Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Take Me to Your Leader

Les Murray penned an interesting piece on the World Game site a few days ago, lamenting the dearth of real on-field leaders in the modern game. Although I think he overstates his case a little, he has a point.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his example, has always been an individualist, and has never looked like possessing any leadership qualities, for all his sublime skills. So much was amply in evidence both at the 2006 World Cup and EURO 2008, where he failed to inspire the Swedish side when the chips were truly down. Just this weekend, there was another example of Ibra's essentially egocentric approach to football when he was teed up for a shot by a fine byline run and cutback from Mario Balotelli: sending his shot against the post, he spent the succeeding seconds agonising over his miss, failing to properly acknowledge Balotelli's constructive lead-up work.

It should be added that later in that game against Reggina he scored a breathtaking individual goal, underlining the fact that he doesn't have to be a great leader to be of inestimable value to Inter.

Les, like the strident Paul Gardner of World Soccer magazine, places the blame for the lack of charismatic players on the rising power of coaches. I've never quite accepted this view, partly because authoritarian coaches have been around for a long time, and one could argue that the likes of Helenio Herrera and Brian Clough were more domineering than any of today's touchline hollerers.

There are other reasons, for my money. One is the fact that football is increasingly becoming a young man's game, with players over thirty finding it ever harder to keep up with the pace of modern football. Younger players, of course, generally find it harder to exude an air of real authority.

And it is sadly true that "making it" in the modern game requires such dedication that the top players have typically had little time for the education (in the broader sense of the word) and life experience that helps engender leadership qualities.

But it's worth asking: is it really a bad thing?

The great leaders always provide the game with some lustre, but they have been responsible for some of the more unsavoury moments in the history of the sport as well. Les rightly counts Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer among the game's great generals, but they could both be petulant to an embarrassing degree. Cruyff's childish ranting at the referee in the 1974 World Cup final, and Beckenbauer's decision to moon some jeering fans at the same event, are not easily forgotten (or forgiven).

Closer to home, what about the "example" provided by Melbourne Victory's undoubted leader, Kevin Muscat, in the A-League grand final? Badgering the referee from the outset, he was lucky to find in Matthew Breeze a weak-willed accomplice, and there was little doubt that Muscat's overbearing antics had a distinct effect on some of the decisions...one in particular.

The leaders have their virtues, without doubt. Alfredo di Stefano, Danny Blanchflower, Michel Platini and others like them will always be remembered fondly. But a charismatic captain can be a mixed blessing for the game at large.

Teams also become completely dependant on the charismatic leader (eg a Steven Gerrard at Liverpool) rather than taking a collective responsibility. Note an Argentina with Maradona in 86 and 90 and how badly they fell apart in 94 post-expulsion after producing breathtaking football in the group stages. Also note how Italy did not win a world cup without the standout personalities of Baggio and Baresi at the height of their powers and influence, but did so with a much more levelled team. Teams and countries like Italy like to truly believe in their guiding lights and overwhelming influences but, in reality, tend to historically perform and achieve better results in big tournaments without them.
It's also related to loyalty, which doesn't really exist these days. Someone like a Roy Keane can become a charismatic leader and boss because he stayed at the one club for so long and came to be associated with it and respected by everyone there (of course the relationship with the manager helped too). Now it's more likely for players to move on after a couple of seasons and never get the chance to work their way up to becoming a true leader of a club.

Frank mentioned Transfer Request Steve who is not even the most charismatic 'leader' but by staying at one place for so long and earning the respect of everyone at the club has become somewhat of a leader.
"Note an Argentina with Maradona in 86 and 90 and how badly they fell apart in 94 post-expulsion after producing breathtaking football in the group stages."

I agree with your central point but I don't think this is quite fair. Argentina's dependence on Maradona should have hurt them for good in 1990 when they hardly deserved to go anywhere near so far. The 1994 team actually recovered pretty damn well I thought watching back on the Romania game, which was arguably the best of the tournament and in which they were burned by superb counter-attacking. They had as much misfortune (a very tough draw in hindsight too) as the fortune enjoyed in 1990 and even 1986. And while their struggles in qualifying for the US without Maradona is well documented, the Argies had been quite successful for the couple of years without him before then.

Italy with the likes of Baggio and Baresi not winning in 1990 says more for bad luck than the team not being levelled enough, IMHO, although it was the other way around in 1994.
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