How Emphasis On Team Play Instead of Individual Brilliance Has Diminished My Love Of Soccer

During a recent conversation with my friends during a lunch break of an otherwise grueling weekday, I said in passing that “I do not crave watching soccer anymore.”

“Are you kidding,” blurted out one of my friends, knowing how crazy my love for the sport is.

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

I still watch parts of a soccer game every now and then, but I do not have that irresistible urge to watch the games as I had in the past. I do not go to bed at night anymore being excited about the fact that that next day there is a crucial soccer match and I am going to watch it being glued on my sofa.

“You need Prozac,” said my friend. I chuckled and the conversation deviated to a different topic.

I think my friend was serious about his Prozac comment, alluding that something must have been wrong with me if I were not feeling enthusiastic about soccer anymore. It bothered me for months until recently on one day, in one sparkling moment, I got the answer: Nothing has been wrong with me; If anything has been wrong, it is with soccer. The soccer that I grew up with, the soccer that I fell in love with, the soccer that I was crazy about and had found more attractive than any woman in my life had changed — not a little, but significantly. The soccer I grew up with and fell in love with is completely different from the soccer played today.

The soccer I grew up with was inspired by individual brilliance and was characterized by:

I. Dribbling past a number of opponents with relative ease.

II. Long, solo runs by midfielders down the middle.

III. Sudden and completely unexpected defense-splitting passes, creating a goal out of nowhere.

IV. Thirty-yard runs by fleet footed wingers along the flanks, beating the defenders by sheer footwork and speed, before curling in a perfect cross for the striker to nod it in.

Remember the goal by George Best against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers? Remember the turns by Johan Cryuff completely catching the opponent on the wrong foot? Remember the through pass from Maradona to Burruchaga against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup final, or the one by him to Caniggia against Brazil in the 1990 World Cup?

Remember the goal by Roberto Baggio against Czechoslovakia, the long solo runs by Garrincha, John Barnes, Luis Figo and Denilson, accompanied by dodges and body faints that looked so spontaneous?

Finally and most importantly, remember the goal of the 20th century by Maradona, dribbling past five defenders, against England in 1986 World Cup?

There are thousands of similar examples, but the few above mentioned ones are enough to make the point. There is an important connection among all the above-mentioned players as well as among a number of other contemporary skillful players: They all led a generation of soccer where individual brilliance was appreciated and encouraged. Sadly but true, that doesn’t exist anymore in world soccer.

When today’s soccer is compared with the previous generation, one overarching difference emerges: The previous generation of soccer was characterized by ball possession, while today’s soccer is marked by releasing the ball. Whereas that is the overt difference between the two generations of soccer, the underlying change has occurred in the mentality of the players: Players have transformed from responsibility carrying to responsibility shrugging. As a direct result of that change in the core mindset of the soccer players, the first thing that a soccer player considers today when he receives the ball is how soon he can release it in the form of a dull and non-creative pass, or a chip, or a long distance shot, or in any other form of convenient ball distribution.

Today’s soccer strategists and coaches sternly maintain that soccer is a team game and
that individual excellence should be minimized in order for a team to produce the most effective results. Whether such intellectuals are right or wrong is a matter of discussion for another article, but their preaching has markedly reduced the beauty and excitement
of the game.

I remember watching that cricket match between England and Australia where Australian Shane Warne produced the famous delivery (which a lot of cricket experts call the “the delivery of the twentieth century”) to bowl England’s Mike Gatting completely out of the blue. A friend of mine said, “Can you believe he did that?” Since that moment, that has been the catch-phrase for me for defining brilliance, especially in games. The highest level of fulfillment for a spectator of a game is achieved when he or she witnesses an act that makes him or her scream in disbelief. Unfortunately, we who watch soccer for nothing else than fun, rarely get the opportunity to witness any such action in soccer anymore. That is the core — and probably the sole reason — for which I and many other once-soccer-enthusiasts have seen their interest in the game fade. Today’s soccer rarely produces anything that leaves us agape in disbelief.

Although my opinion may sound controversial, I have no misgivings in stating that today’s soccer has deteriorated in terms of class and elegance; the deterioration started from the last part of the 1990s. The feet do not dominate in soccer anymore. Carefully designed plots do. Too much intellectualism invariably leads to the sacrifice of creativity and spontaneity in any domain. And the domain of soccer has been no exception. The creative aspect of soccer has suffered tremendously due to the teams’ over-reliance on strategy and undermining of ingenuity. If I may compare the soccer to a chessboard, the players do not anymore have the liberty and autonomy of the Queen to be exploring and maneuvering; they have rather been reduced to the status of pawns with limited options to execute. In order to make soccer more scientific, the artistic aspect of it has not only been greatly compromised but also has been insensitively sacrificed. Today’s soccer is for coaches, for analysts, for journalists, and for betting agents — mechanistic and predictable. Little is left for me, for us — the average, fun-loving spectators.

I want to conclude with a note of hope. I am ready to fall back in love with soccer again, but please give me back those characters that I can fall in love with: Give me back my De Stefanos, Garrinchas, Peles, George Bests, Cruyffs, Francescolis, Baggios, and Maradonas. My soul is yearning to watch a soccer match filled with such actions that will make me scream again: Can you believe he did that?

I’ve included a few video clips below that exemplify the type of individual brilliance that I believe we’re missing in today’s sport of soccer.

Note: Below are a few video clips that will exemplify the type of individual brilliance that I mentioned in the article and that we miss in today’s soccer:

14 thoughts on “How Emphasis On Team Play Instead of Individual Brilliance Has Diminished My Love Of Soccer”

  1. I’m a much more recent soccer fan, having grown up in America and not really appreciating the game until I was an adult.

    I agree with a big part of your premise. I watch sport to see elite athletes doing elite things. I always freak people out because I really don’t care if 100m sprinters use steroids…..I just want to see how fast a human being can run. When people ask why I prefer watching the EPL versus the MLS, I always say it is because I’m much more likely to see a moment of the sublime in the EPL just because there are more talented players on the field.

    But, the other thing I see in those videos are a lot of fat and slow-footed defenders. Mind you….I’m looking at those with no original memory of the moments themselves. To me, those moments are just YouTube videos (which is kinda sad), but the thing that always stands out to me in old video is that the defenders look slow, fat and unskillful. They look like guys who drink a lot and smoke cigarettes.

    I wonder if some of this team-over-individual is a response to the fact that the defenders today are pretty good athletes themselves.

    Just a thought. Enjoyed the piece.

  2. I don’t think you watch enough footy. Everything you “desire” goes on every week in multiple matches….from the lower leagues on up.

  3. I am real unfortunate to learn of your recent disinterest.

    From my background of only being familiar with the World Cup and Olympic football since ’86, the Copa America since the 90’s, and the European Leagues only within the last 10-12 years, my only explanation is that since the game proliferated to a point where a number of clubs in the higher profile leagues such as the EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A (both Italy and Brazil), Argentina Primera, Liga Zon Sagres in Portugal, etc. would have 5-8 players that think that they are the next messiah of the game such as the players you’ve just mentioned, the real question is how could any one manager balance that much talent while not disenfranchising the other Type-A players due to insufficient number of touches, passes, chances created, tackles, minutes played, so on and so forth?

    I think that may be the cause of your concern, but I’ll never know.

    Personally, I am at the point where I couldn’t watch as much American sport as much as I used to because it isn’t the same as watching international football, but that is just me.

  4. Not buying it. Think this is basically just a tired “everything was so much better back in the day” position.

    Of course we only remember the “highlights” from back in the day and forget the drudgery and monotonous. Since we have to experience both in the present, it seems like there’s a lot more of that than compared with our memories.

    1. Exactly Ben,
      the 1990 World cup that the Baggio goal was scored in was and still is the lowest scoring World Cup in history.
      They changed the back pass rule after that tournament to try to stop time wasting.

  5. Messi?
    Ronaldo just last week?
    Robbens goal (and Ribery’s pass) that won the Champions League last year?
    Rooneys bicycle kick to win the Manchester derby a couple years back?

    Countless other examples . . .

    1. Nemar, Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, Cissi, Ba, Aguero, Tevez, Drogba……

      Those ridiculous “highlight reel” moments don’t happen in every game, or every week for that matter, but there sure seem to be a large number of players that can be capable of them at any moment, and that is what keeps me watching.

      There are also moments like a beautiful through pass, or a simply touch of the ball that can be just as impressive.

  6. Interesting points you make. For the very reasons I quit watching many US sports (NBA for example), was because of the prevalence of solo play and self-aggrandizement. For me, I appreciate futbol for the very reason you don’t.

    I, as Dean Stell above, am a late-comer to the sport and find it absolutely terrific and can appreciate how the more successful teams are just that – successful teams.

    1. Well…against who?? Getafe??

      Maradona’s Goal is in a QF World Cup against England…the other is a goal in a league (this case a Cup) with 2 football teams (Barcelona & Real Madrid) and 18 teams tried to be a football team…

  7. I suspect this piece was written just to get people wound up.

    Clearly it is 100% factually inaccurate. We see just as much, if not more, stuff today.

    Another factor is that we see sooooo much more today. I don’t remember every seeing a Spanish, Italian, Brazilian or similar game growing up in the 70s and 80s, not even once. Now we can watch them every week.

    If you haven’t seen a Bale, Ronaldo, Messi, RVP, even Rooney and many more score some great goals in the last few years you clearly are not watching. Did you not see the fantastic goal posted on this site on Monday ?

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