The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
It’s a mantra that is applicable to any team sport, but resonates particularly with football in 2016, in a year that Leicester City won the Premier League.
So far at Euro 2016 also, we have seen two glaring examples.
On Monday night in Lyon, Antonio Conte’s unfancied Italy triumphed over Marc Wilmots’ lauded Belgium, winning their Group E opener 2-0 to top the standings after the first round of matches. Italy topping a group in a major championship is nothing unusual of course, but this is an ageing Italy side written off by it’s critics and described as one of the worst ever by members of the Italian media.
As one Italian journalist told Wilmots during the pre-match press conference, this was “the worst Italy squad ever”. Belgium meanwhile, are in the midst of a “golden generation” or so we’re told, with the likes of Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
Then in Saint-Etienne on Tuesday night, textbook minnows Iceland held Group F favourites Portugal – and the might of Cristiano Ronaldo – to an incredible 1-1 draw to earn a point at the European Championships in their first ever appearance. The smallest nation to take part in Euro 2016 with a population of 330,000, it is estimated that a tenth of their entire population are currently in France to cheer on their country’s unlikely success at the festival of football.
In both instances, it was the prospect of individual brilliance that saw odds-makers so heavily favour Belgium and Portugal. Neither has really translated the prodigious talents of their players into tournament success in the recent past, but they each fielded more recognisable faces than their respective opposition.
But in both instances, the underdogs tore up the script with displays of great unity and doggedness. As important as their teamwork was their commitment to the cause and their tireless effort.
It was those qualities and not talent that engineered Italy’s convincing victory over Belgium, as the Azzuri wing-backs pushed high up the pitch, taking advantage of Hazard and De Bruyne’s disinterest in tracking back and swamping the Belgian defence. At the other end, the triumvirate of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and the brilliant Leonardo Bonnuci nullified goal threats Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini. That meant that when Bonnuci’s beautifully-flighted pass from deep found Emanuele Giaccherini in the box to score the well-taken opener, Belgium would have to take risks to draw level against such a discipline side and when they ultimately went all out at the death, an Italian counter-attack finished off by Graziano Pelle’s volley sealed it.
Iceland’s glory was not the spoils of three points, however it was scarcely imagined that they would take anything from any game in Group F, let alone fringe tournament contenders Portugal. As well as their tour de force in Ronaldo, they possessed experienced top-level campaigners like Nani, Pepe and Carvalho, whilst the likes of Renato Sanches and Ricardo Quaresma lay as potential impact threats from the bench.
But it was ultimately a disjointed performance from the Portuguese and although Nani gave them the lead, Iceland grew into the game and going into the break just one goal behind, came out firing in the second half. When Birkir Bjarnason equalised on 50 minutes there was still ample time for some Ronaldo brilliance to kick in and decide the tie, but the Portugal captain cut a frustrated figure as he missed chances from close range and vented his annoyance at team-mates. Iceland’s back line worked tirelessly to keep Portugal’s attacking threats quiet and when an injury time free-kick taken by you know who – the last action of the game – hit the Iceland wall and rebounded at Ronaldo’s head, it just about summed up his evening.
After the game, as the entire Iceland contingent revelled in the joy of sealing a point in their first ever European Championship game, the Real Madrid forward refused to shake the hands of the Iceland players and hit out at their lack of ambition.
“I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end,” Ronaldo said. “It was unbelievable. We tried hard to win the game and Iceland didn’t try anything. This, in my opinion, shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
“Portugal try to play football and try to win the game. Iceland didn’t try anything. They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counter-attack.”
Ronaldo’s petulant comments and frustration with his team-mates, against Iceland’s glorious display in punching above their weight, exemplify exactly why teamwork trumps talent in football, just as Italy’s win over Belgium had 24 hours earlier.
The whole is indeed greater than the sum of it’s parts, as Aristotle said.
Another observation; hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard.