Captain's log: How not to lead by example
"A leader has to be able and willing to take in and think about the anxiety of those who work in the team. Sometimes it is a matter of getting to the bottom of the anxiety that has already been covered over. It has then to be conveyed, often subtly, to those in the team that their predicament and anxieties are bearable."
On Tuesday night in Belo Horizonte, Thiago Silva went against everything that former England cricket captain Mike Brearley wrote in his British sporting classic, "The Art of Captaincy."
Brazil's chief anxieties lay with both Silva and the injured Neymar being unable to play against Germany. While Neymar's absence was hard to prevent, Silva was suspended for his own stupidity after getting booked against Colombia for barging into goalkeeper David Ospina while he was trying to punt the ball upfield. Then, against all known practice for a banned player, Silva conducted the team's prematch news conference and also decided to make a telling contribution to his team's warm-up before facing Germany: he strolled from player to player, barking instructions, all the while wearing a Neymar baseball cap backwards. A career in motivational speaking should perhaps be crossed off the list of possibilities for Silva's post-football career; that cap had shades of David Brent from "The Office," too.
In Silva's place, David Luiz led Brazil in the semifinals. Luiz's approach to the role embraced power without any responsibility whatsoever. As Germany tore through Brazil in almost certainly the most punishing World Cup defeat of all -- on their way to a 7-1 win -- Luiz was nowhere to be found. Heat maps published after the match suggested Luiz was either a box-to-box midfielder or an intruder on the field managing to avoid security. It all ended in tributaries of tears; Luiz could not do without Silva alongside him and, in his eagerness to still play a part, Silva had torpedoed his team before they even kicked a ball.
It has been a World Cup to suggest that football captaincy has changed. Silva, when actually playing, represents the old-style model of a commanding defender who leads by example. His off-field antics do much to support the idea that captaincy has become part of the star system of top-level football -- both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo skipper their countries, to varying degrees of success.
Messi's armband and No. 10 shirt can only conjure images of Diego Maradona, though Messi is a very different leader. Maradona combined the role of best player with that of being the spiritual heart. Footage of Argentina backstage during their Mexico '86 campaign sees Maradona leading the singing, one of the lads; Messi, quieter by nature, is much more aloof, though no less driven. In Sao Paulo's semifinal against the Dutch, there was a vignette to reveal his demand for influence. Once coach Alejandro Sabella had delivered some short words in the extra-time huddle, it was Messi who took over, pointing and gesticulating. He could not quite recreate the maniacal zeal with which Maradona inspired his teammates, while the suspicion is that Javier Mascherano provides a true beating heart for this team.
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On the other side of the pitch in the Maracana, Philipp Lahm will lead Germany on Sunday. Lahm's style of leadership follows the immaculate tradition of a Bobby Moore: consistent 8/10 performances, never a hair out of place, an example of taking responsibility, without ever being showy. However, even Lahm exhibited the trappings of modern football when he proved so reluctant to play at full-back during the earlier stages of this tournament, the position at which his team needed him most. Lahm wanted to play midfield, a sector where his country is so well served. Yet having made a personal sacrifice to return to the flank, Germany have quickened their step towards winning the World Cup; neither France nor Brazil could lay a glove on them.
When a captain's performance dips, it can mortally harm a team. Steven Gerrard's physical failings cost England badly. Whereas Italy will often hand the honour to the most experienced player, England is a country where the armband is front-page news, a political intrigue. Both teams suffered when their leaders, Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo, could not deal with the conditions of playing in Brazil. Eventually, after a bright start, Robin van Persie also showed that this is no country for old men or captains, with apologies to evergreen Mario Yepes of Colombia who continues to prove the doubters wrong.
The trappings of leadership mean going out on a limb to protect your fellow players, and Uruguay's Diego Lugano took himself into a Lewis Carroll fantasy world with his defence of Luis Suarez after the striker bit Giorgio Chiellini -- calling FIFA's decision to ban his teammate an "act of barbarity." Suarez eventually admitted the crime and lost his appeal, so it might be said that Lugano's extreme reaction was a reflection of the pressures of leading your nation at a World Cup.
Like Thiago Silva, perhaps powerlessness got to Lugano most of all. Silva ended his Tuesday evening providing a shoulder to cry on for his players. He could offer nothing more; his words of attempted inspiration having been ground into dust by his team's mental collapse, while playing against a team of superior quality and far more refined psychological make-up. By the time Silva left the Arena Mineirao, his replica shirt must have been drenched in tears. He himself had provided an operator's manual on how not to behave as a suspended captain.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.