The ‘curse’ of the Nike advert has been sufficiently plugged in some publications as the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney and Ribery failed to live up to the unthinkable expectations placed upon their shoulders (actually, scratch Ribery from that list – I’ve never been an admirer). To compound the argument, which finds its roots in the always sensational knee-jerk media of today, Lionel Messi and Kaka were found to be on the losing end in their respective World Cup quarter finals. But, if I’m honest, criticisms against Messi, Ronaldo and Kaka should really be checked.
Wayne Rooney aside (who genuinely looked unhappy in South Africa), the top players have had a tough time. ‘Kaka Stinks!’ bemoaned the New York Post, Kevin Garside of the Telegraph wrote with palpable schadenfreude at Ronaldo’s anonymous outing against Portugal’s Iberian neighbours in the round of 16, and the masses still seem perplexed that Messi hasn’t dribbled past eight players and finished off one of the finest goals in World Cup history. Given a little context we can see that for the likes of Fernando Torres and Kaka the World Cup has come at the end of a frustrating season; we can’t expect Torres to finish as clinically as Premier League fans are accustomed to in a different team, playing a different style, with himself playing a slightly different role (at Liverpool there’s Gerrard playing off the striker immediately looking for Torres’ runs but for Spain, Villa’s imperative is directness at goal leaving Torres primarily as a decoy to occupy central defences. Of course this doesn’t absolve the player from complete culpability but it should provide a degree of understanding). And Kaka’s year long struggle against groin and thigh injuries should really leave expectations a little lower but instead, as he said himself, the ‘expectations are always sky-high in Brazil’.
The real shame though comes when hearing tube passengers all too swiftly throw the phrase ‘bottling it’ in the ‘big matches’ when discussing Messi’s showing versus Germany. It doesn’t seem to matter that this is historically and factually incorrect (goals in the Champions League final in Rome last year and the crucial el clasico this year coupled with a truly stupefying sustained free scoring record in the past two seasons goes some way in dispelling the myth). The marker of his ability is perhaps better gauged on the days where he doesn’t steal all the plaudits; as Jonathan Wilson wrote back in March after he failed to score an unprecedented third consecutive hat trick in La Liga against Osasuna, ‘not-brilliance has become a bigger story than brilliance.’
Against Germany he was actually quite good but (similar to the problem Ronaldo faced, though not nearly as accented) there was a marked lack of service. Germany, as a team, defeated Argentina, who relied on only four players to attack (three of whom with no defensive duties at all: Messi, Tevez, Higuain). Khedira stole Messi’s space and Mueller/Podolski were both disciplined defensively on the flanks even though Otamendi and Heinze rarely looked to advance. Schweinsteiger and Khedira worked very well in tandem to ensure at any given moment in attack Messi was marshalled. Couple this with Tevez playing far too close to Messi and we see why he was forced deeper and deeper to collect the ball, rendering him less and less threatening.
The German defensive unit highlights the challenge facing players like Ronaldo and Messi; teams are the best they’ve probably ever been at collectively shutting down the most dangerous individuals (which is why Messi working as a decoy so often for Barcelona is a success. But, in a national team setup, it is a little too much to expect similar results on the proactive attacking front considering club team discipline and understanding is highly systematised over a very long period of time). Portugal’s ineffective use of Ronaldo was truly puzzling; I don’t expect consummate understanding between forward players in national teams but I do expect a basic idea of how to involve your most dangerous weapon. For all the rear guard action of the Portuguese their lack of guile and ability to involve Ronaldo, on the simplest of levels, is either an indicator of poor management or terrible implementation. I tend toward the former given the substitutions made in the Spain game. Yet despite the close attention and tactical dissection, it means nothing without a little bit of luck; Ronaldo sent an exocet of a shot against the post in the Ivory Coast game and a spectacularly struck drive against the bar against North Korea. A few inches make the difference between a swift and underwhelming exit from the World Cup and a three-goal imprimatur of class and execution.
Earlier this week Wesley Sneijder made a frank and underplayed admission when asked about Holland’s idealistic past in comparison to the solid victories that this World Cup has been witness to:
“Beautiful football is difficult against teams who don’t give you an inch of space.”
Whilst I agree that the best should always find a way, and Messi and Ronaldo monotonously remind us why they are the two best at club level, I don’t think the argument is as simple as ‘they didn’t turn up’ or ‘they bottled it’. It remains, as with everything, far easier to destroy than to create. These players spend years building reputations and constantly ‘proving’ themselves yet it takes only one World Cup, irrespective of circumstance, to leave many of us questioning the truth.
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