To Serve and to Serve; Meet the Serfs of Football

Varane continues to be the archetypal young central defender.

“Attack wins games, defence wins titles”
Sir Alex Ferguson


The quote above may be explained as discussing a whole and not parts of a football ecosystem  i.e. all the players on a soccer field tasked with some form of defensive duty regardless of position or role. But it also applies where the focus is on the parts; those whose traditional positions and roles are mainly defensive. For context, the latter are the focus of this piece.
Defenders are the serfs of the soccer cosmos if not attackers wouldn’t be so much fêted while defenders get the most flak. ‎
This perhaps subconscious discrimination against defenders is even evidenced in the animated and enthusiastic fan reaction which usually follows when they suffer embarrassing dribbles ─ innumerable Boateng memes online are sufficient proof ─ compared to say, Messi or Ronaldo being nut-megged‎ by a Marcelo, Thiago Silva or a Chiellini. We’ve witnessed these rarities during football games but like sunlight or oxygen ─ though they’re important in the scheme of things, we can’t be bothered to give them adequate attention or enthusiasm.

Bonucci comes to mind when a list of the top centre halves in the game is being compiled. A truly world class player and a great addition to any side but will be totally on social media murdered if out witted by Ronaldo. 

Goalkeepers ─traditionally perceived as average players in soccer even by women ─ are part and parcel of this pitiful serfdom but when one begin to ruminate on memorabilia like ‘Golden Gloves’ and terms such as ‘Clean Sheets’, empathy for these category of thralls become less overpowering. They imply with some level of plausibility that even among soccer vassals; a beneficial caste system for goaltenders has somehow been fashioned.
So, asides memories of great games, few scattered medals here and there if lucky and a disheartening history of servitude; what exactly does a defender ─we aren’t talking of Cannavaro here─ take away from football after retirement in terms of personal keepsakes?
To put this further in perspective, what chance does a player like Marcelo stand against fellow teammate Ronaldo in winning a FIFA Best Player award or the Ballon d’Or?
Honestly? The odds are depressing if at all existent. This, despite the fact that we can unanimously agree both are exceptional footballers in their respective roles.
A critical poring over FIFA Best Player award winners (Ballon‎ D’or as well) from inception till date reveals a shocking, long list of attackers with only one goalkeeper (Lev Yashin of USSR) eons past winning it. Only one traditional defender has ever won it─ and we can agree that it came courtesy of an unforgettable ‘head-butt’ amongst other things. The other three (all from Germany) who have; Lothar Matthäus, Franz Beckenbauer and Matthias Sammer were expectedly goals-coring defenders.
While Ballon‎ d’Or organisers and FIFA aren’t wholly culpable for this highly skewed statistics; that is not to say they are completely removed from blame.
As the round-leather game continues to evolve so do the dynamics and its techniques. In the current football epoch─ if I may be so bold to opine, an age of renaissance-style complete football where roles are deeply intertwined─, the numbers of attack-minded goal scoring defenders has tripled and this is putting the numbers modestly.

This has changed football in such unique ways like bringing about increased respect and recognition for defenders; emphasis on positional play by major top teams; a resurgence of the 3-5-2 formation in all its variants and even more importantly the (re)discovery of N’golo Kante and similar hard-tackling, ball-winning players.
Yet it has not all been sunny weather, a proliferation in attack-minded defenders has underscored a paucity in numbers of world-class (I find this term annoying sometimes for personal reasons), resolute and traditional no-nonsense defenders. Implicitly and perhaps far-fetched a notion, this may explain the surge in goals scored by teams during games with certain already privileged individuals benefitting the most, again. You think of the number of individual awards players like Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez et al have racked in over the last 2 decades for their goal scoring prowess and you begin to get the picture.

Another clean sweep is on the cards for the Portuguese due to his prolific nature in front of goal

In retrospection about how much today’s defenders seem to have ‘softened’ ─ no offense to the Italians who largely remain traditional ─ it’s difficult to mention 30 world-class (there’s that word again) defenders off the top of one’s head now than it was about a decade and half back when the likes of Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta, Roberto Ayala,‎ Paolo Maldini, Ivan Cordoba, Rigobert Song, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Lucio and Taribo West etc. reigned supreme.

A truly world class defender and legend of the game. They don’t make players like him anymore.

Invariably, we all have a part to play in making the ‘soccersphere’ a functional democracy where all units get adequate representation; fans have the obligation of appreciating football’s yeomen more; coaches, referees and other football administrators, the task of expanding their preferences during award nominations and voting; Mega brands and football investors/sponsors, the problem of properly marketing such players and Football bodies like FIFA need to do more in integrating defenders into their awards schemes.

FIFpro XI isn’t enough compensation and if a ‘Golden Boot’ category exists, having a ‘Golden Shield’ category for defenders alone isn’t a totally ridiculous concept.  ‎
Article by: Tomiwa Yusuf