This World Cup, the beautiful game has become
the bountiful game. What about quality defenders?
By Sopan Joshi | Published in Sunday Times of India on June 29, 2014
If you have an extraordinary ability to dribble, trap the football and shoot, you become a forward. You linger around the attacking third of the pitch. Other people have the responsibility to give you the ball. All you have to do is to produce four seconds of magic that settle 90 minutes of a game. You can be lazy and selfish and have a poor game, but those four seconds will get you the headlines.
For defenders, it is the exact opposite. You might have worked tirelessly, covered ground with speed and stamina, reading each move closely, risking limbs and your career to produce a series of tackles. You might have stood firm and not let yourself be fooled by dummies or fancy stepovers, waiting like a reptile for an insect to come close before flicking the tongue. Yet you could be the villain for making one mistake; 89 minutes and 56 seconds undone by four seconds. Footballing glory belongs to the forwards; the accountability to defenders.
This is a glorious World Cup; 48 group stage games produced 136 goals — the highest since 1998, when the current format came into force. Four years ago in South Africa, only 101 had been scored at this stage. Not since 1986 have we seen such a goalfest. Neymar, Lionel Messi and Thomas Muller have already scored four goals each; another six players have three goals apiece.
This is no accident. FIFA has tweaked the offside law in such a way that the offside-trap does not work as it did in the 1990s. It has instructed referees to come down hard against cynical defending. The tackle from behind or a late lunge at an opponent’s feet is promptly reprimanded by yellow and red cards.
This has led to a blossoming of relatively smaller players with skill — at 5’6½”, Messi would perhaps not have made it as an attacking player in the 1990s, getting hacked down by defenders who stood a foot above him. (Then again, considering his rare ability, maybe he would have; but he would have had spent many more months on the sidelines, recovering from injuries.)
This has made football sexy again. The short passing game and intensive, collective pressing of opponents is very much here to stay, regardless of the end of Barcelona’s and Spain’s golden era of possession football. Defence now is more about collective effort, with several midfielders shouldering defensive duties — this is also a good way for creative players to get rid of markers who shadow them in the attacking third.
Several teams in this World Cup have maintained a very high defensive line, running the risk of leaving space behind for opposing attackers to maraud. Costa Rica and the Netherlands, in particular, have been adventurous in this way, and have carried it off. Colombia’s attacking midfielder James Rodriguez, one of the stars this World Cup, regularly drops deep into his half. Germany have used the young and brilliant attacking midfielder Toni Kroos in central midfield alongside Philip Lahm — himself a defender now playing in the midfield.
This has had a wonderful impact — it even smells of equity and democracy, the sharing of accountability. Yet there is a cost to everything: the committed, specialized defender is not in demand. Spain’s first round exit, among other things, was down to woeful defending — for most of the six years that Spain and Barcelona have shone, they have had the services of Carles Puyol, a defensive general who retired recently after two injury-plagued seasons.
Spain now have Sergio Ramos, who has been an attacking right-back for most of his playing years, and Gerard Pique, who looked like a good centre-back only when standing next to Puyol. Football has entered an attack-minded phase. There are signs we may not see that many quality defenders.
Thiago Silva, Brazil’s captain and a towering centre-back, looked out of place in his defensive line alongside Dani Alves, David Luiz and Marcelo — bright and flashy buccaneers. In South Africa four years ago, Alves was an attacking winger for Brazil. Luiz looks like a defensive lapse waiting to happen. Marcelo opened the scoring in this World Cup with a selfgoal in the first game.
Even the outrageously talented German squad looks frail in defence. Its back-two of Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels lumber about, looking like tall trees with heavy canopies that afford lots of space on the forest floor for enterprising forwards. Portugal are back home along with player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo due to an adverse goal difference, which has something to do with their ballistic centre-back Pepe earning a red card against Germany 37 minutes into the first half — Portugal conceded two more goals after that sending off, and looked toothless in attack. Switzerland conceded more goals in the first half against France than it has conceded in its last eight World Cup games.
Yes, there have been some outstanding defensive exhibitions. Uruguay’s Jose Maria Gimenez sparkled against Italy with great sliding tackles. France’s Raphael Varane looks composed and reliable at the age of 21. Iran’s defence against Argentina was solid. But these are exceptions.
Cricket, too, has entered a oneway street: a glut of big-hitting batsmen and a drought of quality attacking bowlers. There are no Marshals and Lillees to fear now. And the sport is a greater spectacle for it, a more marketable product. The quality of the contest between the bat and ball is another matter altogether.
Is football entering a similarly lop-sided era, shorn of great defenders? It is too early to answer that one. But this is the right time to ask the question.