The dance of the virtuoso: Lessons from the World Cup

The platitude of football being a team game has been heard by everyone, but we are conditioned to focus on individuals in brilliance and failure. This World Cup has taught us a few things on that.
The likes of Messi and Ronaldo are such giant personalities that their team and their motive almost gets dwarfed in the hysteria around them.
The likes of Messi and Ronaldo are such giant personalities that their team and their motive almost gets dwarfed in the hysteria around them, and eventually suffer, like at Russia. (Art by Charbak Dipta)

A motionless Cristiano Ronaldo staring blankly into the distance, on the verge of tears. An exhausted Lionel Messi dejectedly rubbing his face. These are probably the final images of their World Cup careers. But there’s no time for us to mourn the two greatest players of our generation and their failure to lead their nations to glory. This is the best outcome our sport could ask for.

Football is a team sport. This sentence gets repeated a lot, but its meaning has been continuously morphing as the football world progresses. Upon a first reading, we take the statement as an obvious declaration. As we think about it further, though, we begin to understand its true intent.

When we evoke the highlights of the European season just passed, what memories are triggered? Mohamed Salah’s goal-scoring exploits. Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale’s overhead kicks. Loris Karius’ concussion-induced errors. Apart from Guardiola’s Manchester City and Sarri’s Napoli, our highlight reel is full of individual brilliance and individual failure. For years we’ve been trained to worry about one or two of the players instead of the whole.

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It’s not entirely our fault. Sports media – specifically tabloids – choose to unabashedly scapegoat players instead of the entire team. The average fan knows no better but to believe the Sun or the Daily Mail when they bash a specific player. So when a team like Portugal or Argentina possesses a player with extreme, peer-ascending talent, we are tricked into focusing too much of our attention on them.

And now, with Ronaldo, Messi, Lewandowski, Özil, or Salah failing to make it to the later stages of the World Cup, we can finally talk business.

The true indicator of a team’s success is its ethos and the way it is implemented. Any fan of Manchester United can tell you, they’ve had some tremendous players over the past years, but a string of poor manager appointments led to unexpectedly poor league results and even worse football. The same concept applies two-fold to international football; teams are commonly packed with talent but are only allotted a few weeks to practice together. This is in large part why teams with great talent but poor management have failed in Russia.

No team knows the importance of a thematic structure better than Sweden. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic attracts media attention in Los Angeles, his home nation has left him behind in search of a more cohesive squad. When Sweden defeated Switzerland in the Round of 16, it was coach Janne Andersson who received the fans’ plaudits, something unforeseen in modern times.

“Football is a team game, and we are a team and we must never forget that. I am happy they were calling my name, but maybe it’s because I was a symbol for this team, which personifies the approach I want to take. I can live with being a symbol, but that is all I am. It’s not about me, it’s about the team.” – Janne Andersson (ESPN.com)

On the final group day, as the Germans entangled themselves with in-fighting, the Swedes went out and dominated group-toppers Mexico. Now, both Thomas Müller and Chicharito are home while Sweden move on. It’s not because Andersson has a world-class team at his disposal, but because they have a plan and they’ve stuck to it. One Reddit user wrote “We’re sh*t. But we bring our opponents down to our level and beat them with experience.”

Sweden are not a bad team, but their pragmatic style can often lead to low-scoring, unexciting matches. Teams packed with star power are often unable to adapt to this, and before they know it the favorites have conceded a goal and lost 0-1. Just ask Italy. Or the Netherlands. Or the Swiss. It’s like a 90 minute chess match featuring a world champion up against a semi-pro, but the latter has managed to get his foe drunk and unable to think straight.

Uruguay have, in the same vein as Sweden, bowed out in the quarterfinals but surprised opponents with their ethos. However, theirs is an ethos of La Garra Charruá: the country’s eternal fighting spirit.

Like Sweden, the Uruguayans bring their opponents down to their level. Staunch defending combined with quick attacking spurts often leaves teams frustrated and ultimately defeated. “I think we played a good game and maybe we deserved more,” said Ronaldo after Portugal’s 2-1 loss to Uruguay, “but in football the ones that score the most goals win and they scored two.” The nation of three million tends to leave the opposition with a feeling that they did play well but ultimately came up short.

In 2010, when Luis Suárez blocked a Ghanaian goal with his hand, or in 2014 when Suárez once again bit his opponent in the heat of the moment, we got a glimpse at what Uruguayan football is all about. Not that it is dirty or full of cheats, mind you, but that the environment is one of pressure. To have such a small group of people expect, nay, demand that you to compete and defeat the world’s best is simply beyond comprehension.

This works both in and out of their favour. Against Saudi Arabia and Egypt, La Celeste struggled to create much of anything. They played with their usual tenacity, but in a way were brought down to their opponents’ levels. Yet, in the first knockout round, the intelligent and skilful Portuguese were pulled down to the level of the Uruguayans. Like the Swedes, Oscar Tabárez’s side threatens the opposition with defensive organisation, not flashy players.

“I mean, really, seriously, where did all those cops come from, huh?… In one minute there were seventeen blue boys out there. All loaded for bear, all knowing exactly what the f**k they were doing, and they were all just there!” – Mr. Pink, Reservoir Dogs

Across the competition, we can find similar examples of teams with planned-out identities. Japan – perennially underrated on the world stage – proved that technical brilliance and persistence can cause a few upsets. The work ethic across the pitch for the Russians lifted the lowest-rated team in the tournament to the final eight. Iceland’s preparation and concentration managed to deny Argentina any chance of topping the group.

The evidence is quite compelling: teams with a strong sense of unity and tactical cohesion are just as good as they are underrated. If we didn’t know it before, we have certainly been made aware of it throughout the past month. More so, the success of these synchronic teams shows how little power one (or nine) skilful players have on a match outcome.

Take Russia versus Spain. The Spanish hogged the ball for 120 minutes, millionaires passing horizontally back and forth, back and forth. In the end, it didn’t matter that David Silva is quite possibly the best creator in world football, or that Sergio Ramos had nearly as many accurate passes as the entire Russian squad. What mattered was that Russia stood their ground for the entire two hours, sturdily defending before taking the occasional chance in Spain’s half. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

Messi tried tooth and nail, but couldn't get Argentina through to any form of success at the World Cup, mostly because his team had forgotten how to function and relied solely on him to pull all the strings.
Messi tried tooth and nail, but couldn’t get Argentina through to any form of success at the World Cup, mostly because his team had forgotten how to function and relied solely on him to pull all the strings.

Argentina fell into the same trap against Iceland. They kept prodding the Icelandic final third, waiting for a gap to appear. Defending against Messi and his compatriots is no easy task, but Iceland knew exactly what they were doing. They had it planned out months in advance. Years, in fact. All it took was a lapse in Argentina’s concentration for Alfreð Finnbogason to pull Iceland level.

For years, we’ve been trained to focus on specific players. Publication agendas, business sponsorships, and a general laziness on the part of analysts have all contributed to this apparent issue. But I’d prefer to think of this 2018 World Cup as a sort of detox from that mindset, a spiritual healing process in the form of sports entertainment.

Let’s get rid of our bad habits as football fans, viewers, and supporters. It’s about time that we start watching the game for what it really is, not for the personalities and individuals on the television. Football is a team sport, and that has never been more true than it is this summer.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.