Rebels or robots: Which would you prefer?

We are part of The Trust Project What is it?

On dull days like these I find myself missing the gorgeous, selfish genius of Hristo Stoitchkov.

The only Bulgarian to win the Ballon d’Or, he completed Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team.

True, he never quite clocked the fact that football was a team game but, for Cruyff, that was the point. His Barcelona needed the Bulgarian’s unpredictable, egotistical greatness to conquer Europe.

The Dream Team could pass their way to glory but if that wasn’t working, Stoitchkov could, in his heyday, be relied on to try something spectacular, outrageous and successful.

"In your face, world!" 

Such genius is fragile; it doesn’t take long before the player begins to believe in their own infallibility.

But Stoitchkov gave me arguably the finest 90 minutes in my football life against Germany at USA 94. I have a tape of that game in a box in the cupboard under the stairs and still watch it twice a year.

Sadly, Stoitchkovs are rarer than they used to be.

You could even argue that as far back as the 1990s, Stoitchkov was actually a throwback. The debate over how much freedom players should have on the pitch is almost as old as football.

But as Jonathan Wilson points out in his fine book Inverting The Pyramid, it became particularly acute in the 1960s and 1970s.

The application of an English-style based on shape, pressing, a high offside trap and long-ball counter-attacks in Sweden by Bobby Houghton in the 1970s laid the foundations for Malmo’s run to the European Cup final and IFK Gothenburg’s two UEFA Cup triumphs.

But it also ran the risk, as coaching instructor Lars Arnesson complained, of “stifling initiative and turning players into robots”.

Arnesson’s fears were fulfilled just across the border by Egil Olsen’s hugely successful, but almost unwatchable, Norway.

The fact remains that we, as supporters, like to be entertained by players, and not coaches.

And although football can, in one way, be seen as a tactical evolution – the inversion of the pyramid, as Wilson puts it in the title of his book – it can also be seen as a YouTube clip of glorious moments, a history that is even more powerful because it is personal and unique.

My own clip includes Stoitchkovn’s screaming free-kick against Germany, a crossbar sent a-quivering by Frank Worthington one 1970s weekday night when the Foxes beat Ipswich 5-0, and a Maradonaesque goal (the dribble, not the Hand of God) by the wonderfully named Hampton & Richmond striker Ashley Sestanovich against Aylesbury in 2005.

The day I conclude that my personal YouTube compilation is complete is the day I give up on football.

Worthington: Certainly not an automaton 

In Champions earlier this season, the Brazilian great Falcao called on midfielders to show “tactical insubordination” and defy their coaches if they felt the game required them to do so.

Guus Hiddink had the courage to let Philip Cocu do just that at PSV, switching formations whenever he thought it necessary.

Wayne Rooney might have done better in Rome if he’d had more of Stoitchkov’s selfish certainty.

You couldn’t fault his loyalty, energy or diligence against Barcelona, but a player of his gifts should be encouraged to use them as he sees fit; to improvise a Plan B if Plan A is so obviously not working.

It’s odd that in a game where players are increasingly judged on the quality of their decision-making, many coaches do their best to ensure they have so few decisions to make.

A team of Stoitchkovs would be delightful and disastrous, but surely more coaches could really mean it when they tell their players to express themselves?

And more great players should rebel and have the guts to risk failure and reproach by trying to take the game’s outcome into their own hands.

If I wanted to watch football played by robots, I’d go and watch the heavy metal sport in Korea.

--------------------------------------------------- More to read...

More Professor Champions League blogs
Blogs Home

Champions League News

News Home