x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The glory of the pass masters should be celebrated

The assistant should be as feted as the finisher, as this is where the genius often lies, writes Osman Samiuddin.

A pass from Carlos Tevez, centre, set Samir Nasri up to score Manchester City’s winner against Chelsea last week in the Premier League.
A pass from Carlos Tevez, centre, set Samir Nasri up to score Manchester City’s winner against Chelsea last week in the Premier League.

Many times more than we imagine the process of creation far exceeds - in the joy it brings us - the creation itself.

Last Wednesday, the passing blur that is the English Premier League, briefly paused to pay its dues to this truth. It came from the returningfeet of Carlos Tevez, who set up Samir Nasri's winner for Manchester City against Chelsea, though that is merely an inadequate, unadorned statement of fact.

What Tevez actually did wasn't so much as pass as turn darkness into light. One second, as the ball came to him, back to goal, too many defenders around, there was nothing.

The next, he had turned partially, had not looked up since receiving the ball, yet sensed precisely the angle and speed at which Nasri was running in just behind and beyond him to dink such a ball through that suddenly, beautifully, there was everything. He made four men in a straight line no more than a few yards apart, abysmally redundant.

In the finest assists, like this one, an implicit arrogance is presumed. The glory may be yours, the passer says, but the genius is mine because without it there would be nothing. With some, the arrogance is regal.

Remember Pele's lay-off for Carlos Alberto's final goal in the 1970 World Cup final? As the ball is played to Pele from the left, he is maybe 10 yards outside the box. He considers briefly going past the defender himself - and we know he can - before, as he casually decides instead to roll out not a pass but an invitation into what is empty space diagonally ahead to his right, but is actually to become the terrain of a rampaging Alberto.

The arrogance isn't always as obvious. Some of the best assists from Xavi and Dennis Bergkamp, for example, become little secrets with those watching: he scored it, but between you and me, we know who really did it, don't we? Like spin doctors, they revel in unseen power.

Often an assist hinges on the principles behind the old, solid con-job which requires a distraction to be created while the robbery goes on elsewhere.

In a second-round game at Italia '90, for example, three Brazilians failed to stop a Diego Maradona surge from just inside his half. His legend lured four more into encircling him near their own area. Darting free right across them, seen yet unnoticed by hypnotised defenders, was Claudio Caniggia who was duly found by Maradona and who duly delivered the game's winner.

Roberto Mancini was moved to call Tevez's pass incredible, but football doesn't fetishise the assist nearly as much as it should, rewarding goalscoring more eagerly. The statistics for assists feel not only like an afterthought but an entirely inadequate attempt to encapsulate an art through numbers.

It shouldn't be impossible.

Basketball manages adroitly to do both, valuing and measuring assists quantitatively and celebrating them qualitatively. Where better, for instance, is the act of the assist itself gloried in and revered as much as the NBA, where truly it is an art form and the ability to do so imaginatively and consistently treated as such?

There it is recognised that the very best, such as Magic Johnson, Steve Nash, John Stockton and Jason Kidd, haven't just set up points. They have, even if fleetingly over a few seconds, repeatedly changed the way we look at a field of play. Their plays transform the shape and dimension of their domain, which is said often in football but feels more impressive inside the smaller, more cramped and indoor space of a basketball court.

And because they've always appreciated the basic substance of the assist, they've attached tremendous style to it over the years. Now we enjoy the slickness of the no-look pass, a behind-the-back switch, the bounce pass through the legs (basketball's nutmeg) and much else.

But the grandest of all basketball assists, a personal favourite, is the pass (or presumably the "alley" if the "oop" is the slam dunk that is the conclusion of the pass) for the alley-oop.

The skill, vision and wit needed to coincide the (usually long-distance) pass with the recipient's leap so that he can catch and dunk in one flow is glittering proof that the man behind the man who scores is really the Man.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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