WHEN JOHAN CRUYFF DESCRIBED the basis of Total Football, he really described team football in two sentences: “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.” With a history of talismanic and mercurial superstars, football is still a game that celebrates the individual whose brilliance is only made possible by the team. When Rinus Michels introduced the world to Total Football and Pep Guardiola made it trendy again, the ostensible fact that weathered the test of individualism is the variant philosophies both universally revered, bring success to both teams and individuals whose brilliance aligns with the team concept. If Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi fails to implement the philosophy of the team, they don’t have their medals, trophies, and titles.
My earliest introduction to football was playing pickup games in an abandoned lot with cracks in the concrete in San Jose. The only sign of anything resembling grass were these veins of defiant weeds poking through the concrete. Dust and cinder often covered the plot of land, creating a film of brownish red earth that stained our shoes and clothes. Games were frenetic and teams were hastily sorted by pitting those who spoke Spanish fluently against those who didn’t. It was here I first saw a tricky player bypass his teammates to execute a successful rainbow flick during a game. It was also here where I saw the defender take exception to such a display of showboating and clatter the showoff, mercilessly chopping him down on concrete before standing over the dazed player and kicking some Californian dust into his face.
The tricky players naturally placed themselves against those who refused to be toyed with in front of everyone. Beating someone with pace on the dribble or performing a deceptive move was not only acceptable, it was even encouraged. But therein lied an unspoken rule and a near-invisible line many unknowingly crossed. Showboating. Players attempting to humiliate others didn’t last long. Games could last for hours, or if the collective blood was boiled beyond a safe simmer games ended in minutes, usually with a punch-up or a ball being punted over the fence in anger. On rare occasions things ended on peaceful terms.
The street game wasn’t all dust-ups, but like many formative experiences, one entered soft as a wad of dough and exited carved of stone. Navigating the waters of the sport, players either evolve or devolve. The ball had to move fast and the mind had to move even faster. Away from this proving ground, I played in an organised team where the game was littered with enticements to play for you over the team. Parents barking orders of selfishness from the sidelines bled over the lines of the pitch and possessed teams to become eleven individuals. Those playing purely for themselves often found themselves playing by themselves. Those buying into a team’s philosophy generally had a place to play. But doesn’t football need differentiators?
I remember the first time I watched Ossie Ardiles roll the ball up his right leg and flick it forward over his head to a teammate during the match between the Allies and the Germans in the film Escape to Victory. I immediately found myself in the back yard repeatedly trying to emulate the feat, hoping to learn the trick so I could use it in a game. I never thought about using it to embarrass an opponent, it just was a skill I had to learn. At all levels the game screams out for those special talents to do what others simply can and will not do.
However, a societal problem exists that has seemingly conditioned the majority of players to believe they are that difference maker, that they are the star. Make no mistake, real talent is showcased as it rises to the top of a player pool. But today’s youth player is inundated with an inflated sense of entitlement that the game owes them something. I assure you, football doesn’t owe any of us a thing.
Is this shift generational? Modern football has become the stage for exhibitionists. At the youth level, team concepts often take the backseat to the individual flair. Anyone who grew up watching and admiring Total Football knew the team was the star. The sum was greater than the parts. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides have used the power of the team over the reliance of the individual; even with Messi’s prolific rate of goal scoring, the functionality is made possible by cohesiveness within the team philosophy. Football, like many activities, has reached a precipice where the millennial generation that, according to U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Millennial Generation Review, “masters self-expression, with 75% creating a profile on a social networking site, 20% posting a video of themselves online… There is also a trend toward personal branding, which, on its surface, appears self-promoting.”
The ethos of team play has been replaced as the locus of control shifting away from the collective towards that of the individual. In Dan Rothwell’s book In the Company of Others, An Introduction to Communication, individualism and individualistic culture is defined as, “Oriented around the self, independent instead of identifying with a group mentality. They see each other as only loosely linked, and value personal goals above that of the group. Individualistic cultures tend to have a more diverse population, and are characterised with emphasis on personal achievements, and a rational assessment of both the beneficial and detrimental aspects of relationships with others.”
For all intents and purposes, today’s game is at risk of losing its edge. Individual defenders often overplay their own abilities, hoping to be seen as attacking assets whilst forgetting their defensive responsibilities and role within the team. The game’s lower levels are rife with young goalkeepers turning routine saves into “Kodak Moments” with exaggerated dives and unnecessary punches when simple play would suffice. The average academy showcase is littered with midfielders who repeatedly spurn opportunities to combine with other players, each assuming they are the libero. Strikers romp around, opting to bark orders while resisting doing any of the grunt work because what they see on television is the end product, not the sixty-yard, lung-searing run a professional forward makes to put his head where others put their boots attempting to score.
Much of this can be traced back to poor coaching, parenting and playing methodologies. Perhaps there’s an increase in players who played more football on the digital fields of video games than outside at the park. At youth games, it’s entirely evident amid the chaotic mob of parents shouting out nonsense framed as “encouragement” or “instruction” to individuals. Seldom does a parent encourage someone else’s son or daughter.
On the biggest stage, individualism is trumped by collectivism as evidenced at the World Cup. The world watched a solemn Lionel Messi ascend the stairs of the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro to collect the Golden Ball Award reserved for the World Cup’s best player. A happy but humble Manuel Neuer then walked up to collect the Golden Glove award. These two icons representing two of world football’s international powers seemed to understand one indisputable notion — these individual prizes meant nothing compared to the one shared by the team — the World Cup trophy. Messi, shackled with the stodgy responsibility to emulate Diego Maradona by bringing the World Cup back to the Albicelestes sulked back into the weary and disparaging Argentine side. Neuer, handing off the individual trophy with nonchalance, eagerly joined Die Mannschaft to hoist its fourth World Cup trophy — as a team.
Football’s entanglement with individual-centred recognition has undoubtedly highlighted the brilliance of the game’s greats. Football needs individuals that separate from the crowd, become superhuman for a fleeting moment, and to steal the spotlight. But has the influx of individual awards, titles, and honours such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or, Golden Glove, Golden Boot, Best Young Player Award, FIFA Ferenc Puskás Award, and even the Man of the Match accolade, placed the game at a precipice where individual performances, statistics and honours damage the team ethic to the point that recognition of all eleven players is impossible?
A player with the global appeal and skill of Neymar, for instance, embodies a new brand of Brazilian player, an archetype that balances the hope of football’s most successful country between his shoulder blades in such a way that Atlas, the primordial Titan tasked with holding up celestial spheres, might just empathise with. When an injured Neymar writhed on the pitch during Brazil’s quarter-final match against Colombia, Brazil, its fans, and its team abandoned the team ethos. Brazil lost against Germany during the Colombia match and their subsequent mourning of Neymar’s injury with shirts reading “Força Neymar” prior the semi-final against the Germans confirmed that a generation tilt had indeed occurred. The game was over before it started. The disconsolate Brazilians showed the team ethic was merely a phrase lacking the sinew to hold it together collectively, professionally, and nationally. The Brazilian teams of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would have scoffed at the notion of allowing one player’s omission to dictate the team’s and collective nation’s fate.
During the 1962 World Cup when Pelé was injured against Czechoslovakia in the second match of the group stage, the emergence of Amarildo and contributions of Garrincha helped carry the Brazilians to their second World Cup title. As the star in the 1958 World Cup, Pelé’s absence called for solidarity, not a state of mourning. The great Dutch teams playing Total Football decimated teams through collective play. It is also through the function of the collective team that allowed players like Johan Cruyff, deployed as a centre-forward, to float freely and pop up in unconventional areas of the pitch to devastating effect against rigid opposition locked in formations that exposed their one-dimensional limitations.
Football is as much a business as it is a sport. Naturally, in any competitive sport, the best players stand out. But nowhere does a footballer’s image become inflated with corporate helium more than in a football advertisement. As the world has grown “smaller” in the footballing sense, the pendulum has shifted to the celebration of the individual “product”. Nike, Adidas, Puma, and a slew of other brands elevate the individual on our screens to sell merchandise or a pair of football boots. You’ve seen the ads, Cristiano Ronaldo running full clip down a blue screen-created pitch, dodging tackles from a faceless opposition, highlighting his skills to reinforce the individualistic culture of football. Or, take this past summer’s Nike commercial placing the likes of Rooney, Neymar, Ronaldo, David Luiz, and even Zlatan Ibrahimović against emotionless, stoic, and malevolent versions of each individual. The individual is celebrated and caricatured to the point of obvious mockery.
Juxtapose this with a 1996 Nike advert pitting yesterday’s stars like Eric Cantona, Paolo Maldini, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Rui Costa, Ronaldo and Ian Wright playing against a sinister squad of demonic creatures as a team. The action of the piece shows football’s greats working together, passing the ball, showing their individual brilliance and collective strength culminating in the iconic last frame with Eric Cantona’s famous, “Au Revoir” line before vanquishing the Devil with a venomous shot. Perhaps the early iterations of football adverts celebrated team ethics, like the famous commercial showing the Brazilian national team running through the airport passing the ball wildly. Individual brilliance enmeshed into the team’s purpose, not the other way around.
Football houses countless subcultures, and coaches understand that the individualistic culture can dominate the modern game. It’s entirely possible the individual has always been the catalyst in football, but it’s also evident that even the most talismanic figures of the global game require a supporting cast. Today’s young player differs very little from yesterdays in that he wants to be great. The difference, however, is today’s player is exposed to so many examples of “great” that the process is sacrificed for the end product.
I once asked Dutch street football legend, Edward van Gils, what makes a street footballer so creative and he said, “Skilful players are mostly street players because the play from an early age on the streets because they love it! Plus, most of these players don’t have money for Xboxes and Playstations, so basically street football is the only way to escape reality and be happy. These are kids that aren’t as easy to coach because they come from a totally different world that needs time, understanding, and good guidance.”
For every panna, rainbow flick, back heel and pirouette, the celebration of the individual lives in football. The game is about entertainment. Without entertainment, the game suffers. Supporters attend and tune-in to be entertained and players are obliged to satisfy this demand. The beautiful game is known as such because of the mercurial talents that radiate creativity and unrivalled brilliance. But, the beautiful game is beautiful because of the players who grease the gears of the machine play. One of the best pieces of advice I received as a player was, “Some people play the piano; others carry the piano. The same is true in soccer. When players don’t know their role and limitations, the game suffers. Know and own your role before you step across that white line, son.”
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3