The charm of top-class sport was on display over the last two days. It didn’t just inhere in the mental fortitude and technical brilliance on display during the matches themselves, but also in the immediate aftermath of the matches when the players let their guards down and revealed the impact of the released weight of realised dreams, broken ceilings, shattered hopes and crushing defeat. Nowhere was this conflictual mass of human emotion that underpins the wonder of these sports more poignantly evident than Novak Djokovic’s reaction to the applause the French Open crowd gave him upon receiving his loser’s medal. Aware of Djokovic’s history of disappointments and close calls at the French Open, the crowd lavished him with a full-hearted round of applause that continued past the ordinary length for such events. Djokovic acknowledged their applause with the grace and decorum that a champion is expected to muster, but it was only upon the breaking of the third wave of their applause that stretched beyond the conventional limit that the crowd’s affection for him and his disappointment became too much for him to handle. He visibly broke down under the weight of what he was feeling, and had to struggle to fight back the tears amidst his gracious smiles. He wasn’t alone either, and therein lies the majesty of sport: its ability to raise in us the same hopes, fears, dream and herculean responses to challenges. With the startling contrast between his controlled grace and subsequent visible emotion during those two long minutes, Djokovic made his way into our hearts. Stanislas Wawrinka was a worthy and heroic champion, but both players in their attitude on and off the court were a testament to tennis and the fine attributes sport can invoke in men.
Juve Show Another Way
At a time when it has become fashionable for teams of all levels, regardless of the occasion or the strength of their resources, to “park the bus” against technically superior opponents, Juventus showed that it is not only possible to take on a team like Barcelona with courage and positivity but also desirable. Thanks to their determination to attack and not be pressed back for any considerable length of time, the final was a high-quality, gripping affair that occasionally produced thrilling passages of play when the teams moved the ball from one end of the pitch to the other at a searing pace. Juventus’s approach made the game close and fascinating to watch as each team fought closely to press the advantage in a contest studded with high-quality turnovers, ball play, vision, improvisation and athleticism. It was everything a match between big teams should be and was a welcome relief after the approach of some of the teams’ counterparts in recent times. Both teams would have won themselves, and possibly football, a lot of new fans last night in a way less courageous opponents than Juventus would not have made possible.
Speaking of finals living up to their billing, there were two other thoughts that came to mind. One was that the style and slickness of the football did justice to the magnificent aerial shots of the Olympiastadion, showing a gleaming pitch below and a crimson sky as dusk slowly made its way across Berlin. Everything was gleaming: the football as well as the stunning shot of the resplendent stadium with its backdrop of a reddening sky.
The second was that any final adorned with the rare talent of Lionel Messi was likely to be elevated to greatness. His every touch was a sight in itself, while it was fascinating to experience how someone so apparently casual in his movements can carry such a great menace. Even when he was not doing much, we were anticipating his next burst of pace, shimmy into life. It was a pleasure and privilege to watch him.
Pirlo’s Tears and Barcelona’s Joy Make Us Love Football Again
To see Andrea Pirlo in tears at the end of the match, and a young successor to the greatness he embodies in Paul Pogba also fighting back the tears as he tried to console him, was to appreciate once more the gamut of human emotion that football can provoke. Pirlo’s tears were a particularly powerful and laudatory illustration of professional pride, given that he has won two Champions Leagues and a World Cup before. Alongside their skill, it is the size of the heart of men like Pirlo that makes them so special to the game. His tears and hunger for what he had lost lent a poignant gravitas to complement what had been a superb final. Pogba’s tearful consolation of Pirlo was yet another fitting, heart-rending image of the camaraderie and heroism that football can inspire in its players and through them, its fans. For such unguarded displays of emotion following their lion-hearted efforts in the finale to the most prestigious club competition of the year do their part to endear fans to football alongside the brilliance of their on-pitch displays. On the one hand, the veteran was crying and on the other, the youngster’s tears besides him showed a marvellous continuity with the game’s best traditions, of wonderful talent maximising itself, coveting the best trophies the game can offer and inspiring the next generation. Bravo, Pirlo and Pogba, for showing us all why it matters.
Equally powerful was the unaffected outpouring of joy with which Barcelona rushed towards their supporters after Neymar’s goal, almost forgetting to wait for the referee’s whistle, and converging with them in a bubbling mass of claret-blue, red and yellow. The spontaneity with which the players reacted to that final goal once again stripped football of all its trappings and reveal the beating authentic heart that still drives players, its fans and is brought alive by finals such as this.
On a similar note, Xavi bowed out last night after a seismic career, and it was also wonderfully apropos to see him embracing Pirlo at the end of the game, given how much these two great artistes have done to raise their clubs and grace the game with their immeasurable, inimitable skills.
How Truly Great Are Barcelona?
Barcelona’s second treble has prompted inevitable comparisons with Pep Guardiola’s team. However, despite their deserved triumph this season, doubts still linger about the current line-up’s true claim to greatness. If greatness is measured by a style of play as well as great players, then it is arguable that this Barcelona team falls short of the Guardiola team that has left such a mark on football and contributed so much to the Spanish national team that have dominated international football over the last decade. Guardiola’s team dominated the game from first minute to last in a way that required more of the ten players apart from Messi; Luis Enrique’s looks more porous during games and appears to rely disproportionately on the three individual talents in their forward line, with the remainder relegated to a supporting cast. As with “parking the bus”, using a counter-attacking tactic may seem sensible when Messi and Neymar form part of your forward line but also comes across as the obvious, uninventive, easy way out. Part of what made Guardiola’s team great was that they presented a vision of football that was so radically different from all that surrounded it, which seemed to elevate itself above the stratosphere in which other teams could play. It was riskier but also harder to pull off and its uniqueness was what merited titles such as “great”. Barcelona under Enrique appear to be deliberately jettisoning some of of that cherished ability to nurture the ball in possession through technical talent and footballing intelligence, in favour for a blitzkrieg version of football which, whilst admittedly exhilaratingly effective, looks like a copycat of the approach of many other teams in Europe throughout the last five years. Instead of being the innovators, Barcelona have bought really well and become the imitators. While they have deservedly been successful, such a jettisoning of their higher aspirations may see the club shorn of its sheen and unique identity that have made them a pioneer and a paragon over the years.
Arsenal can seemingly never free themselves from the merry-go-round of mediating with players who are approaching the final year of their contracts, and Bacary Sagna’s name is next up on that wearisome list. Whether through some form of fatigue with this issue, or failing to fully appreciate the contribution that an experienced Sagna could make to this regenerating Arsenal side over the next five years, the fans have remained conspicuously silent up to now over Arsenal’s reluctance to tie him down to a new, long-term contract.
That is a mistake. If there is one player who can offer a convincing deconstruction of Arsenal’s blanket policy of viewing all players over the age of thirty in the same diminishing light through offers of one-year contracts at most, it is Sagna. Arsenal fans have spent so long lamenting the loss of a succession of key players that they have blinded themselves to the richly satisfying fact that one player worthy of comparison to those that jumped ship chose to remain behind and dedicate his career to the club. Before his leg breaks, there was a compelling case for Sagna to be compared to the best right-backs in Europe, but he has never once shown a hint of the disaffection that players giving the impression they had outgrown the club regularly displayed. Until injury and uncertainty over his contract status began afflicting him this season, there had never been so much as a waver in the consistency of his on-pitch excellence. Arsenal have been crying out for legends, for players of stature and wholehearted devotion to grab them by the scruff of the neck and haul them closer to glory once more, and Sagna has grown into those shoes.
It was in the fraught 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light a few weeks ago, where Arsenal stood firm against waves and waves of pressure after Carl Jenkinson had been dismissed on 56 minutes, that Sagna both confirmed his status as a sportsman of the finest competitive breed and offered a glimpse of the benefits Arsenal could gain from trading their veterans’ policy for a more meritorious, case-by-case approach. Shifted to centre-back right before kick-off following Laurent Koscielny’s injury in the pre-match warm-ups, Sagna came to Arsenal’s rescue time and again through an outstanding display of last-ditch tackling, towering headers and perfect positional sense. As Sunderland sent yet another threatening cross into the box in those nerve-wracked final few minutes, and Sagna rose yet again to thump the ball clear with a towering header, there was the sense of a player whose excellence was the product of commitment to his club’s cause and regret at time lost to two broken legs as much as through innate ability. It is these kind of qualities, alchemised to such perfection on the football pitch, that have the ability to win the hearts of fans, raise the young nucleus of Arsenal’s squad to greater heights, and forge the intangible spirit around the club that has been so sorely lacking in recent times.
Other clubs have recognised the important role that older players of the finest professional instincts play in creating a spirit around the club that breeds excellence. Barcelona have Carlos Puyol to embody Herculean drive and devotion; Chelsea have long thrived behind the siege mentality so defiantly heralded by John Terry; and Manchester United have Ryan Giggs to put any one below his age at the club to shame for so much as taking a breather during such sacrosanct rituals as training, recovery and on-pitch commitment. Rather than force Sagna to reassess his loyalties by failing to offer him anything more than a one-year contract, Arsenal could seal a warrior for life by giving him a five-year contract to play at both right-back and, increasingly centre-back, and demonstrating that their loyalty to him is bound by something more than concern that the player may be slightly more susceptible to injuries following two broken legs. Their reward for such a faith-based gamble would be the potentially crucial role that Sagna would play on the pitch in forging the type of spirit around the club that makes champions out of their growing stable of young starlets. As Arsene Wenger seeks to build yet another Arsenal team brimming with youth and talent out of the ashes of the last one, he would do well to consider these benefits before ushering Sagna out of the door when he still has much to offer.
From first minute to last, and probably well before and after kick-off, Celtic’s fans and stadium were a sight to behold and chorus to listen to in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona on Wednesday. Recalling the resplendent way in which they decorated themselves with the green-and-white colours of their crest, and the soaring volume with which they sang throughout a cold Glasgow night flashing with rain, brings goosebumps to the skin now just as it brought a smile to the face then. Here was a crowd that appreciated the convergence of Celtic’s 125th-year anniversary with the arrival of Barcelona’s majestic team of artists, and willed their team on to rise to the occasion with the same magnificence as they were doing. Here was a crowd, in short, who love the game with a passion and positivity that radiates even through the television screen and left a notable impression on Barcelona. Xavi and Pique’s fulsome, awestruck tributes to the Celtic crowd were perhaps made in the rueful acknowledgement that the Nou Camp never quite gets up to salute its players and the game in the same ravishing way. Would that a deserving team like Barcelona could experience the joy of playing a team like Celtic before supporters like those at Celtic Park every week. The wonder of British football’s culture was communicated to them loud and clear, and Celtic’s contribution on Wednesday night served to enhance the Champions League in an unforgettable way. Well done Celtic, well done Scotland, and here’s to another 125 years of raw passion and moments like Wednesday night that will live long in the memory.
With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.
While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.
The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.
These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.
It is frustrating how often the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to Arsenal, both in terms of familiar failings on the pitch and in tying players down to long-term contracts. While the intent on display to re-sign Theo Walcott has been notably more muted and measured – both on the part of fans and club – than it was for Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, they have nonetheless failed to find a resolution or to keep the club’s supporters updated with the kind of urgency that an important situation might require.
If the current impasse does result in Walcott upping stakes, it would be a greater shame for Arsenal than its fans currently realise. For all his frustrating inconsistencies and seemingly perennial inability to accelerate his development, Walcott still encapsulates a thrilling precocity that is quite unlike any other in the game and carries a magic all of its own. On the few occasions on which he has untangled the mysteries that sometimes hold him back, the results have resounded across the footballing stratosphere – from his hat-trick in the demolition of Croatia on the international stage to the way he scythed Barca with his pace enroute to hauling Arsenal back from the brink in a thrilling 2-2 Champions League draw at the Emirates. These were stunning individual displays against opposition of the highest quality at club and international level, and the single-handed effect he had in turning around those games was enriched by a blinding turn of pace that thrilled the senses. There has always been something pure and rousing to the soul about the sight of Walcott put through on goal, haring towards the keeper and slotting away with the coolest of finishes. It was on display when he scored in Arsenal’s last league match against West Ham, as a poignant reminder of the kind of talent they would be forsaking in giving up the battle to keep him.
It may be that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain carries more natural technical talent in one boot than Walcott has in two, and that the fans do not see his potential loss to be as great as those who have left the club in recent times. However, that is to miss the point of how perfectly Walcott captures and reflects the essence of Arsenal. For all those fans who still regard the values that Arsenal have upheld during Wenger’s tenure at the club as worth fighting for, letting go of Walcott would be a significant forfeiture of almost every one of them. Here is a young player who has yet to fulfil his box-office-sized talent or to find the confidence that could define his career, and that Arsenal have made a habit of coaxing out of the charges in their stable. More importantly here is a player who, at the top of his game, conveys the thrilling abandon of football perhaps better than anyone in his sport, and whose lack of an abundance of natural technical talent whilst doing so merely enhances the message that football is a sport of pure joy, to be celebrated by anyone. Above all the pass wizardry and Spanish imitations, it is this pure enjoyment and love of football as a sport that Arsenal under Wenger have sought to communicate and Walcott – through the unaffected way in which he plays and the eternal hint of the promise of youth in his persona – is the living embodiment of this notion. If Arsenal give up on him without a fight, the light will go out on Walcott’s power to captivate at clubs where the pressure to contribute something material is much more suffocating and Arsenal in turn will have signalled that hardening up as a result of some tough experiences with players in recent years has not come without a cost to the things they are celebrated for.
Despite all the newly arrived clubs whose deep pockets are changing European football’s landscape, it is still Real Madrid whose actions and largesse provoke stronger criticism. Younger and older fans alike may struggle to reconcile the club’s habit for preening itself as an institution of history and tradition with its routine practices of amputating managers’ careers, accumulating trophies through spending near-grotesque levels of cash on players and capitalising on close ties with government institutions in Spain that border on incestuous. This is a club that wiped nearly 206 million euros of debt off at a single stroke by somehow convincing Madrid’s city council to spend such a lavish sum on purchasing their training ground, and that once again called on Spanish banks to secure £157 million of public money at unusually low interest rates in a time of recession to acquire Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka in 2009. It would not be too far-fetched to claim that, given the amount of public money that Madrid have pilfered with the assistance of Spanish banks in a fifteen-year period, they are directly responsible for a significant part of the economic woes of the people who pledge them their support.
However, while the Glazers’ reliance on English banks to bankroll their takeover of Manchester United has seen the club fall into a logical, cause-and-effect based spiral of debt and struggles to refinance the debt, Madrid’s comparable levels of borrowing have not brought them the same problems. Rather, a club who reportedly took out 300 million Euros’ worth of bank loans at the start of Florentino Perez’s second spell as president have gone from strength to strength, proudly announcing a record turnover of 514 million Euros for last year and that their debt has been cut to 124.7 million Euros. Indeed, despite assembling a team that cost roughly 300 million Euros and having to deal with interest payments, there has not been a single financial year in which Madrid have failed to either increase their revenue or announce impressive profits. The latest revenue sums are, as the club’s website boastfully states, “the biggest of any sporting institution in the world” while Madrid have managed to continue reaping in more money than Manchester United and Barcelona even during a period that has seen them fail to claim the Champions League for ten years. We are constantly told that they have an enormous fan base spanning the world (and, in the eyes of Perez, probably any alien worlds as well), but anyone living in South and Southeast Asia will confirm that there are far more Barcelona shirts with Messi on them than Madrid ones with Ronaldo going around. In the Middle East, where Spanish football is more popular than the Premier League, their fan base is pretty much equally split with Barcelona. So too is their TV rights deal with Mediapro, which earns each club roughly 160 million euros a season.
So, if the allure of their players, their on-pitch successes and commercial draw has not been stronger than Manchester United’s or Barcelona’s at any point over the last six seasons, how is it that they are constantly in a position to declare themselves the most lucrative football club and best-performing sporting institution in the world? One suspects that the continued affiliation of Real Madrid with the Spanish government has seen them secure advantageous terms on everything from sponsorship deals, to loan arrangements, interest rates, and payment deadlines. If this did not have such a draining effect on the Spanish economy and its unemployed masses, it would not appear to so much resemble corruption. Yet as it stands, Madrid’s reliance on money to stay competitive is far more damning than that of clubs owned by sugar daddies whose extravagant expenditure was not sourced directly from a public who couldn’t afford it.
As they begin to implement Financial Fair Play rules in full force, it would be an oversight on UEFA’s part not to examine the sponsorship deals and commercial arrangements Real Madrid have secured, and adjudge whether the money accrued is the result of their apparently Midas-like business touch or more dubious special relationships with public institutions that have been in place since the dictator Franco anointed them his club and began lavishing them with his patronage. It is these murky foundations on which the “history” of Real Madrid, and its first five Champions League titles was built, and it is this same culture that has continued to prop up the club’s status today despite a relative lack of on-pitch success.
Real Madrid may have won the Supercopa, but the tie should have given Barcelona fans plenty of reason to look forward to their future battles with fresh hope. The first leg confirmed that, for all their investment and recent anointment as Spain’s best team, Madrid still lag streets behind Barcelona in terms of their ability to dominate and paint a canvas over a game in the same way as their fierce rivals. Tiki-taka may have come under fire recently, but Spain’s supreme showing at the Euros and the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barca in that first leg reaffirmed its place as the most important development in football over the last four years. Were it not Angel di Maria pouncing on a moment of hesitation from Victor Valdes with a dogged persistence characteristic of his manager, Madrid would have suffered a 3-1 defeat more reflective of the enduring gap between the sides.
However, for the time being, Jose Mourinho has been able to use illusion and a gift for making people believe in a narrative that doesn’t really exist to upset the odds. Ostensibly, Madrid’s recent ability to best Barcelona in their duels appear to be the sign of a team taking great strides forward in its development under a manager who can seemingly imbue his teams with qualities of invincibility. Upon closer inspection, however, Mourinho’s ideas for tackling the Barca problem remain starkly spartan and have not advanced over the course of the last two seasons. His entire game plan hinges on Madrid shooting out of the blocks as quickly as possible; if they can press, harry and hassle Barca into ceding an advantage in that first half-hour, he then falls back on his tried and tested ‘blanket defence’ approach to protect that lead when their legs start feeling the effects of such a lung-bursting effort initially. This achieves his twin goals of finding a way to score against Barcelona and not opening up to an extent that would allow their unparalleled attacking force to run riot.
Mourinho bills himself as a miracle-worker, so it wouldn’t be surprising if some Madrid fans felt his stellar reputation and astronomical salary should have brought them more than simply a smash-and-grab, underdog approach to toppling Barcelona. For the time being, their grumbles have been stifled by the surprising number of triumphs this approach has yielded. In their last seven meetings, Madrid’s high-octane starts have seen them snatch the crucial early lead that Mourinho needs for his counter-attacking strategy to work on no less than five occasions. There was the Supercopa 2011 first leg (Ozil, 13 mins), La Liga first match (Benzema, 1 min, after he forced Victor Valdes into a mistake that matches his most recent one for silliness), Copa Del Rey first leg (Ronaldo, 11 mins), La Liga second match (Khedira, 17 mins) and now the Supercopa 2012 second leg (Higuain 11 mins, and Ronaldo 19 mins). It is remarkable, given the series of recent results, that Barcelona have failed to spot how important these first thirty minutes are to his increasing success against them in El Clasicos and how a simple willingness to hold firm under Madrid’s short-lived intensity will see them gain total control of the match and Mourinho run out of ideas. Had they not collapsed so pitiably in the first twenty minutes of the Supercopa it is conceivable that Madrid would have run out of steam whilst still being obliged to look for an equaliser, and Barcelona would have begun finding the spaces on the pitch any team needs to prosper.
It is already noticeable how successful results have blinded much of the media and many football fans from spotting what Mourinho’s percentage strategy continues to say about the gulf in quality between Madrid and Barcelona. Instead of acknowledging how much Mourinho relies on football’s intrinsic favouritism of the underdog (a single goal can undo a team’s hard work, whereas in tennis the gap in quality between opponents is established over hundreds of points; likewise, not many other sports allow opponents to entirely forgo the obligation of competing by adopting Mourinho’s infamous ‘parked aeroplane’ approach and still come away with a reward), a seductive narrative has emerged that Madrid are closing the gap to Barcelona who will continue to find it tough going in the future. The power of positive thinking can be limitless, and Mourinho will no doubt be encouraging such thoughts among his players to entice match-winning performances from them even beyond the first thirty minutes. However, Barcelona should not listen to the chorus of doomsayers building with every negative result and instead take note of what such a defensive strategy continues to admit about their superior ability as a footballing force. If they can start games in a better fashion in the future, there is every chance that Madrid’s huff and puff will peter out and the true gap that still exists between the teams will come to bear again.
A sports writer recently suggested that Barcelona and Real Madrid’s unfair hegemony in La Liga was setting themselves up for the same fate that befell Rangers and Celtic in the Scottish Premier League. The idea was that clubs that continued to widen the gap between themselves and the opposition through artificial means, such as the two Spanish giants’ practice of negotiating their own TV rights rather than agreeing to a shared pool, were diluting the quality of the rest of the league to their own detriment. Competition breeds excellence, and the lack of it for Rangers and Celtic transformed two previously regular participants in the Champions League into no more than big fish in a tiny pond, unable to compete at the highest level for lack of practice with quality opponents.
While it may be too much of a stretch to argue that La Liga’s dwindling quality will have the same corrosive effect on Madrid and Barca, whose traditions at the top of the game are well-ingrained over decades (although both did suffer surprising losses in last season’s CL to Bayern Munich and Chelsea respectively), it did illustrate a valid point. Players and teams need to expose themselves to the most competitive leagues to grow and nurture their talent. Part of what makes the artificial gap PSG are about to open up on the rest of the French League so worrying is the potentially stunting effect that regularly turning out against diminished opposition will have on the development of young starlets like Thiago Silva and Javier Pastore. It is also something that might be beginning to bear down on Neymar, the most eagerly anticipated of the clutch of young players on the verge of making their breakthrough.
Neymar’s continuing determination to ply his trade in Brazil until after the 2014 World Cup has the ability to both slow his development at a critical stage and severely hamper Brazil’s chances of lifting the trophy on home soil. There were patches in the Olympic final against Mexico on Saturday when it appeared that the prodigy’s training in Brazil had not equipped him with the knowledge to deal with several defenders instantly closing space around him and suffocating his movement. In the last ten minutes, three runs he attempted at the massed Mexican ranks resulted in the ball cannoning back off them and behind him, as his tricks failed to bewitch defenders who had probably had the opportunity to watch him in carefully prepared training videos beforehand. It is this kind of elite, tactically informed opposition comprising the ranks of international and European football that Neymar is missing the chance to grow against in Brazil, and for which he only has a parsimonious international calendar left to prepare him for in the run-up to 2014.
However Neymar’s obligations in becoming the world’s best player go beyond simply honing his talent in the most competitive leagues in Europe, and thereby becoming a player who scores match-winning goals for both club and country in crucial competitions. Goals can be scored by any great player, and Cristiano Ronaldo is perched atop the best of the rest in this regard. Yet in four consistently wondrous years at Barcelona, Lionel Messi has set the bar higher than that. Beyond the staggering number of goals scored and assists made, what really thrills about Messi is observing how he speeds and flies past tactically educated European defences who have learnt his moves by rote in the most sophisticated pre-match instructions available and are still powerless to halt him. Knowing how effective European leagues are at turning games into tactical battles designed to negate a forward’s natural ability, and then seeing Messi take all of the twenty-two men on the field back to the playground with moves that should only exist on PlayStation and in a child’s imagination is perhaps the closest thing to surreal that sport has to offer.
There is perhaps some truth to be had in the argument that Messi’s genius is unlocked by Barcelona’s unique ability to retain possession in threatening areas and create space for him to launch his unique runs at defences. However, the fact remains that there is not a single footballer from South America playing in Europe today that has managed to retain, let alone polish, the fantastical magic of how they play the game in that continent to the extent that Messi has done. For Neymar, it is the challenge of representing and demonstrating the limitless magic of South America’s game at the highest level of competition to at least the same extent that Messi has done that now awaits him in his anointing as crown prince.
Cesc Fabregas has revealed that new boss Tito Vilanova wants him to make slight adjustments to how he played the role Barcelona assigned for him last season. Instead of being so “static on the inside left”, he is instructed to “be more mobile…and look for space, help my team-mates by playing the easy ball.” To anyone who saw him scale rare peaks during season upon season of increasing excellence at Arsenal, the mere suggestion that Barcelona have prescribed a role for Cesc that circumscribes and modifies his talent to the base requirements of the team is scandalous. A player of his potential should not be running around like a makeshift winger in a team whose pretentious attempts to make midfielders play like forwards contributed to their own downfall last season. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Cesc being denied the chance to fill the prime years of his career in the position that he was born to play: playmaker, dictating everything that happens on the pitch and treating lovers of the game all over to a demonstration of rare artistic talent and footballing intelligence.
However, it is fast becoming apparent that the freedom he enjoyed at Arsenal that was behind his rise as a footballer of rare genius will not be afforded him at Barca. Xavi and Iniesta’s occupation of the most privileged berths football has to offer is warranted, but Cesc’s love of Barca may well blind him to the point at which they begin selling him short and stalling his career through rigid tactical game plans and the evergreen presence of Xavi. The level of acclaim he commanded among the entire footballing fraternity has already diminished since he left Arsenal – not because he is among finer company but because his unmatched footballing intelligence is being circumscribed and starved of the chance to shine in his misplaced role at Barca. It is sad to see him being relegated to just another name amid players with greater technique but lesser vision in discussions of the best midfielders in the world today. It is a reversal of the path of thrilling ascent that Arsene Wenger set him on at Arsenal, and may well ensure that the second act of his career is not quite as luminous individually as the first was. One would not go as far to say that his accelerated return to Barcelona was a misguided decision, but Arsene Wenger’s assertion that the challenge of leading Arsenal to glory would have had far greater value for Cesc than being just another champion at Barcelona will echo around for him for as long as he takes to find terra firma at his boyhood club.