Our European guru educates and enlightens
On dull days like these I find myself missing the gorgeous, selfish genius of Hristo Stoitchkov.
The only Bulgarian to win the Ballon d’Or, he completed Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.
True, he never quite clocked the fact that football was a team game but, for Cruyff, that was the point. His Barcelona needed the Bulgarian’s unpredictable, egotistical greatness to conquer Europe.
The Dream Team could pass their way to glory but if that wasn’t working, Stoitchkov could, in his heyday, be relied on to try something spectacular, outrageous and successful.
"In your face, world!"
Such genius is fragile; it doesn’t take long before the player begins to believe in their own infallibility.
But Stoitchkov gave me arguably the finest 90 minutes in my football life against Germany at USA 94. I have a tape of that game in a box in the cupboard under the stairs and still watch it twice a year.
Sadly, Stoitchkovs are rarer than they used to be.
You could even argue that as far back as the 1990s, Stoitchkov was actually a throwback. The debate over how much freedom players should have on the pitch is almost as old as football.
But as Jonathan Wilson points out in his fine book Inverting The Pyramid, it became particularly acute in the 1960s and 1970s.
The application of an English-style based on shape, pressing, a high offside trap and long-ball counter-attacks in Sweden by Bobby Houghton in the 1970s laid the foundations for Malmo’s run to the European Cup final and IFK Gothenburg’s two UEFA Cup triumphs.
But it also ran the risk, as coaching instructor Lars Arnesson complained, of “stifling initiative and turning players into robots”.
Arnesson’s fears were fulfilled just across the border by Egil Olsen’s hugely successful, but almost unwatchable, Norway.
The fact remains that we, as supporters, like to be entertained by players, and not coaches.
And although football can, in one way, be seen as a tactical evolution – the inversion of the pyramid, as Wilson puts it in the title of his book – it can also be seen as a YouTube clip of glorious moments, a history that is even more powerful because it is personal and unique.
My own clip includes Stoitchkov’s screaming free-kick against Germany, a crossbar sent a-quivering by Frank Worthington one 1970s weekday night when the Foxes beat Ipswich 5-0, and a Maradonaesque goal (the dribble, not the Hand of God) by the wonderfully named Hampton & Richmond striker Ashley Sestanovich against Aylesbury in 2005.
The day I conclude that my personal YouTube compilation is complete is the day I give up on football.
Worthington: Certainly not an automaton
In Champions earlier this season, the Brazilian great Falcao called on midfielders to show “tactical insubordination” and defy their coaches if they felt the game required them to do so.
Guus Hiddink had the courage to let Philip Cocu do just that at PSV, switching formations whenever he thought it necessary.
Wayne Rooney might have done better in Rome if he’d had more of Stoitchkov’s selfish certainty.
You couldn’t fault his loyalty, energy or diligence against Barcelona, but a player of his gifts should be encouraged to use them as he sees fit; to improvise a Plan B if Plan A is so obviously not working.
It’s odd that in a game where players are increasingly judged on the quality of their decision-making, many coaches do their best to ensure they have so few decisions to make.
A team of Stoitchkovs would be delightful and disastrous, but surely more coaches could really mean it when they tell their players to express themselves?
And more great players should rebel and have the guts to risk failure and reproach by trying to take the game’s outcome into their own hands.
If I wanted to watch football played by robots, I’d go and watch the heavy metal sport in Korea.
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Great post, a really poignant summary of the way that efficiency and organisation comes with quite significant downsides.
Hopefully, so long as the game is played by human beings, we will continue to see great moments of inspiration and individuality, even if if they are limited by the pursuit of robotic functionality.
This is inevitable in the modern game- there is gawping chasm for missing cration, intuition and initiative which translated itself into moments of inspiration like Zizou volley at Hampden park.
It can be said that ever since 2006 we have been devoid of such imagination by the constrictive and prescriptive nature of the managerial bureaucracy who seek to create formulas of assurance. Benitez is one, Pellegrini another whilst the king of the game Mourinho is very much in demand.
Zidane was an epitome of this champagne style he was awarded with so much autonomy and independence on a football pitch from which he created the illusion of 'finding space'. Ronaldinho at Barca also showed moments of absolute brilliance via liberty.
However since then football was undoubtedly changed, there is a lengthy explanation of this which can be basically summarised by the pressure put on managers to deliver results or be sacked which has led to their own fiddling through increasing levels of player binding.
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