Tuesday this week was the birthday of one of the greatest footballers of all time, in my opinion: Franz Beckenbauer. The German played nineteen years of football for Bayern Munich, Hamburg and the New York Cosmos, as well as making over one hundred appearances for West Germany. He won nineteen trophies as a player, including the World Cup, the Euros and three European Cups. Oh, and he managed a Ballon d’Or or two. Beckenbauer was a star.
And yet he wasn’t banging in the goals like those we admire today. He wasn’t playing in the forwards or setting up chances, and he only broke the ten-goal barrier once, back when he was in the second tier as a youngster. No, Beckenbauer was at the other end, getting tackles in from anywhere and everywhere, marshalling the defence and looking to get the ball up the other end. He was one of the first, if not the very first sweeper in top-level football. He was immensely popular, and it’s not like his talent wasn’t recognised – after all, he won two Ballons d’Or. But what about those players now?
It’s not like we’ve got a shortage of talented defenders. Ramos, Varane, Pique, Boateng, Hummels, Kompany, Azpilicueta, Chiellini and that’s just centre-backs. Wider out there’s Alba, Alaba, Kimmich, Carvajal, Marcelo, Danilo, and the greatest player of all time, Seamus Coleman. And yet despite this talent, players who have been doing this for years on end, we’ve decided to focus almost exclusively on forwards.
Just look at the shortlists for the FIFA awards. Last year, twenty-four players were shortlisted for the Best Men’s Player – four were defenders. In 2016, there was just one on the list, and this year, there was also only one (out of ten this time). No defender had been in the final three for the award since 2006 when Fabio Cannavaro won in 2006, and that victory wasn’t as clear-cut as others from its time period.
In part this doesn’t surprise me – after all, would you rather watch Messi or Cristiano score goals and terrorise defences, or Ramos or Pique trying to organise a defence and clear the ball away? There’s a reason FIFA have the Puskas Award for best goal and not one for best tackle or block. But it isn’t something that’s going away soon.
Take the World Team of the 20th century, for example. The front six is about what you’d expect, with the slots going to Pele and Garrincha, plus Maradona, di Stefano, Cruyff and Platini. But it’s in defence where the names become less recognisable – Nilton Santos, anyone? Beckenbauer joins Moore, Nilton and Carlos Alberto in a sturdy defence.
But it’s clear to see the gap in recognition between the two groups. For Nilton and Carlos Alberto, these are their only individual awards (alongside the FIFA 100, Pele’s list of people he likes). Beckenbauer of course has two Ballons ‘Or and three World Cup All-Star Team selections, and Moore has one selection to the same team. That’s ten awards across the defence, less than Pele by himself and as many as Diego Maradona. Neither of them were eligible for the Ballon d’Or but the awards have been retroactively reevaluated and alternate winners announced – Pele, Maradona and Garrincha get ten. Add on the seven extra from Cruyff, di Stefano and Platini and the massive gap starts to become evident.
What can be done to fix this, if it even requires fixing? I don’t know. People will always be drawn to the obvious flair, the talent that doesn’t require effort to spot. They’ll find more enjoyment in watching a Kevin de Bruyne scorcher rip into the corner than they will watching Mats Hummels get a toe in and knock the ball out for a corner. It’s unfortunate to see people choose Beckham over Beckenbauer or Socrates over Sokratis, but that’s football.