There’s a type of player who is celebrated and maligned in equal measure. A player who is crucial to the team but attracts criticism for his perceived low work rate. Musa Okwonga explores the life of the striker who does nothing. Nothing, except score.
There has always been something uniquely tragic about the role of the lone striker. Goalkeepers may be famously isolated, spending much of the game confined to their line, but at least they have a fixed abode, a penalty area they can call home. Lone strikers, by contrast, are rootless; condemned to roam the outer edges of the offside trap, they are citizens of nowhere, rootless cosmopolitans, called upon only in situations of extreme pressure. Until then, unless they attract the attention of diligent man-markers, they are largely left to themselves.
Some might think that the previous paragraph is melodramatic, and that to be a lone striker is a thing of luxury, a position to be coveted. If so, they are absolutely right. You can’t succeed as a lone striker, prowling for 90 minutes and then taking the single chance you’re offered, if you don’t have a healthy sense of self. You’re the performer upon whom, at any moment, the spotlight is certain to fall. When it does, you are determined to look perfect.
It’s a strange life, that of the anonymous forward, the striker who only truly becomes active when the ball is close to them. You can tell that from the way they are described - they are commonly referred to as poachers, predators, snipers, those whose participation in conflict is always parasitic if not cowardly. They are treated as creatures who pounce out of the blue, but that is surely only the fault of their prey, who could easily have prevented them from delivering lethal blows. The problem is that, time and again, they simply stopped paying attention.
It is remarkable how, during the course of a long and brilliant career, Romario was so often left unaccompanied by defenders. If you look at any of the Brazilian’s goal compilations on YouTube, you will find countless moments where - just before he begins moving, that startling surge of acceleration from samba to warp-drive in two seconds - there is no-one standing near him. It is as if the centre-backs have been told endlessly about the threat he poses, yet when they finally come up against him they conclude “ah, it’s fine, the cobra seems tired today. He’s shuffling about, he looks sleepy.” Unfortunately for them, time and again, they discover that - alas - the cobra is never that tired.
Sergio Agüero is frequently seen as the heir to Romario, and he is a similarly supreme finisher. The sense in which he most resembles his fellow South American, though, isn’t in his speed or technique: it’s his elusiveness. Agüero is a hardworking player, much more involved in combination play since the arrival of Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, yet there is still a sense in which he lurks slightly to the side of the stage as the spectacle develops. There he appears, though, whenever the tension is at its height, arriving like that cataclysmic drop after the DJ has let the beat build for three minutes.
Anonymous strikers get a fair amount of criticism, much of it unfair. They are often castigated for not charging about the field, and for having lacklustre movement. When this happens, though, their critics seem to forget that this is precisely the point: that such individuals are desperate to disappear from the radar of opposing defenders. The quickest way to do that is to give the impression that you don’t care.
Darko Pancev, the sublime centre forward who clinched the European Cup for Red Star Belgrade in 1991, was greatly misunderstood for this reason. “There are strikers who don’t run and there are strikers who run”, said Pancev, explaining why his move to Serie A had not worked out as well as everyone had hoped. “I was one of those strikers with a natural talent for scoring, and I ran only when I was within 30 metres of goal. Unfortunately Inter didn’t want to accept that style of play.” Given that he claimed a runner-up place in the Ballon D’Or voting in the year that Red Star became European champions, it can be assumed that Pancev knew what he was doing.
The player who would have sympathised most with Pancev must be Filippo Inzaghi, a man maligned over the years by just about everyone, including several of his own team’s supporters. Inzaghi was the ultimate anonymous striker; someone who, even at his peak, was mocked for his relative lack of skill, his seemingly ramshackle playing style. Yet Inzaghi was playing everyone for laughs; like Colombo, the dishevelled detective played by the late and legendary Peter Falk, his greatest superpower was being underestimated. Just when villains thought they had the better of Colombo, just when they watched him bumbling out of the door, he would stop and turn and deliver one more devastating question, one which unravelled the criminal’s entire facade. That was Inzaghi, and that is the manner of all world-class “anonymous strikers”; to slip beneath defenders’ contempt and away from view, until - without warning - they thrillingly surge back to the surface, and write their names across history.
Musa Okwonga is a poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musician, social commentator, football writer and consultant in the fields of creativity and communications. Musa also co-presents the Rabona podcast.