Sports fans have a nasty habit, sometimes, of assuming they know better than they actually do.
We know, for example, that as a soccer player gets older he declines athletically. He's no longer as quick, as strong, or as agile. His endurance decreases markedly and he finds it harder and harder to keep himself in shape. His vulnerability to injury increases markedly. When a player, particularly a sparkplug known for his energy and his high intensity, is in his mid-thirties that means it's time to find a new player. For national teams the situation is even more awkward, since meaningful games come about so infrequently. Even if the 34-year-old is better than the 24-year-old, it might be better to play the younger man simply because the 34-year-old won't be around when you need him.
It's a theory that's usually, but not invariably, true. But we adhere to it as dogma, meaning that when an older player is contributing at a higher level than his peers and showing no signs of slowing down we write him off just because he's an older player. We may have no young talent which can replicate his skillset, nobody realistically capable of challenging the role he could play for us. He may be playing in a strong professional league; one stronger than those we routinely rely on for our talent. He may be one of the finest players in our history and have been our best player in a tournament as recently as two years ago. He may have been our man of the match in a friendly just last year. Irrelevant. He's old and he must therefore be forgotten.
I say, forget the dogma. Tomasz Radzinski may be thirty-six years old, and will turn thirty-seven before Canada plays its next match. But we have the CONCACAF Gold Cup coming up, and World Cup qualifying not long after. On merit, he deserves to be here. And he sure isn't playing like he's an old man. It's not for us to tell Tomasz when he's done being an elite player, it's up to Tomasz to tell us. And right now, Tomasz Radzinski is more than good enough to help the Canadian men's national team.
I've discussed Tomasz Radzinski's history in considerable length before. But this isn't meant to be a nostalgia trip, a "call Tomasz Radzinski up because he used to be good." I say, call Tomasz Radzinski up because he still is.
In three of the last four matches he played for his country, Tomasz Radzinski was the best player on the pitch. Two of those matches came an eternity ago in 2008, when Radzinski nearly got Canada back into the ill-fated Honduras game in Montreal all by himself before crashing into an advertising hoarding and going off injured, and when the great Radz put what we all assumed was the last great performance of his career against Mexico in front of a small but raucous Edmonton crowd. The third took place in November 2009 (not so long ago, eh?), when Radzinski got called up to play Canada's first ever match in his native Poland and played his heart out in a losing cause.
A 36-year-old Radzinski was not only capable of contributing to the Canadian national team, but being its most integral player. That's not all that recommends him, though. At the time of that Poland friendly, Radzinski was playing with Lierse S.K. in the Belgian second division; not exactly an international-calibre league. Today, Radzinski is still with Lierse, but thanks in no small part to his heroics they have attained promotion to the Belgian Pro League. Playing in what UEFA considers the thirteenth-best league in Europe, Radzinski is tied for his team's scoring lead and a major part of the reason Lierse is currently in a position to escape relegation. By the way, he's thirty-fucking-seven years old. Radzinski is playing at as high a level as any Canadian striker anywhere in the world: he and Josh Simpson are the only Canadian strikers getting regular minutes in a world-class first division. Not only is he playing, but he's scoring goals, setting up his teammates, and keeping a poor team alive during its first season in the first division.
As we are told again and again, Canada hasn't exactly got striking talent to spare, either. This team has recently called up the likes of Marcus Haber, who had one good year in the old USL First Division and has spent every minute since then crapping all over his own career. Olivier Occean got a start in our last friendly, and God love him but this is his first decent season in a few years and it's in the German third division. I've said everything that can be said about how useless Rob Friend is for Canada, but, well, he is. Will Johnson has shown flashes on the wing but is clearly more comfortable in a central role. Only Simeon Jackson and Josh Simpson have gotten the call for Canada as strikers or wingers and looked like they deserved it, and Jackson's form has been pretty erratic. There's obviously room in this national setup for somebody who can both score and distribute like Radzinski can. Arguing that Radzinski hasn't played well enough to earn a callup but that, say, Stephen Ademolu (who got three caps this year despite barely bulging the onion bag in the Lithuanian league) has is borderline insane.
Not only is his form good enough to deserve a call, but he brings the skills this team currently needs. Of late, Stephen Hart has run a 4-3-2-1 formation, with two wing players (usually Simeon Jackson and Josh Simpson) trying to get the ball into a central forward (usually, god help us, Rob Friend). Simpson has been good enough on the wing that Hart couldn't take him out of the starting eleven with a crowbar. But Jackson has looked far less comfortable. He's a very efficient finisher of the ball, pretty athletic, and has very nice feet. But both Norwich and Gillingham have used him as a full striker in a 4-4-2, and there's a very good reason for that. Simeon Jackson, for all his many gifts, simply cannot cross the ball. I am not sure he has ever made a good cross in his like. He's a striker, he's a goal poacher, he's our best finisher, but in no sense is he a winger. The only argument for not playing him as the lone striker is that he's too short to be an aerial threat, but apart from Kevin McKenna does Canada have any aerial threats anyway?
Apart from Simpson, Canada's best options on the wing are Will Johnson and Issey Nakajima-Farran. Johnson, in particular, wastes a lot of his good ball distribution skills on the wing and is better in the middle; Nakajima-Farran has many of the same issues as Jackson. Then we're down to the likes of Gavin McCallum, whose uniform is actually a big neon sign that says "IF YOU'RE PLAYING ME, YOU'RE NOT GOING TO WIN". Do you really not see room for Radzinski in there? Even if you don't think he can go ninety minutes anymore (he does in Belgium so I can't imagine why you'd say that, but let's pretend), I'd much rather the team started Johnson, Jackson, and Simpson up front with Radzinski available as an impact substitute than any other combination I can imagine. Down a goal at San Pedro Sula, you'd rather have Danish disappointment Nakajima-Farran in your corner than Tomasz Radzinski?
I can hear the one last ultimate on your lips now. "Stephen Hart has said that he's concentrating on players who can contribute in 2014, and as you've so astutely observed Tomasz Radzinski is old. Just because he can play now doesn't mean he'll be able to play in 2014."
Well, first off, Stephen Hart keeps starting Paul Stalteri so obviously every rule has exceptions. Second, if those players who can contribute in 2014 are going to do us any good we should probably make sure we qualify for the 2014 World Cup first, and that means calling up the best players for today in key matches, not the best players for tomorrow. Finally, which brilliant young Canadian would you imagine we'd be dropping so old man Radzinski could get his minutes?
Hey, remember Olivier Occean, who we were all so glad to see again in the Ukraine friendly? "Here's a guy who deserves another chance to help us into the 2014 World Cup!" Yeah, he just turned twenty-nine. Rob Friend turns thirty in January. Issey Nakajima-Farran, who has been a "promising young player" forever and has a hatedom in Denmark that makes my feelings for Rob Friend look like mild affection, is still twenty-six. Even Julian Uccello is twenty-four. The only guys who'll be under twenty-eight in the 2014 World Cup with any chance of playing a key role in our attack are Simeon Jackson, Will Johnson, and Junior Hoilett, and I'm definitely not suggesting we drop any of them (or turn down Junior if he starts answering our calls).
The young Canadians at risk if Radzinski gets called up are Uccello, who barely plays in Serie B and anyway isn't that young, and Haber, who was both the worst striker in Vancouver last season (and I can assure you that was a very competitive category) as well as a mild disappointment on loan in Scotland. Even if Haber does turn it around with St. Johnstone and earn callups, there's probably still room for both him and Radzinski on the national team. It's not the young Turks like Haber who'd be at risk, but the likes of Gianluca Zavarise, Stephen Ademolu, and Massih Wassey who we've been using as warm bodies. Canada, you may have noticed, isn't exactly crazy with depth right now.
If Canada called up an attacking six-pack of Jackson, Simpson, Radzinski, De Rosario, Haber, and Occean, with Johnson and Nakajima-Farran joining Hutchinson and de Guzman in central midfield, that would be a brilliant combination of promising youth, veteran savvy, strikers who can actually score, and wingers who can actually play the wing. Drop Radzinski and replace him with... well, anyone in the national pool... and you immediately lose flexibility. You're definitely playing one of Jackson, Johnson, or Nakajima-Farran out of their best position. You're relying on Simpson to carry an awful lot of the mail, because you know that your other winger will either have a very limited bag of tricks or be Dwayne De Rosario and start trying to beat all eleven players by himself. You wind up with the same Canadian attack we've seen in their last three matches: good transition play down whatever side Simpson is on, the other side only getting chances on defensive miscues or brilliant individual efforts, and a lone striker who's isolated because defenses know his service can only come from a limited selection of players. There's enough skill in Simpson and the central midfield for this to probably work against the likes of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, but it gets awfully risky against the Hondurases and Costa Ricas of the world, and against Mexico it would take something special for us to have a chance.