World Cup success requires having the right players, not the best ones
Marcello Lippi had been chewing over the question for months. Italy had been contemplating it -- or a version of it, at least -- for decades. It was something that Lippi, that cigar-chomping silver fox, found an answer to; a solution that would allow him to secure the greatest triumph of his garlanded career.
It is also one that strikes at the very heart of one of football's most lingering misconceptions: that international football is somehow exempt from what is considered best practice in the club game, that it is a world apart, that it is intangibly but very definitely different.
The problem, for Lippi, was this: he went in to the 2006 World Cup possessed of two wonderfully gifted playmakers. There was Alessandro Del Piero, Juventus' iconic No. 10, a little past his best at 31, perhaps, but still a player blessed with sumptuous control, flawless technique, preternatural vision and impudent imagination.
And then there was Francesco Totti, home-town hero at Roma, the man they called "Er Pupone" -- The Big Baby, although they meant it affectionately -- and one of the most gifted fantasistes the Italian game had produced. He was two years younger than Del Piero and at what seemed to be the peak of his powers; certainly, Lippi was not to know as Italy decamped into a fairy tale Bavarian castle, their base for the 2006 tournament, that Totti would end up getting better with age.
Much of the build-up was dominated by how Lippi would include both in his starting XI. It was a question that had perplexed Dino Zoff and Giovanni Trapattoni, his predecessors. It was also one that reminded the nation of the debate that had raged over two of the nation's previous golden boys, Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera.
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Going into the 1970 World Cup, manager Ferruccio Valcareggi had toiled to answer the same question: how to get both players -- extravagantly talented, but seemingly blunted by the other's presence -- into his side? He devised a system he called la staffetta: the relay. Mazzola would play the first half, Rivera the second. It worked, by and large: Rivera inspired wins over Mexico and West Germany and only that immortal Brazil side beat the Italians in the final.
The problem, of course, was that the system was too rigid: Rivera had been the hero against the Germans in what became known as the "game of the century" but because of la staffetta, he was back on the bench for the final.
Such an approach is almost unthinkable in club football. If you have two players who occupy broadly the same position, the one who is playing best starts; everyone knows that. If that is unsatisfactory, one of them is sold. The team comes first. The team is everything.
In international football, though, different parameters seem to be applied. The national team is an amalgam of all of that country's talent, so goes the logic, so the best individuals have to play no matter whether they fit into an effective structure or not.
For a decade, England doggedly clung on to the idea that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard had to be shoehorned into the same team, despite all available evidence suggesting that they could not combine effectively.* At the club level, such a dilemma would not have lasted -- one of them would, ultimately, have been sacrificed either by being shifted into a different role or by being sold off -- because club managers prioritise system, not personnel.
Their counterparts with national teams do not seem to be allowed to do that. They must select the finest talents the country can produce. Everything else is secondary.
Lippi solved the problem by simply ignoring it. For a while -- after Totti broke his ankle in February, four months before the tournament in Germany began -- it looked as though he would not have to make a decision. But by the time the first game with Ghana rolled around, the Roma player was fit enough to start. Del Piero would be a substitute. There would be no staffetta. There would -- more importantly -- be no attempt to change the system so as to accommodate both. The team would come first. Who comprised it would be a secondary consideration.
The Juventus man would start the Round of 16 game against Australia; Totti would start the quarterfinal against Ukraine and the semifinal with Germany but it was Del Piero whose introduction turned that game and inspired victory in extra-time, in what remains one of the finest matches in World Cup history. There was an echo of Valcareggi in Lippi's selection for the final -- Totti started again with Del Piero a late substitute -- but that aside, the message was clear. Lippi ran Italy like a club side, and it worked.
This is not rocket science. It is not claiming to be some grand discovery, the unmasking of an elaborate secret. But it is remarkable how powerful and how enduring the idea that international football should be approached differently to the club game is. Think about all of those managers currently being told that they must solve the conundrum of how to get this player and that player into their side. Then think about how rarely that issue is raised for club managers.
The reason for this, on the surface, would appear to be that club managers can choose their players but then so -- perhaps to an even greater extent (unless they're in charge of England) -- can international coaches. The major nations have dozens of high-class performers from which to select a squad; they should be able to choose the players who suit their system. And yet we, they and everyone involved seems to think that it is incumbent upon them to select the most talented, the most famous, the most adored. This is counter-intuitive -- and counter-productive.
There is an even better example of this from that same tournament: Argentina. No nation so regularly finds itself wondering how to cram all of its individual talent into the same team as the Argentines. It is Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuaín now; there is such an embarrassment of riches available to coach Alejandro Sabella that Carlos Tevez, with 19 goals in Serie A this season for Juventus, isn't even in his squad. In previous years, it has been Ariel Ortega, Gabriel Batistuta, Abel Balbo, Pablo Aimar, Juan Sebastian Veron and countless others.
Under Jose Pekerman in 2006 -- he's in charge of Colombia's array of attacking talent this summer -- they put system first. Pekerman decided to build his side around Juan Roman Riquelme and construct a team that could make the most of the lethargic magician's sublime passes. It worked. Argentina were -- for this observer's money -- the best team in that competition, boasting the look of likely winners until their quarterfinal against the hosts, Germany.
With the game seemingly in hand -- Roberto Ayala had put the Argentines ahead just after the break -- Pekerman decided to withdraw Riquelme with 20 minutes to play, throwing on the more industrious Esteban Cambiasso. The move was partly preventative -- Pekerman needed Riquelme fit for the semifinal with Italy -- and it was partly conservative; Cambiasso would provide more control, more energy, more bite.
It backfired. It afforded the Germans the initiative: Miroslav Klose equalised eight minutes later and the Germans went through on penalties. But one misjudgement should not be allowed to obscure the overall impression. It is a lesson that many of the teams preparing for Brazil this summer would do well to heed, too: structure and system must come first, not some vague desire to prove how gifted your nation's players are.
International football is not different at all. It is about finding the best way of winning, nothing else.
*It is an irony -- not entirely dissimilar to that with Totti -- that as time wore on, Gerrard and Lampard became significantly more effective as a partnership; as each became altogether less dynamic, less marauding, they became more suitable to the other's game.