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October 23, 2020 Friday 11:31:02 AM IST

Triumph of Team Spirit

Sports & Games

The takeaways from the UEFA Champions League 2019-20 are many. Bayern Munich’s supremacy from start to finish champions, Paris Saint Germain making their presence felt in the final but failing to grab the chances that came their way, Barcelona’s baffling inconsistency. Spearheaded by Lionel Messi, this hugely talented Barcelona side last won the League in 2014-15 since then they have been ousted early in the last five seasons. Manchester City and Juventus lacked the desired mentality, while teams such as Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon), Atalanta B.C., and RB Leipzig proved giant-killers.

For me, the biggest upshot was a stark reminder that talent might win you games but teamwork and intelligence alone will help you win championships. The mighty fall of Barcelona, the side’s humiliating exit, the brouhaha that followed cannot be ignored. It was not simply another case where the authorities failed to create a team, failed to manage it effectively and failed to act responsibly. I feel that Barcelona’s failure, the success of teams like Bayern Munich, Atalanta, Lyon, Leipzig, is a pointer to the often forgotten truth that the strength of a team is each individual member; the strength of each member is the team – it’s team spirit.

Messi, who is widely considered the greatest footballer to walk planet Earth, ended the season frustrated - angry at the way his club is being run, challenged the hierarchy and feels he is being made a scapegoat for everything that happens in Barcelona. If not for the technicalities in his contract Messi, I think, would have quit the club he has been playing for 20 years, ever since he moved there as a 13-year-old from Argentina.

You can’t blame him for he’s been carrying the team on his shoulders for quite some time now. And he’s tired. Messi is a classic case of how ‘one man can be a crucial ingredient on a team but one man cannot make a team’ (Basketball legend, Kareem Abdul Jabbar).

In team sport, more than anything else, teamwork is most important. The strength of the entire team lies in the hands of each member. At the same time, the ultimate strength of individual members is the team itself. While it is very important to have a good group of very talented athletes, it is also very important to foster teamwork.

The age-old motto in team sport is there is no ‘I’ in a team only ‘We’. When players move into the field it is not a group of individuals but a team. This is what club managements, coaches and players strive for. Once this happens, when individuals combine as a team, the goals are achieved much more easily. The team reaps psychological benefits on and off the field. These days, when competition is paramount and enjoyment from sport is at premium, teamwork is often sacrificed.

Central to a successful team is cooperation. Team sports are inherently cooperative and run parallel with teamwork. Managements, coaches, back-up staff need to inculcate this in the team. And many a time we have seen how this has had a positive impact on each player, which in turn instinctively breeds success as a team. The common expression ‘the name on the front of the shirt is more important than the name on the back’ needs to be stressed.

Somewhere down the line Barcelona seemed to have forgotten this. The club banked too heavily on Messi hoping him to be the Messiah who would deliver whenever needed. This over dependence of one player boomeranged. The signs of decay were visible but the management looked the other way. And there were some who sang paeans for Messi saying that he was an exception to the rule that no player is bigger than their club. They were deluded into believing that the club was bigger than any manager, than any player…except Messi.

But Messi is only human – one with emotions like anger, frustration and bitterness. What makes him special is that all these years in Barca he kept these emotions in check. Many a time he indicated in interviews that all was not well with the club. He talked about the team’s chances in the Champions League, which he felt would be no better than the domestic league ones. The message he was sending was clear – he was not happy with things in Barcelona. But no one in the club who mattered listened to him.

The Champions League humiliation was breakpoint. Messi, like he did more than once before this, slammed Barcelona publicly. Significantly, he questioned his club’s ambition and intent. Barcelona became synonymous with capitulation on the field, incompetence and crisis off it. Not unexpected, for there are deep, troubling issues with the club. This is not new or unexpected for the player. Messi must be used to having a team that is disjointed and unable to click in big games with Argentina. For the national side too this one player has carried the burden, dragging them into the 2018 World Cup. And now this is happening with his second home – Barcelona.

If Messi, this one-man army, with all his gifted talent is unable to lift the spirit of the team at clutch moments one can imagine the plight of other sides. There is a big difference between being able to carry a team on your own and having to do it all the time. History has provided us with so many instances where teams with very good players have beaten non-teams with very great players.

This brings to mind some memorable victories and losses; great teams that bit the dust and well-knit sides scaling the heights.

No one of my generation will ever forget Brazil’s defeats in the 1982 and 2006 World Cup championships. In 1982 they were a fantastic side with the likes of Zico, Socrates, Toninho Cerezo, Serginho, Falcao…a roll-call of magicians who could change a game in a jiffy. Each goal they scored was considered a work of art but that flowing style proved their downfall. They lost to Italy and failed to enter the knockout round. In 2006, Brazil was the heavy favourite to win with stars such as Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Kaka, Cafu, Roberto Carlos…but they ran out of magic against France in the quarterfinals.

Few would have predicted France versus Croatia in the final of the 2018 edition. A week before the match the rankings would have predicted a Germany-Brazil final. Or it would have been easy to assume that two teams with the greatest players in the game — Argentina with Messi and Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo — might also be contenders for the title. But this did not happen. One of the most powerful lessons from this World Cup was the positive relationship team cohesion had with performance.

The revival of Bayern Munich in 2019-20 is another example. In the Bundesliga they were down and out at one stage. One decision changed everything. Bayern sacked Niko Kovac as coach and replaced him with Hansi Flick. There was a remarkable upturn in form, coupled with the backing of the players. The rest, as they say, is history. Bayern, as a team, was much better than their rivals like Barcelona. They had a perfect mix of young talent and experience. Flick simply forged them together. A lot of this success also goes to the management in Bayern. They did not spend like crazy in the transfer market and their choices proved effective too. In fact, Bayern had such a sound transfer strategy that their starting XI against Barcelona in the Champions League had a combined fee of less than what the Catalans paid for Antoine Griezmann alone. But the most important advantage for the Bavarians was that they did not have a single star player, they had a complete team.

Interestingly, Bayern the dominating side in German league were shown their place in 1996-97 by a young, well-structured Borussia Dortmund. They rolled through the Bundesliga, winning the domestic title with ease, added DFB Supercup to their kitty, weaved through the Champions League, defeating the mighty Zinedine Zidane’s Juventus 3-1 in the final.  Dortmund continued their dominance in the Intercontinental Cup, blasting through the field with ease to become world champions. They were kings of the world.

Club teams across the globe have similar instances in their long, rich history. Manchester United in 1988-99, Chelsea 2004-05, Barcelona in 2008-09 is just two of the many. There have been teams that did the unthinkable – winning everything before them without stars but just a well-forged team.

One more freeze you could add to this list is India’s 1983 World Cup win. Starting the tournament as underdogs with bookies offering 50:1 odds against them, Kapil Dev’s India steered a triumphant if somewhat erratic course to a nail-biting cliff--hanger of a final against the seemingly invincible West Indies, undefeated in one-day cricket and winners of the previous two World Cup titles in 1975 and 1979. That Indian side had no stars but a formidable team of cricketers who gave their all, backing their skipper’s dream.

If analysts dissect the victories and losses of many of these football sides I’m sure they will derive answers – when they played as a team and when they played as individuals. No one is more important than the team, no coach is more important than the team…the team, the team, the team….if this is considered by each one involved the effect can be surmised.

There’s this question that I have always kept in mind: What’s the most important leg of a 3-legged stool? The answer is obvious. Now, reframe this question to, who’s the most important member of a team? The answer should be - all of them.

K Pradeep

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