It was a sentence that would haunt me for years to come.
“Gibbsey,” said my football coach wistfully, “I just wish you had that pace over five yards.”
So did I, Clive. So. Did. I.
But sadly I was never graced with speed. Doing things quickly is just not in my nature.
As a boy, I was described as “cerebral” and “quiet,” never one to act on impulse or rush into things. I was happy marching to a slower beat. Friends at school could recognise me from a distance because I walked so slowly between lessons, seemingly determined to wring out every second from a leisurely, unhurried youth.
But when it came to football, I yearned for speed. I was in the school team because I could defend well and had a decent understanding of the game, but my pace and fitness always lagged behind. If only I could run faster, if only I had that pace over five yards that Clive kept banging on about.
When knee injuries began to hamper me further, I all but gave up on the beautiful game. Football was my first love, but it was a love tinged by disappointment, the sense that my body would always hold me back.
In hindsight, this unwillingness to accept my faults and adapt was the only thing holding me back.
Take Sergio Busquets, a Spanish footballer who plays for Barcelona. He’s won every major trophy available to him, and he was an integral part of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side who went down in history as one of the best club teams ever. He’s now just one of three players left from that golden era who still form the spine of Barcelona, along with Gerard Piqué and Lionel Messi.
But to look at, Busquets doesn’t scream elite athlete. He’s gangly and gaunt, and he seems to do everything in slow motion, rather like a baby giraffe taking its first steps across the savannah.
When Busquets was promoted to Barcelona’s first team by Guardiola in 2008, his ponderous style didn’t attract many plaudits. People thought he was too slow and that he didn’t contribute anything. I remember a friend describing Busquets as “an average player in a great team.”
But if, like me, you read hipster football blogs and worshipped every word that came out of Guardiola’s mouth, it was easy to see the value of Busquets. He was put in the team because he sees the big picture.
During a match, Busquets is constantly scanning the field and looking over his shoulder to create a mental image of the pitch. When the ball is played to him in a tight space, he already knows where his teammates are and who’s in a good position to receive the ball, so he can take a quick touch and pass it on. This constant recycling of the ball keeps his team ticking and allows other players to find space.
He doesn’t need pace because his picture of the game is so precise. He can do things slowly because his positioning and anticipation give him time. And when he is under pressure, that awareness and a cool head let him drag or dink the ball past opponents as they rush towards him. The slightest drop of his shoulder or deceptive glance is all he needs to flummox them, giving him that split second to pass.
He never seems to break a sweat, he can reduce football to its simplest form, all because he understands how the game will unfold.
It’s not immediately obvious, this calm intelligence, because Busquets doesn’t stand out. He seems to dissolve away in matches, the attention diverted towards players like Messi. But if you keep an eye on him, you suddenly see his clever positioning, the cutting passes, the precise tackles and interceptions, those subtle skills.
Vicente del Bosque, manager of Spain when they won the World Cup and European Championship, summed it up beautifully when he said, “You watch the game, you don’t see Busquets. You watch Busquets, you see the whole game.”
I wish I’d seen the bigger picture all those years ago. If only I’d let go of my physical failings and focused on becoming a more intelligent player, as Busquets did, rather than comparing myself to fitter, faster teammates whom I couldn’t hope to emulate.
It’s a lesson I’m trying to apply now, as I ease myself back into the game after a long absence. I’m content to be slow and cerebral on the pitch. It’s difficult resisting the joyful tempo of the moment, which is why I love football, but I also want to step back and see the whole game. I want to be aware of what’s going on around me so I can play simply and efficiently.