Wednesday, July 24, 2013

At the end it boiled down to individual players and the situation was quite alarming – there were no outstanding players. Collective play was the key for success, but... when Happel advocated team play, soldiers and not generals, the shortcomings were also obvious. Perhaps West Germany was the best example – tough, fit, disciplined fighters, capable of endless running, but having no creativity whatsoever. Those were second tier German players in 1974 – journeymen, reserves, and those in the vicinity of the national team, but left out of it at the end. These players were the German team in 1978 – and they failed miserably. Collective game still required influential players to shape the game, to five the edge, to create scoring opportunities, to score goals. Yet, the big stars failed in 1978 – it was clearly the end for aging stars and those seemingly reaching the peak of their abilities and starting to fade away. Rivelino, Holzenbein, Lubanski, Suurbier. People even did not notice that Schwarzenbeck was in the German squad – he did not play a second. It was the end for aging veterans, none going down gracefully. From the category of those already starting going downhill – Rijsbergen, the Argentines Houseman and Alonso, practically the whole Polish team. Current big stars not only disappointed, but appeared to be grossly overrated – beginning with Zico, but also Roberto Dinamite, Bonhof, Rummenigge, Dalglish, Edstrom. Most of the Dutch heroes from 1974 also seemed at the end of the road – Rep, Haan, Neeskens. West Germany was most alarming – it was a team not in need of repairs, but of rebuilding from scratch. Entirely new team, new coach, new concept. Brazil to a point too – it was painfully clear that 'European approach' was counterproductive and outright wrong for Brazil.

And the most troublesome was the absence of outstanding playmakers. Midfield was the key for winning from the introduction of total football – fighting for the ball, possessing the ball, control of midfield. Blocking early the attacks of opposition and immediately staring an attack against them. Playmakers were essential for that – to organize, to create, to shape, to lead, and to strike. The great playmakers of 1974 were either absent (Cruyff and Overatt most obvious) or unimpressive (Deyna). The most noticeable playmakers were Platini, Antognoni, Prohaska, and may be Ardiles. Yet... France was eliminated too early and it was difficult to judge the real influence of Platini; Antognoni was in and out of the squad – seemingly, inconsistent; Ardiles slowly became noticeable – mostly at the last stage of the tournament. Prohaska was limited by the natural limitation of the Austrian team, lacking enough high quality players. Dirceu, perhaps the most consistent midfielder, was not a starter at first. The problem of the new playmakers was that they did not play for successful teams – at the same time the best teams either lacked outstanding playmakers, or had shaky uneven performance, preventing playmakers not only to shine, but to be effective. And that ideally, for the very playmakers lacked consistency. Players of promise and potential for the future, but no revelation at hand.

The other troublesome absence was great goalscorers. Mario Kempes was the best at the finals with 6 goals. Cubillas and Rensenbrink followed with 5 each and Krankl and Luque scored 4 goals. Didn't look much, especially if taken into account how goals were scored. The first three fihished that high thanks to goals scored in one-two matches: Kempes scored 4 goals in the last two matches Argentina played. Cubillas scored a ht-trick against Iran. Krankl – 2 against West Germany. Luque scored 2 against Peru. Rensenbrink was most regular, but scored nothing in the last two matches of Holland. Kempes scored all his goals in the second phase of the championship – in the first phase his record was plain zero. Clearly, there was no goal scorer like Gerd Muller or Pele. Not even like Lato four years earlier. Instead, many players scored now and then – the new football seemingly did not have place for typical goalscorers. But, if so, scoring was becoming chancy and result of great labour. The fans missed great scorers, of course.

Line by line, things were not very optimistic. There were strong goalkeepers – Hellstrom, Maier, Leao, Zoff familiar from the 1974 and 1970 World Cups. Fillol and Koncilia were kind of newcomers, yet, they were already well known. Tomaszewski was the big disappointment. May be Quiroga would have been the discovery of the championship, if not tainted by the suspect match Peru-Argentina. Practically no new names and the best were nearing or over 30 years old. Which is not bit deal for goalkeepers – the big deal was the absence of anybody under 25.

Defense – Ruud Krol was the best among the established stars. Of those already known and climbing up the French Marius Tresor, the Austrian Bruno Pezzey, and Scirea and Gentile of Italy had strong tournament. The discoveries were Passarella, Amaral, and Oscar – that is, seen by the whole world at last and recognized. Things looked fairly good in the centre of defense. Not so at the sides – Tarantini and Cabrini were not only the discoveries of the World Cup, but without any competition at left full-back position. On the right... nobody shined. May be Robert Sara of Austria was the most consistent. Cuccureddu played well too – when he was a starter, which was not so often. Berti Vogts appeared better than most, but not because he played so well – the competition was pitiful, that was all. None of the best right full-backs was young – the relatively unknown before Sara was already 30 years old.

In midfield Dirceu established himself – a surprise to a point, for he was not in the original regular eleven of Brazil. Failures were in abundance: Neesekens practically played one strong match and he still was considered among the best performing midfielders of the finals. The pleasant discoveries were Ardiles (Argentina), Tardelli and Antognoni (Italy), Cueto (Peru). With some reservations – Batista (Brazil). Not much... especially if opposed to the failures, beginning with Zico and Rivelino.

Strikers – same problem. Rensenbrink remained among the best, although with some reservations and with the clear understanding that his days were numbered. Rep, Lato, Szarmach, Rummenige, Edstrom, Roberto Dinamite, Dieter Muller, Jordan – all expected to be major factors of the finals, were unimpressive at best. Krankl confirmed his talent. So Didier Six. Paolo Rossi of Italy was more or less the pleasant discovery. His teammate Roberto Bettega was perhaps the strongest striker at the finals. Cubillas also had strong championship.

At the end Mario Kempes was voted the best player of the World Cup. There was some bitter taste with that – he really shined only after the initial round-robin stage. That is, practically in the second half of the tournament and although his influence and contribution to the Argentine victory is undeniable, it was not stellar performance from beginning to end. Last impressions prevailed, though... May be other players were more worthy: Passarella, Krol, and Bettega. Like Kempes they played maximum number of games – seven. Unlike him they were steady from the start and had no weak match. May be Daniel Passarella was most deserving – influential captain, leading his teammates to the title, motivating and inspiring, tough, in excellent condition, modern central defender, who readily went to help the strikers and scored a goal. But it was Kempes.
Super Mario surrounded by Poles – a famous posture of dominant player devastating whatever opposition came his way. Trademark rolled down socks, no shinpads, bandage under the knee, hair flying. Kempes was noted already in 1974 – the only Argentine of promise back then, when he was barely 20 years old. Serious, determined professional in 1978, prolific goalscorer, one of the brightest stars in the Spanish championship, and the only foreign-based player in Mennotti's squad, Mario Kempes had shy start, but pulled himself together and really shined in the second half of the World Cup. If not the most outstanding player at the finals, at least among the best 4 or 5. It was difficult to figure out his position – seemingly, he played a combination of wide striker and playmaker. Playing neither in midfield, nor in the front of attack. Coming from the back, but very strong and dangerous. All balls were addressed to him and he either supplied deadly finishing passes or scored. Skilful, like typical South American, physical, like any European. With German-like will power. It was his tournament at the end. Photogenic, highly visible – the symbol of the 1978 World Cup.

Yet, he was not newcomer, so at the end the tournament provided few discoveries and among them perhaps the Argentines were the real ones, since most players were almost unknown outside South America. And the credit goes to Cesar Luis Menotti, who trusted his 'second rate' players and organized them into a winning team.
Ave Cesar, indeed! El Flaco conquered the world smoking his cigarette. His philosophy was plausible: he said he wanted tough, physically fit, and collective minded, like the Europeans, team, which played attractive technical attacking football. A combination of South American and European styles, but emphasizing the creative and beautiful elements of football. He succeeded, using unattractive to Latin players methods: long training camp, a lot of work, a lot of running. But his team was not restricted on the field, where the players were free to improvise. The general impression of his team was one of constantly attacking squad. Yet, almost unnoticed at the time were his worlds explaining the tactics for the final: Menotti said he asked his front line players to cover constantly the Dutch: Luque to keep Krol back; Ortiz and Bertoni to keep an eye on Neeskens and Willy van de Kerkhof; Kempes to take care of Rep; Gallego – of Haan; and Ardiles – of Rensenbrink. 'These was leaving us with 4 players in defense all the time', said Menotti. That is, primarily defensive concerns. As for attacking – a combination of few short passes, followed by surprise long pass ahead, was the idea for confusing and destroying Dutch defense. No empty space to be left on the field, hard tackles, fighting for every ball. It was hardly free, improvisational football – rather, tactically solid and defensive approach, but it worked. Menotti also said that he was sure of his team's victory after the end of regular time: his players looked fresher than the Dutch, ready to run for ever. And instructed the team to go ahead into attacks. It worked. Tactically – nothing really new, rather utilizing the best of both big football schools, and making his team tactically versatile. If anything, the key was in that: to teach players tactics. Not simply to follow instructions, but to understand tactical requirements. Something the players of great Ajax was known for. At the end the very Ajax players were beaten and Argentina won finally the World Cup.