Sep 19, 2008

Sports - Only 17,but really gifted

If players who are very young are good enough, then surely they are old enough to be picked for their teams.

How young is too young, in football? Recently for my sins I found myself in Cardiff watching an excruciating display by Wales who scraped through 1-0 in the closing minutes against the modest Azerbaijan team. And I marvelled at the fact that the hugely experienced Wales manager John Toshack, once a Liverpool star himself, had totally ignored the 17-year-old midfield prodigy, Aaron Ramsey. This, at a moment when several of his regular players were unavailable, and the team needed all the talent it could muster.

But Ramsey wasn’t even in the squad and the only possible, if mistaken explanation must be that he was considered too young. Too young? My mind goes back to the last FA Cup Final at Wembley when Portsmouth squeezed through against second division (all right, Championship) Cardiff City. David Jones, the Cardiff manager, seemed up to a point, and to the irritation of Cardiff following journalists, to have been suffering from what one might now call the John Toshack Syndrome. In other words, he cautiously refrained from bringing Ramsey on till well into the second-half.

And Ramsey was a revelation. He seemed to possess the so-called ‘Big Match Temperament’ in spades, cool and intelligent on the ball, never intimidated by bigger, older, defensive opponents, even when he had the ball in the midst of a crowded Portsmouth penalty area. Holding up his hands and calling for the ball when he found himself in central midfield. There was one delightful episode when, holding the ball in the Pompey box, he refused to panic, do anything in haste, but turned coolly on the ball to evade his opponents and neatly laid it off to a colleague.

Since then, of course, Ramsey has been transferred to Arsenal, a move which may or may not work to his advantage. Initially, it looked as if he would be sold to Manchester United, who would then lend him back to Cardiff for another season. At Arsenal, I watched him play impressively in the so-called Emirates Cup pre-season, when the opposition was as distinguished as Juventus and Real Madrid. He showed the same cool courage on the ball, the same precocious confidence. But now that the competitive season is in full swing, he has been out of the money. Though the Gunners may have lost Flamini to Milan, they still have an abundance of central-midfield players and the fear is that Ramsey will be forced to spend his time at best on the bench.

It didn’t happen all those years ago to another phenomenon at Arsenal, Cliff Bastin. In 1929, Herbert Chapman, the legendary Arsenal manager, managed with great difficulty to persuade the 17-year-old Cliff to leave humble Exeter City of the third division and join the Gunners. When Cliff turned up for training in the late summer, a day or two later than the rest, the commissionaire on the door refused to let him in, telling him patronisingly that one day he might even be good enough to play for Arsenal!

He was more than good enough. Switched by Chapman from inside-left, always his preferred position, to the left-wing, he struck up a memorable partnership with the brains of the outfit, the little Scottish inside-left, Alex James. The following April, playing in the Cup final against Huddersfield at Wembley, he and James, as Alex had planned, combined to set up the Gunners’ first goal, from a free-kick, James running on to score one of his rare goals in what would become a 2-0 win. As for Cliff, he had won every honour in the game by the time he was 21, and in one amazing season scored no fewer than 33 League goals from the left-wing. He was certainly old enough at 17!

But, of course, the 17-year-old of all 17-year-olds was the phenomenal Pele. 17 years old was all he was when he made his sensational appearance in Brazil’s third World Cup finals game in Gothenburg in 1958. I was in Sweden then and had been told about him by marvelling Brazilian journalists. The Soviets against whom he made his World Cup debut found him — and Garrincha who also came into the team that day — pretty well unplayable. Brazil won 2-0 and, of course, went on to win the trophy.

Yet, if the strange little psychologist whom the Brazilians had brought along had had his way, neither of these two superb players would have been chosen. The psychologist submitted a memorandum, insisting that both these players were unfit to be picked. Pele was far too young and immature. He would not stand up to the pressure. Before the final at a press conference, the rumbling, plump Brazilian manager, Vicente Feola, was asked what he thought of the psychologist. Speaking on his behalf, the interpreter announced, “Senhor Feola is not saying that he wishes the psychologist would go to hell, but he is thinking it!”

Pele, in fact, technically superb, infinitely cool and calm, dangerous with foot or head — he used both to score his two goals in the 5-2 final win against the Swedes in Stockholm — proved prolific. Three goals in the semifinal against an admittedly afflicted France, deprived for most of the game of their injured centre-half Bob Jonquet. Then those magnificent two in the final, one a minor miracle of skill and courage when he, in the midst of the crowded penalty box, caught a ball on his thigh, hooked it over his head, and blasted it past the ’keeper, Svensson. Whom he later beat again with a towering header, making light of the fact that he stood only 5 foot 8.

Of course, the case of Diego Maradona may be seen as the exception which proved the rule. Like Pele, already an international, for Argentina, at 16, he was surprisingly excluded from his country’s squad at the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires by the very coach who had been his mentor, “E1 Flaco” Menotti. As one who was out there, I still feel he and his array of gifts — a superb left-foot, supreme elusiveness, a flair for the inspired pass — could have improved an Argentine team which may eventually have won the Cup, but only after, as it transpired, buying the Peruvian team in a vital game in the last qualifying group.

Then what of striker Norman Whiteside, even younger than Pele, at 17, when he played in the Spanish World Cup of 1982 for Northern Ireland? The youngest player ever to appear in the World Cup finals, impossible to intimidate. When an Austrian tried to do it in Madrid, he soon found himself flat on his back. If they’re good enough, then surely they are old enough. Why waste a talent as impressive as Ramsey’s?

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