By Paul Gardner
A pair of soccer names that once meant a lot to me recently turned up in the obit columns. Bert Williams and Eusebio. I never met Williams. I did have a short
interview with Eusebio during his short stint with the Boston Minutemen in 1975.
My interaction with both players was more an exercise of my imagination than of any familiarity. Bert
Williams was a goalkeeper for Wolverhampton in the late 1940s at a time when I was studying in that town.
Why would I be intrigued by a goalkeeper? I have a rather tangled explanation. I
grew up imbued with all the faulty English assumptions about the sport. One of those was that English goalkeepers were vastly superior to those of the rest of the world. English goalkeepers were safe
and solid, they got on with their job, they didn’t indulge in spectacular leaps and theatrical flourishes. Such mannerisms were highly suspect, we thought, because they smacked of showing off,
and they must surely lead to errors.
My confidence in that notion was deeply shaken in 1945 when -- out of nowhere, as it seemed -- the Russian team, Moscow Dynamo, arrived in England.
World War II was barely over, and this was a goodwill tour. Supposedly. Like many goodwill ventures, this one ended in arguments and recriminations.
Which hardly troubled me because the
soccer played by the Dynamo was a revelation: the team played four games, winning two and tying two. But it was not the results, it was the soccer -- the rapid close passing, the smoothness with which
the ball moved from one player to another ... on the ground.
That was so different from anything I’d ever seen before. And so, too, was the play of Dynamo’s keeper, Tiger
Khomich. Flamboyant and acrobatic for sure, the very essence of everything that supposedly made continental keepers so poor. But this was top-class goalkeeping, with plenty of breath-taking saves.
Anyway, that was the way it looked in the newsreels, which was all we had as evidence.
After those four games, Dynamo went back to Moscow and I neither heard nor saw any more of Khomich.
But, possibly inspired by Khomich, I don’t really know, there was Bert Williams who appeared on the scene that same year, 1945, when he joined Wolves. Between 1947 and 1950 I saw plenty of him
(Wolves was one of England’s top teams in those years), and came to view him as the English Tiger Komich, though his nickname was slightly less ferocious on the feline scale -- The Cat. Maybe it
was because Williams was not that tall – 5-foot-9 says Wikipedia -- that he had to be so athletic. The sudden tremendous leaps and the soaring dives were what made Williams a great keeper, a
keeper, and one so exciting to watch. By 1949 he was England’s No 1 keeper -- and he was the one who was victimized by Joe Gaetjens’ goal when the USA beat England in that
famous 1950 World Cup game.
So be it. I recall Williams only as a player who forced me to question one of those ironbound assumptions about soccer that were such a secure part of my
Eusebio burst into my soccer consciousness during the 1966 World Cup in England. That was the year when, not unlike the Dynamo Russians in 1945, the North Koreans
arrived out of nowhere and surprised everyone with their wonderfully slick soccer. So wonderful was it, that I started to think -- seriously, mind you -- that the North Koreans, working in mysterious
isolation, had hit on the way to play perfect soccer. They started off poorly -- a 3-0 loss to the Soviet Union, but a 1-1 tie with Chile followed, and then came a shocking 1-0 win over Italy.
As with Dynamo, it was the superb ball control, the accurate passing and the non-stop, purposeful movement of players that made the Koreans so impressive. And if the Italians, the world
masters of defense, couldn’t stop them, what chance for anyone else?
My suspicion that the Koreans had perfected soccer was proved in the quarterfinal, in which they simply tore
Portugal to shreds. After just 25 minutes, they were leading 3-0, and the bewildered Portuguese had no answer to their onslaught.
My illusion lasted for about another hour. It was
wrecked, reduced to a naive fantasy, by Eusebio. He scored at 27 minutes, again at 43 minutes. In the second half, before the hour was up, he had scored twice more to win the game for Portugal. It was
certainly the most personal
turnaround of a game that I have ever seen. Suddenly it was the Koreans who floundered, brought to their knees by this tornado of a player, with his speedy dribbling
and ferocious shooting.
An amazing display of game-changing individual
skill and determination. One that also changed my tendency to believe that new tactics or systems or whatever
could be invented -- in secret, as those sneaky Koreans had surely managed it. Within just one hour my all-conquering super-Koreans had been reduced to merely mortal soccer players, just like all the
others. Their demolition had been brought about by an inspired display from a marvelous individual player. I’ve never really had much faith in tactics and formations since then.
Two soccer truths in here:
"...it was not the results, it was the soccer"
I for one will always place soccer over results. Why wont more teams place soccer over results? It's better to inspire and live in the imaginations of people for years than to win 1-0. It's inspiration, entertainment, and joy over win at all costs, especially when win at all costs entails anti soccer.
"I've never really had much faith in tactics and formations..."
The best tactic in soccer is to have the best players, positioned ideally. Otherwise, tactics really comes down to to simple truths about the game and situational strategy. People who talk tactics in a vacuum miss the boat.
Paul ... A man willing to examine his conceptions has won a battle. At elite levels of soccer, indeed rare and exceptional talents determine wins and losses most often; the coaching is in releasing those talents and allowing them to flourish by managing the rest of the players well. The best coaches in the world of elite soccer manage the players' psyches and motivations and spirit the best. And those best coaches would admit readily that formations and tactics most often lag behind in significance. However, there are times when tactical considerations and nuances do tell the tale, giving us coaches yet hope that we matter.
Aleksey Khomich (Tiger was the nickname given to him in England) was one of the top Soviet keepers of post-war years. He was eventually replaced in Moscow Dynamo's goal by Lev Yashin himself who started out as Khomich's backup. Just like Bert Williams, Khomich was quite short -- no more than 5'8". His post-footballing career was quite unusual -- he became a well-known sports photographer. In the 60s and 70s he was always seen at football games behind the goal with his cameras.
While I respect Paul Gardner's willingness to re-evaluate his understanding of the game, and conclude that individual brilliance will trump tactics, there is an inherent problem with relying on identifying and acquiring the best players. There is a limited supply of brilliant players and an unlimited demand (unless you are spectacularly good at identifying talent before anyone else does). Good coaching (some of which relies on tactics) is the art of getting the best performance out of players that may not be better as individual players than their opponents. So yes, it is always better to have a player like Eusebio on your team. But without such pure talent, many have to rely on intelligence, teamwork and effort to level the playing field. And that's not a bad thing.
Great article. Great comments. I love this game!