From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.29 :: Jul. 21, 2011
“One man can't make a team” is a very old adage in football. But how far is it true? One is minded to ask by recent goings on in New York and plans, however fanciful, to revive the Cosmos club. Behind them is not the multi-millionaires who for several glittering years bankrolled the Cosmos, but a once wealthy property magnate Paul Kemsley. In May 2009 the so called credit crunch brought his empire crashing to the ground, all GBP500 million worth of it. The bank is reportedly still owed GBP450 million.
This time, Kemsley is said paradoxically to want to “build from the bottom which is precisely the opposite of what the Cosmos, in their days of relative glory, did. A London sports columnist proceeded to remind him that the Cosmos “failed because it was largely built around Pele. Once he retired audiences tumbled and the team disappeared.”
Not so, in fact. At around that period, I used to often move to New York where I became friendly with the wealthy Ertegün brothers, co-owners of Atlantic Records and both connoisseurs of the game. More richer than they was the magnate Steve Ross, who may not have known much about football, but knew what he liked about the Cosmos and their existence.
It is true that the team took wing when it enlisted Pele, who came out of retirement — having stood down from Brazil's team after the 1974 World Cup — professedly because he altruistically wanted to inspire soccer in the States. In fact, he desperately needed to having, through no fault of his own, and for the second time in his footballing career, been virtually bankrupt; thanks to being made the figure head by his old Brazil teammate, Zito, in a company that fell foul of the Brazilian fiscal authorities, leaving him with some GBP4.5 million to pay off. Joining the Cosmos got him providentially, out of trouble.
But when Pele definitively retired there was much life in Cosmos yet. Such major stars as Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Neeskens from Holland and Brazil's former World Cup winning skipper Carlos Alberto played for them. Giorgio Chinaglia, once the Lazio and Italy centre forward, a great favourite of Steve Ross, became not only the brain on the field but the club's President off it. The trouble was that no other club could keep up with the Cosmos, whose special presence dwarfed the rest of the League. It couldn't last long.
But was Pele the one man who made a team, even with Brazil? I bow to none with my belief that Pele was the greatest player the game has ever seen. The “boy wonder” at only 17 at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with three goals in the semi-final, two more, including a precocious gem, in the Stockholm final against Sweden.
But what of 1962 when in Chile he dropped out of the Brazil team injured after the second game in Vina del Mar? Brazil replaced him with the young Amarildo, a talented but utterly different ball player, altogether more straightforward with a quick left footer. His goals took Brazil all the way to the second successive World Cup. In England, in 1966, Pele, clearly not fully fit from the start, was kicked out of the competition by Joao Morais of Portugal and at first swore he'd never play in another World Cup. Fortunately for Brazil, he changed his mind and excelled in 1972.
As against all that, however, what of Alfredo Di Stefano? Can Real Madrid ever, conceivably, have won any of their five consecutive European Cups from the star of the competition, were it not for the amazing versatility of the Argentine centre forward, who was playing Total Football long before it was invented? There was nothing that Di Stefano couldn't do. Shoot goals, head goals, make so for other people. Including another dominating even domineering figure in Hungary's Ferenc Puskas, who joined Real Madrid late in his career having left a superb Hungarian team in the 1950s. But, arguably having cost them the World Cup final of 1954, when he insisted on playing and reshuffling a winning team having not recovered from injury.
So if Real Madrid would never have flourished with Di Stefano in his supreme versatility, Hungary had in fact prospered in Switzerland in 1954, when Puskas dropped out after the first game. There is evidence on both sides of the question. When Total Football arrived in 1970s, it was thanks to Franz Beckenbauer who arguably invented an attacking sweeper for Bayern Munich, and Johan Cryuff, a glorious, versatile and ubiquitous centre forward for Ajax of Amsterdam. It would be several years before West Germany's manager Helmut Kohl would allow Beckenbauer to operate as attacking libero.
Thus it seems the answer to the question — can one man make a team — has to be equivocal. Both yes and no. Certainly yes in the case of Diego Maradona with his electric solos for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico; and again though painfully injured — his ankle — in the Cup of 1990. Soccer is in essence a team game; but great players can always be dominant and decisive. Lionel Messi? Superb, but he surely needs Xavi and Iniesta.
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