Call it fixing a hole if you want, but when I’ve had the chance recently I’ve been watching a lot of old football videos online. Due to my age I never got to see any football on television before around 1989, or in person before 1994. So that means I’ve missed my fair share of important players and moments – don’t blame me; blame my parents I suppose.
I don’t have the patience to watch entire 90-minute matches from decades ago as a routine, but thankfully many other people do. And what’s more, these beautiful bastards cut the videos down to include only individual performances by certain players.
Obviously these videos aren’t the perfect way of sizing up a player, since they don’t capture off-ball movement, and record only his touches – usually in grainy, primitive footage. But they’re bite-sized and ideal for people with short attention spans.
Anyway, what was I talking about?…Oh yeah
So, watching these performances 30, 40 or 50 years after they happened doesn’t suddenly give me licence to talk about people like Pélé or Johan Cruyff with any authority; really, I just feel I’m doing my duty as a fan of the game to check out these players at their peak – so I can pretend to talk about them with authority!
But often without realising I’ve forgiven the greats every time I’ve watched them. If there’s something that looks somehow gauche or unathletic I’d accept automatically that I’m watching a match from a different time, with different standards of skill and physical preparation.
That’s before we talk about tactics. On one of my timid visits to the football pantheon I happened across Franz Beckenbauer, facing England in the momentous encounter during the 1970 World Cup. The man they called the Kaiser would pick up the ball from the ‘keeper and stride forward in his trademark style time and again, riding challenges and threading passes for the attackers.
Something wasn’t right, and it was only when I read the comments underneath the video that I realised what it was; none of the England players were closing him down. Yeah, I learned something from a Youtube comment!
Granted they were playing in searing heat, at an elevation of almost 2,000 metres above sea level, but there seemed to be no interest in halting the progress of one of the best players in the world before he got to around ten yards from the penalty area.
Well of course. I’m a novice at tactics, but, for what I know, pressing wasn’t widely adopted as part of a team strategy at this point. But it’s not like England are standing off him and hoping to clog the area in front of the box either; Beckenbauer’s being given the freedom to lope past an attacker and a couple of midfielders before anyone wondering whether this bloke who’s not half bad at football has gone far enough.
Afforded so much space, it’s not surprising to see Beckenbauer find his teammates so often. One player who seems only to find his teammates a few times during an entire match is the Brazilian winger, Garrincha. In the 1962 World Cup he carried a winning international team to success in a way that no other player has done since, apart from Maradona in 1986.
And such was his popularity that he was known as “The Joy of the People”. In a sport of emperors, princes and galloping majors, Garrincha’s epithet is endearing for its sense of humanity, and the love for the game that it expresses – that a footballer should be a source of gladness for people under an authoritarian regime.
When he’s got the ball you can see how he earned the tag. There can’t have been many more unpredictable players around at the time. By most accounts he made more additions to the dribbling lexicon than any other footballer to have played the game. You probably know this, but his spine was crooked, and one of his knees pointed the wrong way from birth. This is partly what allowed him to change direction in such bewildering ways.
I can remember talking to someone who said he was a football scout in the pub a few years ago. That’s the level of insight you’ve come to expect from one of my posts!
He said that among the first things they assess in a kid are his or her knees and gait. By today’s recruitment standards, Garrincha wouldn’t have got past a minute of assessment. And, if you didn’t already know, his knees did give in, but not until he’d changed the way people thought about how an individual can express himself on a football pitch.
But even in his great performances he gives the ball away far too much for the taste of fans living in the era of possession-obsessed teams.
So I suppose the point – banal as it may be – is that we’ve got to admire these guys for clearing the path for future generations. As late as the 80s, the greats played with leather footballs that would get saturated by water when it rained, toiled on poorly maintained pitches, in matches officiated by referees who often didn’t just overlook but encouraged violence. As I mentioned, these footballers changed what people thought was possible.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Football is evolving, and each innovation is assimilated then eventually countered. The rules have been changed to allow skill and enterprise to flourish – raised boots and tackles from behind earn straight reds and backpasses are illegal. We have better guidelines for developing youngsters, technically and physically. We know the importance of mental and tactical preparation. Garrincha would step onto the pitch without knowing who his opponent would be!
They also face teams that are better drilled, and systems that are more detailed. Coaches now spend hours poring over video footage. Arsenal employ people fulltime to compile videos. Personified, its culture might be morbidly obese and on life-support, but on-pitch, standards are higher than they’ve ever been. But then that’s just natural.