In the shadows of giants
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Whenever Daniel Bravo thinks back to his playing days, the pangs of regret never take long to kick in. "Mine’s the story of the guy who let his career pass him by,” he has said, overlooking his healthy list of medals and a time in the game that continued into his 38th year. The former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder is nonetheless far from alone in wondering how much higher he could have soared.

Winner of 13 caps with France, Bravo would surely have retired with a far larger tally had he not begun his career as a certain Michel Platini was in his peak. Though it may be scant consolation now, that puts him in a large and growing club of footballers unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are the men who have toiled in the shadows of giants, and FIFA.com now brings them front and centre.

Staying in France, where the playmaker role was turned into an art form by Raymond Kopa and Platini, Johan Micoud and Corentin Martins both had the talent to take the baton for Les Bleus in the 1990s. While Micoud won honours aplenty and left a lasting trace at Bordeaux and Werder Bremen, his contemporary did the same with Auxerre and Deportivo la Coruna, but neither player got a look-in as France enjoyed a golden era that yielded victory at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO 2000.

That was due to the extraordinary talent of Zinedine Zidane, who was destined to win the hearts of a nation and wreck the dreams of aspiring French No10s for more than a decade. “I fought with everyone trying to tell them we could play together,” said Micoud. “In fact, the only time I really played a good match [for France] was against Turkey, when we were both out there.” Unfortunately for him, a succession of national coaches remained unconvinced.

That tale will be all too familiar to Argentina’s Ricardo Bochini, a gifted schemer considered the greatest player in the history of Independiente and one of the finest midfielders anywhere in the 1980s. At club level, his list of triumphs is impressive, taking in four Argentinian titles (1977, 1978, 1983 and 1988/89), an equal number of Copa Libertadores wins (1973, 1974, 1975 and 1983) plus a pair of Intercontinental Cups (1973 and 1984), all of which he was instrumental in attaining. Despite those displays, he never made the breakthrough on the international stage.

Why not? Because of a devastatingly talented little player who happened to come along at the same time by the name of Diego Armando Maradona. El Pibe de Oro not only conquered the international arena, he had the world at his feet, but he was actually one of Bochini’s greatest admirers and convinced Carlos Bilardo to include his rival in Argentina’s 1986 FIFA World Cup-winning squad.

Lots of people think I have a bad relationship with Batistuta because of the competition between us, but that’s not true at all. We get on very well together and I learn a lot from being around him.
Hernan Crespo on his rivalry with Gabriel Batistuta

Bochini’s Mexican adventure was brief, however, being limited to a six-minute cameo at the end of their semi-final win against Belgium, by which time La Albiceleste were already winning 2-0 thanks to a Maradona double. The goalscorer greeted Bochini with a cry of “Vamos maestro” (“Let’s go, maestro”) loaded with respect for the senior player, but it would have taken much more than that to lift his spirits. “I don’t feel like a world champion,” Bocha confessed after the tournament and, when he finally hung up his boots, his tally of 740 club appearances dwarfed his 11 Argentina caps.

Destiny can clearly be cruel, especially if you have the misfortune of being born in a country adept at producing world-class footballers. A decade later, Bochini’s fellow Argentinian Hernan Crespo suffered a similar fate, his undeniable eye for goal proving insufficient to unseat Gabriel Batistuta in the starting line-up. In fact, when Crespo looked at last to have moved top of the pecking order, having won the trust of Daniel Passarella ahead of France 1998, an ill-timed injury sent him back to the bench to watch Batigol rack up five tournament strikes.

Four years on from that campaign, the Fiorentina forward remained first choice for La Albiceleste, with coach Marcelo Bielsa declaring it “impossible” to field the two marksmen together. That left Valdanito feeding off scraps in a substitute’s role as he came on for his nemesis against England and Sweden, and although he found the net against the latter it was not enough to prevent Argentina exiting after the group stage.

“Lots of people think I have a bad relationship with Batistuta because of the competition between us, but that’s not true at all,” Crespo told FIFA.com at the time. “We get on very well together and I learn a lot from being around him. He’s one of the greats.” Crespo’s chance finally came at Germany 2006, after Batistuta had called time on his career, and he grabbed it by finishing with three goals.

Mikel Arteta is still awaiting his opportunity. The elegant midfielder is one of the leading lights in the Premier League after six successful seasons with Everton, and the club’s supporters greet each of his graceful contributions with the refrain, ”There's nobody betta’ than Mikel Arteta". Not everyone would appear to agree, however, and Arteta is still battling to break into Spain’s uncommonly gifted midfield, where Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas continue to hold sway.

After first being taught the game at Barcelona, Arteta’s mistake was perhaps to fly the coop to soon. “I was 16 when I played my first match,” recalled the former PSG and Rangers player. “I came on to replace Pep Guardiola and, when I looked around, I saw Luis Figo, Luis Enrique, Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo. Barcelona was my club and I regret having left the following year, but Xavi was breaking into the team, I was 17 and I didn’t want to have to wait to get regular playing time.” A decade on from his departure, Arteta has yet to collect his first cap, while Xavi has FIFA World Cup and European Championship medals to polish.

Every player accepts competition. Just as long as it doesn’t involve them.
Didier Deschamps

The need to move abroad to carve out a place in the game was likewise felt by Gianfranco Zola in the 1990s. Voted Chelsea’s greatest ever player by the club’s supporters, the midfield orchestrator thrilled English crowds with his obvious abilities as he cast off the burden of comparison weighing him down in his native Italy. A young No10 at Napoli while Maradona was in his pomp, Zola was inevitably labelled the great man’s heir, and his frustration was not limited to the club scene either. With Roberto Baggio performing miracles year after year, Zola enjoyed only moderate success with La Nazionale.

Miracles were likewise a speciality for Jean-Pierre Papin during his time with Marseille, and they eventually earned him a high-profile move to AC Milan in 1992. “You either accept competition or not, but if you don’t, then you’re better off not coming to Milan,” he declared upon his arrival. “You have to accept the tactical decisions that get made. I’m ready. You have to be strong.”

Perhaps, or perhaps no amount of readiness or strength was ever likely to leave him first choice in the Rossoneri attack – not with Marco van Basten at the height of his art. The Netherlands legend was of course ruthless in front of goal, but he made sure to be just as ruthless away from the pitch. “In training, you have to fight hard,” said Van Basten. “If you’re not at your best, you know that someone else could take your place. So you have to always give everything, and like that you improve and reach a kind of perfection.”

Waiting in line is difficult for any player, but surely no one has it tougher than goalkeepers, given the longevity and preference for continuity associated with the post. All too many budding custodians have found their first-team exposure limited by a brilliant rival. Germany’s Sepp Maier kept nine pretenders at bay during his long reign at Bayern Munich. Never injured, suspended or ill, the Cat did not miss a single game between 1970 and 1979, causing the club’s back-up keepers the same kind of anguish Italy’s Dino Zoff inflicted on Juventus stand-in Giancarlo Alessandrelli. A promising talent during his spell in Juve’s youth teams, Alessandri went on to contest just 20 minutes in five seasons with the Turin outfit.

Back in France, lastly, where our tour of starters and understudies kicked off, it would surely be hard to sum the whole issue up better than Marseille coach Didier Deschamps. “Every player accepts competition,” he said. “Just as long as it doesn’t involve them.”