Little fuss was made by international sports media, but in the US it was quite a different story. The pulbic surprise and (and in most cases anger), to the exclusion of Landon Donovan from the USMNT roster for Brazil, can probably be measured on the Richter Scale.
“He was a shoe-in. A dead-cert!”, exclaimed Alan Davies, a popular sports pundit on all things MLS, on the night of the announcement. “All USMNT’s hopes for success in Brazil have just followed Landon right out the door” – Twitter was awash with such comments, reactions and anger towards the announcement and at one point last week #donovan & #USMNT were the most popular trending topics on the social media site. Jurgen Klinsmann himself must have been prepared for the backlash, but not wanting to focus too much on what his side would be without in Brazil, Klinsmann only went as far as admitting “It was the hardest footballing decision I have ever had to make”.
Now that the tweets have settled (and the apparent overnight-birth of an army of US soccer experts has retreated), a deeper analysis into Klinsmann decision could supply the USMNT with more hope than ever.
Equally, across the Atlantic in France, Deschamps decision not to offer Samir Nasri a ticket to the greatest show on earth this summer, met similar public astonishment- especially after Nasri had helped Manchester City win the Premier League title with consistently superb displays. Yet Deschamps decision, along with Klinsmann’s, may still go-down as a stroke of genius and here is why:
It must be noted early, that the trick isn’t in who they have chosen to include instead. No, it’s far more ruthless than that- it’s literally in the fact that those two players won’t be with their squads during the tournament.
Donovan is arguably the US’s best attacker of all time, with a keen eye for goal and a great goalscoring record to-boot. As we have seen on countless occasions, he can often be in the right place at the right time- but behind the scenes, in the dressing room, his leadership qualities are waning and his ego is increasingly frustrating his teammates and most unfortunately (for him), the coach.
Klinsmann’s 2006 Germany side was one built on collective belief and team work- no individual was seen as being more important than any other. In terms of styles, they functioned as a unit where theoretically (not always in practice..), any role was replaceable. Donovan’s ego doesn’t fit into such a jigsaw puzzle.
In Asia in 2002, in what Scolari now hopes will be his first of two World Cup victories with the Brazilian national team, he made the hugely unpopular decision of not including Romario in his squad. The decision angered Brazilians on another level than any kind of twitter backlash- with Scolari having to hideout in a separate hotel room from where it was believed he was staying.
The exclusion proved genius. Romario had become ‘the team’ in many fans eyes. He was a hero and the player in which the team should work around. Scolari saw it differently- the decision almost cost him his life, but ultimately won him the World Cup.
USA won’t win the World Cup (France just might), but Klinsmann knows that if they are to stand a fighting chance of progressing against the likes of Ghana, Portugal or Germany, they must play as a unit and the biggest ego in the dressing room can only be his and that’s why Donovan won’t be on the plane to Brazil next week.
As for Nasri, Deschamps is emulating a decision taken in his winning year as a player, by then coach Aime Jacquet.
Nasri has been outspoken in his criticism for Deschamps, he has acted unprofessionally on previous exclusions and is believed to be disliked in the dressing room by many past and present teammates. This is all well known by Deschamps and when he lifted the famous trophy, after a fabulous win against Brazil in Paris, during the summer of ’98, it put-to-bed the doubts of a nation; doubts that had run from Jacquet’s squad selection in May until the final-whistle on that fateful night.
That season Eric Cantona was voted player of the year in the Premier League for his unstoppable form in an equally unstoppable United side. At the same time, North-East of Manchester, David Ginola was at Newcastle and couldn’t put a foot-wrong, thus being hailed as “Frances worst kept secret weapon”. Neither were included by Jacquet’s.
Premier League fans were astounded and quietly confident that France would come crashing out of the competition early on. Jacquet’s was less concerned- believing the support of strong ego’s of a Frenchman famous for a Bruce Lee-esque karate move on an opposing supporter and self-styled Nescafe poster boy, would be “at their most influential watching the team on television”. Besides, their omission created an opportunity for a little known midfielder from Bordeaux to grace the spotlight…. and his name was Zinidane Zidane…
Didier Deschamps decision to exclude Nasri and his ego can surely be attributed to his experience of Jacquets simple, blunt and brilliant man-management tactics.
The point I am trying to make is this; there have been some hugely unpopular exclusions in the squads for the tournament this year and the immediate backlash is understandable, but if history is anything to go by (and it almost always proves to be), these latest high-profile exclusions may just be the difference such nations are looking for.