By Lawrence Ostlere
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.
Robbie Findley – USA
Sergio Aguero/Angel Di Maria – Argentina
Thierry Henry – France
Peter Crouch/Jermaine Defoe – England
Klaas Jan Huntelaar -The Netherlands
Javier Hernandez – Mexico
Juan Manuel Mata – Spain
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: email@example.com
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