What makes a good footballer? It’s a simple enough question, but perhaps it requires a more complicated answer. Touch, control, balance, strength, speed and fitness are all obvious prerequisites, but what about those other, less tangible, qualities that are integral to the footballer template?
Playing football has never just been about simple ability with the ball – character, temperament and an ability to keep your head under pressure are all vital. It could be argued such psychological strengths are what separate the decent amateur from the accomplished professional. They are also what make the difference between a very decent Premiership player and an international who can handle the game at its exacting peak.
There is a clamour in some quarters for the inclusion of Graeme Le Saux in the England World Cup squad. On the face of it, the Chelsea stalwart has a good case. England still lack a natural left-sided defender who is comfortable going forward. Eriksson has tried various permutations, but Le Saux remains the most accomplished candidate, convincingly more so than the limited Chris Powell and the erratic Ashley Cole.
The trouble is that Le Saux has an Achilles heel and a transparently sensitive one at that. It is not that he has a particularly desperate disciplinary record – three dismissals in the last four years is certainly no worse than several of his contemporaries. Rather, it is his apparent vulnerability to the power of his emotions, manifested in reckless tackles, fits of pique and an absence of self-control.
For a supposedly mature 33-year-old who bucks the dim-witted footballer stereotype, Le Saux appears worryingly easy to wind up. In the ultra-competitive environment of the World Cup, where opponents will seek any advantage available, it is arguable that Eriksson reasons Le Saux would be as much of a liability as an asset. Le Saux might have warmed many a football fan’s heart when he clattered the perennially annoying Mauricio Taricco recently, but the look on the watching Eriksson’s face spoke volumes – the man’s not to be trusted.
National team managers must take into account all sorts of characteristics when picking players. It is illogical to ignore certain aspects of their make-up. David Beckham, pre-responsible model dad version, was a loose cannon at France 98 – sublimely talented one moment, damagingly petulant the next. Alan Smith’s “natural” aggression may be admired by some in the rough and tumble of dom-estic league football, but would be a laughable hindrance at the World Cup. And it’s not only on-field indiscipline that should influence whether a player is capable of flourishing at international level. What they do in their outside life is also important.
This is not to rehash that old chestnut about players acting as role models. The maxim that footballers should act responsibly lest the nation’s youth suddenly start guzzling alcopops and swapping short hair for pink mohicans has always seemed a lazy one to accept. Rather, it is that you cannot rely on people who have obvious flaws.
The current debate about whether Eriksson should consider picking players with criminal records or facing serious charges is a controversial one. Those who would like to see Jonathan Woodgate in the squad say he has served his time, and that anyway what a player gets up to in his life away from football is his business.
This is surely not the case. Aside from a basic principle that applies in the wider world of work – many people convicted of a violent offence would be lucky to stay in their job, let alone receive what is effectively a promotion – you don’t employ people with records for violence when a degree of self control is what’s required.
Drawing parallels between the likes of Lee Bowyer and Le Saux is unfair on the latter. Whatever sins Le Saux has committed in a game are nothing compared to the kind of reputation Bowyer has earned for himself over the years. But there is an inevitable conclusion: Eriksson wants his World Cup candidates to be cool, calm and collected – hotheads like Le Saux need not apply. Adam Powley
Football players get up to all sorts of terrible things. Frankly, some of their behaviour sets a very bad example to any youngsters watching. The problem is that the Role Model World Cup, should anyone ever care to organise it, would be a lot less coveted than the international kickabout staged by FIFA every four years. While it might be nice to field a strikeforce of Mahatma Gandhi and St Francis of Assisi, in practice most managers and supporters wouldn’t mind too much if their centre-forward had cloven hooves and a forked tail as long as he scored goals.
The continuing exclusion, then, of Graeme Le Saux from Sven-Goran Eriksson’s squad is something of a mystery, especially considering that England’s left-sided “problem” only became a national talking point in the period when the Chelsea player was injured. Le Saux should be in the squad on the simple grounds that he is the best in his position in the country (yes, I am a Chelsea fan). Clearly, getting sent off against Tottenham was poor timing but no one is suggesting that a red card alone (two yellows, in fact) should be a bar to representative honours.
Eriksson could pick a midfield of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Paul Ince and David Batty, all of whom share the distinction of having been sent off in an England shirt. Le Saux, on the other hand, has never been sent off for his country in more than 30 appearances. Perhaps it’s because foreign opponents haven’t yet mastered the sort of charmless taunting that Robbie Fowler has honed to such perfection. The only real football argument against is the memory of him being outmanoeuvred by Dan Petrescu for Romania’s winner in France 98 but the suspicion must be that Eriksson, like a significant chunk of the football public, simply thinks that Le Saux is a bit of git.
In principle it should be simple to say that anybody who let his country down on or off the pitch should not be called up. But while the continued exclusion of Jonathan Woodgate may seem logical to Adam Crozier, it leaves England not only unnecessarily weaker on the pitch but also open to charges of hypocrisy off it. Because in practice, the waters tend to get muddied by expediency and subjective factors. For example, thanks to Lee Bowyer’s less than appealing personality, few outside Leeds will have shed a tear at his omission from the England squad during his trials. By contrast, the combination of being a better player and having been clasped to the nation’s bosom as a cheeky, lovable scamp surely helped to prolong Paul Gascoigne’s England career, even though he was regularly shit-faced and put his wife into A&E.
Similarly, the fact that Danny Mills looks like a loan shark’s enforcer has caused some to wonder whether indiscretions such as his wild kick at Craig Bellamy really mark him out as England material. However, when in 1998 England’s captain, and the man then widely seen as one of the best strikers in the world, booted Neil Lennon in the face, virtually the entire FA hierarchy lined up to endorse Alan Shearer’s view that he had merely been trying to disentangle his foot.
Most top teams have at least one hard man whose discipline problems sometimes overshadow their prowess (Roy, Patrick, you know who you are). But the issue for their managers is usually only whether to make them captain or not. England’s 1966 World Cup win, lest we forget, came about only after Alf Ramsey resisted FA pressure to drop Nobby Stiles after a particularly gruesome foul against France in the group stage.
So how about just picking the best England team possible? It’s not as if the country is so giddy with success that it can afford to ignore talent. There are those, after all, who would argue that a World Cup squad is no place for a man with a drug habit, who consorts with gangsters, shirks responsibility for his child born to a woman who is not his wife and whose previous World Cup experience ended in red-card shame after he gave an opponent the full six studs in the groin.
Strangely though, Diego Maradona was not only selected but made captain, and duly won the cup for Argentina in 1986. But don’t try that at home, kids. Chris Taylor
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month