George S. Patton, the American General who led the US Army in World War II, once said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” Remove the weapons, and you’d still have wars won by men – wars without casualties – wars of strategy, skill, strength, and stamina. It goes without saying, then, that if wars were football matches, the world would be a more peaceful place. And of course, the most powerful nation in the world would be quite a different one. In current times, it would be Spain.
As the Spanish football team emerged victorious at the recently concluded 2012 UEFA Euro Cup, their claim to being kings of the world will find few deniers. In the footballing world, as their opponents lie in ruins, the Spaniards are the sole standing Superpower.
The same outcome, in the traditional paradigm of war, would have resulted in a great loss of life and property, and years of rebuilding. On the contrary, football gives hope. Families are not torn apart, but brought together, to cheer their teams to victory. The team is the army, and stadiums – the magnificent battlegrounds where these armies face each other – are built, not destroyed.
Despite the differences, then, between armed combat and competitive spectator sports an army – say that of the Roman Empire – isn’t too different from a football team. The average eleven-member football team is organized much like the army of the ancient Roman Empire, comprising broadly of an infantry, cavalry, and ranged units, with variations based on the individual needs of each team. How different then, is a football match from two ancient armies going to war with each other?
The forwards, who include the likes of Robin Van Persie, David Villa, Wayne Rooney, and Didier Drogba, would serve as the Infantry – originally consisting of the foot soldiers, leading the frontal assault. Starting off facing the forwards of the opposite team, they rapidly make their way across the field and attempt to place the ball in the opposite goal, the team scoring a greater number of goals at the end of play naturally winning the match. With their short passes, quick pace, and accurate shooting skills, forwards specialize in breaking through the chinks in the opposition’s defense, much like foot soldiers scaling the walls of the enemy’s fortress in ancient times to secure their kingdom’s superiority over the other. Their emphasis is on overwhelming the opposition, and catching them unawares.
The cavalry, in the Roman army, comprised the soldiers on horseback or chariots – among the most mobile members, territorially speaking – who were able in not just attacking but also in defending their own territories, like the mid-fielders of a football team are. Today, this segment would include names like Arjen Robben, Xavi Hernandez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs. Notice how the wingers mirror the role played Roman soldiers on the flanks, in years long gone by.
They and the central midfielders are the tireless members of a football squad who dictate the game by providing support to their forwards during an attack while repelling the attackers of the opposite team from infiltrating the field and reaching their goal. They feed the ball to the forwards so that the latter can cut through the opposite defense to score, sometimes even scoring long range goals themselves, and run back to the defense line in case of a sudden onslaught from the opposition.
The Ranged Units of the Roman Army consisted mainly of archers, usually stationed atop the walls of fortresses. While also equipped with skills for hand-to-hand combat, they were known for their keen eye and ability to attack over long distances to keep the enemy onslaught at bay. In a Football team this role would undoubtedly go to the defenders such as John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, and Philipp Lahm.
They serve as the final frontier of the team, preventing the ball from entering their goal, just as the archers defended their fortresses. Defenders are known for their long shots, clearing ball away from their goal, as well as backing their mid-fielders and forwards during an attack by moving up the field and increasing pressure on the opposite team. Like the archers were guided by a commander who oversaw their synchronization in order to maximize the damage to the enemy, defenders coordinate strongly with the goal keeper, who is the last man protecting the goal.
The goalie, as he is popularly known, is able to see the entire field of play from his position, and can accordingly guide his defenders as to how they can support the team. He is able to spot open spaces where they can pass the ball, and also direct the team when the need arises to form a protective wall in the event that a free kick is awarded to the opposition.
Lastly, like the Roman Army which followed orders from the king who did not necessarily participate in the war physically, all football teams are guided and directed by their coach. He reigns supreme on all decisions involving the team such as appointing the captain, assigning the playing eleven, and substituting players, as the king would appoint his general, and replace soldiers he felt were unfit for his army. Josep Guardiola, Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson come in here.
With competitive sport and armed combat both constructs of human ingenuity and industry, is it really any surprise then that there exists such interesting parallels between armies of yore and the way football teams line themselves up. Of course, with football you needn’t worry about deliberate casualties and mutually assured destruction. Such a pity we can’t seem to trade cannonballs for footballs, in real life.
- Malini Patnaik