Unsung heroes: Studying why football fans prefer watching fancy goals over last-ditch tackles

Recently, fans voted for their favourite Premier League icons to be inducted into the Premier League Hall of Fame. The top 8 announced are all legends of English football. Each player on the list deserves his induction. Gerrard/Lampard fanboys can relax, because both are in there.

Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, Roy Keane, David Beckham and the aforementioned Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were the inaugural inductees. All worthy entrants no doubt.

Premier League Hall of Fame announces inaugural inductees
The eight (attacking) inductees of the Premier League Hall of Fame. Source: soccer.nbcsports.com

Unfortunately, this list highlights a crucial flaw in football fans’ thought processes. This flaw has existed ever since the first football was kicked. The lack of recognition defenders and goalkeepers get in football is concerning, and borderline disgraceful in some cases. Case in point – this Hall of Fame list.

It may seem a little harsh, because the human brain is wired to be amazed at moments rather than cold action. People talk about an amazing goal or assist for many years, but a crucial match-winning block or clearance is celebrated for far less time.

There is also a double-standard to the entire thing. If a team concedes a last-minute goal, fans will never stop complaining about the backline not being able to see the game out. Attackers also come under pressure for toothless performances, but this is way rarer than scapegoating defenders and keepers.

Undeserved snubbing

In his book ‘Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics’, Jonathan Wilson wrote, “A part of the celebrity nature of football is that the focus is on forwards, the people who you see doing tricks and scoring goals. It’s just much easier to give it to the guy who you can watch on YouTube doing nutmegs and flicking the ball over defender’s heads.”

The football expert is absolutely spot on. This culture of glorifying attackers and midfielders more than their rear-end counterparts impacts how we remember the latter. Simple example – ask someone who the best player in world football has been since the 2010s after Messi/Ronaldo.

The common answers would be Neymar, Andrés Iniesta, etc. Rarely are players like Sergio Ramos, Gianluigi Buffon and Manuel Neuer mentioned. Of course Neymar and Iniesta are absolutely world-class, but so are Ramos, Buffon and Neuer. A player like Ramos is as influential at Real Madrid as Don Andrés was at Barcelona. Just like Iniesta, Ramos has won every single trophy there is to win in football.

Also, if it must come to that, just like Iniesta, Ramos scored one of the most iconic goals in football history. His last-minute header against Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final made the dream of La Decima a reality. So how is Iniesta and Neymar almost always ahead of Ramos in this conversation?

These are questions you start to ask yourself once you see how under-represented defenders and goalkeepers are in football heritage. Whether it is status, awards, or just general pub discussions, these players are overlooked.

One-sided honours

Look no further than the 2018 Ballon d’Or for insight on this issue. First of all, your writer will say that Luka Modrić rightfully was a frontrunner for the Ballon D’or. Whether he deserved it or not is another issue. There are many who say that Cristiano Ronaldo should have won the award, and it’s easy to see why. The top scorer in the Champions League was instrumental in leading Real to their third straight trophy. Despite his country failing to win, he starred for Portugal in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. His stats spoke volumes of his credentials.

But when you realised Modrić’s claim to the award rested solely on his better World Cup campaign, you started to wonder the inconsistency in it. Croatia’s midfield magician was no doubt one of the best players of that year. But if it was really about the World Cup and the Champions League, you couldn’t help but wonder if someone else had been snubbed to let Luka win.

That someone was Raphaël Varane. Part of a rock-solid Real Madrid backline, Varane was a key cog in Los Blancos’ success. However, he also played for France, the winners of the 2018 World Cup. Varane put in a shift during the entire tournament, and he was one of France’s best players. Coincidentally, France beat Modrić’s Croatia in the final to win the tournament.

Ballon d'Or 2018 news - Raphael Varane should win this year's Ballon d'Or,  but he won't - Eurosport
Real Madrid and French centre-back Raphaël Varane was tipped to win the Ballon d’Or, but lost to Luka Modric. Source: eurosport.com

Therein lies the question. If Modrić won the Ballon d’Or as part of a runner-up team, why wasn’t Varane a frontrunner for it as well? He had an exemplary season, winning a ton of trophies that year, and generally playing extremely well. Yet, he only finished 7th in the award standings, which was an absolute disservice to his season. Ask yourself whether that’s because Modrić had an objectively better season than the Frenchman, or because the football community prefers attackers over defenders.

It may be a moot point, but the last defender to win the Ballon d’Or was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006. In its entire history, only three defenders and one goalkeeper have won the award. It just shows you how thankless the job of defending and keeping really is. So yes, Virgil van Dijk giving Messi a good run for his money was hugely exciting. But no, nobody realistically expected the Dutch centre-back to pip the Barcelona superstar to the Ballon d’Or. He did come extremely close, but once again, attacker beat defender.

B/R Football on Twitter: "Messi vs. Van Dijk was the closest Ballon d'Or  race this century… "
Virgil van Dijk gave Lionel Messi a good scare in his bid to win his sixth Ballon d’Or. Source: twitter.com

Unsung heroes

Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Pretty sure he knew what he was talking about. There is no doubt that being a top defender or goalkeeper is a tough job. Yet, they make it look so easy it is unappealing to the eye. When they play at their best, they spend many games doing next to nothing.

A great defender or goalkeeper has to just stay in the right position to prevent goals. Sadly, this goes a long way in their under-appreciation.

It’s one thing for attackers to always grab the spotlight, be it Man of the Match awards, wages, transfer fees, or sponsorship deals. But when the first batch of the Premier League Hall of Fame has zero defenders and goalkeepers, you have to think about fans’ not rating the entire length of the pitch equally.  

How have fans not voted in large numbers for legends like John Terry, Rio Ferdinand and Petr Čech? Nobody is suggesting that any of the inductees are less deserving of the induction than these players. But when fans do not give said players the respect and recognition they deserve, it becomes a problem.

Players like Bergkamp and Henry made many people fall in love with football. The chances of you finding a fan whose footballing idol is a defender or keeper are as slim as a hair strand’s shadow.  But while voting for something like the Premier League Hall of Fame, it becomes imperative to be objective. The same goes for the Ballon d’Or voters and other award systems.

In that regard, the Premier League also deserves a mention, because this entire idea is flawed. There should be appropriate consideration for defenders and goalkeepers. Otherwise, it becomes a club of attackers and midfielders who hogged all the glory while the defenders and keepers kept them in the game.

The players at the back are as influential as those ahead of them. Just because the goal is the currency of football doesn’t mean we disregard the players who work in the background to make it happen. They go unnoticed in matches, but perhaps that’s because they are doing their job so well nobody approaches them at all.

If you are still unconvinced, here is the analogy to settle the claim once and for all. A defender (or keeper sometimes) can score goals that would put the best attackers to shame. Conversely, an attacker can make a last-ditch tackle or goal-line clearance that seals the game for his team. But the chances of the first incident happening is much higher. That itself shows how criminally underrated our best clean sheet seekers are.

Objective recognition

It is high time defenders and keepers are mentioned in the same tier as their attacking counterparts. Football fan culture is all about goals and goalscorers and match-winners, and of course there is nothing wrong about it. After all, goals are the mainstay of the sport, and scoring them is how you win games.

However, while we can celebrate said goals, goalscorers and match-winners, we should also equally celebrate the defenders and keepers that worked towards that outcome. Troy Deeney’s iconic goal may rightfully be the definitive moment of THAT Watford match against Leicester City. However, the next time we talk about that epic match, let us also mention in the same breath Watford keeper Manuel Almunia, the unsung hero who saved a penalty and its rebound seconds before Deeney’s volley at the other end.

Offence is no doubt more flashy and thrilling than defence. However, only when they go hand-in-hand does success arrive in any sport. So when success, the thing we all celebrate in football, requires both in equal measure, why should we prioritise one over the other? Let us hence give the same level recognition to the best defenders and goalkeepers of the sport as we do for our frontline legends.

Read more: War on football: How fans united to help save the beautiful game

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