We've always had just the one goalkeeper (well, no, that's not so -- when the sports was born back in the late 1860s, happy days, there were no specialist goalkeepers) but we've also always had three or four, maybe even five, forwards.
Not any more we don't. Many teams now take the field with just one acknowledged forward. Two seems to be the norm.
Whether teams that offer just one forward to go along with one goalkeeper are going to be worth watching raises the specter of a sport with next to no goalscoring in it.
Now that, surely, ought to be a worry to someone up at the Concacaf or FIFA level, no? Or maybe even a coach or two might find it unacceptable. But this is precisely the time of the soccer calendar when you're likely to hear exactly the opposite sentiment. Seems that coaches and players lose interest in playing decent soccer -- even in worrying about goalscoring, once the qualifying games for the World Cup get under way.
The prize exhibit of this trend is Marcello Lippi, coach of Italy -- the guy who won the last World Cup, three years ago. Italy has not looked particularly impressive lately. Last Saturday, Italy managed a 2-0 win in Georgia, which sounds impressive until you discover that both the goals were put into his own net by Georgian defender Kakha Kaladze.
But Italy's lack of goalscoring, plus its far-from-impressive creative play in midfield - in short its feeble attacking play - was not something that seemed to disquiet Lippi.
Looking ahead to his next game (played yesterday, against Bulgaria), Lippi announced: "I don't feel goals are a problem. Tomorrow one of their defenders can score again, or [goalkeeper Gianluigi] Buffon with a header. The important thing is to win."
You could say that's a pretty dismissive statement as far as the talents of his own goalscorers are concerned -- who don't seem to be too bad a group -- Giuseppe Rossi, Vincenzo Iaquinta, Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino among others. It has always been a feature of Italian soccer that despite a long period of defensive domination (the catenaccio era of the 1960s and 1970s) there were always highly skilled, specialist goalscorers to be found.
Lippi professes not to worry too much about that. He even found a way of belittling the whole idea of midfield creative play. Criticized for not bringing in the "bad boy" Antonio Cassano to replace Francesco Totti (who has now retired from the national team), Lippi off-handedly replied that he didn't need to bring in a playmaker, a fantasista, because he already had one on the team. And who would that be? Why goalkeeper Buffon again: "We have our own fantasista. In goal. His name is Gigi Buffon. A great goalkeeper like him does nothing for an hour and then comes up with a decisive intervention."
Well, I suppose we're not supposed to take what Lippi is saying too seriously. It's all a hilarious joke. At the expense of attacking, goalscoring players, of course. I wonder, would Lippi, or any other coach, dare to make wisecracks about not really needing a goalkeeper, and claiming that any of his defenders could kick the ball off the line.
No, wouldn't happen. Goalkeepers are serious. Forwards are sort of flaky. And how's that for a change around from the days when goalkeepers were the ones everyone made fun of?
Well, dammit, I can still do it, if no one else will. Did you read the daft quotes from Iker Casillas -- I'd always considered him one of the more level-headed keepers? He's joined the long and undistinguished list of goalkeepers who regularly make idiotic remarks about soccer balls. He's going on about the ball used in the Champions League, saying its flight is untrue and makes life extremely difficult for goalkeepers: "I am sorry but it has got to the stage where it just can't be allowed to continue."
So here we have a ball that -- apparently -- does dipsy-doodles in flight. And that's a problem only for goalkeepers? Maybe Iker should think about that a bit more deeply.