The Midfield’s Men : Passing Under The Radar
“They say, football is about life and death. I can assure you, it is much more serious than that.”
A cliched quote almost as old as time immemorial, by one of the greatest pioneers of the sport. Almost every other article dwelling in the past begins with this imperative comment by the legendary Bill Shankly. We ask ourselves, how far is it true. We concur, he wasn’t very wrong after all. Down the ages, we have had innumerable moments that would vouch for the fact. A thousand tales of rise from nothingness, fairytale runs, great upsets and much more.
And at the core of everything has ultimately been a team that believed in itself, believed in its innate ability to succeed. And with it, the hopes and aspirations of billions more around the globe. Every success story is not of just the eleven on the pitch, or just those who come and go around the dressing room and technical area. It has its roots intertwined in the hearts of many, whose dream and the strife for its realisation has led them to the epitome. However, as we conclude, every success story has its heroes and its knights who helped the heroes. And then, those who pass the limelight. The names never chanted, the names who don’t have a rhyme notwithstanding however much their contribution.
Football, much as in life, has them. The ones, who are indispensable yet unrecognized. Only in their absence does one feel the crying need for them. In an otherwise orthodox outlook, the striker, winger, attacking midfielders are the ones who catch the eye. Fluidic football, dazzling footwork, magical dribbling, and goalazos. Appealing, isn’t it ? Easy on the eye.! Yet one doesn’t often see the work that goes behind every passing move. One fails to recognise the main machine behind every passing moment of greatness.
What’s the most important part of a vehicle? Most often answer, the accelerator. The brake my friend, had it not been there, the accelerator would take your car crashing into the sunset. The messiah of Naples they call him. Diego Maradona, is a god. No one ever sees the Salvatore Bagni who laid his life on every game to let Maradona weave his magic upfront. Behind every Hector Scarone, was a Jose Leandro Andrade, every Rivelino, a Toninho Cerezo, and for every Rudi Voller, a certain Lothar Matthaüs.
The defensive midfield. The cerebellum that makes a team run. And yet, when we draw a brain. Who do we draw? The cerebrum. Without the former, the latter is very well useless and vice versa. So if we patronise the latter, why not the former?
Traditionally, a defensive midfielder is generally described as a hard tackling, rough riding, swashbuckling hard taskmaster in the middle of the park, taking no prisoners. And the definition has lived up to its every syllable. A symbol of strength and character every team needs. The vertebrae.
Interceptions, winning second balls, tackling between legs, spreading play, the defensive midfielder is much more than just a rearguard to the defence. Often we have seen a defensive medio modified into deep-lying playmakers kickstarting a move from deep in his own half. He is a leader on the pitch, doing the dirty work. Laying down the law for the more skilful to weave their magic, mesmerise the world and steal the show. While they stay behind the curtains, smiling under the shadow.
Or maybe, it’s influenced by their personal characters. The backgrounds behind the rise of almost every legendary “CDM” weaves a tale of pain, loss, aspirations and dreams and the eager hunger to grab it.
Growing up in extreme poverty, the illegitimate son of a fugitive slave, he would go on to become football’s first superstar. Jose Leandro Andrade, the defensive midfielder of the great Uruguay of the 30s. A titan. Growing up in the poor Palermo barrio of Montevideo, he was incredibly gifted as a footballer from a young age. However, this was little solace for a deprived and impoverished teenager in an era before football turned professional in Uruguay.
Apart from the gift of the ball at his feet, he also had a taste in music, being equally proficient in drums, guitar and the like. All of these jobs brought in minimal income, though, with Andrade also working briefly as both a shoeshiner, newspaper and according to unconfirmed sources, a gigolo.
A tough life built a tough personality. Which he transpired on the pitch, as Uruguay rallied from 2-1 down to lift the first ever Julet Rimet Trophy, by 4 goals to 2. However, what really skyrocketed Andrade in front of the world was the 1924 Olympic Games. For the first time, a football team outside of Europe had come to participate. Having won the South American games the previous year, Uruguay were the flag bearers in Paris. Unfancied.
One Spanish correspondent wrote back to home, “I have been watching football for 20 years and have never seen any team play with the mastery of this Uruguay team. I did not suspect football could be brought to this degree of virtuosity, this artistic limit. They were playing chess with their feet.” Italy’s Gazetta dello Sport described their play as “stylistic perfection.” And behind it, all was a little man they called, “La Merveille Noire” or “The Black Wonder”.
Having defeated Yugoslavia 7-0 in their opening game, they went on to beat USA 3-0 and the hosts by 5-1. Uruguay were the newest superstars in the world of football and the legend of Andrade was born. The world had witnessed the birth of a position on the pitch that would go on to revolutionise the way, the sport is played and apprehended today.
Since then, the face of football has changed. The game has gone magnanimous transformation over the years. Andrade was the first of many legends that would come to be. Legends that have had an irreplaceable contribution to today’s game. With changing times, the way the game is played has changed. Changed has the apparel. Hairs have become shorter, shorts have become longer, techniques have become intricate. From the WW to the WM to the Verrou to the Catenaccio to the Latin magic to Total Football to Gegenpressing to Counters to Tiki-Taka, one position most vital to the success of all of these was a midfield enforcer in the middle of the park.
Many may argue that the defensive midfielders do get the credit they deserve. That Frank Rijkaard is said in the same sentence as Marco Van Basten, and Bastian Schweinsteiger is spelt in the same bracket as Miroslav Klose. That Patrick Vieira is spelt in the same line as Thierry Henry. Yet, when we choose the best, whose name do we take? A certain prolific centre-forward who retired at the age of 28. Was Frank’s contribution in any way less ? True, he didn’t score as many goals and didn’t assist much. But that wasn’t his job. Look at how many his opponents scored when he was in midfield. Now that’s bossing. That’s how one becomes a legend, deservedly in the same bracket as the rest.
Of the legendary Uruguayan, many explain, his intelligence was what stood out most. Andrade seemed capable of seeing and reading everything, acting as a puppet master in the Uruguay midfield, snuffing out opposition chances and sparking attack for his country.
Whilst he wasn’t the biggest, Andrade was fast and technically excellent, attributes not prioritised by the Europeans for defensive players at that time. A defensive leader and much more.
Controlling the flow of the game, maintaining a constant link between the back and the front, marshalling the backline while supplying enough bite upfront. The toughest of all jobs on the field, namely, the defensive medio, the box-to-box and the deep-lying playmaker, the most common three modifications of the traditional central defensive midfielder, the most frequent brain behind making things happen. The cerebrum, after all.
Of the most capped German player of all time, Diego Maradona had said in his book, Yo Soy El Diego, “he is the best rival I’ve ever had. I guess that’s enough to define him”.
Recognition from arguably the greatest ball player of all time. Enough for a lifetime?