Brazilian legend Pele recently said of Lionel Messi that although he is an ‘exceptional’ player you cannot be considered great until you have one the World Cup:
“I think a ‘great’ player is defined by their performance at the World Cup. For example watch Messi play for Barcelona. He is very good. Exceptional. But for Argentina he is completely different. Compare him to Zinedine Zidane. He won the World Cup and was at the top for fifteen years. He was a more complete player than Zidane.”
I accept, as most do, that a player should be judged over the course of his entire career as opposed to just the beginning, where Messi is now, but I think to say that Messi is not a great player because he hasn’t won the World Cup is irrelevant. I understand that to be a great player you have to perform in big games but Messi does that: he’s scored in the Champions League final and has amassed over 200 goals for Barcelona in just over 260 games. Yes winning the World Cup should be the pinnacle of every player’s career but the competition is not what it used to be. Not that it has got any easier to win it but I think because these days there are harder competitions to win. Namely: the Champions League.
This leaves us to beg the question: is the World Cup still the greatest test for footballers? Or is it just the greatest test for managers? It is thought that the World Cup is the highest possible accolade a player can win but is that only because it only comes around every four years?
During Pele’s peak in the seventies the World Cup was the biggest stage in world football. It was a place to see the best players come together and unite under their different flags. But is the standard of international teams today lower than that of the top Champions League teams. And, if that is the case, does that make the Champions League are tougher, more exciting competition to win.
Let’s look at the top five international teams around: Spain, Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Holland (I’m sure many will disagree but the sentiment remains the same). Are these teams, with the exception of Spain, as good as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man Utd, Bayern Munich and Man City? I think, player for player, you would be hard pressed to argue that they were. Take a team like Argentina: yes they have an incredible strike force but as a team they can be found wanting in defence, as can Holland. You won’t find any weaknesses in any of the top club teams, they are too rich. If they had a weakness they would simply buy someone to fill the gap.
Therefore are Messi’s achievements on the club scene not enough to grant him status as a great. Is it not enough to win the Ballon d’Or every year whilst scoring fifty goals a season? Yes the World Cup is extremely hard to win because it only comes around once every four years but that doesn’t make the actual competition any harder, it just makes success rarer. Which is not the same thing. If the World Cup was played every year we can be pretty sure that Spain would be winning quite a few in the next few years. But Barcelona does not win the Champions League every year. It would be impossible.
For managers however the World Cup is undoubtedly the hardest competition to win. They have only a limited amount of players to choose from, they cannot poach players from another team. They have limited time to get their team to adapt to the style of play and tactics that said manager wants and on top of that the players are probably used to playing tactics that could be vastly different. They also have to unite players and create a team spirit amongst men who may normally be bitter rivals.
The essence of international management is motivation. With such limited time attempting to work with your team implementing complex tactics is a risky ploy. England’s lacklustre performance in South Africa showed not only a lack of cohesion amongst the players but also a lack of comfort in the tactics employed. Nobody has ever defended the Champions League crown, the same cannot be said of the World Cup, and, as disappointing as it may be, the World Cup no longer appears to be the greatest challenge for footballers, only managers.
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