the Reds have also roped in Joe Cole as a replacement for Yossi Benayoun, who went the other way. Birmingham and Bolton look solid as ever and midtable safety beckons for them.
Arsenal though represent a conundrum. After managing to hold on to Cesc Fabregas, there is the lingering feeling that this might finally be the year for the Gunners. A talented squad, peppered with some new faces and matured talismans like Andriy Arshavin will look to shake off their nearly-men tag. Mourane Chamakh, might be the final clog in the wheel.
However, the biggest story of the year, regardless of relegation might well be Blackpool and Ian Holloway. Tipped for relegation into the third tier at the start of last season, Ian Holloway’s quirky outfit surprised all by winning the Championship play-off against Cardiff City to bring the Premier League back to this sleepy seaside town for the first time since 1971.
Holloway’s quips and his promise to play like Spain will keep us entertained for the rest of season, even if they go straight back down as most predict.
But then again, stranger things have happened.
Match (es) of the tournament
Argentina 0-4 Germany
Joachim Loew’s young guns comprehensively outthought, outfought and outmaneuvered their supposedly more superior opponents. Germany’s defended resolutely, bossed the midfield and attacked with precision and vigor. Their fourth goal was a class apart. The icing on the cake was that it finally put paid to the overhyping of Argentina and convinced everyone what they already knew, that Maradona as a coach is quite useless.
Italy 2-3 Slovakia
Again, for pure entertainment, nothing beat Slovakia’s renouncement of Italy. End-to-end football and an absolutely topsy-turvy encounter. You did not know it was over till it was over. It had all the elements of great drama as well; the slaying of a giant by an underdog.
Player (s) of the tournament
In descending order:
Xavi Hernandez: With all due respect, Spain would not have won the World Cup with any other player in that position. Ran more yards and made more passes than any other player in the competition. Absolutely imperious. Without Xavi, neither Spain nor Barcelona would be the best teams in the world.
Diego Forlan: In a tournament crying out for an individual hero, Forlan was the closest thing resembling. An absolute titan for Uruguay, and a deserving winner of the Golden Ball. His goal against Germany was a class apart.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: Germany’s Xavi. Louis van Gaal has reinvented Schweinsteiger as a holding midfielder, and he performs the role to excellence. Schweinsteiger was particularly impressive in Germany’s routs of England and Argentina. His tally of passes and yards run was second only to, you guessed it, Xavi. Doesn’t hurt that his WAG is quite stunning!
Goal (s) of the tournament
Fabio Quagliarella’s feather chip against Slovakia. In a game full of highlights, the stunning strike from the Udinese forward took your breath away. Personally, I jumped off my seat, head in hands.
Diego Forlan’s side volley against Germany. Hans-Jorg Butt had no chance, he just watched it crash in. Awesome technique, particularly since everyone else had been complaining about the ball.
Gio van Bronckhorst’s belter in the semifinal. Out of nowhere, from the player you least expected it from. The surprise factor trumps the beauty of the strike.
Biggest disappointment (s)
Fabio Capello. The England manager is a highly-rated tactician and one of the best managers in the world today. His struggles with England show just how much catching up the Three Lions have to do. But that still does not excuse Capello’s insistence to use the 4-4-2, a formation long scrapped to the bin of yesteryear.
Fernando Torres. The Spaniard shows he is more of a club player. Struggled spectacularly and according to statistics was slower than even Gareth Barry. Injury cannot be the only excuse. He also failed to score a single goal in qualifying.
FIFA’s no to technology, or even extra referees. England’s disallowed goal was abysmal.
Personal highlight (s)
Germany’s thrashing of Argentina was a lesson on how to play football and how not to play football.
Larissa Riquelme’s constant promises to strip naked almost had me gunning for Paraguay
My team of the World Cup
Coach: Joachim Loew
(GK) Iker Casillas : His save off Robben in the final alone warrants nomination
(RB) Phillip Lahm: For me, second only to Maicon in this position
(LB) Fabio Coentrao: The most impressive Portuguese player on show
(CB) Gerard Pique: He does not draw comparisons with the Kaiser for nothing
(CB) Diego Lugano: An absolute rock for Uruguay at the back; good at set-pieces
(CM) Bastian Schweinsteiger: Germany’s best player in the finals and a revelation at CM
(CM) Xavi: Few better players in world football; his passing is phenomenal
(LW) David Villa: His best games were out on the left playing off a target man
(CAM) Andres Iniesta: Fleet of foot, quick of thought and Wayne Rooney’s favourite
(RW) Thomas Mueller: Golden Boot winner, playing as a non-striker. Only 20 years old
(ST) Diego Forlan: An absolute titan. Fabulous throughout
TODAY’S World Cup final between Spain and Netherlands will see an eighth champion enter the pantheon of greats. And in that, either or both of the men, who have masterminded their team’s run to the final, will be hailed as great managers and toasted across their respective countries.
It is all fair and good, since Bert van Marwijk and Vicente del Bosque are both fantastic managers and deserve to be lauded. But both men and the imperious Joachim Loew, whose Germany side made it into the semi-finals, will secretly owe a huge debt of gratitude to a poker-faced man in a leafy suburb in Munich.
And somewhere out there, Louis van Gaal will surely be toasting his ideology with a glass of the finest available champagne.
The image of van Gaal and his burning ideology is stamped like a watermark upon these teams. His shadow hangs heavy over all three and all have managed to make it into the final four of the biggest show on earth.
So what is this ideology? What do the Dutch, the Spanish and the Germans have in common, in this World Cup of contrasts?
The answer is that all three teams have an undying devotion to a common philosophy: The need to develop a culture of passing.
Over the course of the last month, much has been made about the spirit, fight and mental bottle of the teams that made it thus far. What has been consistently missed is that all three have an infallible commitment to a passing game that was first developed by Johan Cryuff and more universally applied by Louis van Gaal.
Consider just the players in the final equation. Van Gaal currently coaches Bayern Munich, a club who provided the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller to the tournament. And that is just from the Germany side. The Netherlands have Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel, who work with van Gaal at Bayern and both have been irrepressible in this team.
And there is more. The Spanish have Xavi and Iniesta and both men received their big breaks under Louis van Gaal in his tenure at Barcelona.
On face value, these are all different players in different positions. But what they all have in common, is the unique van Gaal trait; the ability to pass the ball. Under van Gaal, nothing is more important than this. You don’t have to be physically domineering, or prodigiously skilled. Lahm, Xavi and Iniesta are all under six foot. Mueller is hardly the most skilled player in the world.
Individual brilliance too is strictly optional; for all of Robben’s selfish forays, his ability to make swift, sharp passes is one his biggest strengths. Under van Gaal, the rule is simple. If you can pass the ball, at speed over distances, you make his team.
The van Gaal catechism is simple to learn, but hard to master. Do not pass into a team-mate’s feet, it stresses, but always ahead of him to keep the ball moving. When the first man passes to the second man, the third man must already be moving into space ready for the second man’s pass.
In short, football is about making swift passing triangles, over and over again.
Which is why kids at Ajax, Barcelona and now Bayern Munich are stuck in eternal games of four on four; two touches allowed.
It is a formula stereotypically identified as Dutch. And it is true that the Dutch pioneered it, but the Spanish perfected it and the Germans have just recently partaken it.
Van Gaal’s (and for that matter Johann Cryuff’s) influence over the biggest clubs in these countries is well documented. He oversaw the great explosion of Dutch talent from Ajax, perfected Johan Cryuff’s university of passing at Barcelona and at Bayern this season revolutionised their structure of play. On the way, he tweaked things here and there, but the basic remained the same.
And Ajax is where half of these Dutch players got their start, and Barcelona and Bayern contribute the largest quota of players to the top four teams.
The metamorphosis between the three is such that German, Dutch and Spanish football has crossbred to become almost indistinguishable. The Germans pass like Holland in disguise. The Dutch defend and counter-attack like Germans used to. Spain play like Holland circa 2000.
Once the tournament ends, most reviews will focus on the biggest stars. Instead they could do to focus on passing cultures. The Messis, the Ronaldos and the Kakas are all on holiday. And the top three sides all adhere to the ideology of one stony-faced Amsterdammer.
Anyone else doubt that Van Gaal deserves that toast?
The story goes that during David Beckham sojourn at Real Madrid, he was surprised to see Zinedine Zidane take time out after every training session to work on his ball control.
Zidane’s method was simple, even somewhat agricultural. The Frenchman apparently shot the ball up in the air as far as he could and then practiced receiving it, as close to his body as possible. Amazingly straightforward.
And the lesson from this small anecdote is just that.
The greatest players in the world are the ones who can do the simple things the best.
So, step forward Xavi Hernandez. The Spanish midfielder has been the
fulcrum of the La Roja squad who have ambled (there really is no other word for it), their way into the World Cup final.
Spain play a mesmerizing brand of football, idiosyncratic in the maximum, elaborate but at the same time controlling, and believe it or not defensive. One journalist described them as attractively defensive. It is not far off the mark. Spain asphyxiates their opponents. Spain devour their opponents, slowly, steadily, like a boa constrictor eating a rabbit. They don’t attack, but probe, press, and pass. Pass you to figurative death. And Xavi is usually the mastermind of this murder.
Forever plotting behind the scenes, but as imperative and essential as your heartbeat.
Just to give you a measure of Xavi’s anti-hero; when the Barcelona midfielder was included in the top five at the Fifa World Player award ceremony in January 2009, alongside Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Fernando Torres, the British Daily Mail’s headline famously ran: “The best players of the world (and Xavi).
Xavi is a fantastic player, albeit one who lacks the flash of any of his aforementioned glorified compatriots. His genius is not that evident; his innovative moves lack the in-your-face glory of a Messi slalom, or a Ronaldo free-kick, or a Kaka burst at pace.
His genius is in doing the simple things, right, time and time again. Xavi’s genius lies in his passing. “I am basically a passer,” was Xavi’s modest self-assesment. And so he is. He belongs to Barcelona after all. “Receive, pass, offer,” is the simple message, the obsession, a badge of identity that runs right through the club, driven into players from the moment they join. Xavi joined in 1991 and no one represents that obsession better than him.
And it’s not just his passing. It is his vision, his ability to read the game better than his opponents that sets himself apart.
Teammate Dani Alves once famously said, “Xavi plays in the future.” What he meant was that Xavi’s understanding was such that he often knew what the player should do before the other player did himself. His pass then set his teammate up for that exact move.
If Spain are to lift the World Cup on Sunday, much of the credit will go to the likes of Andres Iniesta and David Villa. Many will overlook the contribution of the man they call the metronome.
But the ones who matter will know.
Spanish football expert Sid Lowe wrote an engaging commentary a few months back. He concluded by stating that while Messi may be the best player in the world, without Xavi, he might not be.
Similarly, Spain may be the best team in the world, but without Xavi they would definitely not be.
Somewhere between the 4-1 mauling of South Korea and the inimitable press conferences, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Diego Armando Maradona was a man hurtling irrefutably towards his destiny.
The fortunes of Maradona and the World Cup have been inexorably linked ever since that majestic day in 1986 when he claimed both the ‘Hand of God’ and the greatest World Cup goal ever scored. Crucially though, that was Maradona the player. This, however, is Maradona the coach. So, twenty-four years from the day that a stocky, curly haired young man slalomed his way into enduring memory, a slightly graying 49-year old exited the World Cup in ignominy.
For many, a deity had fallen.
But the truth is that this was always on the cards. Even in their most comprehensive wins, even in all their pretty patterns and even in all that arrogant back-talk there was always the lingering feeling that this Argentina side, really was not up to scratch.
Not that they lacked players in that department. Any side that can leave a Champions League winning goalscorer in Diego Milito on the bench, boasts enough talents to win a trophy. But for every Milito, there was also a Burdisso. And there was really no-one to paper over those cracks.
Lionel Messi is easily the best player in the world. But as the World Cup progressed the Barcelona man increasingly started to develop into a sort of talismanic figure for Argentina fans. Any questions about the suitability of the squad were met with the fact that they possessed the best player in the world.
But at the end, football is a team game, and as Ossie Ardiles so eloquently put it, ’11 individuals cannot better 1 team.’ Which is exactly what happened in the quarterfinal.
The Germans played like a team, each player perfectly complimenting the other. Their movement was impeccable, intelligent and piercing. Every move was worked, reworked and each player knew what the other was supposed to do. Bastian Schweinsteiger, in particular, was impeccable; his passing, distribution and control of the pace of the game completely overwhelming the Argentina midfield.
Argentina were set-up all wrong. Messi playing way too far from goal and often dropping into midfield and even beyond to pick up the ball. It was something the Germans were happy to let him do, since when he faced goal he often saw two banks of four infront of him. And even Messi cannot beat them all. The space he so successfully occupies for Barcelona was filled by Carlos Tevez and Maradona’s favorite player was infuriatingly frustrating. All hustle and bustle, but zero output.
The exact opposite of Thomas Mueller. The Bayern Munich player’s rise to prominence has been nothing short of astronomical. Just last year he was playing in front of a few hundred spectators in the German third division. In March, Maradona seemingly missed his entire 67 minute debut and thought of him as a ball-boy. On Saturday, he played the integral role in kicking the Albiceleste out of the World Cup. He scored the opening goal and provided a spectacular lay-off for Lukas Podolski to square for Miroslav Klose’s opening goal.
Klose bagged another as the Germans ripped the Argentina defence to shreds near the end and his emphatic volley took him to fourteen goals in the World Cup, one short of Ronaldo’s fifteen. With two more definitive games, who will bet against him?
This was supposed to be the match of the tournament. The pseudo-final. But Germany turned it into a veritable mismatch and at the end, Maradona’s facial expression was adequate clue as to the spectacularly depleting fortunes of his squad.
Maradona is crass, undignified and a sore loser, or, charismatic, straight-up and inimitable, depending on who you believe. The truth as always is somewhere in the middle. But he is one of football’s greatest characters. We can’t live with him, but we can’t live without him.
What he is not, is a great manager. It is most likely that Saturday was the end of the Maradona’s reign as Argentina boss. And for that Argentina should be thankful. This group of players is far too talented to go to waste under the tutelage of a man such as Maradona. His appointment itself reeked of irrationality and in the end one hopes that the Argentina federation will learn that nothing, not even aspirations of destiny, beats logic. In the end, Maradona’s greatest achievement as a manager was to convince the watching world that his team could win the World Cup.
For Germany though, the past as ever, holds little currency. It was a magnificent performance but the Germans have a famous saying ‘nach dem spiel ist vor dem spiel.’ Roughly translated it equals to ‘after the game is before the game.’
Sepp Herberger’s famous mantra, should drive them on.
The best team in the world is next. But then so it was in 1954 as well. And look how that turned out.
So since the quarterfinals have now given us some room to breathe, a dissection of the World Cup is in order. So without further ado, here goes.
Most attractive teams:
Germany & Argentina. The two are set to partake in what, on paper atleast, looks to be a feast of football. Both teams have been inconsistent, but if the Argentineans can play as well as they did against South Korea and Greece and if the Germans can replicate the form of Australia and England, this will be a quarterfinal with enduring memory.
Honorable mention to Chile for regaling us with a brand of fiesty attractive, but if somewhat futile football. Long live Bielsa’s naivety.
Most insipid teams:
Portugal & England. For sides boasting the talents of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, both England and Portugal were poor for the length of the tournament. Both men struggled to impose themselves and while Portugal still covered their goalscoring failings by being rock solid at the back, England managed to flunk that department as well. Cue a ‘root & branch’ analysis.
Most dangerous team:
Brazil. They are your old school axe-murderers. One blow and it is all over. Unlike Spain who consistently probe and look for gaps, Brazil spend most of the game passing patiently, keeping possession. They are solid and impermeable at the back, but they counter-attack at a hundred miles an hour. Superb from set-pieces and not lacking in individual quality, the Selecao will take some stopping.
Match of the tournament:
For pure unadulterated drama, Slovakia v Italy. Topsy-turvy encounter, end-to-end football, and like every great game, you never knew it was over, till it was over. Fabio Quagliarella’s sublime strike was the icing on the cake.
Worst match of the tournament:
I think this will be unanimous. Portugal v Brazil. Woeful match by both sides content with a draw. More brawn than beauty on show. Magnificent let-down.
Frank Lampard’s ghost goal & Carlos Tevez’s offside header. Germany and Argentina both received huge slices of luck. In Germany’s case a disallowed goal for England showed the necessity for goalline technology. In Argentina’s case a clear offside missed by officials was the beginning of the end for Mexico.
Biggest WAG controversy:
Despite the likes of Abigail Clancy staying away, the WAGs still managed to permeate the World Cup. Sara Carbonero of Spain and Iker Casillas’ significant other risked the ire of the Spanish press by … just doing her job. Most were upset that she was so close to Casillas during the game, alleging that it made him lose his concentration.
The refereeing has been abysmal. Kaka’s sending off against Ivory Coast a case in point. Fifa’s reluctance to embrace technology or extra referees, also shocking.
Ghana has long been identified as Africa’s best side. But here they showed they can mix it with the best. Tactically perhaps the most accomplished side in the tournament, Ghana is a team full of players who know what they have to do. The match with a similar Uruguay will be exciting.
Story of the World Cup so far
Two words. Diego Maradona. Crass, brilliant and superstition all rolled into one. Is there a bigger superstar in world football than Diego Maradona? (and a worse role model?)
The “omg, this guy is good” player
I won’t say Mesut Oezil, because I have been following him closely for a while now. Nor Thomas Mueller because he just played the Champions League final. My pick is Matias Fernandez. The Chilean playmaker from Sporting, is the straw that stirs the Chilean drink. Cool on the ball, with vision and passing, his importance to the side is illustrated by the fact that Chile lost the only two games he did not play, due to an eerie decision by Marcelo Bielsa.
Last World Cup we had Heidi Klum. This time, Larissa Riquelme takes the cake. Who is betting on a Paraguayan triumph?
World Cup XI
Important to note is that this team was selected on the basis of a formation; 4-2-3-1 in the parlance of the time. So please consider this as the best players for the particular positions as regards their performance in the World Cup, rather than just holistically the best players overall.
Eduardo: Portugal conceded a single goal all tournament and much of this was down to the brilliance of this 27 year old. Was solid all tournament and made some exceptional saves in the game against Spain.
Fabio Coentrao: It was a toss-up between Michel Bastos and the Portuguese, but Coentrao gets the nod because of his impeccable performances so far. The Benfica player has been a standout so far and provides the Portuguese with tactical mobility.
Gerard Pique: Calmness personified at the back, almost Kaiser-ish in his forays into midfield and attack. Very solid in all the games so far despite the blip against Switzerland. The exception who proves the Nike ad ‘epic fail’ rule.
Lucio: Lucio has had some lapses of concentration and he faced stiff competition from Antonin Alcaraz of Paraguay. But Lucio adds much to Brazil’s game with his languid runs from the back.
Maicon: Again, a toss-up between him and Phillip Lahm and the Brazilian is in, by virtue of his quite stunning goal against North Korea. Patrols the right on his own and has done his burgeoning reputation no harm in this World Cup.
Bastian Schweinsteiger: The German has reinvented himself in a new role, and has become the heartbeat of the side. Steady in possession and his distribution has been impeccable. He has made the most number of passes of any player in the World Cup so far.
Javier Mascherano: Did not have the best end of the season at Liverpool but the midfield hardman has shone as Argentinean captain and is one of the key reason that Argentina can play their expansive shape. There have been better players than him this World Cup, but hardly anyone better in this destructor role.
Lionel Messi: Despite not having scored a single goal so far, although he has had the most shots on target, Messi is increasingly the straw that stirs the drink for the Albiceleste. Not much more needs to be said about the best player in the world. He also edges out Mesut Oezil in this role, although the German has been a revelation so far
Andres Iniesta: Whenever Iniesta is fit, Spain have played better. He is full of running, intelligent movement and creativity. Even fit well into his shuttled role on the right-wing. Wayne Rooney called him, ‘the best player in the world.’
Thomas Mueller: His coach calls him cheeky, Maradona called him a ball-boy. But with three goals and three assists Mueller has been directly involved in more goals than any other player in the World Cup. Hard to believe, just last year, he was playing the German third division.
David Villa: Has been outshining his more illustrious teammate Fernando Torres in the World Cup and for much of the period before it. Four goals and is a fair bet to finish top scorer.