(Ed’s Note: Starting from today until the end of the World Cup, we will have our
only soccer aficionado Dillon Friday available to the public to answer your questions about the 2014 FIFA World Cup. If you think your question is stupid, that’s okay, ask it anyway. It might be stupid, but Dillon will probably answer it. Feel free to send Dillon your questions via email here.)
Which team has the best benchwarmers? Best not in terms of skill, but in ability to keep the bench toasty, general pizzazz and, similar to our case, ‘why aren’t they on the field but so content to make the most of it’ appeal.
As a bonus question, who is the greatest World Cup benchwarmer of all time? – Casey B.
Important question. Very important.
Fact: More players will ride the bench at the World Cup than play. And yet their contributions are often overlooked. It’s difficult to say what makes a great benchwarmer, though. Let me try.
Great benchwarmers, and I’m writing as an English speaker and former benchwarmer myself, speak in understatements and nicknames. “Okay, Deuce!” would be an apt call from Brad Davis as he watches Clint Dempsey from the sidelines. Placement on the bench is also key. The best benchwarmers stay as far away from the manager as possible lest he, God forbid, actually wants to get in the game. Once that final substitution goes through, though, he’s free to roam.
In basketball, the best benchwarmers hold their teammates back after a star player throws one down. In soccer, the best benchwarmers lead their teammates down the sideline to celebrate an important goal. Sometimes this involves spilling onto the pitch, which technically is against the rules. Benchwarmers don’t care about the rules. What’s the ref going to do, send them off?
Here’s the final point and the one that will help us answer Casey’s question: The best benchwarmers come from the best teams. Why? One, the team’s success leads to excessive cheering. Two, the spot on the national team, or as I like to call it “squad nod,” is a victory in itself for the benchwarmer. The manager has acknowledged his place as one of the country’s best players. He’s content with that. Let the superstars handle the headlines, good or bad.
Spain, reigning world and European champions, has the best benchwarmers. La Furia Roja’s core has been set in place for a good eight years. Unless you are one of the 10 best midfielders in the world, you are not cracking that lineup. And that’s okay. There’s a good chance you’ll leave the tournament with more medals than minutes. Consider David Villa and Carles Puyol, two mainstays on the Spanish National Team for a solid five-year span. At Euro 2012, both players were out with injuries. Did they sulk in disappointment as their teammates won the trophy without them? No. They took selfies wearing designer clothing instead.
When the final whistle blew, they joined the celebration on the field just the same. I’m looking for big things from the likes of Isco, Santi Cazorla, David De Gea, Koke and Villa on the bench. The one thing that could hold the Spaniards back is Fernando Torres. His legendary pouty face was made for missing goals, but it has no place on the bench.
Belgium, with its mix of European stars and domestic league standouts, could surprise some with a strong bench performance. You can never count out the Brazilians, either. Bernard likely will concede playing time to the likes of Hulk and Neymar, but I expect him to wander onto the pitch if only to pretend that the 100,000 maniacs in the stands are cheering for him.
As for the all-time benchwarmers, let’s start with Ronaldo. At 17, he rode the pine for Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning squad. Didn’t play a minute and it still might be the greatest feat for a 17-year-old Brazilian. Oh, wait. Never mind.
There were two standout performances from the 2010 World Cup I’d like to single out. The first is melancholic. It disheartens me that Stuart Holden’s lasting impression at the World Cup might be his celebration on Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria. The Bolton Wanderers midfielder was not only one of America’s best prospects, but also one of the Barclays Premier League’s most consistent players before a series of debilitating knee injuries derailed his career. Either way, this is brilliant bench stuff on Donovan’s goal. Holden sprints the length of the sideline and dives headfirst into the hero.
The second bench star from South Africa has to be Sebastian Abreu. The flowing hair, the headband (on the bench!), the “El Loco” nickname and the three initials on the jersey make him a pine-pony stalwart. Uruguay used Abreu as a late substitution in its quarterfinal clash with Ghana. As fate would have it, El Loco took the decisive penalty, proving once again convention has no place on the bench. Abreu, G, yo.
I think I speak for everybody when I say we expected a lot from the Trinidad and Tobago bench when the Soca Warriors qualified for Germany 2006. After all, their hockey team’s performance in the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games continues to inspire.
T&T tied Sweden and nearly beat England in its only World Cup appearance, a successful tournament by any measure. The bench, however, was disappointingly drumless and muted.
Finally, the honorable mention goes to 1974 Zaire, which introduced the best warm-up ensemble in the history of sports. The Leopards lost all three of their games by a combined score of 14-0. But oh boy, did that bench look hideously wonderful.
Casey, and readers, remember this. The benchwarmers go just as hard as the starters. It’s just their energy is focused in different places. Cheerleading? Yes. Celebrating? Sure. Playing? No thanks. Still, there’s no half-assing on the bench. Unless of course you’re at the end of it.