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An Absurd Threshold for Greatness

No Time to Miss Messi…

by HARRY BROWNE

I was already shedding a tear for Lionel Messi as he placed the ball for that 123rd minute free-kick. Thirty yards out, tricky angle, Manuel Neuer in goal: there was no way in the world he would score. And yet in the cruel and ridiculous calculus of these things, Messi’s hopes of being remembered as a great player in the Pelé-Maradona bracket seemed to rest on the dream of one miraculous shot, some combination of blast and swerve that would leave his immortal left foot to find a corner of the net, and give Argentina the chance to win the World Cup in a penalty-kicks lottery.

Fat chance. He hit the free-kick of a tired, beaten player, a miss whose proportions were less tragedy than farce, an effort that handily maintained his team’s record of not getting a single shot on target for the long duration of this final  Within a few minutes the twittersphere was all a-sneer at the dodgy FIFA politics of Messi being awarded the Golden Ball as best  player of the tournament. After all, what had he done at this World Cup, other than provide the decisive moment in every single one of his team’s victories en route to the final, three times goals, twice passes?

The temptation, for fans like me, was to go find some Messi highlights on YouTube (how about Barcelona’s 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid in 2010?) or maybe some insane number-crunching  to remind ourselves of the unassailable dimensions of Messi’s greatness. Some of that, unfortunately, served to remind us of the great players who have surrounded Messi at his club, diminutive giants such as Xavi and Iniesta upon whose shoulders Messi has danced. Playing for Argentina he has been shorn of such company as surely as he’s shorn of the shaggy haircut of his greatest seasons.

Some of the trimming he has done himself: he doesn’t like Carlos Tevez in the team, so that glorious attacker didn’t even make the Argentina squad. Injuries cost him the company of Angel Di Maria and a fully fit Sergio Aguero. One can only wonder what has become of the once-deadly striker Gonzalo Higuaín. Messi’s teammates in the final were an admirable, determined bunch, but their tactical narrowness (especially after Lavezzi was subbed-off at halftime) literally played intoGermany’s strongest area of the field, and their quality was a notch or two below what Messi was long accustomed to.

There was a moment late in the final when the dogged midfielder Lucas Biglia had a chance to either smash a long-range shot or slip a little pass to Messi, who had an unusual few yards of space around him. Biglia, wisely and unsurprisingly, took the Messi option, but ballooned the short pass over Messi’s head. The little man sprinted after the ball, but it was gone, and so was a moment that in this game didn’t even register as an opening. With a better passer, it might well have ended with a goal. (Yes, Messi got a mighty good pass earlier in the game that he failed to convert in his familiar fashion, so clearly this was a diminished genius.)

The worst of it is that Messi should have won the World Cup eight years ago at just 19 years old, and sailed through the rest of his glorious career without that absurd greatness-threshold set just beyond his stride. In 2006 Messi had better teammates, a better manager (Jose Pekerman, who had rebuilt Argentine youth football), a nicer style of play around him and a less pressured, less powerful place in the team. He was so powerless, in fact, that Pekerman left him on the bench in the crucial quarterfinal, when they went out to Germany on penalties. (It didn’t help that Pekerman had to switch goalkeepers in the 71st minute after Miroslav Klose kneed Roberto Abbondanzieri out of the game.) In the last eight years Argentine football has regressed while it looked to Messi for redemption: after two decades when ‘new Maradona’ contenders were a dime a dozen, there is no sign of a new Messi — unless you count the tiny eight-year-old whose freakish video briefly swept around the world last year. The old Messi will still be young enough to contend for honours in Russia 2018, but he may have a weaker side, and the transformation of Barcelona from a team into a circus act, with a front-three of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, doesn’t bode well for his future.

Germany, as we noted here last week, are a team. And that team’s name is Bayern Munich. Once Mario Götze, a nice middle-class boy born in a united Germany, came on as a substitute for Klose in the final, that made a lucky seven Bayern players on the pitch for Germany. Or rather, luck has nothing to do with it. Bayern is by some distance the pinnacle of an extremely professional and well-resourced system of coaching and developing young footballers. Moreover, it is, like other German clubs, majority-owned by its fans, and you can get a season-ticket there for less than $200. No surprise when Götze got the great winning goal, reminiscent of Iniesta’s winner in 2010, and the players could line up for their selfies with Angela Merkel.

All is far from entirely hunky-dory at Bayern: the club’s former president, Uli Hoeness, watched the World Cup final in his prison cell, where he is serving a sentence for tax evasion — a shame that didn’t stop Bastian Schweinsteiger from giving Hoeness a shout-out in a post-match interview. And the club is hated as much as loved throughout Germany for its unparalleled, fan-based wealth, which allows it (usually) to dominate domestic competitions and lure the top players from other clubs.

Still, you don’t have to love Bayern-Germany to recognise that they’re doing something right: this is the first time since Argentina won in 1978 that most of the key players in a World-Cup-winning team have not come from clubs in the Spanish and/or Italian leagues. Even the best West German players in 1990 were scattered southwards. But now this German team is largely based in Germany.

Bayern-Germany’s best player in the final, defender Jérôme Boateng, could have played for Ghana, like his half-brother Kevin Prince — whose World Cup ended in suspension after a fight with his manager, amidst the controversy over the Ghana players’ bonuses. (It is interesting to note that FIFA suspended the Nigerian FA from all football activity after Nigeria’s government tried to make personnel changes in the association, but there was no problem with Ghana’s government coughing up the cash to keep its country’s team playing in the tournament.) One imagines the younger Boateng is happy he stuck with the rich, eminently organised country of his (Berlin) birth rather than the poor and chaotic country of his father: he’ll have a World-Cup-winner’s medal in his pocket, once he gets Lionel Messi out of there.*

Few European countries and no countries elsewhere can possibly hope to emulate what Bayern-Germany have done. That won’t stop some South Americans from saying they should try: in 2010, indeed, Argentina’s manager Diego Maradona tried to build his team on talent drawn as much from a couple of top domestic clubs as from Europe. The Brazilian league is richer than it has ever been: it was remarkable that Neymar stayed at Santos, on what were often called ‘European-level’ wages, until he was 21, and some people were surprised he didn’t stay a year longer. But the truth is that the top players will cross the Atlantic. Colombia, for example, has two of its better players, Juan Quintero and Jackson Martinez, at the moderately rich Portuguese club Porto, while the two best, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, are at super-rich Monaco in the French league. The best hope is probably that a core of four or five national players will gather at a single European club and stay there for a couple of seasons before the next World Cup, but even that is a remote and romantic ambition in the chaotic, money-mad world of football.

How remote and romantic seems the ambition we expressed here five weeks ago, of a glorious tournament for Brazil’s footballers and its protesters alike. As Brazil’s poor were subject to virtual police occupation of their neighbourhoods, would-be rebels were kept, violently and otherwise, off the streets and our screens. Some interesting arguments have been sent my way over recent weeks about the politics of Brazilian protests, and certainly the anti-government sentiment that was audible in the stadia — the booing at the final of president Dilma Rousseff, for example — was politically suspect, given the rich white Brazilians (and Argentines!) who were doing it. Nonetheless, the protests, such as they were, have drawn attention to the costly corruption and injustice of the imperial FIFA fiefdom, and they remain relevant as the IOC version rolls into Rio for the 2016 Olympics.

That will be fascinating to watch and support, but my own obsession remains with the politics of the game of football itself. There is, for example, the politics of the European club competitions, which seek to ensure that the largest number of clubs from the richest leagues and TV markets are contesting matches through the profitable winter evenings. One result is that top teams from lesser leagues are already scrapping it out for a shot at a few remaining slots.

Off-season my arse: on Tuesday evening I’ll be back in front of a screen to watch my beloved, once-giant Glasgow Celtic go to Reykjavik to start trying to qualify for some of those crumbs from the European table. There’s barely a moment to miss or mourn this maddening World Cup.

*Note on this joke for readers not fully fluent in footballese: a defender who successfully restricts an attacker’s game is said to have him in his/her pocket.

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne