PARIS – They won’t score goals, make assists, tackles or important saves but will still be essential to the well-being of the 32 teams at the World Cup. Who are they?
The answer to this riddle: Players who never make it off the bench.
The mathematics of football – 11 starters, three substitutes and a fourth in extra time – mean all of the 23-man squads will have players who’ll have to swallow their pride when coaches don’t field them, try to keep their egos and frustrations in check and find other ways to be useful for their teams.
Conversely, for coaches, keeping second- or third-choice players motivated will be one of the big challenges, so they remain ready to play if needed and don’t sulk and sap team morale. Groundwork will be laid before the tournament, with coaches warning players in advance that they may, at best, play only bit-parts in Russia.
“To make these players feel they are important, so they support the group, isn’t always easy,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “I spend a lot of time with those who play a little or not at all.”
Then aged 21, Australia midfielder Massimo Luongo was one of four outfield players unused by coach Ange Postecoglou in the Socceroos squad that went out in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, losing to Chile, the Netherlands and Spain. Although he was “just ecstatic” to make the trip to Brazil, Luongo says the lack of playing time was “difficult.”
“We had a lot of midfielders and I was the newest and the youngest,” he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “It’s not nice, obviously, missing out, especially when you think, ‘Oh, I could have a chance of just playing in a World Cup, even if it’s for a minute.’ It was a bit upsetting.”
“It left, like, that little hole in my belly that wasn’t filled,” Luongo added. “So for this World Cup I’m just starving to play.”
For a player who isn’t first choice, the second-best scenario is to play a brilliant cameo, like Portugal’s Eder at the 2016 European Championship. The forward barely featured, used only as a late substitute in a couple of group-stage matches and not at all in the knockout games, before coach Fernando Santos brought him on in the 79th minute of the final against France, as Portugal’s third and last substitute. He scored the winning goal, in extra time.
Unused players who don’t get to make an on-field impact can still help the team dynamic off the field. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, taken to the 2014 World Cup but not played by the U.S. team, says he put in extra shifts in training, so first-choice ‘keeper Tim Howard didn’t have to waste energy in goal and could stay fresh for matches.
Some bench players tell themselves that by training doubly hard, they help keep first-choice players on their toes, toughen them up for matches and stop them from getting complacent about their spot on the team. Australia’s Postecoglou asked his bench to play like Chile, the Netherlands and Spain in training, to prepare his starting XI to face them, Luongo said.
“You have to try to make it as realistic as possible for the team that is playing,” he said.
Popular bench players can also help teams gel and maintain morale as World Cup days away from home stretch into weeks. Rimando said “a big part” of him being selected in 2014 “was that I got along with the guys, interacted with them great and brought the team together.”
“Just hanging around with everybody, being easy going, make sure everybody was light on their feet, not too nervous, joking around here and there when need be, just kind of keeping everybody light,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t have an ego going in there that I needed to play.”
Sulking about not playing “can be damaging to the team” and can’t be tolerated, he added.
“Once one person does that it kind of trickles down and brings a bad vibe on the group,” he said. “Some people you need to have a chat with alone. Some people you can yell at in front of the whole team. Everybody is different in that way. If you do have somewhat of a cancer on the team, you need to take care of it quickly because that can spread really, really quick.”
Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s coach in 2014, said he warned players in advance to behave if they didn’t play. He recalled telling one young midfielder: “‘I don’t want players who’ll look out for themselves. I want players who’ll serve our country. There are four top players but just two of them will play. And if I see one of them sulking, I’ll send him home.’”
“That work is done in advance,” he told the AP. “Before selecting the 23, it’s important to look a bit at the psychological profile of each player, because you have to create a group, not individualities.”
In the first of his four World Cups as a player, Wilmots didn’t get on the field at all in Italy in 1990, but still cherished the experience.
“I learned from the veterans, watching how they were and how they carried themselves and the details of the profession,” he said.
Luongo said that despite not playing, the Brazil World Cup changed him.
“That has been my biggest learning curve, and I probably grew as a player most in that little spell,” he said. “When I came back to my club, I felt I was head and shoulders a different player.”