“I am constantly being asked about individuals. The only way to win is as a team. Football is not about one or two or three-star players.” — Pele
If Pele were seeking any evidence to prove the truth in his statement then this summer has provided him with plenty. The World Cup in Russia has been the tournament of the team.
In modern football, the superstar player has become more prevalent than ever before. Player power is at such a height that the notion of the team is the most important has faded into obscurity. Now, clubs, managers, and fans all bow down the icon player, grateful that they have the superstar name on their books.
Bigger than the sum of their parts
This World Cup does not appear to have gotten the memo, though. Instead, it is the team that is coming out on top. While there have been plenty of star individual performances, it is the teams that have shone. One only has to look at who is lining up in the quarterfinals as proof of the point.
First, there are hosts Russia, a team who have defied expectations from day one. Ranked as the worst hosts ever and certain to disappoint. Instead, they have done anything but. First, they smashed their way through the group stages in impressive fashion, then they defended their way past Spain to win on penalties in the last 16.
This Russian squad does not have an identifiable star player. Aleksandr Golovin has risen to prominence this summer but in reality, they are an average squad at best. Yet they have progressed further than more talented sides by playing as a team. Stanislav Cherchesov’s tactics have not been revolutionary or indeed interesting but the hard work of his team, their ethic, has propelled them to the quarterfinals.
Sweden vs. England: a case in point
The same can be said of Sweden. They too are lacking the star power they once had in Zlatan Ibrahimovic but are better for it. Why? Because without him they have become a better team than they ever were with him. They are defensive to the max, boring their way into the quarterfinals and frustrating anyone that comes up against them. What they lack for in quality, though, they make up for in team ethic.
Without Zlatan, there is no longer a focus on the individual to work his magic and drag them forward. Instead, the team is working together for the greater good and the rewards have been plentiful thus far.
That brings us to England, another team who are now missing the star power they once boasted. As far as most are concerned this is the least talented England side for some years. The Golden Generation has passed and the younger, less talented generation has taken their place.
The big name manager has been ousted and instead, Gareth Southgate has been placed in charge of affairs. Before this World Cup began the tone had been set for the usual failure. Instead, they have shone in a manner that hasn’t been seen since that glorious Gascoigne fuelled summer in Italy 28 years ago.
This team does not have a player of his talent but they are the best England team since that group. They have the ethic, the teamwork, the collective desire that all of the teams that have preceded them.
The Premier League rivalries that once separated the England group and weighed them down have been swept away by Southgate and his staff. On paper, they do not live up to the talent levels of that so-called golden generation but they far surpass them as a team and that is why they have earned the country’s love.
There are no prima donnas and no star players; instead, they are a group of accessible men playing together as a team and enjoying success as a result. That is something everyone can get behind and have done so gladly.
The ‘team trend’ runs throughout the quarterfinals
Even Brazil present a demonstration of how the team has far surpassed the individual in Russia. Theirs is a squad full of world-class talent, led by supreme prima donna Neymar. Yet, manager Tite has refused to focus on the world’s most expensive footballer. Instead, his Brazil side is one complemented by him rather that focused on getting the best from him.
Even France have looked better when they have tried to focus more on being better as a collective than getting the best out of the likes of Paul Pogba or Kylian Mbappe.
Belgium too, have become a far more accomplished side than the one that let everyone down at Euro 2016 because Roberto Martinez has turned them into more of a team than they were before his arrival.
This is not to say there have not been star individuals. Mbappe has risen to a new level, Philippe Coutinho has pushed himself out of Neymar’s shadow and Kieran Trippier has become England’s version of Cafu.
But when the time comes to review this World Cup it will be remembered as one in which the teams have outshone the individuals. Pele will be delighted.