From the many profound changes the sport of football has undergone over the past three decades, perhaps the most transformative for fans has been the information revolution.
Nowadays very little about the game is hidden from view – and especially its players. Matches from all over the world can be viewed at the press of a button, scouting networks are hugely sophisticated, computer management games log talent from the most obscure leagues down to schoolboy level and through the media we are bombarded with information about transfer targets and endless lists of the best up and coming youngsters.
This information overload is broadly a good thing: fans can define the terms of their own engagement knowing that anything and everything they might wish to find is out there. Knowledge is power. There’s something of a downside too however: the modern fan rarely encounters any great sense of surprise when thrilling footballers burst onto the scene, because virtually every aspect of every footballer has been flagged and analysed from so early a stage in his career.
This is why there’s been such a pleasingly retro throwback feel to Monaco’s French title win this season. A wonderful young team just appeared to emerge from the ether and we all could take great pleasure from discovering a set of players who were unknown to all but seasoned watchers of the French game.
Through their fine Champions League run we have been privileged to watch the flowering of precocious first-season breakthrough youngsters in full-back Benjamin Mendy, midfielders Tiemoué Bakayoko and Thomas Lemar and the explosive forward Kylian Mbappé.
Then there have been the more experienced players like Fabinho, Jemerson, Bernardo Silva and Djibril Sidibé who had played broadly under the radar until a very public explosion into public consciousness this year. The more traditional star names of the team in Falcao and João Moutinho have almost felt incidental to Monaco’s success.
The thrill of encountering a previously unknown team that arrives on the scene fully-formed used to be a common emotion for football fans, most notably with sides from behind the Iron Curtain in the days before the fall of communism. Even the most intrepid of football reporters had scant knowledge of what was going on in the eastern European football nations, so it was typically only in the World Cup, the European Championship and through sketchy European competition highlights that football fans had the opportunity to see these teams and their mystery players in action.
A good example of this phenomena was the incredible Dynamo Kiev side that doubled as the Soviet Union national team in the second-half of the 1980s. In its club form this team won the 1986 Cup Winners Cup at a stroll, but it was at the World Cup later that same summer the broader football world was exposed to this exceptional footballing team for the first time: Kuzentsov, Bessonov, Zavarov, Belanov, Rats, Yaremchuk, Demienenko – who were these men and how did they get to be so good at football? A big part of the joy was the surprise of the new.
When Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi offer us up another magical footballing nugget we applaud, but we’re so used to their brilliance that it feels almost passé. When Monaco’s Bernardo Silva was ghosting past an entire Manchester City midfield in this season’s Champions League, well, it felt fresh and exciting. This was a talented player with a fine career ahead of him – and we were getting in on the ground floor with our appreciation of him and his gifted teammates.