Thursday, March 04, 2010

Who’s the Winningest of them all?

(Also in the March issue of Man's World)

Brazil and Spain are far apart in terms of success at the football World Cup. But make no mistake about it; they are the best their continents have to offer at the 2010 World Cup.
‘Winningest’. Nice word, isn’t it? Not a word you’d find in the dictionary, but in the lexicon of sports jargon, it’s a useful cliché.


There are winningest players; Roger Federer is one, Lance Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods…. Then there are winningest players within teams, like Shane Warne or Michael Jordan. And of course, there are winningest teams. In the football World Cup, none bigger than Brazil.

Apparently, some players and teams know how to win, and some don’t.

Brazil, the winningest team ever
The only team to have qualified for every single one of the 18 World Cups to date and with a record five trophies in their cabinet, Brazil are always one of the favourites for the World Cup. They may not eventually make it to the top despite having the best team; they didn’t in 1982. Or, they may win even when they are playing with a weak team on the field – like in 1994 in USA; leave out Romario, there’s no team. In any case, it was a boring team, because coach Carlos Alberto Parreira seemed to think the traditional Brazilian flair was outdated – he chose to focus on the defence without any good reason. The team won in spite of—not because of—this wisdom. Leave out the six key goals Romario scored, and Parreira was inches away from becoming the most hated man in Brazil.

The curious incident of Romario
Romario was an idol in the 1993-’94 season. In Brazil. And in Barcelona. It was an almost-disastrous qualification campaign, where Brazil desperately needed at least a draw in the last qualifier against Uruguay to make the cut. Romario was left out of the team’s first qualifier. He complained, as always, “If I knew I wouldn’t play, I wouldn’t have come over from Spain.”

Parreira banned Romario from the Brazilian team for the first seven qualifiers, leading to outrage among fans and the media back home. Parreira had to relent. Romario came back and scored two in a 2-0 win over Uruguay. Romario remained undisciplined. Parreira had to keep picking him. Romario won Brazil the World Cup.

A flair for tradition, a tradition for flair
It started in 1958; Brazil’s first step towards becoming the winningest team in the World Cup. Look at the team – Didi, Zagalo, the Santos brothers, Zito…and Pele! Six players. Take out any three and leave the rest in. Chances are, the team will still be good enough to win the World Cup.

Then in 1962, the same heroes, bolstered by Garrincha and Vava. Unbeatable. Conceding goals was never a bother; they knew they could score more. So the team let in 5 goals in 6 matches, but scored 14 in response.

1970, again. Amarildo in the mix too, as were Rivelino, Gerson, Tostao and Jairzinho.

The big star through the 12-year period, of course, was Pele. In 1958, he was the youngest player in the tournament, the youngest ever World Cupper at the time. In the semi-final, against France, he became the youngest to score a hat-trick in a World Cup. Cut to 1970, Pele played his last World Cup at 30, a year before his retirement.

Pele and the No 10
Since 1950, all players have had numbered uniforms, but players could switch numbers at will; in 1958, it was decided that numbers shouldn’t change during a tournament. Brazil overlooked the norm in Sweden during the World Cup. The Swedish commissioner decided to assign numbers himself before Brazil’s first match. Pele, the youngest and least known of the players, was given the number 10. It stayed on his back since. And from 1970, the number was reserved for the best attacking player in the team – everywhere in the world.

No Pele, no World Cup titles either
Pele was gone after 1970. The golden generation also faded away, and so did Brazil’s dominance. And that’s where we go back to the Winning Habit. 1982. Zico. Socrates. Falcao. Serginho. Juninho. No trophy. The best team that didn’t win the World Cup.

Until 1994. The Romario Edition.

And then, in 2002, the Ronaldo Edition.

Yes, it’s a team game. Also yes, individuals can make the difference. Diego Maradona did, as did Zinedine Zidane. It happens. Return to the top of this article; you do have winningest players within teams.

The 2010 Campaign
Ronaldinho might still be a regular starter in the AC Milan squad, but Brazil coach Dunga is sure he doesn’t want the down-on-his-fortunes superstar in the team anymore. And why not? He does have Kaka, doesn’t he? He also has Julio Baptista from AS Roma. And up front, who do you leave out among Adriano, Robinho and Luis Fabiano?

Not the best Brazilian team of all time, but would you lay your bets against them in a World Cup?

And remember, the winningest member of a team can also be the coach; Dunga won the World Cup as captain in 1994.

The non-winningest favourites for 2010
On the other end of the spectrum is Spain. Along with Holland, the best team to have never won the World Cup. But the Spain of the past is very different from the current line-up. That Spain choked. This Spain choked, choked, choked some more, and then won Euro 2008. Spain’s first-ever major title (leaving out the small 1964 edition). This is an all-star cast; and a team that plays in, arguably, the best football league in Europe.

An all-star line-up
Two of the top five players in the world at the moment are Spanish – Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso. The most exciting striker in the world at the moment is a Spaniard: Fernando Torres.

Look at the roll call: Iker Casillas in goal; Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol and Sergio Ramos in the back; Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and David Silva in the midfield; David Villa and Fernando Torres up front.

Can Spain break the jinx?
Man for man, Spain has a team that is the best in Europe by far. It has a league that is the best in Europe by far. The best club in Europe is FC Barcelona. The team’s players play against the rest of the best in the world on a daily basis. And they have now tasted victory. You could even say that if the Spaniards can’t do it this time, they will never be able to do it.

But then, there’s a reason why in 18 editions of the World Cup, we have had only seven champions; only six since 1938 (Uruguay fell hard); and only five multiple winners of the trophy (Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Uruguay). That old Winning Habit. Spain has tasted a bit of it, but do they actually have it?