Talismanic players, there are plenty in football. Argentina have Lionel Messi, Brazil bank on Neymar and Portugal pin their hopes on Cristiano Ronaldo. Beyond the triumvirate, there’s England’s Harry Kane, France’s Karim Benzema, Senegal’s Sadio Mane, Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, and Croatia’s Luka Modric. Look a little further, and you will see Germany’s Manuel Neuer, Wales’s Gareth Bale, Ecuador’s Enner Valencia, who struck a brace on the opening night of the Qatar World Cup, and several others.
What’s a talisman? Talismans are rooted in superstition. It’s an object believed to confer supernatural powers or protection for the bearer. In football, a talisman is a player who performs magic or conjures miracles on the field. They make teams better than they are. That quality stems from their genius, allowing them to perform at a higher plane than the rest. It makes them integral to the teams’ fortunes.
Take the case of Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner from France. A thigh injury during training in Doha ruled him out of the World Cup, dealing a massive blow to France’s ambitions of defending the title in Qatar. Without Benzema’s striking prowess, the team coached by Didier Deschamps would struggle to spread panic in the rival boxes, although they still have Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezman.
Why Benzema was missing in Russia?
You could argue that Benzema wasn’t in Russia to help France win the cup. He wasn’t selected. That was in 2018 when the French midfield was run by virtuosos Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante. They made up for the absence of a genuine striker while Olivier Giroud could not find the target. In the quarterfinal, 19-year-old prodigy Mbappe turned up to score twice against Argentina and share Pele’s record. The rest, as they say, is history.
Four years later, France suffered setbacks even before they arrived in Doha as Pogba and Kante were stricken by injuries. They are also without defender Presnel Kimpembe, goalkeeper Mike Maignan, and striker Christopher Nkunku. Nothing hurt them more than the injury to Benzema, the best footballer in the world.
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Senegal would understand France’s pain after losing Sadio Mane. The 30-year-old Bayern Munich star was named to the Senegalese squad despite picking up an injury in the game again Werder Bremen early this month. More distressing news followed as further scans showed that Mane would require surgery to his lower right leg and won’t be able to play in Qatar.
That’s a body blow to Senegal, the Africa Cup of Nations winners. Mane is a two-time African player of the year and was in the race for the 2022 Ballon d’Or, finishing behind Benzema. That makes him the second-best player in the world.
Coach Aliou Cissé boasts of players with plenty of experience in European leagues to step into the breach, but Mane’s absence will be felt sorely. More so since he’s a big-match player who can soak up pressure. And there’s no pressure like the World Cup.
How Eriksen’s absence spurred Denmark
There are times when the absence of their talismanic player buoys teams. Times when they rise in the face of adversity and produce stunning displays far beyond their capabilities. Denmark are a remarkable example. Their flight to the 2020 Euro semifinals was unexpected, especially after Christian Eriksen’s exit following a cardiac arrest during the match at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen.
Eriksen, Denmark’s best player, has been pulling the strings from the midfield since his international debut at 18. He’s gone on to become his country’s fifth-highest goalscorer besides being named Denmark’s Player of the Year a record five times. That gives us a fair idea of how integral he’s to the plans of Kasper Hjulmand, the manager.
While Eriksen lay in hospital recovering, Denmark took down fancied teams to make the semis. They want to win for Eriksen. The Danes’ dream run without their best player continued before England halted it. It was a clear case of self-belief. The players believed they could win, and Eriksen’s absence spurred them. Eriksen is back in the Denmark midfield to steer their fortunes in Qatar.
Can France and Senegal follow the example of Denmark? The upcoming games will tell us. Heroes are forged in the cauldron of high-octane contests. So, let’s wait and watch.