A post from @foreverheady
If a week’s a long time in politics then ninety minutes is certainly plenty enough time for football fans to realise that most players are only human after all. I was listening to Darren Gough talking about Lionel Messi on the radio yesterday, and he was very much of the opinion that he hadn’t had the greatest of World Cup tournaments thus far and that his four Man of the Match awards were based more on reputation than actual achievement. In fact, Argentina’s latest game, where they seemed to take forever to dispatch Switzerland, showed another of the game’s greats, the exotically named Angel di Maria to be not so special after all. And yet, as the clock ticked inexorably towards another high stakes penalty shoot-out it was Messi and di Maria who stepped up to win the game. Gliding past two players in trademark style Lionel drew the final defender on to him before slipping the ball to Maria who passed the ball into the net with all the nonchalance of a training ground move, rather than the nerve-jangling coup de grace that would secure a quarter-final spot and, indeed, the promise of far more than that. It was a sublime moment of footballing genius, and future views of highlights and vine clips will ensure that it lives long in the collective footballing consciousness. In short, those few seconds wiped out the ordinariness of the previous two hours, and proved that when it really mattered Messi was the man. If you had only seen the goal you would have thought Dazzler mad.
And yet, despite the almost universal agreement that this has been the greatest and most exciting World Cup ever (at least since the last one) a lot of players have seemingly failed to shine on the greatest stage of all. While reputations may not be completely in tatters, it does seem that many of those who were so eagerly anticipated have struggled to be at their very best, and various reasons have been put forward to explain this. The impossible heat, the makeshift nature of the national teams, the refereeing, the tactical acumen of the opposition managers, the desire that the footballing ‘minnows’ show when pulling on their national strip have been among some of the more popular pieces of punditry, and as with all theories that masquerade as sensible each contain enough truth to be plausible. But I wonder if it isn’t something far more obvious than all of this and that Ronaldo’s feet of clay are just another symptom of the truth so wearily acknowledged each Saturday afternoon by the long suffering denizens of the football League’s terraces. And that truth is, and whisper this quietly or the sponsors will take offence, that football is actually quite a boring game, and that most players, for most of the time, struggle to do anything out of the ordinary; it is sadly true that most sides find it well-nigh impossible to breach a well-organised defence. When explaining goalless performances, managers euphemistically refer to a lack of quality in the final third, when what they actually mean is “none of my players were capable of doing anything unexpected, and my offensive tactics were rendered impotent by my counterpart’s defensive strategy. “ If you watch some games you quite soon begin to wonder if either side will ever be good enough to actually score a goal, so laborious are their efforts. The score-lines give it away, of course: 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, , 2-0, 2-1 are by far the most common, and any tally more than that is a rarity unless the teams are hopelessly mismatched or defensively incontinent.
I am guessing here, but I suspect that the vast majority of football watchers don’t often watch whole games, making do instead with recorded highlights on Match of the Day or various Youtube compilations. When much of the tedious dross is edited out, football comes alive with end to end stuff, goalmouth action a plenty, tantalising and sumptuous moments of artistry and wonder goals repeated endlessly and from all angles. They all look good on the telly, unless of course it is the turn of some hapless defender to have his limitations cruelly exposed by the forensic unpleasantness of a bitter analyst blessed with hindsight, technology and supported by full blown media bias. There will be few regular and actual game-going supporters who haven’t experienced the frustration of seeing their own attackers huff and puff impotently for ninety minutes that afternoon, only to catch Match of the Day later that evening and see a United or City star pirouette on a sixpence before dispatching it venomously into the top corner. And if you have had a couple by then and your reason and your judgment are momentarily suspended, it’s hard not to at least imagine what it would be like to have him leading the line for you next week. Infidelity, you see, is born out of over-exposure to the commonplace and a momentary glimpse of the exotic.
The problem with this World Cup is that the exotic has become commonplace and the likes of Darren Gough, not to mention many teenage boys, are having to watch whole games in their essentially dull entirety, perhaps for the very first time. Watching Messi being shackled by Johan Djouru for two hours is a little like (and I’m guessing here, Your Honour) watching Linda Lovelace condemned to a perpetual diet of lukewarm and unseasoned Shepherds’ Pie. It is, at best, a disappointment. And I wonder too if this isn’t the problem with people’s perception of Mesut Ozil . When he signed for The Arsenal I wonder how many had watched him play that often, or whether they just remembered flashes of brilliance from Bloemfontein and countless effortless assists in various “Ronaldo’s Greatest Goals” compilations. His first few Arsenal matches were like that too: a beyond brilliant assist for Giroud, a wonder strike against Napoli, a brace to see off Norwich. This was pornography made real and all that golden autumn we were drowning, stingless, in honey- bliss was it indeed in that dawn to be an Arsenal fan. It didn’t last, of course – or rather, it didn’t last quite like that. The everydayness of things all too soon kicked in, and shamefully the fans got used to his brilliance and no longer noticed when he had done something quite exceptional. Unless every touch turned to gold immediately, he was no longer accorded special status and all too soon he became merely human and nothing like his Youtube alter ego: just another ordinary player, in fact.
Except Mesut Ozil is not just another player, just as Lionel Messi is not having an ordinary tournament. Games are not twenty minutes long (football has yet to go down cricket’s route and pander to today’s short attention spans, although I suspect it is only a matter of time before that happens) and the proof of a player is his contribution over the whole game. It is no surprise that Messi and Ozil made their recent match winning moves deep into injury time, just as it was no coincidence that The Arsenal’s player of the season, Aaron Ramsey, scored the winning goal in the Cup Final long after most had cried enough. Cream rises to the top, they say, and so too do great Sportsmen, and if they think it is worth playing until the final whistle is blown then perhaps the pundits might also try concentrating for long enough to see what is really going on. Not every move they make will come off, not every shot will score, and for much of the time we should expect them to be shackled – after all, it would be almost match-fixingly strange if tactics were not drawn up to nullify the most dangerous players – but rest assured, class will out and they will find a way, and that is why they are, as Arsene would say, top, top quality, and why I am looking forward to seeing them play again this weekend.