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July 21, 2021 Wednesday 04:14:23 PM IST

Hidden Talents of Football

Sports & Games

In any team game there are the superstars who hog all the attention and the unsung members who really make the group tick. It’s always easy to focus on a hotshot, the one that the team thrives on, the fans hoot for and the cynosure of the media. There are others who raise the overall performance of teams but remain invisible to the public eye.

Teams do well when there’s a special chemistry among the members. This chemistry could come from a single team member who keeps the others motivated, focussed, one who lifts everybody else’s energy and is content to remain in the shadow of the stars.

I’m informed that this is called plus/minus analysis. It involves looking at not just individual performance but at performance in context – understanding through data how a team of people does overall when one person is part of the mix, and when they are not. This analysis is valuable in identifying people who are essentially secret weapons to a team.

Like in chess, where pieces other than the dominant queen still have critical roles, certain players in teams just make everyone else perform better.

The recently concluded English, Italian and German football leagues, the prestigious Champions League and the final round games of Euro Cup dished out pulsating encounters and brought to the fore exceptional players – players with character, invaluable assets to their sides.

Kante’s Mid Field Artistry

There are few more popular members of the Chelsea and France teams than N’Golo Kante, this diminutive, power packed midfielder, who loves to remain in the shadows.

The Champions League 2021 will be remembered for Chelsea’s title win and for Kante. His positioning was so clean, his timing, movement so perfect that Kante turned manning the midfield into a sort of art. He was the difference between the two sides in the final.

Kante started his career in the suburbs of Paris. His parents are of Malian origin, and he grew up in a large family where each one had to toil to survive. Kante lost his father when he was just 11. He worked as a waste picker to help his mother keep the family going. Quite early in life Kante learned the value of working hard as this was the only way to achieve something in life.

While the 1998 World Cup was on in France, Kante prospered financially by making money collecting trash dropped by football fans across stadiums. A part of this money was invested in football. After the World Cup, Kante saw an opportunity – football glory. He noticed that France’s victory was hugely fashioned by migrants. Kante decided to play football.

Unlike most modern-day footballers, Kante is not the product of a youth academy. He had talent but his size and personality always seemed to work against him. He was not one who stood out at a selection trial. He was just not visible. Kante ignored the taunts, disappointments and slogged.

Success in France

His career gradually took off when he moved to France’s far north to sign up for Boulogne-sur-Mer. He was soon playing for their first team in the third division, and he then joined Caen in 2013, helping them win promotion to Ligue 1. After just one season, Kante moved to Leicester, in 2015, and was hugely responsible for their surge to the Premier League title in 2015-16. He then moved to Chelsea where he has continued to excel, right up to being the man of the match in both legs of the Champions League semi-final and the final.

It is not easy to get to the top in football as Kante has – two English Premier League titles with Leicester (2016) and Chelsea (2017), FIFA World Cup with France (2018), Europa League winner with Chelsea (2019). When France won the World Cup in Russia the fans came up with a song that went ‘he is small, he is kind, he stopped Leo Messi.’

Kanté is the great hidden gift in this large group of players. The Chelsea formula to success was rather simple after Frank Lampard left – get a good coach, free the side from panic, play without fear and make sure N’Golo’s in the team. As Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said, “He does everything. The energy he brings…It’s special to have him and when we don’t have him, we missed him. After winning the World Cup and Champions League he’s till humble…”

Binding Thread

Kanté has been a constant force in the teams he has played for, an unstarry, natural general-in-the-field. He certainly must have had his days under the cloud but now he seems to be glowing in a state of completeness. He might not score or make the final pass, doesn’t beat his chest or assert his own status. All he does is work hard for the team. He is a binding thread that knits a team.

Lille OSC is enjoying a dream run. The club made a remarkable transformation winning the French League title after being on the verge of being relegated three years ago. They pipped the might of Paris St. Germain (PSG). Lille did it on less than a quarter of PSG’s budget riding on the strength of an astute, underrated manager in Christopher Galtier, smart signings and a few of PSG’s own discarded youth products.

Standout Performer Fonte

Many players contributed to the triumph but leading from the front was the former Southampton, Crystal Palace and West Ham United centre-back Jose Fonte. Now 37, this Portugal international was a standout performer holding Lille’s defence together.

Lille’s success story will not be complete without the mention of the Burak Yilma,. The 35-year-old Turkey striker, who barring a spell in China, had not played for a club outside his own country before joining Lille. He worked superbly in attack, scoring 16 goals in the League.

The man they call Kral (king, in Turkish), is the prime example of a ‘late footballing bloomer.’ Burak came through the Antalyaspor youth system, quickly making a name for himself. Yılmaz was given his debut at just 16 and played an integral part in Antalyaspor’s promotion to the super league in 2005-06. He joined Besiktas as a winger, which did not get the best out of him. Burak switched to Maniaspor for a short while before Fenerbahçe signed him. Things did not go well for Burak here too. He was loaned out the next season to Eskisehirspor and later signed by Trabzonspor, which sparked his renaissance.

In the impressive 2010-11 season the club narrowly missed out on the super league title. Burak finished as his club’s top scorer with 19 goals in 30 games. He was Turkey’s best striker and scored his first international goal for his country in the Euro 2012 qualifiers against Azerbaijan.

The next season Burak delivered emphatically for Trabzonspor, scoring 33 goals in just 34 games. Despite Burak’s goals, Trabzonspor still finished 21 points behind Galatasaray. This was a signal for him to move ahead. Titles seemed to elude him and Burak joined Galatasaray.

In 2012-13 Galatasaray won the title and Burak was at his best. With Galatasaray, Burak won two league titles in four years, plus twoTurkish Cup’s. Burak moved to China and then returned to Turkey before joining Lille.

Fonte’s Proud Contributions

He was 35 but fitted into the slot perfectly. Lille thrived in his presence. Burak’s career has had more setbacks than the average one, being a throwaway earlier in his career, battled countless injuries, missed out on titles. However, toppling PSG’s stranglehold on the League would undoubtedly be his crowning achievement.

The foundation for Lille’s success was constructed by Fonte whose contribution has been quietly profound. He virtually shut down potent attacks, was responsible not only for the club’s fine defensive record, but for changing attitudes in the locker room.

In the French League Fonte manned a defence that conceded only 27 goals in 31 matches and even scored when his team needed it most. Fonte has been the biggest impact on Lille, commanding the respect, something he has strived for in his career.

The Portuguese centre half had established himself as a solid and reliable EPL centre back at Southampton alongside Virgil van Dijk. Fonte moved to West Ham but the going was not very good there. He made around 15 appearances, starting and finishing all but one of them, managing to keep just three clean sheets. Fonte was also made a scapegoat for some poor team performances.

A serious ankle injury compounded Fonte’s woes. In 2018 Fonte was gone, sold to Chinese side Dalian Yifang after a fairly eventful 13 months. Fonte made only nine appearances before they agreed to part ways and landed at Lille. This has been his revival and the club’s too.

Fonte’s Crowning Glory

The Portuguese defender’s influence, intelligence, strong all-round game and leadership qualities are now hugely valued. The crowning glory of Fonte’s career was certainly winning the Euro Cup in 2016 for his country. After a hard graft of 14 years of club football, of inching his way up the slippery slope, Fonte has made it to the top. When Portugal celebrated Fonte’s story seemed to have a fitting ending. He was awarded the Portuguese Order of Merit.

So many names flash through my mind – players like the brilliant Algerian Riyaz Mahrez, the attacking midfielder who helped his country win the Africa Cup Nations Cup and the key to Manchester City’s success, midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum (Liverpool and The Netherlands), the rising Italian winger Federico Chiesa (Juventus and Italy), Jan Oblak (Athletico Madrid and Slovenia) considered by many as one the best goalkeepers in the business and mercurial Argentine striker Lautaro Martinez (Inter Milan).

K Pradeep

Sports Writer and Former Senior Deputy Editor, The Hindu Read more articles..