Glenn Moore: In this era of Lionel Messi v Cristiano Ronaldo, it is necessary to recall stars need a team to help them shine

THE WEEKEND DOSSIER

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The Independent Football

There is no “i” in team” is one of the motivational phrases most beloved of those coaches who like to decorate their training grounds with aphorisms, to which the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Cristiano Ronaldo might respond, “but there is in ‘winning’”.

There is also one in “marketing” and, as Jose Mourinho – for once in agreement with Arsène Wenger – noted this week, the focus on individual achievement within the team sport of football is invidious and growing.

“In this moment football is losing a little bit the concept of the team to focus more on the individual,” said the Chelsea manager. “For me, football is collective. The individual is welcome if you want to make our group better. But you have to work for us, not we have to work for you.”

There have always been star players, from Steve Bloomer through Dixie Dean to Tommy Lawton. The oldest individual award, the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, was first presented in 1948, to Stanley Matthews, who knew well enough his own star value. However, in recent years there has developed a plethora of awards, and a culture of glorification around them. Even in the Under-8s there is often a man-of-the-match award and while these do not have the hoopla which surrounds the Ballon D’Or, and smart coaches find a way to share honours out, the principle is the same.

 

And yet there is no denying individual talents can turn a game – it is why star players can be paid five times as much as team-mates. ‘One-man teams’ are especially prevalent in kids’ football in which advanced players can run riot.

Individuals are less able to dictate games in the professional arena as disciplined opponents will focus on negating them, but a great player can still transform a team. This was underscored the same day Mourinho’s observations emerged when Wales reached their highest Fifa world ranking of 22nd. Whilst Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams and others have undoubtedly played important parts, along with manager Chris Coleman, the Principality’s rise from 116th four years ago is largely due to the impact of one man: Gareth Bale.

When Bale was a schoolboy, his teacher, to both help his development and give other pupils a chance, would restrict him to playing one-touch, or only using his weaker right foot. Even though he now operates at the elite level he still has that priceless ability to seize matches and bend them to his will. So far Wales have scored seven goals in Euro 2016 qualifying, Bale has scored four of them and created two others. The exception is David Cotterill’s goal at home to Cyprus, and that was a cross the goalkeeper misjudged.

Watching Wales in this qualifying campaign, one of the notable aspects is how committed Bale is to the cause. He may be a class apart but he is playing for the team, not himself, which in itself lifts the side. As with Andy Murray’s passionate involvement in the GB Davis Cup team, having a great player fighting your corner can be hugely motivating for more ordinary mortals.

This is not to deny Bale appears to relish being the go-to man at Wales, the one others look to for inspiration, just as he was in his final season at Tottenham. This is not the case at Real Madrid where he is just part of a constellation of stars, and certainly not the brightest. The front six that thrashed Granada 9-1 last weekend was one of the most gifted in the game’s history: Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, James Rodriguez,  Karim Benzema, Ronaldo and Bale. All stars in their own right, but one outshining the rest, as Ronaldo proved in scoring five of those nine goals.

Real, though, are not a one-man team any more than Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Chelsea are. One aspect of the modern game is that, increasingly, only at international level do one-man teams exist because in the club game those individuals eventually end up at the same few clubs.

There is no obvious contemporary equivalent to Matt Le Tissier’s importance to Southampton in the 1990s. Steven Gerrard has a similar status with Liverpool, but while he has occasionally won matches seemingly by himself, for most of Gerrard’s time at Anfield there have been other matchwinners in the team, from Robbie Fowler to Raheem Sterling.

At club level, great players at small teams move on; great players at big teams have team-mates to match. At international level, transfers are not possible, so when a genius emerges at a makeweight nation he has to make the best of it.

Many have. In 1994 Hristo Stoichkov guided Bulgaria to the World Cup semi-finals and Gheorghe Hagi helped Romania to the last eight. In both cases these are those nations’ best World Cup finishes. George Weah was unable to get Liberia to that stage, but the only times the Lone Stars have qualified for the African Cup of Nations Weah was in the team (and, indeed, often paid their travel costs).

More relevant for Bale, perhaps, is that Wales’ only appearance at the World Cup, in 1958, came with John Charles, the nation’s greatest ever player, in the team. Had the “Gentle Giant” been fit to play the quarter-final against Brazil, Wales might have delayed Pele’s ascent to global stardom; even without him they only lost 1-0.

Charles was absent as he had been brutally hacked in Wales’ match against Hungary. Bale has come in for some hefty treatment himself, not least from Andorra, but modern referees are far less tolerant, as was shown when Israel’s Eitan Tibi was dismissed for twice fouling Bale last month.

One catalyst for referees becoming stricter was Marco van Basten’s retirement through injury. Fifa realised that, for the game to flourish, the stars must be allowed to shine. The hype surrounding the Ballon D’Or has tilted the scales too far, but this may be a temporary response to the rivalries of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, and their respective clubs. One hopes so. Great players are good for the game, but even they cannot shine on their own.

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