Headline-grabbing quotes and flashy foreign managers with innovative ideas are ten a penny nowadays, but it’s not often they can back up their words with a show of equal worth on the field of play or from the dugouts. Indeed not.
Because despite the fact that football has rarely been a place for the most intellectual of thinkers, it has played witness to a number of world class trailblazers who have set pulses racing with their unique talents, be it with their tantalising rhetoric in the press conferences or in the way they play an inventive game of football. Philosophers of the beautiful game, these charming heroes do all they can to remain one step ahead of their opponents in an effort to baffle, bedazzle and, most importantly, win.
Arguably the most famous philosopher who had more than a passing interest for the world of football was Albert Camus. Most famous for his Nobel Prize-winning endeavours, the famed Frenchman and author of ‘L’Etranger’ fails to make our list, however, as he didn’t make the grade thanks in no small part to a bout of tuberculosis which hampered his progression – something the philosophy students of today will view with more than a feint silver lining. Beginning his career as a goalkeeper, it’s no coincidence the now renowned thinker felt drawn to the loneliest (and most absurd) position on the field of play.
In this list, we focus on the players and managers who made us think with their approach to the game, whether it was through their mystifying quotes, their tactical innovations or their penchant for even studying philosophy in university.
By the way, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below as this compilation is intended to start a discussion as much as it is to provide a definitive short-list.
10. Gusztav Sebes
A tactical mastermind, forging new paths for himself and his team, one of Hungary’s most prominent football figures helped the ‘Magical Magyars’ achieve fame and stardom during the 1950s. Through his unique master-strokes and otherworldly thinking, he managed to utilise the skill and talent of Ferenc Puskas and Nandor Hidegkuti to maximum effect.
Largely remembered for the way he guided his team to a majestic 6-3 victory against England at a jam-packed Wembley Stadium, the Hungarians were the toast of European football for a decade. Indeed, the late Sebes was the driving force behind their meteoric rise and the legendary Puskas proved the point himself when he said: “When we attacked, everyone attacked and in defence it was the same. We were the prototype for Total Football.”
9. Joey Barton
A student of philosophy at Roehampton University, Joey Barton has taken his love for musing to an academic level. No longer a player simply fuelled by the desire to prove himself to others, he seems a lot more comfortable in his own skin nowadays. Serious about his future, the Queens Park Rangers midfielder has talked about coaching, is stuck in the books and keen to transform his status.
Never one to hold back in social media duels, Barton has always been as combative off the field as on it, and his philosophical crux has helped make him a much more well-rounded character. Will we see him in a Premier League dugout in the coming years?
8. Louis Van Gaal
A well-renowned world class coach, Louis Van Gaal took the world of international football by storm at the 2014 World Cup as his Netherlands side sky-rocketed to a dominant showing, beating the likes of the then reigning champions Spain 5-1. Bolstered by a fantastic reputation, LVG would have been forgiven for relying on that – but he refused to rest on his laurels as the Oranje played some brilliantly innovative football, masterminded by the Dutch supremo.
Continuing to fight the good fight at Manchester United, he has worked hard to implement his own plan such as drafting in productive wing-backs as well as getting the best out of limited players like Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini. Insisting his stars wait for the ball and remain in position, his philosophy has very much been a self-assured one (despite some real troubles).
7. Eric Cantona
Long before Shia LaBeouf said it, the most-adored maverick of the Premier League era was the proud owner of one of the most pseudo-erudite phrases in the history of the sport when he said to a packed press conference: “When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
Bowled over by his mystique, the British press fell in and out of love with this charmingly brash Manchester United striker time and again. Leaving behind a legacy of smart words and finely-tuned ripostes, he will be as fondly remembered for his turns of phrase as he will for the way he turned his opponents in and out on the football field to lay claim to a trio of Premier League crowns – fitting reward for a man affectionately dubbed “Le Roi”.
6. Johan Cruyff
An innovator and a dreamer, Johan Cruyff was first and foremost a footballer who led through actions. Widely regarded as one of the finest players to ever play the beautiful game, he helped proliferate its beauty by producing some of the flashiest pieces of skills ever.
Spouting some memorable quotes that brilliantly encapsulated his mindset, one of the best he ever uttered was this one: “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” A real genius and a tactical thinker he took what he learnt from Rinus Michels to mould it to suit. Now, his legacy extends far beyond his playing days (as his stint as manager of the Catalan national side attests to) and his historic proportions continue to grow.
5. Sir Alex Ferguson
“Football. Bloody Hell!” Arguably the most famous summation of football arrived via the successful Scotsman just moments after Manchester United had clinched the Champions League trophy in 1999 with a couple of late, dramatic goals. A lot less refined in his approach than many of his peers, he was nevertheless a great figure in the world of football when in charge of proceedings at Old Trafford.
A firm believer in control, arguably his greatest strength as a leader and a teacher was to ensure his players always knew he was the boss. Criticised in some quarters for perhaps wielding too much control, it’s nevertheless difficult to deny he was the main reason behind their numerous triumphs.
4. Arsene Wenger
Bringing his distincitve French drawl across the English channel in the late 199os, Arsene Wenger cut the figure of a man ready to instigate real change in the English game. At the time, he was a man with a point to prove, and although many will argue he’s still working hard to do so, his admirers will consider his tenure at the helm of Arsenal an undeniable success.
Normally of the opinion that eye-catching football is the best, it’s often been a difficult struggle watching them trying to keep pace with a lot of the Premier League’s new money. Dashing, evocative and full of life, their trophy cabinet might not glisten as brightly as some of their competitors with an emphasis of style over substance, but their sense of self remains as strong ever – a moral victory that no-one can take away from Wenger or his team.
3. Jose Mourinho
Perhaps the best aspect of Jose Mourinho’s philosophy is that it is malleable when it wants to be. When he first arrived on the scene at Stamford Bridge, the “Special One” was an exotic breed, importing a sense of style to the touchline – as well as the scoreboard. Implementing tactics that saw the Blues attack with panache and substance, he looked like he was on to a long-lasting winner.
However, his departure hinted at the end of an era. Eventually returning to bask in Roman Abramovich’s millions, though, he has been shrewd enough to not adopt the same approach. Ditching the attractive perspective for a more pragmatic, cautious one he has proven he is not a one-trick pony. Winning the Premier League once again as a result, he remains a real professional with a unique footballing mind.
Nicknamed “Dr. Socrates” due to his doctorate in medicine, the brilliantly erratic star was always associated with intelligence, something that saw him attract interest for his opinion as well as his fanciful footwork. Massive credit to the famous Brazilian international legend, though, for the way he managed to blend his passion for football with an equally strong love of politics, class divisions and giving a voice to the under-privileged.
For sure, one of his most-loved quotes was of his dearly beloved national team: “Machiavelli claimed that it is better to be feared than loved, but this is a choice that the Selecao doesn’t have to make. She is feared and loved. Feared by opponents on the field and loved by anyone who likes football. In Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, wearing a shirt of the Brazilian team doesn’t even indicate that you are Brazilian, just that you like football.”
1. Andrea Pirlo
“L’Architteto”, “Il Professore”, “Il Metronomo” – Andrea Pirlo has had more than his fair share of high-brow nicknames that do more than just hint at his penchant for the philosophy of football. A lover of fine wine and a thinker of some of the most choice words, his off-field persona is as likeable as his on-field one where he has won the Champions League, Serie A and the World Cup.
A quick look at his autobiography ‘I Think Therefore I Play’ epitomises his characterisation as an intellect of the modern game. To the point, funny and always offering something intriguing, his words have inspired many and breathed a refreshing honesty into world football – his quip about his own style of play clear evidence of that: “I’m a bit of a wandering gypsy on the pitch. A midfielder continually on the look out for an unspoilt corner where I can move freely just for a moment, without suffocating markers or randy Maltese guys sticking to me like shadows.”
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