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.
Barcelona vs Real Madrid combined XI
Barcelona vs Real Madrid combined XI
1/11 Claudio Bravo
Barcelona have the best defensive record in the league and the most clean sheets, Bravo has been fantastic in his debut season at the Nou Camp and is excellent with the ball at his feet - a necessity. Iker Casillas is not as bad as some would have you believe, he is a long way from what he once was.
2/11 Dani Alves
Not able to race up and down the pitch quite as he once was but the Brazilian is still a key outlet for this team and a fiery defender. It'll be very difficult finding a replacement for a very unique player.
3/11 Sergio Ramos
A great defender, although he can cross the line between aggressive and dirty if things are not going his way. Possesses great talent on the ball, a threat in the opposition box, but don't be surprised if he sees red.
4/11 Gerard Pique
Has returned to the kind of form that made him the world's best under Pep Guardiola, no matter who is playing alongside him. Brilliant on the ball, strong in the tackle and dominant in the air, he is the best both teams have to offer.
5/11 Jordi Alba
Marcelo has been a much improved defender this season but Alba is the superior option in defence and attack. His pace and energy are crucial to Barca's high pressing game.
6/11 Toni Kroos
Xabi Alonso has been forgotten far more quickly than could have been anticipated because of the ease with which Kroos has slipped in. A true great in possession, Kroos perhaps is found a bit wanting in his defensive duties but one of the best in his possession in the world.
During Real's bad patch since the turn of the year Isco has been the one bright, consistent spot for Carlo Ancelotti. Another who is superb on the ball and has the ability to drive his team forward with his low centre of gravity. This team is perhaps a touch attacking, and Sergio Busquets will play as bigger a role as any of the stars during the game.
8/11 Andres Iniesta
Still the master. Age may have finally caught up with long-time partner Xavi but Iniesta shows no signs of slowing. Yaya Toure and Fernandinho couldn't get near him on Wednesday night and while he has lost a little bit of pace, his brain is as sharp as any in world football.
9/11 Lionel Messi
Cristiano Ronaldo may have won the Ballon d'Or at the turn of the year but Lionel Messi has easily been the best player in the world since then. Where Ronaldo has struggled (by their standards) - nine goals in 14 matches - Messi has thrived with 20 in his last 17.
10/11 Luis Suarez
After taking a few weeks to work it out, his Barcelona debut in the Bernabeu was a real struggle, Suarez has finally clicked with his new team-mates. He may not quite be as prolific as he was during his Liverpool days but he is forming a nightmarish front three with Messi and Neymar that cannot be stopped.
11/11 Cristiano Ronaldo
Even if he is struggling a bit, are you really going to leave Ronaldo out? Messi might be in better form, but no other player comes close to striking terror into opponents as much as the Portuguese. Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema have been anonymous lately, while Neymar is unlucky to miss out.
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.Reuse content