Quelling the non-playing blues key to Cup success

AP, PARIS

Thu, May 17, 2018 - Page 16

They will not score goals, make assists, tackles or important saves, but they will still be essential to the well-being of the 32 teams at the World Cup. Who are they?

The answer: Players who never make it off the bench.

The mathematics of soccer mean all of the 23-man squads will have players who will have to swallow their pride when coaches do not field them, and find other ways to be useful for their teams.

For coaches, keeping second or third-choice players motivated is to be one of the big challenges so they remain ready to play if needed and do not sap team morale.

The groundwork is to be laid before the tournament, with coaches warning players in advance that they might, at best, play only bit parts in Russia.

“To make these players feel they are important, so they support the group, isn’t always easy,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “I spend a lot of time with those who play a little or not at all.”

Then aged 21, Australia midfielder Massimo Luongo was one of four outfield players unused by coach Ange Postecoglou in the Socceroos squad who went out in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup.

“We had a lot of midfielders and I was the newest and the youngest,” he said. “It’s not nice, obviously, missing out, especially when you think: ‘Oh, I could have a chance of just playing in a World Cup, even if it’s for a minute.’”

“It left, like, that little hole in my belly that wasn’t filled,” Luongo added. “So for this World Cup, I’m just starving to play.”

For a player who is not first choice, the second-best scenario is to play a brilliant cameo, like Portugal’s Eder at the Euro 2016.

The forward barely featured, used only as a late substitute in a couple of group-stage matches and not at all in the knockout games, before coach Fernando Santos brought him on in the 79th minute of the final against France, as Portugal’s third and last substitute. He scored the winning goal in extra-time.

Unused players who do not get to make an on-field impact could still help the team dynamic off the field.

US goalkeeper Nick Rimando, taken to the 2014 World Cup, but not played, said he put in extra shifts in training, so first-choice ’keeper Tim Howard did not have to waste energy in goal and could stay fresh for matches.

Some bench players tell themselves that by training doubly hard, they help keep first-choice players on their toes, toughen them up for matches and stop them from getting complacent.

Australia’s Postecoglou asked his bench to play like Chile, the Netherlands and Spain in training, to prepare his starting 11 to face them, Luongo said.

Popular bench players could also help teams gel and maintain morale as World Cup days away from home stretch into weeks.

Rimando said “a big part” of him being selected in 2014 “was that I got along with the guys, interacted with them great and brought the team together.”

“Just hanging around with everybody, being easygoing, make sure everybody was light on their feet, not too nervous, joking around here and there when need be, just kind of keeping everybody light,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t have an ego going in there that I needed to play.”

Sulking about not playing “can be damaging to the team” and cannot be tolerated, he added.

“Once one person does that it kind of trickles down and brings a bad vibe on the group,” he said.