Prime Edition

Shougat Dasgupta
A Fan’s Notes

How would this German side fare against the best ever?

Nándor Hidegkuti

couple of years ago, while I was the books editor of a magazine, an intern worked with us over the summer. Half-Italian, half-Kashmiri, he was a student in Paris and so bright and quick on the uptake that he was immediately drafted into the magazine's team and assigned an important role in the annual TED-style conclave the magazine organised in Goa. He has stayed intermittently in touch since that internship, as he graduated from university, moved to Senegal, took a job in Rome, and later began graduate studies at the London School of Economics. In Delhi for a couple of weeks during the World Cup, he dropped by to meet my five-month-old daughter and to watch Argentina play Belgium in their quarterfinal.

As the game stuttered towards a goalless 90 minutes, the beer and cheap Chinese food consumed, we talked as bored football fans everywhere talk about players past and present. Is X better than Y? Can you compare across eras and positions? Does Messi need to win the World Cup to be better than Maradona? My friend, who loves Juventus and his national team (Italy), is knowledgeable, fervent in his support and intelligent. He is also young. It is the prerogative of the youth to be Whiggish, or rather Panglossian, in their outlook. All is for the best in this the best of all possible worlds. Football could not possibly be better than it is now, the players so athletic, the game so fast. My friend would counter that it is the prerogative of the middle-aged to be patronising.

Certainly, football is in fantastic shape. Financially, in Europe at least, the game has never been stronger. Changes made to encourage attacking play in the wake of the dreadful 1990 World Cup have had the desired effect. The quality of the pitches, improvements to balls, boots, players' physiques and diets, larger squads, all mean that the game is significantly faster now than at the turn of the century. But speed and athleticism are not everything. Ball games require ball skills. And players today are not more skilful than players of the past. As good, for instance, as Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are for the Netherlands, are they better than Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, and Frank Rijkaard, the glittering trio who dominated Europe with the Dutch national team and AC Milan in the late '80s? I'd back any of the England squads from 1982 to 1990 to beat the England squads that played in the last three World Cups.

Whigs, like my friend, believe that footballers of previous generations would be overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of the contemporary game. I'm not sure the sanguine Brazilians of 1970 — for the sake of this argument the beginning of modern football, with the introduction of the Adidas Telstar football — would be that intimidated; like all great teams, once they acclimatised, they would dictate the pace with their superior technique. And this is the thing, the technical requirements to be a good footballer — instant, adhesive control; accurate passing and shooting; defensive concentration; attacking spontaneity — haven't changed much in half a century. Tactics have, of course, but the 4-2-3-1 formation so beloved by the contemporary Spanish and Germans is a setup that the Brazilians of 1970, with their attacking 4-2-4 variant, would argue that they pioneered.

hat about the Hungarians of the 1950s with their flexible 2-3-3-2 and Nándor Hidegkuti as their "false nine"? That formation allows for deep-lying central defenders, wing-backs, inside forwards, a pace-setting defensive midfielder, a creative "trequartista" and two men upfront. Bring back the Magical Magyars. I can see them pulling this German team out of shape, Hummels and Boateng flummoxed by Hidegkuti, not knowing whether to mark him or Puskás or Kocsis. If the Germans' 7-1 thrashing of Brazil in the World Cup semifinal was an unprecedented humiliation of arguably the great footballing nation, the Hungarians took apart England, then just as entitled as Brazil today, 6-3 at Wembley in 1953 and 7-1 in Budapest the following year.

I'm being only slightly facetious. I believe that the very best teams and players even in the 1950s, were they parachuted into today's games, would be able to adjust to the speed over the course of a single 90 minutes. I'd go further to say that if the game has gained in speed and athleticism it has lost something in individual ability. Players, carefully coached from an early age in the rapacious European club system (and that includes pre-teens from around the world), no longer play off the cuff. When they do, as in the case of David Luiz (who plays, the former Manchester United right back Gary Neville memorably said, as if he were "controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation"), the result can be disastrous. At its best, in the smooth off-the-ball movement and rapid, cohesive counterattacking of the Germans, the contemporary, technocratic European game can appear irresistible; the perfect advertisement for progressive, enlightened coaching as opposed to over-reliance on errant genius.

But Germany looked far from irresistible against Ghana, Algeria, and Argentina in the final. Feeble finishing — Messi, Higuain and Palacios all missed presentable opportunities, one on one with Neuer, the German keeper — was as responsible for the eventual Argentinian defeat as German brilliance. To my mind, this Germany would lose to most recent World Cup winners, to the Brazil of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, the France of Zidane, to Spain, perhaps even the West Germany of Matthaus and Klinsmann. And definitely to the Argentina led by Maradona instead of the still-inferior Messi.

This has been a good World Cup, but others have been better. This is a good German team, but others have been better. This is a good era for football and footballers, but others have been better. None of this should come as a surprise, except to young football Whigs.

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