In praise of the left (foot, that is!)

Feet

Football has often been described as the people’s game. Rich or poor, all can indulge in the enjoyment of kicking a ball around, simply because that’s all you need. The ‘beautiful game’ has no need for expensive accessories such as special clothing or particular equipment. If you’ve got a ball, you’ve got a game. To steal the old hackneyed phrase, throw in some ‘jumpers for goal-posts’ and you’ve even got a match.

Some sports however are less egalitarian, making it difficult for one particular segment of societies around the world to compete. I’m talking about the left-handed and left-footed. You simply aren’t allowed to play polo left-handed and if inclined to do so in hockey it can only be achieved with a ‘reversed stick.’ Whilst some other sports don’t deny the ‘right to be left’ it does make it more difficult to be naturally involved. Left-handed golf clubs are a rarity and for some reason more expensive than right-handed ones. The same applies to left-handed cricket bats – yes, there are such things.As a ‘caggy’ myself, I’m well aware of these issues, and it’s probably why I play golf and bat at cricket right-handed. I’m not sure if being left-handed was ‘taught out of me’ for those particular sports – I really can’t remember – but if so, although it probably helped me to ‘fit in’, I’m less convinced that it may have helped to develop any potential natural sporting prowess I may have had in those games.

The Latin word ‘sinistra’ originally merely described the left-hand side of anything, and carried no particular adverse connotations. Over time however, and particularly by the Classical era, it had acquired links to evil and ill luck. There’s no need to look in the dictionary to understand what ‘sinister’ has come to mean in modern times. Conversely, the word ‘right’ of course is seen to mean correct or justice.

Counter-intuitively, biologists tell us that the left-hand side of the brain controls the actions of the right-hand side of the body, with the reverse applying for the right-hand side. They also tell us that the old theory of different hemispheres of the brain performing different sorts of function has now been debunked. The argument ran that the right-hand side focused on creativity and artistry, whilst the left was concerned with the more pragmatic things such as logic and the sciences. Football may suggest however that perhaps there’s more than a bit of juice left in that in that old ‘left-right’ theory. In a game where many of its top performers – and certainly a chunk of those of a more artistic bent – are left-leaning, we may need to have a bit of a rethink.

Of course, there are certain areas of the pitch, where being left-footed is an advantage, and often this is where the ‘lefties’ land in teams; their particular preserve. I’m thinking of left backs and left wide players. In the playing days of my youth, for both school and junior team, that’s where I was often placed. It’s true however that in many teams, even this particular area has been invaded by the right-footed orthodoxies. The reverse however seldom applies – David Alaba of Bayern Munich being a notable exception. Although the system of play deployed there in recent times by Pep Guardiola, has rendered this more than a little meaningless.

All that said however, there are players who have excelled in the game where being left-sided was very much to their advantage. Ashley Cole for instance was one of the most decorated players in Premier League history with Arsenal and Chelsea. he won three league titles, seven FA Cups – one combination of which comprised a domestic ‘double’ – a League Cup, Europa League, all capped off by a Champions League title when he was successful in the penalty shoot-out that brought the trophy to West London. He also turned out over 100 times for England.

Although there’s little doubt he was an exceptional player for both of his clubs, and indeed his country, there’s a case to argue as to whether he would have been so successful for so long, had there been more competition for his place. Perhaps being in a minority has its advantages in some circumstances. If Cole had been right-footed, would he even have been playing on the left flank of the defence? Possibly not. If he had been deployed on the other flank of the back line, what would his record look like? It’s an interesting case to ponder. Perhaps an insight into the answer is that he eventually lost his place at Stamford Bridge to Spanish defender, Cesar Aspiliqueta, who is right-footed.

Although Cole is a good example within the English game, many other players have also excelled in Cole’s role. Roberto Carlos won World Cup acclaim and club honours for Brazil and Real Madrid, a role now being reprised by his successor in both teams, Marcello. Could a similar case be made for Paolo Maldini of AC Milan and Italy? The left-footed sentinel of the Milanese defence certainly played a large part of his time with the ‘Rossoneri’ on the left of their back four. That said however, he also comfortably eased into a more central role after the retirement of Franco Baresi, with little, or indeed any perceptible drop in level of performance. Should the career of Baresi not have been a few years advanced of Maldini’s however, it’s interesting to consider whether an opportunity to play at the heart of the defence would ever have arisen. Baresi was of course a truly exceptional player, so perhaps the issue is a little unfair in this instance.

Ryan Giggs had been performing at the top level for a career covering two decades, only recently curtailed, but his development, and that of a countryman, and fellow lefty, Gareth Bale was hardly dented by having a tendency to favour the left foot. Giggs for so long was part of a Manchester United midfield that dominated English football under Sir Alex Ferguson. Alongside various partners, for most of his career, he was positioned as the wide left element of the quartet. In this role he morphed from being the fleet-footed winger of almost traditional guise, beating full-backs and crossing the ball, to the all-accomplished wide player of the modern game; still foraging forward, but also comfortable on the ball in the centre of the field, and aware of his defensive responsibilities as well.

Towards the end of his career, and remember he played until well into his 38th year, as his pace dropped a little, he then moved into the centre of the midfield to deploy a passing ability and game nous that had not been overly affected by age. That move however was almost a compelled necessity as others considered that the role outside may now be beyond his athletic capabilities. His compatriot however, who would officially be the world’s most expensive player if Real Madrid hadn’t felt compelled to massage the figures involved in his transfer somewhat in order to offer the same service to Cristiano Ronaldo’s inflated ego, Gareth Bale, started to make the move inside much earlier in his career.

After moving to Real Madrid from Spurs, the Welshman begin to ease open the door a little to the way that left-footed players have climbed out of the box that orthodox wisdom may have placed them in, stapled to the lefthand side of the teams. Playing alongside the demanding Ronaldo cannot have been easy as it would always be the Welshman that had to adapt to the demands of the Portuguese, but perhaps the flexibility of Karim Benzema compensates for that. The triumvirate of the BBC as the media has now dubbed them, are now a flexible and fluid unit interspersing with each other in a mode apparently unencumbered by Bale being left-footed.

Another player who wore the white of Madrid is a further example of someone who started as a wide man, but managed to break away from the touchline into a more central role. Just before he left the Barnabeu for Old Trafford, Angel di Maria, gave probably one of the best performances of his life in the Champions League Final as Real Madrid achieved the log looked for Decima. He then went on to star for Argentina in the World Cup, and had he not been injured for the final against Germany, perhaps the outcome may well have been different.

The big money transfer may not have worked out ideally for the Argentine at Old Trafford, but in the early games of the season, when the purchase looked like it would offer a creativity that had been missing from the Manchester United line up for a couple of seasons, it was in a more central role that di Maria starred.

If there’s one position on the field where being a lefty shouldn’t really make a great deal of difference however, it’s the man between the sticks, and of late there have been a few goalkeepers who favoured their left peg. Iker Casillas has endured a difficult couple of years as his career at Real Madrid wound down to an almost embarrassing exit. Prior to that however he was not only a star performer for both his club and country, he also captained both teams to the highest accolades the game has to offer.

In West London, Petr Cech arrived as a relatively unknown young ‘keeper from Le Harve  and went on to win four Premier League winners medals, numerous domestic cups and then excelled in the 2012 Champions league final, saving a penalty in extra-time from Arjen Robben, before reprising the trick twice over in the penalty shoot-out to win the trophy for Chelsea. Even when he was replaced in Mourinho’s affections by the decade-younger Thibuat Courtois, it was a case of trading one left-footer for another.

Now, I know what you may be thinking. Some of these names are well-known, and some are even world famous. They aren’t of the very top echelon of players though. That may well be true, but the question then arises of who are the great players. Leo Messi? Diego Maradona? Johann Cruyff, Alfredo di Stafano? Ferenc Puskas? You may want to add a few other names, but it’s not a bad list – and they were all left-footed. Of course football is a game of varieties and differences, but if being left-footed does differentiate certain players, perhaps it’s merely a case of when it’s good not to be right.

 

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