Tradition and the individual talent
There’s more to judging players than goals and medals, writes Jacob Steinberg.
Strip away the tactics, chalkboards and diagrams and football is essentially about nothing more than goals. Yet while goals ultimately win matches, they cannot decide a debate; they can inform it, colour it, sway it, but they cannot settle it for good. A popular but overly simplistic line of thought dictates that goals equal success and no goals equal failure. This is a flawed idea, not that anyone has told Andy Gray apparently, judging by his recent assertion that Wesley Sneijder, who scored five goals for Holland, had a great World Cup, while Lionel Messi, who scored none for Argentina, failed to impress.
Leaving aside the fact that one of Sneijder’s goals in the quarter-final against Brazil should have been awarded as an own-goal by Felipe Melo, he was regularly a drab presence, often ponderous and surprisingly mundane. Certainly he was the driving force behind Inter’s domestic treble in 2010, yet his performances for Holland left something to be desired. The goals merely masked the inherent failings, yet had Holland beaten Spain in the final, Sneijder’s year would have been one of unrelenting and almost unprecedented success. Just as such an achievement would have been used to elevate Sneijder, so it would have been used to denigrate Messi.
Before the World Cup, in a year in which Messi had once again dazzled for Barcelona, it was demanded that led Argentina to victory in South Africa to truly rubber-stamp his greatness. Then, once the inevitable occurred, and a fragmented Argentina side, shorn of tactical fortitude by Diego Maradona’s bumbling management, were summarily beaten 4-0 by Germany in a one-sided quarter-final, Messi was castigated. Oh he’s good, his critics would smugly say, but where was he at the World Cup? What rubbish. The notion that one player is responsible for a side’s achievements is insulting both to the individual and to his team-mates; a team wins together and a team loses together. Individuality rarely gets its reward. In international football, it tends to be the team with the most lucid tactical vision that triumphs.
In an article for The Times in April 2010, Patrick Barclay argued that the World Cup would elevate one of Messi and Wayne Rooney above the other. “The very greatest players were all team players,” he wrote. “Messi is one and it is also the special quality about Wayne Rooney – and the reason England could win the World Cup. If they do, Rooney will be universally recognised as great… the Englishman will have eclipsed Messi.” Is this really true though? Does one player’s achievement automatically lift him above another’s? Is this stance not rather arbitrary? And had Messi not already eclipsed Rooney by sparkling for Barcelona against Manchester United in the Champions League final in 2009? In that case, where does this all end? It seems a futile exercise, like a Formula One race with no finish line. Anyway a lot of time has passed since that article, in which neither did manage to eclipse the other in South Africa. Rooney’s flop was more eye-catching than Messi’s, but again we are confronted by the philosophy which places oneness above the group.
To further extrapolate this viewpoint, who was the stand-out performer for Spain, the eventual champions? Was it David Villa for the five goals that took Spain to the final? Or perhaps it was Xavi, the creative hub in midfield. Others will point to Andres Iniesta for the extra-time strike that accounted for Holland in the final. Others to Gerard Pique and Carlos Puyol for marshalling a defence that did not concede a single goal during the knock-out stages. Maybe, just maybe, Iker Casillas should take the plaudits for the crucial save that stopped Arjen Robben from giving Holland the lead in the final. And there we have it - because every Spanish player stood out, none of them did. Everyone performed to their maximum potential – at vital moments too – so Spain won the World Cup. There was no overwhelming pressure heaped on the shoulders of one player. Instead Spain had a unified team. This is simple logic, and demonstrates why criticism of Messi is so misguided.
On paper, Argentina had a superb side – as long as you ignored the gaping holes in the defence and midfield, of course, or you happened to be playing a game of Pro Evolution Soccer on your PlayStation. With forwards such as Carlos Tevez, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria joining Messi, Argentina looked ominous, but in reality they resembled a sheep in wolves’ clothing. In their first group game against Nigeria, Maradona picked Jonas Gutierrez at right-back, a player who had spent the previous year playing as a left winger for Newcastle in the Championship. Walter Samuel, in central defence, had won the Champions League with Inter, but picked up an injury in the second game against South Korea. He was paired by the disastrous Martin Demichelis, while Gabriel Heinze, who had long shot his bolt, was at left-back. It was the creakiest of defences and although Argentina ultimately won 1-0, they were somewhat lucky to keep a clean sheet.
Messi was excellent too, bringing his Barcelona form to the national side. Sean Ingle, for the Observer, wrote that his “incisions into Nigeria’s half were as sharp and as deep as an executioner’s blade” while he was only denied a hatful of goals by the excellence of Victor Enyeama in the Nigeria goal. That would prove to be a theme for Messi throughout the group stages – it is no exaggeration to note that he could have wrapped up the Golden Boot within the first three games of the tournament, only for the woodwork, fine saves and uncharacteristic inaccuracy to frustrate him.
It may be pointed out that was his own damn fault, but something strange was going on here – after all, Messi scored 58 goals in 53 games for Barcelona in 2010, so it is doubtful anyone genuinely believes piercing the likes of Nigeria, South Korea and Greece was beyond him. He was a provider too – in the opening minutes against Nigeria, he embarked on one of those sashaying runs that he ought to trademark, which ended with Higuain somehow missing from three yards out. Such were the margins of success for Messi during the summer, yet moments such as this are too easily ignored to suit those who wish to put him down.
For all Argentina’s brilliant attacking play though, their defence was regularly embarrassed. South Korea, who they beat 4-1, were gifted a goal and missed a clear chance to make it 2-2 in the second half. In the second round, until Messi set up Tevez for the opening goal, Mexico had them on the ropes. Then came the quarter-final with Germany. Argentina were blown away, unable to deal with a properly coached team unflustered by the dazzling array of forwards lining up against them. After all, they had their own dazzling forwards, backed up by an accomplished defence and a cohesive midfield. Argentina were like the complacent genius at school who assumed he did not have to do any revision and ended up failing his exams in spectacular style. A gleeful Germany ran riot. Messi struggled too, but the expectation that he could flourish by picking the ball up in deep positions and taking on Germany by himself was erroneous. It was playground football at its worst.
Even so, it was just one game. Everyone is capable of an off day, and Messi has hardly made a habit of enduring them. The overriding suspicion, too, is that Messi’s miniscule impact on the international stage lacks overall relevance. It used to be that a player’s legacy was defined by his performances at a World Cup, but with international football declining in quality at an alarming rate – Spain realistically had no real challengers – club exploits carry a far more lucrative currency. Sir Alex Ferguson compared watching the last World Cup to a trip to the dentist. Arsene Wenger has called international football a thing of the past. Messi does not need to win a World Cup to emulate Maradona, he needs to keep on winning Champions Leagues with Barcelona. Aged 24, he already has three to his name, and could well win a fourth this season.
No doubt he will be unfavourably compared to Zinedine Zidane, perhaps the greatest player of the last 20 years. Zidane, of course, is seen as the inspiration behind France winning the 1998 World Cup, which is slightly misleading. Until the final against Brazil, Zidane had done little apart from earn himself a red card for violent conduct during a meaningless group game with Saudi Arabia, rendering him unavailable for France’s first two knock-out games against Paraguay and Italy. In the semi-final against Croatia, France were rescued from defeat by two solo goals from Lilian Thuram, the unlikeliest of sources, meaning it was not until the final that Zidane emerged. Even then, the manner of his success was prosaic, two headed goals from Emmanuel Petit’s corners late in the first half. It was more reminiscent of Tim Cahill than of Michel Platini. Unlike a club career, one game can change the narrative arc for ever.
Zidane was undoubtedly a sublime player, elegance personified, but just as people might cast aspersions over Messi’s international career, the same dictum can be applied to Zidane at club level. He was a relative unknown at Bordeaux until he joined Juventus at the age of 24 – Messi is only just 24 and has already won three Champions Leagues and five La Liga titles with Barcelona. Since he was 18, Messi has been recognised as one of the pre-eminent players in the world, and ripped Real Madrid and Chelsea to shreds in his break-out season of 2005-06.
When Zidane went to Juventus in 1996, they were regarded as the finest side in Europe, but he did not win one Champions League there. They reached the final in 1997 and 1998 but lost to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively. Against the former, he was marked out of the game by Paul Lambert. He did score the brilliant volley against Bayer Leverkusen that secured the Champions League for Real Madrid in 2002, but for the most part during his five years in Spain, he coasted along on his reputation. Ronaldinho is open to similar charges, given that he only resided at the top of his game for three years. His fellow Brazilian, Ronaldo, is the all-time leading scorer in the World Cup with 15 goals. At his peak, he was a phenomenon, one of the deadliest strikers in the history of the game, but even his success was restricted to the international stage. At club level, his record is unflattering and the furthest he ever got in the Champions League was a semi-final in 2003 which Real Madrid lost to Juventus. None of this, of course, lessens the achievements of these three players; it is intended only to demonstrate that the logic used to detract from Messi’s pedigree can be applied to them too.
The consistency, therefore, of Messi’s excellence from such a young age should not be sniffed at. Domestic and European trophies are there to be won every year, never-ending and imposing tests for a side; a World Cup comes along every four years and is susceptible to too many variables for it to be used as a reliable judge of a career.
Injuries, for example, can stop a player from hitting the heights at a World Cup, especially as it is only four weeks long. If a player pulls a hamstring during the season, he may miss a month, but it will not be disastrous, whereas a similar strain before an international tournament can have catastrophic consequences. In 2006, Messi was not fully fit and played little part for Argentina in Germany. Plenty of players can tell similar tales. Spain’s Fernando Torres was labelled a flop in South Africa, but aches and strains picked up playing for Liverpool had robbed him of his sharpness. International teams also find themselves at the mercy of their manager, as Argentina discovered in 2006. During their quarter-final with Germany, they were ahead and in control, right up until the point that Jose Pekerman lost his nerve and withdrew his team’s playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme. Reprieved, Germany came roaring back and won on penalties. Furthermore an error by a referee, an errant red card perhaps, could alter a game’s destination. In a straight knock-out match, there is no recovery from that. It might be a moot point now given what occurred afterwards, but what might England’s fate have been last summer had Frank Lampard’s ghost goal against Germany been awarded with the score at 2-1?
Plenty of fantastic players have gone without winning a World Cup – Johan Cruyff, Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano come to mind – while plenty of lesser artists have. Some players will never make it to a World Cup only because of where they hail from, such as Ryan Giggs or George Best, and only a contrarian would question their place in history. An international side has little wriggle room. Even the geniuses find themselves dependent on the whims of less skilled colleagues, and unlike a club side, an international manager is restricted from dipping into the transfer market to improve his side.
Perhaps if Messi had played in the seventies or eighties, when the World Cup reigned supreme, the argument would be more compelling. Times change. It was said that the only man who could stop Messi being greater than Maradona was Maradona himself. Maybe 20 years ago. Not now. Maradona’s deeds at the 1986 World Cup were remarkable, but no more remarkable than Messi’s for Barcelona and vice-versa. Different doesn’t necessarily mean worse. Sometimes it just means different.