Are World Cup Squads Better Without Big Stars?

Some teams have done well without the big names—and the big egos

It’s commonly accepted that to succeed in international football national teams need their best individual players, their biggest names, out on the pitch. But this World Cup has forced us to reconsider such conventional wisdom.

Colombia’s preparation for the tournament was dominated by whether Radamel Falcao would be fit to play. Falcao was Los Cafeteros one real global superstar and was their top-scorer with nine goals during qualifying. So even though he suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage in January, and seemed to have no chance of being fit in time, Falcao was still included in Jose Pekerman’s provisional 30-man squad for the finals.

“I’ll wait until the last day, until the last hour, the last minute, to give out my list of 23,” Pekerman said, before finally bowing to the inevitable and leaving the 28-year-old Falcao out of his final squad. But the coach didn’t need to worry: Colombia romped into the last eight, and though it lost to host Brazil in the quarterfinal (no disgrace there), it scored 12 goals in its five games. A new star emerged in Falcao’s Monaco clubmate James Rodriguez, who scored six goals, after only managing three in 15 qualifying games. Falcao’s replacement Teo Gutierrez only scored once, but his unselfish work and clever running helped others shine.

A similar narrative unfolded with France. Its big star Franck Ribery made the 23-man squad, despite suffering from a back problem throughout the 2013–14 season. Only at the last minute was it finally accepted that the 31-year-old could not play this summer.

“Obviously, with Ribery at 100 percent we’re a better team, but we’ll try and be a good team without him,” coach Didier Deschamps said. Until the quarterfinal, that attempt had gone well. Before its 1–0 loss to Germany, France had 10 goals in its first four games. Karim Benzema—who went over 1,000 minutes without scoring in qualifying alongside Ribery—revelled in the extra responsibility up front and almost scored at the death against the Germans. Meanwhile, youngster Antoine Griezmann brought badly needed pace and direct running to the side. Even as France exited the competition, the absence of Samir Nasri—whose previous performances for France have never matched his ego—was never brought up.

So the two national sides who went to Brazil without their main attacking star have been the tournament’s best two going forward. On the flipside, the two teams who included their big name forward—despite him being less than 100 percent fit or focused—have had disastrous campaigns.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly not physically or mentally right since April since he’s been suffering from a chronic tendonitis issue in his left knee. The Real Madrid man played through the pain, but was a peripheral presence through the first two games. His goal in Portugal’s final group outing against Ghana was ultimately meaningless. Coach Paulo Bento put all his eggs in the Ronaldo basket and has been heavily criticized by Portuguese fans and pundits.

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez had an operation on his left knee just three weeks before the tournament started. Twenty-nine days later, Suarez scored two superb goals to defeat his personal nemesis, England. But five days later—perhaps frustrated at his inability to breach a tighter Italian defence—the Liverpool player snapped and bit Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder. Even after he was banned, Uruguay’s full focus still remained on their superstar, and it exited meekly in the last 16.

There are other, less obvious examples, too. Jurgen Klinsmann left out U.S. national team icon Landon Donovan, and a supremely fit and snappy team overachieved by qualifying past Portugal and Ghana and giving Belgium a scare. Mexico, Algeria, and Nigeria all ignored established stars (Carlos Vela, Karim Ziani, and Victor Obinna, respectively) and had success with energetic, hardworking teams. Ivory Coast stuck with its aging big names and failed to qualify from a relatively easy group. England exited the competition with Frank Lampard alongside Steven Gerrard in midfield.

There’s a lesson here. Without their “superstars” other younger, less egotistical (or at least less-established) players have more space to play in and also more responsibility to make a difference. No one is suggesting current favorites Brazil or Argentina should now drop Neymar or Leo Messi (although Albiceleste coach Alejandro Sabella did leave out Carlos Tevez and his 19 Serie A goals due to fears over potential disruption inside the camp.) But teams that have not focused on their supposed best individual are those who have done well at this World Cup.