The importance of potent partnerships
Of the many images football has left in my mind, one of the most intriguing comes from a pre-match warm up more than 15 years ago.
Flamengo were about to play Internacional in the Brazilian Championship. Reunited for the first time since winning the World Cup just over two years earlier, Romario and Bebeto were exchanging passes.
Bebeto was sleek and somehow vulnerable, like a cheetah. Romario was stocky and merciless, a perfect hyena. The two made natural hunting partners. It is inconceivable that Brazil would have won USA 94 without them.
But it was one thing for the pair of them to knuckle down and work together for the limited time frame of a tournament, especially with a big prize at the end. Doing it week in week out at club level would surely be a different matter. The pair had big egos and different temperaments. Now they were together at Flamengo, how would they get along? Would they fire together or end up sniping at each other?
Bebeto (centre) and Romario (right) were crucial to Brazil's victory in the 1994 World Cup. Photo: Getty
In the end the question could not be answered. During that game against Internacional, Romario limped off with one of the muscular problems that plagued that stage of his career. By the time he had recovered, Bebeto had been sold back to Sevilla in Spain.
All that remains, then, is the image of them knocking up before kick-off. And what stays in the mind is the easy intimacy created between them as the passes went back and forth. Today they would consider each other friends, but no words will ever match the bond forged by the presence of the ball.
Much attention - too much surely - is given to debates on individual players. Great teams are also often discussed. The spotlight falls much less on great partnerships - the building blocks that make up great teams. And when it does, it is usually on strike partnerships, like the complementary talents of the Romario-Bebeto combination, or a big man-little man duo like John Toshack and Kevin Keegan at Liverpool in the 1970s.
Just as interesting, but surely more neglected, are those little societies inside a team that help link one function to another. Those functions can be divided into three areas - win possession of the ball, set up the play, and finish.
Bobby Charlton, for example, never stops paying tribute to the work of Nobby Stiles. For both Manchester United and England, Stiles provided security, winning the ball so that Charlton could use it. Not all of his tackles would survive modern day scrutiny but Charlton is adamant Stiles was a genuinely great player. What is surely not in doubt is that they formed a superbly effective partnership.
My favourite little society at the moment can be found a little higher up the pitch, linking the functions of setting up the play and finishing off the move - in this case for Atletico Nacional of Colombia.
The playmaker is Macnelly Torres, one of those rare figures with both the vision to spot the killer pass and the technique to deliver it. Now 27, he has had an up-and-down career. Part of that inconsistency is surely down to the on-field relationships formed with his strikers. The man on the ball dies a lonely death if there is no movement in front of him.
Now at Nacional he had an excellent partner to latch on to his defence-splitting passes. Dorlan Pabon is a stocky little striker, bullet fast. He is capable of striking the ball on the run off either foot and does most of his best work down the flanks, especially the right.
Torres and Pabon were in harness a year ago when Nacional won the first of the two separate championships that Colombia stages per year. Then Torres went off to Mexico to play for San Luis on loan. Without him the team were not nearly as good but that title win had guaranteed Nacional's place in this year's Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League.
The club have made major investments in defence, midfield and attack. More than the new faces, though, perhaps the most important re-enforcement was the return of Macnelly Torres, and therefore the return of his partnership with Dorlan Pabon.
That link-up showed its potency two weeks ago when Atletico Nacional made their Libertadores debut against Universidad de Chile, the team who back in December won the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League, in fine style. 'La U' won that trophy with a run of 10 wins, two draws and no defeats, 21 goals scored and just two conceded.
The Libertadores was always likely to be harder, not least because 'la U' paid the normal South American price of success - they placed in the shop window three of their most important players, who subsequently moved on. It might take time for coach Jorge Sampaoli to bed in his reinforcements. The trip to Medellin to face Nacional looked like a tough debut, and so it proved.
The Colombians won 2-0, and the clinching second goal came from a source that had been threatening all night to undo the Chilean defence. Torres chipped into space, a pass hit at the correct angle and with perfect weight, and Pabon latched on, shrugged off the defender and struck a beautifully balanced shot on the turn back across the goalkeeper.
This Tuesday night Nacional are in action again, in Uruguay away to Penarol, an adventurous side who need a win. There should be plenty of space for the Torres-Pabon double act to do some damage - and highlight once more the importance of little partnerships inside a team.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag;
Q) I'm an Exeter City fan and recently there's been a lot of club press around the possibility of an historic rematch of the 1914 Brazil v Exeter City game - the first game ever played by a national Brazilian team.
I would love to see this game happen - the press from the club is suitably careful but does sound positive that, from a commercial and a footballing perspective, there seems to be some interest in getting the game to happen.
Given that Brazil will be mainly focused on the World Cup in 2014, can you give us any insight into the local feeling around a rematch?
A) I had the pleasure of meeting a couple of Exeter directors on their recent trip to Rio trying to fix the game up.
It clearly won't happen on the actual centenary date in July, because everyone will have had their fill of football by then.
The idea is to stage it shortly before the World Cup, which would be a terrific coup for Exeter because media from all over the planet will be there.
The match in 1914 took place in the stadium of Fluminense - I think they would love it to happen. Their lovely old ground is only used for training these days, and they would like to transform it into a museum. Staging the match there fits their purpose.
And so the unknown quantity is Brazil - who will, of course, be fully focused on the World Cup, which begins on 12 June 2014. They will be under pressure the likes of which no team has ever experienced. So a game against Exeter might not be seen as adequate preparation. But if not then I think it should prove easy enough to organise a game against a Brazil Masters team, as happened in Exeter a few years back.
Q) I was wondering if you could give me a bit of information on the current state of affairs with Boca Juniors. I am currently watching their game versus Union Santa Fe and they seem classless, lazy and insipid - unable to break down a recently promoted team who show a bit of enthusiasm. How can this team possibly be the Champions?
A) Look at the goals against column. In their 19 games last season Boca conceded six, two of them after the title was sewn up.
Coach Julio Cesar Falcioni was always in for an interesting ride at Boca. He doesn't have the habit of playing with an old style number 10 and at Boca, of course, Juan Roman Riquelme is king. It took Falcioni a while to work out how to set up his team with Riquelme plus two strikers. It is a balance he found by being very safety first, with one of the strikers often behind the line of the ball. It is a team set up not to be open to the counter attack.
In midweek Boca made their Libertadores debut with an appalling 0-0 draw away to Zamora of Venezuela. In the dressing room afterwards there was, by all accounts, an almighty row - and it was reported that Falcioni had resigned. Peace meetings were held and Falcioni stayed. But the game against Union that you saw is perhaps a reflection of these events.