Of all the advertising relating to the World Cup, there is one piece that has captured the imagination. Nike’s ad entitled ‘write the future’ has over 13 million hits on YouTube to date and has been described as the ‘perfect football advert’. Incorporating a host of World Cup stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, it’s a thrilling three minute ride dramatising the significance of seemingly insignificant moments – these are the players that will write the future (although embarrassingly only some will have the chance – Ronaldinho and Theo Walcott failed to make their final squads).
However, perhaps amongst all the idolisation and infatuation with Nike’s soccer deities, as they’re depicted, we might be guilty of forgetting something that is more relevant than ever before, that soccer is inherently a team game. It is not about who has the best superstar. In the modern game in particular, it is about who has built the best squad, with the most options, and an effective ‘plan B’.
In previous eras substitutes were not allowed other than to replace injured players, and this created a type of soccer where fewer players represented each team – England used only four additional players from the 11 that started their first match to win the World Cup in 1966. One substitution was introduced into the rules at Mexico 1970, but the approach remained where most players were ever-present throughout the tournament.
Teams therefore had a particular style of play that suited the 11 players normally in the team, often with a star player as the focal point. Pele’s triumphant 1970 Brazil side knew only how to play one way, their mesmerising passing and dribbling epitomised by an iconic team goal in the final, finished by captain Carlos Alberto after Pele’s nonchalant pass. Similarly, the Dutch developed their unique brand four years later, as Johan Cruyff became the central cog in the Netherlands’ ‘total soccer’ machine, where players interchanged positions freely in a fluid system of which Cruyff played conductor.
However, the idea of adopting a sole, definitive style appears to be fading. There are many world class players at the tournament who are expected to play roles predominantly from the bench. Argentina’s exciting forward Sergio Aguero is set for a place as a substitute despite helping Atletico Madrid to Europa Cup success this season, likewise Spain’s skilful duo from Valencia, Juan Mata and David Silva. And France captain Thierry Henry has already accepted his fate: “I had a chat with the coach and I he told me I wouldn’t be starting against Tunisia. We’re not here to know who will and won’t play…no-one is above the team.” As the importance of the whole squad increases, so the need for one particular playing style, like that of Pele’s Brazil or Cruyff’s Netherlands, diminishes. The modern brand, then, is adaptability.
And with adaptability has come the development of the ‘super-sub’ – the player that can regularly change a game with a late entrance. Manchester United’s greatest success, winning the treble in 1999, was in no small part due to 3rd choice striker Ole Gunner Solskjaer, who won the Champions League final with his famous last-gasp winner from the bench, one of many late-shows – as David Beckham said, “I’ll never forget the day he came on as a sub at Forest and within 10 minutes had scored four goals”. And, remarkably, in the 2010 African Cup of Nations the top goal-scorer was a little-known Egyptian, Gedo – who didn’t start a single game, but came on from the bench with devastating effect, netting five goals.
The World Cup is just days away and following the announcements of the 32 23-man squads, it is of course the superstars that take the inevitable hype. The world’s billboards are smattered with the faces of Rooney and Ronaldo. Talk of injuries to star Africans Essien and Drogba have had the host continent gripped, whilst Argentina – and the rest of the world – continue to speculate on whether Leonel Messi can bring his Barca brilliance to the greatest international stage. But while the cameras zoom-in on the superstar, keep an eye out for the super-sub – he may just write the future.
A List of Potential Super Subs for the 2010 World Cup
Robbie Findley - USA
The forward was a surprise inclusion in Bob Bradley’s final 23-man squad but came off the bench in the recent warm-up game against Turkey to cause problems for their defence, scoring the winning goal. Has searing pace which could turn out a secret weapon for the US.
Sergio Aguero/Angel Di Maria - Argentina
With the likes of Leonel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higauin at his disposal, coach Diego Maradona will have at least one of these two on the bench. But don’t expect them to stay there long if things aren’t going well, both have bags of skill and create a lot of chances for hungry strikers – they will be a major threat when introduced late on against a tiring defence.
Thierry Henry - France
With the younger Frank Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff expected to carry the French creative threat from the start of games, their captain’s wise head will most likely be used to make a late impact. Has never truly shone on the international stage and could be his last chance.
Peter Crouch/Jermaine Defoe - England
England coach Fabio Capello likes to play with two strikers, and as Wayne Rooney is a certainty to start, there is only space for one of these two alongside him. At 6’7” Crouch has proved a very effective weapon for Capello and has a remarkable scoring record for England, 21 goals in 38 appearances, far better than Rooney’s 25 in 60. Defoe has been tipped to make an impact from the bench as he did in qualifying so look out for his pace and deadly finishing if called upon.
Klaas Jan Huntelaar -The Netherlands
Not so long ago ‘the hunter’ appeared to be heading for the top of the game after scoring 33 goals in 34 games for Ajax in 07-08 season. But after failing to meet expectations following a big money move to Real Madrid, he now finds himself plying his trade with AC Milan. Robin Van Persie is expected to lead the line for the Dutch in South Africa, but Huntelaar could be the man to turn to when things aren’t going well.
Javier Hernandez - Mexico
Nicknamed Chicharito (the little pea), the diminutive striker has scored plenty of goals for Guadalajara in Mexico, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed, earning a call up to the Mexican squad despite only having one cap to his name. The 22 year-old recently confirmed he will be joining Manchester United next season, and will no doubt looking to impress with any opportunity he gets.
Juan Manuel Mata - Spain
Spain have a strong squad with lots of options, particularly in attack. The likes of Barcelona’s Pedro and Sevilla’s Jesus Navas will prove very useful, but the surprise package for Spain could well be Valencia’s Mata. The 22 year-old’s direct running at defenders always causes problems and his left foot is one of the best around.
Update: Once a super-sub, Chicharito is now the all-time leading goal scorer for Mexico:
Lawrence Ostlere is a freelance writer and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org