In an era of athletes being prioritised over pure footballers, we’re championing the players who turned their laziness into the trait that drove their career forward.
Pressing is great and players being teacher’s pet to the manager is understandable, but it’s also horrendously boring. Gone are the days of sheer technicians being allowed to stroll around the pitch at a pace they like, turning players inside out with nonchalance that only an elite few possess.
The following legends of the game didn’t necessarily talk the talk, but they definitely walked the walk. Just don’t ask them to run.
“You are not going to see me puffing around the pitch. There is a saying in Bulgaria—great quality doesn’t require much effort.” The words of Dimitar Ivanov Berbatov in an interview with the Daily Mirror in 2011.
Berba knew what was up. Running is for mugs. Standing perfectly f*cking still is absolutely class. Preserve that energy, king.
Trundling about doing nothing is not just for enigmatic strikers and maverick number 10s, though. Sergio Busquets, arguably the greatest midfield pivot in the history of the game, rarely broke a sweat.
If he ever did run, it was a vigorous jog at best, and he looked like a giraffe made of wood and pulleys, operated by a novice puppeteer.
Busquets and Berba didn’t have to run because their brains were sprinting hell for leather.
Juan Román Riquelme
The greatest J.R.R. since Tolkien, Riquelme scored more than a goal per three games for Villareal, which means we can call him things like Frodo Bagsman, Sméagoal, The Lord of Top Bins (that one’s tenuous), but, really, Riquelme was all about slow-motion nutmegs and passes that were so well disguised you could barely see them.
Camouflage passes. Defenders not even noticing them until it was too late, like a crab going about its daily chores and suddenly finding itself in the digestive tract of a hidden cuttlefish.
And Riquelme was slow. I mean, he was almost certainly faster than us and, probably, you. But he was slow, and maybe that’s why he was great. He preserved his energy and, when the moment was right, he unlocked the defence with a subtle shift of his hips, and then he went back to chilling — blending into his surroundings until the ball came his way again.
Nwankwo Kanu is a long man. He is 98% limb. If he could be bothered to run, he would have been so fast, but, as we’ve established, running is pathetic.
Kanu did some mesmerising things with his body. He always looked in grave danger of falling over, like a child learning to ride a bike, except he wasn’t — it was all calculated.
The one time he did genuinely sprint, he utterly outstripped a Deportivo La Coruña defender, faced up to the keeper and… made the keeper fall over with his eyes. He used magic. Slotted the ball into the empty net. You don’t play football with your feet. You don’t even play it with your head. If you’re Nwankwo Kanu, you play football with your magical eyeballs.
An honorary mention for Lewangoalski, here. His is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking of footballing rock ‘n’ stroll stars, but we got our hands on some data from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
According to Statista, Robert Lewandowski topped the statistics for distance walked in a single game, by walking over 5.2km against Saudi Arabia. That’s around three-and-a-quarter miles. To be fair to Lewa, though, Messi made three appearances in the list of top ten walkers in the World Cup.
Possibly the greatest player in the history of the game is a serial walker and never a sprinter. Running is useless. Case closed.
Messi’s genius is nigh-on incomprehensible most of the time and simply watching him go to work on a poor, unknowing defender’s ankles both brings a tear to your eye and makes you nauseous, envious, all of the above. The best part about the Argentine, though, is how simple he makes it all look.
He’s the antithesis of an athlete. He’s small and not particularly quick or strong, but he walks around the field, finds gaps, and produces superhuman moments.
Asked by L’Equipe in 2024 if he wished he had Cristiano Ronaldo’s mentality and approach to football, Hazard responded: “No. It wouldn’t have been me.
“After training, soaking in the cold bath for an hour, no. Leave me alone, with my friends, we go home, play cards, have a beer.”
Could not relate anymore, Eden. We’re so alike.
One of the most technically gifted footballers of the 21st Century, there were few as joyous as the Belgian in his pomp. And he managed to achieve that legacy by not doing much running. Instead, he saved his legs for wonder goals and zapping defenders with outrageous skill. That’s our kind of footballer.