Time to Separate the ‘Best from the Rest’

“Some people think football is a matter of life or death… I can assure them, it is much more serious than that.”

For many, Bill Shankly’s sentiments have permeated almost every facet of their lives, from John Westwood, who legally inserted ‘Portsmouth Football Club’ between his first and surname in addition to his 60+ Pompey-related tattoos (including the PFC engraved in his teeth), to more than 35 divorce cases which have cited the Football Manager video game series as a significant factor in relationship disintegration.

That any individual can commit themself to a computer game to such an extent is a point which barely requires consideration, but the fact that Portsmouth have assiduously flirted with extinction over the past 18 months illustrates a broader concern for football fans, whose dedication to the sport is critically disproportionate to what they receive in return. Following a team usually proves to be an expensive undertaking, with season tickets/match-day entrance an account-destroying alternative to forking out for a Sky subscription on top of the costly merchandise and travel expenditure required to be considered a ‘true fan.’

In various scenarios that repeatedly emerge in each and every football calendar, a fans’ firmly held opinions alter and allegiances shift. For example, one fan may opine that their supported club is better than others within its country of origin based on several criteria, then later suggest that the entire league of that country is better than others that exist within the continent, and then support their national side which will almost always contain players from rival clubs that they spend 90% of the year criticising, and 10% selling their car to afford the fee to watch play.

Supporter standards aside, perhaps the most damaging cost to all lovers of the beautiful game is the absence of organised competition which regularly exhibits the globe’s finest talents. In reality, there are roughly between 100 and 150 exceptional footballers on the planet, and although certain players’ statuses are elevated due to completing poignant landmarks for their clubs, – such as loyalty in terms of appearances or scoring a goal which provided the difference between survival and relegation, winning a trophy and being a runner-up etc. – in every generation only a select few can legitimately be regarded as exemplary athletes within their field.

The UEFA Champions League is generally interpreted as the most esteemed stage a footballer can perform on (other than the FIFA World Cup), and its seeding process dictates a top category of eight teams who qualify based on their European performances over the previous five seasons. If we take that each squad contains about 10 world-class players at most, and that a small number of teams containing world-class players will always be just outside the top 8 seeds every year, then we are left with the 100-150 players I referred to earlier. For example, Manchester United – finalists in three out of the past four competitions – have the quality of Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra, but also the capable, but far from world-class standard, individuals such as John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick.

The same could be said for every team: Arsenal – Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie/Denilson, Abou Diaby and Laurent Koscielny; Bayern Munich – Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger/Mario Gomez, Holger Badstuber and Daniel van Buyten; Chelsea – Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres and John Terry/Paolo Ferreira, Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel; AC Milan – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alexandre Pato and Antonio Cassano/Kevin Prince-Boateng, Mathieu Flamini and Ignazio Abate. The list goes on, but you get the picture.

It seems unfair, despite the multifarious reasons such as insurance, employment contacts and sponsorship arrangements, that in every generation of great footballers we are denied the opportunity to see the best in the sport compete with each other, devoid of unequalled influences. The unremitting universal media coverage prior to the recent European Cup Final between Manchester United and Barcelona implied that the globe’s best two teams were battling for the club game’s most prestigious honour. But the hidden rhetoric suggested that the fixture was merely the closest we could get this year to seeing the best players on the same pitch at the same time, an emphasis that was arguably more relaxed than the reportage before each of the five Barcelona v Real Madrid Clasicos last term.

Although the Catalans succeeded emphatically at the expense of their rivals – disregarding Madrid’s narrow extra-time triumph in the Copa del Rey – they also possessed the highest concentration of world-class talent. In no way am I arguing that great players make a great team, as numerous Bernabeu Galactico projects evince in addition to Liverpool’s sub-standard 2005 Champions League winning side, but that a regularly held competition with only the very best participants represented by only the very best management would provide football lovers with an unrivalled spectacle that transcends club-based supporter enmity.

Surely I’m not the only one curious about how Cristiano Ronaldo AND Lionel Messi would perform in the same team, much like a team with Zinedine Zidane and Francesco Totti at their peaks would be like, or Diego Maradona and Michael Laudrup, Pele and George Best, Paolo Maldini and Carles Puyol etc. etc. The merits of the club game are unquestionable; the transfer auctions, local derbies, league and cup honours and fan devotion, but what if every two years we could enjoy a summer tournament of purely exceptional quality without supporter bias, where the audience attended for the sake of enjoyment rather than enduring customary stress and inevitable heartache?

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Of course FIFA’s timetable affords us at least one international tournament each year, but the continually-loosening rules regarding nationality requirements are forever distancing the spirit of international football from its original purpose. Last summer’s World Cup in South Africa will certainly be recorded as one of the least memorable in recent decades, but it certainly left its mark with regards to the number of players featuring for countries they narrowly qualified to represent, and in fact, for the first time ever, two brothers lined-up against each other in a World Cup fixture when Kevin Prince-Boateng lost out to his brother Jerome as Germany defeated Ghana 1-0 in the group stage.

During the tournament, vast swathes of commentary interpreted the glowing performances of Joachim Loew’s German side as a result of the country’s welcoming of immigrant talent, with the likes of Boateng (Ghana), Mesut Ozil (Turkey), Sami Khedira (Tunisia), Dennis Aogo (Nigeria), Serdar Tasci (Turkey), Lukas Podolski (Poland) and Cacau (Brazil) providing the multi-national spirit which saw the Germans finish third. I’m going to eschew a detailed discussion on the modern-day fabric of German football, particularly as five out of the above seven players were born in Germany and Lukas Podolski moved from Poland at the age of two, perhaps going some way to disparage the distasteful criticism the team received from several quarters last year.

However, the regulations which govern the rights of players to elect which country to represent have altered frequently and dramatically over the past decade, somewhat undermining what international football should represent. No country has attempted to exploit FIFA’s regulations more than 2022 World Cup hosts, Qatar, who have openly abandoned home-grown talent by forcibly naturalising as many as 15 players from nine different nations in the past few years since offering Brazilian striker, Ailton, over $1million to help the country push for qualification for the 2006 tournament. In this instance, FIFA blocked the move and Qatar failed in their efforts to appear in Germany.

But given that more and more countries are trying to find foreign alternatives to their inadequate playing staff, why do we not just do away with this process and eliminate every insufficient player, leaving just those worthy of their lucrative salaries and global attention? Discussion on a European super-league has persisted to varying degrees of gravity since the 1990s, with those that support its conception arguing its virtues based as much on the potential aesthetic improvement of the football itself as the financial rewards such a prominent and regular competition would afford.

I as yet have no concrete suggestions for how such a tournament would be formatted, but considering the arrangement of the FIFA Ballon d’Or – the award given to the world’s best footballer each year after the merging of the European Player of the Year accolade with FIFA’s World Player of the Year honour in 2010 – allows managers and captains of international teams, along with select journalists from across the globe, to vote for their favourite players, then a list of the planet’s top 100-150 footballers is always readily available and updated annually by those in the best position to judge. What’s more, the award’s recent structural alteration has incorporated, for the first time, a FIFA decoration recognising the best manager – won by Jose Mourinho last year – which similarly provides a legitimate directory of the best coaches.

Football is a curious entity which has provided the likes of Djimi Traore with a Champions’ League winners medal and left Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp and Diego Maradona to complete their careers without European fulfilment, and similarly seen Greece overcome the likes of France, Spain, Czech Republic and Portugal to win the European Championship in 2004, and yet failed to display George Best, Roy Keane and George Weah on the World Cup stage. Although these facts are cushioned by the personal achievements of the unfortunate aforementioned, and the manner in which they are perceived since their retirements, it seems a shame that we fans are denied the opportunities to witness the greatest players of our time on a regular platform which justifies their abilities. If football really is a matter more serious that life and death, then lets enjoy it to the fullest whilst we are still here.

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