From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.34 :: NO.20 :: May. 19, 2011
Lionel Messi insists that in fact he played well in the last World Cup though he, from whom goals were so confidently and eagerly expected, did not score at all.
After his two fine goals for Barcelona in that unsavoury match against Real in Madrid, the first a prime example of sheer anticipation, the second a glorious solo, there was no doubt of Lionel Messi's class as the best player in the world. Which led to some speculation of where he stands in the pantheon of great players of the past: such as Pele, Alfredo Di Stefano, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff. Note that two of these were fellow Argentines in the illustrious shape of Di Stefano and Maradona, though Messi himself, though Argentine born, joined Barcelona at the tender age of 13, and thus can be said to owe much to the way they nurtured and developed him at Nou Camp.
I bow to none in my admiration for Messi and his gifts, his speed, thought and movement, his cool head, his courage and originality, but the second goal against Real was a small masterpiece of elusive movement, ball skills and impeccable finishing. Yet one slightly embarrassing fact has to be faced. He, like his team Argentina, could hardly be called a success in last year's World Cup in South Africa. Messi himself will not have that. In an interview after that competition, he observed that he had played well and that if his team had been thrashed 4-0 by Germany to be eliminated from the tournament, that was simply because they had given away such an early goal to Thomas Muller.
Hardly an explanation or a valid excuse. Many an early goal has been conceded in a World Cup finals game, only for the team which suffered to get up from the canvas, so to speak, and go on to win. I remember quite vividly the goal so neatly and coolly scored by Nils Liedholm, that versatile and distinguished Swede, later a successful manager in Italy, in the 1958 World Cup Final against Brazil in Stockholm as he picked his way through the Brazilian defence. Before the game, George Raynor, the ebullient little Yorkshireman who coached Sweden with such success, had told me, “If the Brazilians give away an early goal, they'll panic all over the show.” Well, in a nutshell, they did; and they didn't. Two jaguary bursts by Garrincha, down the right wing, two goals created by Vava, and Sweden were swept aside.
Two of their five goals were majestically scored by that amazing “boy wonder,” the 17-year-old Pele, one after ice cool juggling in the packed penalty area, the other with a superb header. In Mexico City, in 1970, he headed a goal just as spectacular, the Brazilians winning the final against Italy. And I feel bound to say that forever Pele remains the greatest attacking player of all time.
He excelled in two World Cups, 1958 and 1970, though of course he was injured in those of 1962 in Chile and 1966 in England. What could he not do? A stupendous ball player, a tremendous right-footed player of acrobatic brilliance, yet adept and generous in the chances that he made for other players; most notably perhaps in the World Cup Final of 1970 in Mexico City when his inspired diagonal passes sent first Jairzinho then Carlos Alberto streaking in from the right to score.
Messi insists that in fact he played well in the last World Cup though he, from whom goals were so confidently and eagerly expected, did not score at all. Though, in partial mitigation, he did, as he himself emphasises, on occasions hit the post and was thwarted by the keepers' saves.
In passing, it might be relevant to turn to another sports, athletics, and the fate of a once celebrated Australian middle-distance runner, Ron Clarke. Time and again between Olympiads, he set new records, but each time when it came to the Olympics themselves ever the apex of potential success, he failed. This because he, alas, did not possess the essential finishing “kick”.
The embodiment of Total Footballer, long before it was actually invented, was surely Alfredo Di Stefano, for me second only to Pele, the greatest player of all time. He'd always say that his astounding stamina, for he played box to box, was built up running through the streets of his native Buenos Aires. Forsaking that city and his club River Plate, for more money in Colombia, he departed Bogota when Colombia came back into FIFA and the money dried up.
So to Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona both wanted him, and Barca inexplicably and so expensively let Real keep him. He inspired them to win the first ever European Cups. Taking Spanish nationality, he was actually picked by Spain for the 1970 World Cup, but he didn't play. Supposedly, injured, there were those who believed he was not prepared to perform under the managerial aegis of that other immense ego, Helenio Herrera.
That other Argentine, Diego Maradona, played in three World Cups and excelled in Mexico in 1986 when he scored two astounding goals in the Azteca Stadium against England (not to mention his Hand of God goal) and Belgium. Altogether a more volatile, demanding and generally influential figure than Messi. Ebullient again despite a painful ankle in the Italy World Cup of 1990, ejected from the USA tournament of 1994 for using epherdrine.
George Best is another star who never played in the World Cup, Northern Ireland, in his day, never qualifying. Yet what a compendium of scintillating talents, technically supreme, hugely versatile — he played as a winger but, almost impatiently moved nearer the middle — despite, like Pele, a relatively small stature.
Johan Cruyff, joint “inventor” of Total Football with Franz Beckerbauer had a glorious 1974 World Cup as the fulcrum of the Dutch team till it came to the anticlimax of the Munich Final, and lost to West Germany when it surely could and should have been won. Such players overshadowed even Messi, for all his undoubted virtuosity.
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