Wednesday, June 16, 2010 ESPNsoccernet: June 16, 6:06 AM UK
Players finding liberation in South Africa
Football, famously, is a game of opinions. Yet what is apparent from the first few days of the World Cup in South Africa is how drastically those views vary.
Because, besides the game's luminaries, the tournament features men who are unwanted or underused at club level, players who have different duties and a lower profile in their domestic football.
They are, in short, specialist internationals. The Ghana midfielder Stephen Appiah is the most extreme example, a man who has spent much of the last two years without a club and, after joining Bologna, has only made two appearances in his time there.
He is an anomaly in a sport where clubs pay the players' salaries, but others could figure more in a month in South Africa than a year elsewhere. Appiah's Ghanaian team-mate, Richard Kingson, spent a season on the bench or in the stands at Wigan: his only first-team football has come for his country.
Then there is the curious case of Fanis Gekas. The Greek striker is yet to make his mark in Group B though he was, albeit by default, the most effective of their three forwards against South Korea. But he was the leading scorer in the European section of qualifying for the World Cup, topping a distinguished leaderboard that featured Wayne Rooney, Edin Dzeko, Miroslav Klose and David Villa.
During that time, however, Gekas plied his trade - or, usually, didn't - for three different clubs. Owned by Bayer Leverkusen and loaned to Portsmouth, where he played for a solitary minute, and Hertha Berlin, who were relegated, he has been both unappreciated and unsuccessful. It is an unfortunate double.
Important only in the international game, Gekas is not alone. Giovani dos Santos sparkled in Soccer City, providing Mexico with invention and incision. Yet he has become Tottenham Hotspur's forgotten man, loaned to Ipswich and Galatasaray, and has not scored a top-flight goal since he left Barcelona in 2008. He was not merely selected against South Africa - he was liberated by being permitted to play.
Traipsing across a continent in a quest for football is more familiar for internationals from smaller nations. Giovani, though, represents Mexico, ranked 17th in the world and with a population exceeding 100 million. One of the quirks of Javier Aguirre's squad is that two are officially unattached to any club: West Ham released Guillermo Franco and Stuttgart parted company with Ricardo Osorio.
Without spending an Appiah-esque time without a day job, Australia's Craig Moore is another whose status as a professional international cannot be questioned: he left Greek side AO Kavala in March. Not that his somewhat shaky display against Germany should enhance his chances of returning to more regular work.
Nevertheless, the World Cup becomes a job centre for the otherwise unemployed. The Slovenia skipper, Robert Koren, is a case in point. West Bromwich Albion did not take up their option of another year's contract with the midfielder. While his winner against Algeria was the beneficiary of the competition's second worst goalkeeping blunder, neat passing served as an advertisement of Koren's qualities.
He veered in and out of the West Brom team; the Slovenia side, in contrast, is built around him. A second Championship footballer enjoys a higher reputation on the international stage. Jonas Gutierrez had a fine year for Newcastle, but few second-tier footballers are guaranteed a place for Argentina. Yet Diego Maradona once said the three certainties in his side were Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and, rather oddly, Gutierrez. Equally unusual is his role: on the left wing for Newcastle, at right back for Argentina.
It is an example of Maradona's idiosyncratic interpretation of selection. Differences of opinion between club and international managers are apparent elsewhere, however. Emile Heskey, Aston Villa's substitute striker, leads the line for England, while Gabriel Agbonlahor, Martin O'Neill's first-choice forward, did not even make Fabio Capello's provisional squad. Miroslav Klose, on the bench for Bayern Munich, starts for Germany, shunting his team-mate Thomas Muller out to the right flank.
That can be explained in part by the personnel available to international managers as well as their separate styles of play and varying footballing ideologies. But there is an argument for a different deployment of players, with a clear case of one country erring by copying a club.
Samuel Eto'o is the outstanding African centre forward of the last decade. He excelled at selfless sacrifice out of position as Inter Milan won a treble. Yet Cameroon's use of Eto'o in deep-lying right-sided role against Japan ignored one element of Jose Mourinho's logic: he had Diego Milito to supply the goals instead. Cameroon had no such scorer. In a game of opinions, Paul Le Guen is likely to be a minority in deciding Eto'o was at his most effective on the flank.
There are specialist internationals at this World Cup, but he should be a specialist striker.