Gone are the days when children would take to the muddy patch of turf outside their homes for an unceasing summerfest of relenting, unending football.
Many days of many childhoods were littered with the laughter and crocodile tears, gashed knees and hurt egos of playing makeshift football, street football, out of what could be gathered.
Hoodies for posts, pieces of litter marking the sidelines – and even in this writer’s own experience when footballs were forbidden in the schoolyard for fear of injury – a zipper for the centrepiece of action.
But in this modern era of council-planned astro pitches and rented sheds for 5 a sides, the game has transcended the childlike innocence of what drew many an impressionable kid to playing the game – scoring goals.
Most if not all young children knew the feeling of want and desire that came part and parcel with the number nine shirt for their U-11 Sunday league sides. All the best players wore it. Ronaldo, Kluivert, Batistuta, Shearer.
It was a badge of honour that drew immediate respect and distinction from all others. Murmurs among the opposition would circle about the other team’s number nine. . .“He bagged 40 last season and had trials at United during the summer.” Not all were true.
But today’s young footballers are not as drawn to the iconic shirt as in previous years. Today’s are rather more perplexed and entranced with number nine’s partner in crime, 10.
Perhaps it is due to the surge in tactical analysis that has become the mainstream in recent years, be it Gary Neville’s insightful swipes onto a touchscreen on Monday Night Football or Jonathan Wilson’s crusade to show us that tactics do in fact matter with his dramatic introduction to Inverting the Pyramid:
‘Oh, what’s the difference?’ an English colleague protested. ‘They’re the same players. The formation isn’t important. It’s not worth writing about.’
There was a splutter of indignation. As I raised a drunken finger to jab home my belief that people like him shouldn’t be allowed to watch football, let alone talk about it, an Argentinian, probably wisely, pulled my arm down. ‘The formation is the only thing that’s important,’ she said. ‘It’s not worth writing about anything else.’
And there, in a moment, was laid bare the prime deficiency of the English game. Football is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment.
This is not to say that young children of today’s football lie awake at night pondering the futility of a 4-2-4 circa Brazil 1958 in today’s game, or struggle to come to grips with the skewed and indeed mixed signals of Louis Van Gaal’s supposed philosophy at Manchester United.
But it cannot be denied that children of today have in their midst much, much more tactical nous than in any other previous generation. It may even be subliminal, unconscious learning that has made the players of today read the game quicker and think, really think about the game. Why I made the pass as opposed to how.
And such is the childish fascination with the number 10 that it appears to be gaining the upper ground on the once bashful predominance of the striker who scores the goals.
Maybe it’s all too simplistic when we lay it bare: Are we so much more enlightened in 2015 as opposed to twenty, thirty years ago that we now understand that the assist is just as if not more important than the goals themselves.
Goals win games, but what about the pass before the goal, or even the pass before the assist? Schoolyard debates would once stand solely on the goals-per-season basis, but now the arguments are more sophisticated whereby assists leaderboards are drawn into the equation.
“Ronaldo got thirty goals last season so he’s the best in the world.”
“Messi got thirty as well and got four more assists than Ronaldo, so he’s the best.”
Messi and Ronaldo aside, Riquelme was the undoubted number 10 extraordinaire. Suave, elegant genius mixed with an overriding sense of nonplussed, “can’t everyone do this?” rolled into one.
Riquelme embodies that which literary scholars would deem a Shakespearian tragedy. With his shoulders stooping noticeably low he dances about his game with poetic fluidity mixed with a faceless expression of hardened struggle.
Much has been said about Riquelme’s genius, that he is the last dying link between classical romanticism in football and the modern game of action-packed-to-the-rafters saturation. But the beauty of what Riquelme represents to so many people – an effortless ease of acumen that contrasts with the severe technical ability required to make so many of the passes, dribbles and touches he makes – is because he makes it look, well, child’s play.
And so we return to the childlike adoration of the man in the hole. The trequartista, the false nine, the playmaker, the regista. Young footballers in the modern age have found in it a refuge from the rigid structure of the present.
Even in describing creativity, much of its beauty and sense of inventiveness is lost on so many coaches of today. FAI Technical Director Ruud Dokter spoke in 2013 about developing creativity in order to produce better players in Irish football.
“Coaches should be focusing on allowing the children to make mistakes”, he said. “Because in that way they will develop their creativity instead of stopping and passing, focusing on the result. That’s what we have to develop.”
But can creativity really be developed in places like La Masia, or even for that matter survive within rigid structure. Perhaps it is in itself a self-defeating paradox of attempting to force something to be that has to come of itself. Nature, not nurture.
And it is in these conflicting schools of thought between coaching and street football, Riquelme and modern football that children have found a source of expression in the number 10.
Riquelme was loved and loathed in equal measure because he was set apart from the team. His role was one of ingenuity and imagination. He didn’t track back as ferociously as Argentinian footballers are expected because that would mean to take away time and energy from what he does best.
The number 10 embodies the spirit of a child’s imagination because within its parameters of four or five square yards space in front of the opposing centre backs, it possesses its own limitless prism of endless possibility.
But from Riquelme taking Villarreal to a UEFA Champions League semi-final in 2005/06 to the present-day, football has changed so much.
Today’s trequartista’s are forced to survive in a team-made structure. Mesut Özil shares many of the characteristics of Riquelme but is often labelled lazy and inattentive. Others, like Oscar under José Mourinho is again forced to play according to the manager’s philosophy that a team is better than the sum of its parts, thus throwing away creative ingenuity in the face of results.
Whereas Lionel Messi’s performance against Manchester City at the Nou Camp back in March brought out the best of the Barça star, showcasing the undeniable fact that the forward could play anywhere in attack and still be the best in the world in his position, with Manuel Pellegrini admitting the genius had thwarted him: “He created an absolute imbalance.”
And it is for this we must hope for hope’s sake that the beauty of the number 10, like the chaotic structure in a game of street football or the awe of a child’s sense of wonder, the last remaining position in football gone untouched by the pressures of the modern game, lives on in spirit and practice as the sole escape for bewildering childish expression.