The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For years, football, eleven versus eleven, team against team, seemed to have left that behind. Obsessed by statistics and numbers, debates have raged around the world about the “best ever”. Nearly always, they have been about individuals: Pele, Zico, George Best, Diego Maradona, Maldini, the first touch of Zinedine Zidane, the joy that was Ronaldinho and now Cristiano Ronaldo. And of course, the refusing to age Lionel Messi. Plus many, many more.
For most of footballing fandom, the conversation around the best team in the world is far shorter, calmer and often an afterthought. It always seems to matter less. Perhaps the Brazil of the 70s, the Milan of the early nineties, or Guardiola’s Barcelona.
This year, however, things have changed: the team is making a comeback.
As Euro 2016 reaches its final stages, it is becoming ever clearer, notwithstanding the results, that the tournament is a microcosm of what the football has seen in the last one year. If in the English Premier League, Leicester City wrote one of greatest underdog scripts of all time, unfancied Wales find themselves as Euro semi-finalists, in their first ever appearance at a major tournament. The team beat a Belgium side packed with individual superstars led by captain Eden Hazard, to win a chance to play Portugal for a place in the final.
There have, of course, been other underdog stories before such as Greece in Euro ’04 (the Greeks won the tournament) Yet, there is one crucial difference. Greece is often remembered as a team that defended superbly and took the one or two chances it got but still constantly found itself under pressure. The same could have been expected of Wales when it played Belgium. In defence of Belgium, it’s said that they needed to change two of their four regular defenders due to injury. Yet, let there be no mistake. Belguim were played off the park.
The first half saw the Welsh midfield run rings around a Belgium midfield of Radja Naingolan and Axel Witsel. It may only have been 1-1 at halftime but such had been the Welsh domination that Belgium felt it had to bring on another midfielder to shore things up. But the second half, after a brief ten minute spell at the start, was similar. Every time Wales had the ball, they passed through Belgium in triangles, mixing things up by often playing it long to their striker. Hal Robson Kanu is a symbol of the team: released by a team in the English second division, he led the line for a Wales team.
Most balls were brought down, most aerial challenges won. And it pushed him to the extraordinary. Consider his brilliance when he scored: with his back to goal, he turned on a sixpence, fooling the best defender in the Premier league last season, Toby Alderweireld, and right back Munier. Turn, shot, goal.
Hazard was Belguim’s biggest threat, carrying the ball as only he can, yet off it, Wales simply outfought him. Compare that to Gareth Bale. The most expensive player in the world does have three Euro goals to his credit. Yet two have come on free kicks, and bar the odd pacy run, he’s been hard to notice. Yet, that is the beauty of Wales. Bale has tracked back, often defending deep in his territory, and his skill has shone through in subtler ways. The small chip over a defender’s leg to maintain possession. A run into space to show for a pass. The individual has been subsumed by the team.
The same lengthy argument can be constructed for Iceland’s win over England in the round of sixteen. They didn’t just beat England, they were clearly the better team.
And, it isn’t just the smaller footballing nations that have recognised the need to prioritise the group over the individual. Before their loss, only on penalties to Germany, Italy had been another story of the tournament. For a country that has seen Pirlo, Maldini, Nesta, Del Piero and Roberto Baggio, this team on paper, seemed relatively pedestrian. Most predicted a first round exit. Yet Italy punched above their weight with what many called their “weakest ever national side.” They fought, they snarled into tackles, stuck to their formations and played seamlessly. They beat Belgium and outclassed Spain, the present holders of the Euros. Make no mistake: playing without individual superstars was a conscious decision.
Look at Antonio Conte’s bench, and you will find both Stephane El Sharaawy and Lorenzo Insigne on it. Are they better individual footballers than Emmanuel Giaccherini? Yes. Would they have done as much for the team? No. Even Germany, packed full of talent and efficiency, had to drop one of its most talented, Julian Draxler for the quarterfinal against Italy. Only substance could triumph over substance.
This tournament may still be won by a footballing giant. Germany, France and even Portugal that has yet to win a game in regular time, might emerge victorious. Yet, ask the question, who was the best in the tournament? Very few individual names come to mind. Maybe Frenchmen Dimitri Payet or Antoine Griezmann but it’s difficult to name more.
For this has not been a tournament where one man has stood out. Teams have.