'Identification players' defined by character, not where they come from

Just over a decade ago, while I was working for a soccer website in Washington, D.C., a writer sent in a piece saying that D.C. United's latest signing from South America was a poor move. Not because the striker in question wasn't a good player (he went on to win the MLS Golden Boot that season), but because he was part of a mixed squad with few players that D.C. fans could identify with. I disagreed with the premise, but it was a well-argued article worth publishing.

Two summers ago, Eintracht Frankfurt defender Bastian Oczipka left the team after five years to sign for Schalke 04. Oczipka wasn't a local player, but he was a German national who'd been around for a comparatively long time, and -- although not good enough for the German national team -- was known as a 'heart-and-soul' player who gave his all. A lot of Frankfurt fans lamented the loss of yet another 'identification player.'

Both D.C. and Eintracht, like all serious professional clubs, have youth team setups designed to nurture the talents of tomorrow, but a young local player breaking into his side's first team and staying there has become an increasing rarity. The Celtic FC team that won the European Cup in 1967 with a team of Scots all born within a 30-mile radius of Glasgow is now a historical curiosity that will not be repeated in my lifetime. The thrilling Manchester United side of the 1990s that won multiple Premier League trophies and became European champion with the core of its former youth team (Phil and Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham) was probably the last of its kind in England.

Soccer fans, though, have shown themselves to be remarkably adaptable when it comes to idolizing players. In truth, it no longer matters where players come from if they show up in a city and make a credible attempt to integrate, and then play with enough energy and commitment to justify the considerable wages they're taking in return.

This past Sunday I was in the stadium watching Eintracht Frankfurt's home game with Fortuna Düsseldorf. Last season the home fans had thrilled to the 'magic triangle' of Luka Jovic (Serbian, gone this summer to Real Madrid), Sebastien Haller (French, now at West Ham United) and Croatian World Cup runner-up Ante Rebic (likely off today to AC Milan). At halftime the team was deservedly trailing 0-1, but then subbed in its brand new signing, Dutch forward Bas Dost, who took 12 minutes to score his first goal for the club.

Do the fans 'identify' with Bas Dost yet? Not entirely, but he's already on the right path. He's declared that he's very happy to be in town, that Frankfurt was his target club, and that he "expects" to score many goals for the team. He speaks German. And he helped turn a poor performance around into a 2-1 victory. Eintracht has already moved on, just like Jovic, Haller and Rebic. When fans get jilted they don't mope for long, but start swiping through the transfer market's equivalent of Tinder instead.

There are no obvious up-and-coming strikers in Eintracht's youth system. Luca Waldschmidt was on the verge of stepping up a couple of years ago, but was never really given a proper chance before being sold to SC Freiburg. This past summer he scored seven goals for the German U-21s at the European Championship, and has just been called up to the full national team. The only other locals under contract -- Marc Stendera, Jan Zimmermann, Marco Russ and Timothy Chandler -- are all fringe players who, with the exception of Stendera, are reaching the end of their careers and have had spells at other clubs in between.

The regrettably premature release of Waldschmidt and the lack of regional input does not, though, prevent Frankfurt fans from heavily 'identifying' with their current squad (including two Japanese, a French-Malian, an Argentine, a Portuguese, a Spaniard, three Serbs etc.), thanks to a successful two years when they have lifted the German Cup (2018, beating Bayern Munich 3-1), and reached the semifinals of the Europa League (eliminated by Chelsea on penalty kicks last May). Take, for example, Austrian defender Martin Hinteregger, who was picked up on loan from Augsburg last winter when he fell out with his coach there. He was signed to a full contract this summer after rapidly becoming a cult hero among Eintracht fans.

How did this happen? Hinteregger has character. He's big and ugly and prone to the odd defensive error, but his tackles often send opponents flying and he never holds back on the field. He likes to state what he thinks (thus his falling-out with Augsburg), he occasionally barrels forward on unfeasible runs, and when he missed the decisive penalty against Chelsea, he tearfully fell into the arms of adoring Eintracht fans who had forgiven him in a matter of seconds. That's love. Inexplicable, but magnificent. Video footage of him staggeringly drunk over the summer break only enhanced Hinteregger's reputation as 'one of us.'

Meanwhile, one of the world's supposedly top-five greatest players has spent the summer trying to get out of Paris. Part of Neymar's plan to force a move back to Barcelona was to insult the team he's played for the past two years, Paris Saint-Germain, and every last one of its followers. The most memorable moment of his career, he said in July, came while beating PSG when he was playing for Barcelona in the Champions League. Talent's all very well, but among fans it won't count for anything if you don't have class.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

7 comments about "'Identification players' defined by character, not where they come from".
  1. Bob Ashpole, September 2, 2019 at 2:52 p.m.

    Interesting point. People are more important than statitistics.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, September 2, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    Very true Bob and along with the mix of nationalities on most teams it’s very disappointing to continue to witness examples of fans being racist. Unfortunately not enough have experienced the wonder and joy of difference. 

  3. frank schoon, September 2, 2019 at 4:28 p.m.

    I understand Ian's point. What I find interesting is that his point is well taken when you take into account Spain, Germany, Italy, England, and France but this doesn't apply to Holland as such.  The dutch player Bass Dost has become a favorite in Germany whereas in Holland they see Dost as a very limited player, technically and tactically,  and therefore will never be a popular player in Holland. Character is not what a dutch player is judged on but how he performs on the field. This is why the dutch don't like counter attacking soccer as a style and find it demeaning if a team plays that way ,as Cruyff states it is for the lesser types, takes less brains. And that is why Beckenbauer described the dutch as playing a pure style of game. In other words, if the leftback has the ball and see hardly any options than you blast out of bounds, which is the professional and safe way of doing. The dutch fans would have booed the leftback for they the expect the leftback to find a solution, a "footballing solution" to solve the problem....since any idiot can a ball out of bounds.  Counter attacking soccer, or just blasting the ball out of bounds is low level soccer for a dutchman. The dutch fans expect the leftback to have enough brains , to understand the flow, and thus position himself ahead of time in order not to get himself caught up in a situation that forces him to blast the ball out of bounds.
    This is not to say the dutch don't employ counterattacking soccer, they do, but only when the tactical situation at particular moment is the best alternative which the opponent doesn't expect at the moment calls for it. Again there is alot of thinking behind the process of how the dutch play which is embodied in how Cruyff plays, as he states , "you play soccer with your mind and carried it out using the feet/legs".
    The fans of those countries I mentioned are more 'stage struck' when seeing a star soccer player in public. This is so often said by dutch 'greats' who play in foreign countries, given  movie star status, whereas in Holland well known players aren't treated like that...the dutch are very non-chalant and very cool to  given movie star status to players. NEXT POST.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, September 2, 2019 at 6:55 p.m.

    I think Ian's point is still valid in general. It is just the Dutch fans would identify with a different sort of player. Cruyff and some of his teammates from the early 70's are probably great examples of identification players at Ajax. Alan Shearer at Newcastle. Roy Keane at Man U. Der Kaiser at Bayern. And so on.

    On the other hand look at how Neymar is not happy at PSG.  

  5. frank schoon replied, September 2, 2019 at 7:15 p.m.

    Bob, I think Neymar is not happy with PSG for they buy players and don’t have structure like Barca with Messi. PSG is like Inter in a way ,there is no continuity like at Barca. Neymar went to PSG for the money but I think he now wants to play soccer and his style fits Barcelona more...

  6. frank schoon replied, September 3, 2019 at 10:03 a.m.

    Bob, your point is well put concerning domicile players. When Cruyff played for Ajax in the glory days, it was, Keizer, Suurbier, Cruyff, Krol, Swart, Hulshoff, who were from interior of Amsterdam, like I was, Rep was from Zaandam( suburb of Amsterdam where I stay in the summer), Muhren was from Volendam a fisherman village which today is about 15min drive from Amsterdam. The rest were from the eastern part of the holland. After all these years, Amsterdam's make up has changed, expanded geographically and demographically . Almere where Dest grew up is likewise a bedroom community of Amsterdam. It's like when you lived in Springfield where I also once lived, you state you're from DC, not Springfield :-)

  7. frank schoon, September 2, 2019 at 4:58 p.m.

    The countries mentioned above, their players do as the coach tells them to do, but in Holland a coach better have  good reasoning skills and has to know exactly what he's talking about to persuade his player to follow a certain tactical plan. The English before the onslaught of the new wave of foreign coaches , did not look with favor on dutch players for they would always question the coache's strategy during locker room discussions. For example an Italian coach  would bring in other aspects like yelling in the locker room speech, saying don't let your town or city down( as far as soccer goes they are firm believers of the Nation states); bringing "blood,sweat and tears' into the discussion ; fight for your "machismo" and what not. The dutch players would laugh at this display a la Knute Rockne, or Vince Lombardi type for they prefer and respect a more cerebral, intelligent ,intellectual discussion to explain how to approach the opponent, a la Cruyff style of talking. Even Cruyff stated that he even was questioned sometimes but at least sofar he never lost a tactical discussion and therefore the player will follow him through thick and thin. Everything is more cerebral when it comes to the dutch as compared to more emotion  with said countries above.
    Those countries adore their players and tend to look at the players with a less critical eye than the dutch and therefore accept other aspects and other traits of a player which doesn't necessarily reflect in soccer playing abilities but more as celebrity , as compared to the dutch are strictly soccer.
    The dutch don't care where you're from as long you perform playing good soccer and the rest is BS to them...

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