There has been a debate running for a while now about the current level of world football and the number of great players currently active. With Europe’s major leagues less competitive than they have ever been and the international game becoming more irrelevant with every passing season, there appears to be a growing feeling that football was better in the old days.
When ‘the old days’ were exactly is unclear, which provides a less than helpful starting point, but most respondents seem to agree that the beautiful game is not so alluring any more. The Brazilian Ronaldo recently remarked that football was best in the nineties: “For me, there is less competition now. I do not want to be the typical guy saying things were better in my day but I look around now and I just see [Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo].
“Maybe Neymar is coming but he has a long way to go yet. In my time there were many great players. I competed with Zidane, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Owen, Figo, Batistuta. There were many players who made their teams great.”
Through my discussions on Twitter I have found that Ronaldo’s view is generally representative of the majority opinion. This is, to my mind, disappointing and irrational – misty-eyed romanticism trumping an irresistible amount of evidence. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are obviously the best of their generation – two of the greatest players ever, full stop – but the monotony of their domination should not obscure the fact that today’s talent pool is deeper than ever before.
It is understandable that fans bemoan certain aspects of the contemporary game. It is prohibitively expensive to watch and bankrolled by oligarchs. In England, a historical giant of the sport, it is next to impossible for a local to turn out for one of the country’s top sides. Globalisation means there will never be another story to compare with Celtic’s Lisbon Lions or Steaua Bucharest’s European Cup winning team of 1986.
Today’s great players come increasingly from a select few nations and end up concentrated in a relatively small number of cities, but there are an incredible number of them regardless. Think of a position on the field of play and there are at least seven or eight outstanding performers in it – and most of them playing in different roles within different tactical frameworks.
The most obvious reason that many believe that there are no individuals worth celebrating is that football is now a more team-orientated sport than at any point in its history. Having been shaped by the ideas of Rinus Michels, Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Marcelo Bielsa, it does not allow for the participation of crowd-pleasing mavericks if they are not willing to do the dirty work.
Virtuosos such as Juan Román Riquelme will always remain celebrated for their willingness to attempt the sublime, but opponents at all levels now look to exploit such high-risk styles – and, in most cases, the accompanying lack of defensive input on the part of its architect – in order to maximise their chances of victory. José Mourinho is currently leaving out Juan Mata for this very reason.
Additionally, technological developments mean that widespread cultural exchange and unprecedented levels of performance analysis have rapidly accelerated football’s development. In turn, the game has become homogenously played almost everywhere. Recent statistical analysis showed that the styles of play in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, radically different until a decade ago, are more or less identical now.
This hurried stylistic evolution may have seen a certain joy lost from the game but it has undeniably raised the standard. While we as viewers lost the likes of Riquelme, we gained attacking midfielders with more rounded skillsets and selfless mentalities – players like Andrés Iniesta, Toni Kroos, Luka Modrić, Oscar, Marek Hamšík and Christian Eriksen. I could name many more just like them.
Another common lament is that “the characters have gone from the game”; that the vast majority of today’s footballers do not – and cannot – have the charisma and charm of, say, George Best or Diego Maradona. Again, there are many good reasons for this change. The aforementioned advances in methodology, increased professionalism at ever younger ages and, of course, a global influx of untold riches into football have all played key roles in turning personable players into characterless drones.
What today’s stars lack in wit and affability, however, they more than make up for in skill and output: tens of thousands of footballers across the globe play a far more sophisticated and demanding version of the sport than Best and Maradona ever did, do so with greater regularity and under more intense scrutiny than those they are compared against. Simply put, spectators forget that some weekends even Pelé sucked.
The truth of the matter is that as, a technical exercise, football is considerably better now than it ever has been. If that goes unnoticed then the fault lies with us, the viewers. Repeatedly exposed to brilliance, it seems we have forgotten how to appreciate it. We have come to expect the spectacular pretty much every time we watch a game. When it does not come we blame the players and repeat the truism that icons from years gone by, whose identities vary according to each individual’s bias, would never have played so poorly.
We are living in football’s unappreciated golden age. While we constantly watch the game, we do not recognise the unprecedented talent of its players. Nostalgia will always impact on popular thought and we all enjoy reminiscing from time to time, but for all the many faults of twenty-first century football – and goodness knows there are many – the quality of the player is one thing the modern game has got right. Spectacularly so.