It used to be all about the team. The most innocent demonstration of this was acted out in and around garage forecourts.
Fathers had just filled their Ford Cortinas and Vauxhall Vivas with petrol and their sons would shout from the back seat: “Wait, Dad, let’s go back for a top-up – we might not make it home.”
This cute and desperate ruse was so the boys might be able to complete the Esso World Cup Coin Collection. The silver-coated plastic discs showing the England players from Mexico 1970 were given away free with fuel.
Maybe, if you only needed Terry Cooper – and I seem to remember he was the display board’s Louis Bleriot, the elusive one from the alternative Man in Flight promotion – then the no-nonsense Leeds United left-back assumed near-mythical status. But that was only because the cynical petrol giant had limited his image’s availability, not because he was the star of the team.
Yes, there were players with which we were slightly more familiar, possibly because they scored the goals or had been (wrongly) accused of jewellery theft.
But the team was the most important thing and no one was more important than it.
On bedroom walls across the world 48 years ago there were team photos, not individual players. Two rows squinting into the bright pre-season sun and conforming to the (standing) and (seated) rituals.
What happened? How, 12 World Cups later, did we arrive at the situation where Argentina are all about Lionel Messi and Brazil are all about Neymar? Maybe we could blame Shoot! magazine, blame its Q&As, which illustrated the vast potential of the cult of personality to super-agents, minders and hangers-on not yet born. Little did the questionnaire’s subjects know that by modestly and honestly giving up small details of their lives – Omar Sharif, Barbra Streisand, the Queen, Ironside, steak and chips – they would be helping to create a monster.
OK, maybe monster is too strong, but a footballer whose celebrity intimidates the rest of the team, rather than inspires. Whose fame reduces team-mates to the role of fluffer. Whose managers forget how to manage, even forget how to dress. Argentina’s Jorge Sampaoli looks like a tango gigolo who preys on cruise liners full of rich widows just docked in Buenos Aires. He was far from home on Thursday night and Argentina were far from being a team. Five forwards and five defenders, a formation assembled by an apparently drunk man, with everyone desperately trying to find Messi with their hopeless passes, forgetting they were players, too, who could have halted Argentina’s dance of death, or near-death, now that Nigeria’s win over Iceland has slightly improved their chances of progressing.
If you fall for the doomed romanticism and dangerous madness of the Albicelestes, and I’ve done it every time since Leopoldo Luque’s sumptuous driven winner against France in the 1978 World Cup, then you’d have to rate that defeat by Croatia as their worst in the tournament’s recent history. They lacked fight and then in the closing stages, frustration boiling over, they kicked like hell. It was horrible to watch. Some of Scotland’s failed attempts at World Cup qualification have been dismal, but we’ve never simply given up, or lashed out in a sneak-coward way, like this.
Worse than all of that, though, was how no one – not the manager, not the Argentine FA, not the rest of the team and not even the man himself – thought it might be beneficial to the side’s ambition if everyone snapped out of this infernal, insane Messi love-in, where everyone seems to be in zombie thrall to the little No 10, like he was wearing blue and white robes instead of a shirt and leading a weird religious cult, very possibly over the nearest clifftop.
What do we know, watching from afar, but Messi’s hangdog, hunched-shoulder demeanour suggests he doesn’t want it to be like this. Neymar, on the other hand, gives the impression he’s completely relaxed and not at all fazed about being writer/producer/director/star of what he hopes will be a fantastic Brazil production.
In his country’s opening game he tried to beat Switzerland all by himself. Now, there are some who might claim that at least he was dynamic and showed desire, whereas Messi in the second half against Croatia was largely invisible, leading to fears he’d taken a flying heidie by himself to escape the monomania. But there doesn’t seem to be overwhelming support for this view back in Brazil. They argue he was involved in his own private game against the Swiss and obviously the egomaniacal tactics didn’t work.
Arsenal’s new manager Unai Emery had stated before the World Cup began that Neymar at his previous club Paris-Saint Germain was basically unmanageable; that he was the boss. Against Switzerland we saw what he meant as the one-man global band played solo football while good men and fine players such as Philippe Coutinho stood by and watched as Neymar took all the free-kicks, and dribbled the ball down every available blind alley, hoping for more free-kicks. Why? I wasn’t aware he was such a dead-ball whizz. Here’s why: because he’s hugely indulged.
Brazil’s manager, Tite, felt compelled to deny that he’d ordered Neymar to be less selfish in Friday’s match against Costa Rica. This was unfortunate because the way the game panned out it rather looked like he had. Either that or Neymar, launching a new hairstyle, realised the error of his ways and started passing, playing for the team.
Mind you, he still pouted, sulked (what a joyless individual!), threw himself to the ground to try to win a penalty and threw the ball to the ground and earned a booking. And when the referee, trying to calm him down, placed a hand gently on the saintly chest, he offered up a look which translated as: “Don’t touch me – do you know who I am?”
This, though, is progress. A return to the team ethic, a victory of the collective over the individual, will most likely be hard-fought and long. But it will be worth it in the end. Now, I’ve still got three Jeff Astles. Does anyone want a swap for an Alan Mullery?