In August 1963, non-league Wigan Athletic were due to play at Southport, then of the Fourth Division, in a pre-season friendly. My Dad commented at the time that the Seasiders played too much “pretty, pretty football” to be effective. I had visions of Southport’s players almost walking the ball into the net. The end result was not so pretty for Latics. Southport – inspired by ex-Manchester United youth player, David Latham – tore them apart 10-2. Funny enough four days later a return match was played at Springfield Park. Latham was marked out of the game. Southport played some nice possession football but were not incisive. Latics beat them 3-0, inspired by ex-Liverpool youth playmaker Pat Kinsella, Tommy Neill netting a penalty. Southport had played the football, but Wigan took their chances. Maybe my Dad did have a point?
When my son, and regular columnist Ned, was 8 years old we moved to Cali, Colombia. We would regularly go to watch the local teams –- America and Deportivo Cali -– play each week at the Pascual Guerrero Stadium, close to the centre of that vibrant and captivating city. The Colombian league was a joy to watch — the ball was invariably on the ground, technical levels very high, the emphasis on skill. The downside was that, at times, play could go across the field rather than towards goal.
The Colombian national team were the same – full of promise and good football, but short of bite. The captain Carlos Valderrama – he of the frizzy hair and wonderful technique – was the most popular person in the whole country. Valderrama’s outfit was the best national team Colombia had ever had and in 1996 FIFA ranked them fourth best in the world. They were playing that technically pure type of football that probably only Brazil could match in terms of artistry. They still were not scoring many goals, but they had a strong defence and retained possession in such a way that opponents found them hard to play against. In 1994 they had got their most famous result, beating Argentina 5-0 in a World Cup qualifying game in Buenos Aires. Valderrama bossed the match from the centre of midfield and the lightning fast Colombian forwards – Faustino Asprilla and Adolfo Valencia – blew Argentina away. It was a case of pretty, pretty football being finished off by ruthless and clinical finishing. You can watch highlights here.
Colombia have continued to promise — but not deliver — since that era. However, they currently lie in third place in the 9 team South American World Cup qualifying group, having beaten Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile in recent qualifiers and drawn with Brazil in a New Jersey friendly. The emergence of one of the world’s most sought-after strikers — Radamel Falcao –- has helped them translate their pure technical football into goals.
The message for the current Wigan Athletic team is clear: it is not enough to play good possession football. It is incisive approach play and ruthless, clinical finishing that wins matches. Finding strikers of the kind of quality to kill off the opposition is hard for a club like Latics with limited resources. It is also hard to find creative midfield players who can provide them with the ammunition. Shaun Maloney is doing a fine job in that role, although in recent outings he has often been heavily marked. The opposition have learned that he is the main creative threat.
I had the pleasure of meeting Carlos Valderrama near the end of his career when he was playing in the MLS in the United States. Modest, friendly and warm hearted you would not have guessed what a superstar he was with the 45 million people in his home country, and many more on the South American continent. A model professional with a fantastic attitude. For me the only way he could be faulted was that he never scored enough goals. Maloney, Gomez and company please take note.