Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale and Robert Lewandowski have the weight of their nations on their shoulders.
If the 2014 World Cup taught us anything, it was not to get too hung up on one player. The emotional breakdown that Brazil suffered because Neymar was not able to play in the semifinal against Germany was a significant factor in the shocking 7-1 defeat.
Critics who attack award ceremonies like the Ballon d’Or bemoan the "individualization" of football, but the sight of one player dominating a team will be quite common in at Euro 2016 in France this summer. The hopes of Wales and Portugal lie mainly at the feet of Real Madrid teammates Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively, and their coaches wouldn't have it any other way.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos, asked if he ever got worried that Ronaldo might have a repeat of the injury that destabilized his–and Portugal’s–campaign at the last World Cup, deadpanned his response to SI.com: “I want all my players to stay fit.”
Wales coach Chris Coleman may have a different answer.
“He is our best player and if your best players are not having you as a manager, you’re dead in the water,” he told Chris Wathan, author of the excellent story of Wales's first major tournament qualification since 1958, Together Stronger. “He knows he’s the king and I think he likes it, and enjoys what is needed from him. He doesn’t abuse it, but he thrives on it. He knows we can’t get where we want to be without him being who he is. I think he likes that feeling and accepts that responsibility. He’s not weighed down by it, he’s lifted by it.”
Bale scored seven goals out of Wales’s 11 in qualifying, an incredible 63% of the team’s total. The top scorer in qualifying was Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, but his 13 goals (six of which were against Gibraltar) out of 33 made up 39% of the total. The table below shows the impact of the key "one-man teams" that have made it to France.
Lewandowski’s impact on Poland is huge, not least as his dangerous presence allows teammate Arkadiusz Milik a little more space around the area. Lewandowski is also the captain and his close relationship with coach Adam Nawalka has filtered down to the players, where there is a more collaborative atmosphere than in the past.
The trend for the "one-man team" is not always positive.
One Swedish commentator, Gunnar Persson, has bemoaned the "Zlatanization" of the Sweden team and claimed that the legacy he will leave the team on his retirement will be a negative one.
“Ibrahimovic will be 35 this year but still has not developed a tactical understanding of the game,” Persson said. “One of the problems with him playing for Sweden is that nobody ever knows how he will play. Sometimes he is a big target player, sometimes he drops back to collect the ball and then, a couple of moves later, he realizes he has nobody to pass the ball to but himself.
“His dominance on football in Sweden has had an interesting impact on the next generation of players and coaches. There is now an unfortunate emphasis on individual skills while positional sense, covering for teammates is a lost art. Senior team coaches now deal with a supply of young players who are basically ball-jugglers, narcissistic in their approach to the game and alien to basic concepts of teamwork. Like Ibrahimovic, (Erkan) Zengin and (Jimmy) Durmaz … regard the ball as a private possession… and traditional strengths like defensive teamwork and organization have suffered.”
Former Real Madrid, PSG, Chelsea and AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti has managed Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Bale. Writing in his Daily Telegraph column, he has the opposite view.
“I can tell you now that when you have players of that quality on the pitch there is no question that you have a major chance,” he said.
So what will it be? Will Bale or Ronaldo drag their teams to glory? Will another rely on the genius of one or two players to make an impact? Recent international tournaments have rewarded the best teams, but that doesn't mean it will happen again. Though one wonders what Persson's reaction would be if Ibrahimovic goes out with a bang.