Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and Ribery: Individual Stars Will Bring World Cup Thrills

Jonathan WilsonFeatured ColumnistDecember 3, 2013


There are two competing movements in football. On the one hand, there is tactical evolution, which for almost half a century has been increasingly moving in the direction of greater cohesiveness and team play, prioritising the structure and the system beyond all else. And on the other, there is the cult of the individual, the star player who seems so attractive to the mega-investors who are taking over the game at a top European level.

Occasionally the two coincide—as at Barcelona or Bayern Munich—but for many, including for instance, Arrigo Sacchi, the focus on individuality is stifling tactical innovation.

At club level, certainly in the Champions League, system tends to winBayern Munich, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea were all sides that prioritised system, while Real Madrid, with their band of brilliant but disparate talents, have so far found the semi-final the limit. Paris Saint-Germain may face the same problem.

But at international level, the game is rather different. Systems take time to develop, far more than the week or so six times a year that international managers are afforded. The three weeks coaches usually get before a tournament help—and Roy Hodgson has already said he is relishing the prospect of that time to do proper structural work with his team—but essentially national teams play far less systematised football than club sides.

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - FEBRUARY 06:  Lionel Messi of Argentina in action during the International Friendly match between Sweden and Argentina at the Friends Arena on February 6, 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

If a national team draws the bulk of its players from one or two clubs—as is the case with Spain and Germany; if they've been together for a long time—as is the case with Chile and Uruguay; or if time can somehow be created for lengthy preparation—something South Korea benefited from in 2002, then that can help the process of systematisation but, generally speaking, individuals are more important at national level than they are at club level.

That’s also—although you hesitate to make the predication given the potential for injuries—why this World Cup promises to be rather better than the three that have gone before. This is an age of an unusual number of great attacking talents.

Argentina have won nothing since 1993, but at last they have in Alejandro Sabella a coach prepared to be pragmatic and essentially create a platform for Lionel Messi. Brazil’s tactical template is essentially designed to give Neymar free rein. France rely on Franck Ribery. Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat-trick against Sweden in the second leg of their play-off was a remarkable individual feat, but it had to be, given the sense of the team as 10 plus one. Joao Moutinho proved in that game he has the capacity to supply the ammunition, but Ronaldo is needed to fire it.

DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 23: Franck Ribery of France controls the ball infront of Alvaro Arbeloa of Spain during the UEFA EURO 2012 quarter final match between Spain and France at Donbass Arena on June 23, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine.  (Photo by Laurence Grif
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Then there are the players who are more strikers than attacking midfielders, for paradoxically the age that gave us the false nine has also generated a series of exceptional strikers.

Radamel Falcao, although out of sorts at Monaco, was instrumental in Colombia’s qualification. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani offer such a threat that Uruguay can effective sit the eight other players behind the ball. Belgium need at least one of Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku to fire. The Netherlands, such a bastion of systematic football, are reliant on the striking power of Robin van Persie. Even England, doggedly systematic althoughHodgson’s side will beare likely to require Wayne Rooney to be on song if they are to make significant progress.

This isn't a return to the '50s, when the game really was about players beating their direct opponents, but the nature of the international game and sheer number of gifted forward players around at the moment means there could be something old-fashioned about this World Cup. In fact given the negativity and stodginess of much of the football, there probably needs to be something old-fashioned about it.

If Brazil 2014 thrills, it will almost certainly because of a return to the age of the individual.