Cult of the Individual transcends all within Football

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Originally published by These Football Times 10/06/2014.

Football is a game where the strength of the collective is meant to prevail over the fallibility of the individual. However, some of the greatest teams, their widest victories, and slimiest losses, are defined by individual participants and their performances. The saying that ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan’ seemingly does not apply to international football.

Argentina’s World Cup victory in 1986 is widely regarded as the result of Maradona’s genius dragging a capable, but unspectacular, team to glory. Twenty years later France lost the final to Italy on penalties, however Zinedine Zidane’s sending off is seen as the game’s turning point. The 1998 World Cup final is remembered more for the mystery around the condition of Brazil’s prodigious forward Ronaldo, than France’s victory.

When the next month of football concludes, the summer passes and club football returns, the memories of the upcoming World Cup will, for many, start to fade and crystallise around certain key moments and performances. The narrative of football, despite being a team game, predominately centres on individual performances.

The cult of the individual is omnipresent. Players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez are considered the leaders of their teams. The estimation of their subsequent careers will be in part formed by their country’s performance in this month’s tournament.

This is the case for Messi perhaps more than his rivals. One would imagine that the Argentina captain has more than enough goals, trophies and broken records, at club level, to be remembered as perhaps football’s greatest, regardless of his national team’s fortunes in this World Cup. However, in his homeland, it will be the World Cup that ultimately defines his career. For the rest of the world, the World Cup could confirm his place as the sport’s greatest.

Everything seems to have fallen into place for Messi to lead his country to a third World Cup title in in Brazil, unlike the tournament four years ago. In that World Cup Maradona was the Argentina manager and the dominant figure, hoarding the spotlight as he lead his side to a crushing 4-0 defeat against Germany in the quarter-finals. Messi was somewhere in the team’s tactical muddle, but not the focal point and not among the goals. Maradona departed but Argentina and Messi continued to disappoint. A year later, on home soil, they lost to neighbours Uruguay on penalties in the Copa America semi-final. Change was needed.

Alejandro Sabella became manager, instantly made Messi captain and set about constructing a team that extracted the maximum from the world’s best player. There was no place for Carlos Tevez, a person rumoured not to be in Messi’s good books, and the team was set up in an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Sabella utilised his stunning striking riches to paper over the poverty of his defensive options. Messi was now the team’s captain, focal point and undisputed leader.

Argentina reaped the benefits during qualifying and, despite some stuttering performances, comfortably qualified for Brazil, with Messi scoring ten in the process. The team have a favourable draw for this month’s tournament, potentially avoiding any elite teams until the quarter-finals. While the advent of playing their games in the south of Brazil, avoiding the tropical drain of the northern climate, could prove very beneficial. Messi also turns 27 this month, entering the perceived peak years of an athlete’s career. Everything seems set up for him to lead Argentina to glory and firmly stake his place as the game’s greatest ever.

If Messi is to lead Argentina to victory it will be in his own way. He is, unlike Maradona or Ronaldo, an introvert, a style of leader that is perhaps alien to Argentinians. However, his talented teammates have bent their will to his genius. Whether it is correct to think so or not, the destiny of his country’s tournament is now at his feet. One may argue that Messi is the greatest player ever, that the need to cater to his genius must take precedent above all and for the team to flourish, Messi must flourish. There is undoubted merit in this argument. However, there is evidence to suggest placing sole emphasis on the performance of one player, no matter how great they are, can be risky. And such responsibility can be a double edged sword.

At the European Championships two years ago, Cristiano Ronaldo, after a shaky start, helped propel his country to a semi-final tie with Spain. After a scoreless 120 minutes, where Ronaldo’s threat had been effectively nullified by the Spanish defence, the game went to a penalty shootout. Portugal’s talisman chose to take the fifth, and potentially final, penalty.

However, his country did not get a fifth penalty as Spain wrapped up the contest before Ronaldo’s turn. It would be unfair to pin the sole responsibility for this loss on the Real Madrid superstar. Yet his choice, it could be argued, was one of seeking personal glory. He jeopardised his greater responsibility to make sure his team progressed, or at least got the opportunity to take the final penalty.

‘The Great Man’ theory of history became a popular ideal during the 19th century. Its proponents believed that history has been shaped by powerful, charismatic, influential men, such as Napoleon and Julius Caesar or Martin Luther. These ‘great’ men were considered to be predestined to change the world, and the history of the world was, in essence, a history of great men.

The theory would eventually become widely debunked. To consider one person to exist outside the complex vacuum of greater social, political or economic events is redundant. However it is still present within football. People still search for heroes and villains. The narrative is simplified and condensed to centre on the individual moment of magic or disaster.

In Dennis Bergkamp’s book, Stillness and Speed: My Story, written with journalist David Winner, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says: ‘It can sometimes become detrimental if one player is so strong that the team always goes through him, because the variety of your game can suffer’. This seems like sound logic as individuals will not always save the day. The past three European Championships, and two World Cups, won by Spain and Italy, have been victories for the collective. Each side had great players, but there was no one superstar who rose above all and drove the team to glory.

However, despite Argentina’s embarrassment of attacking riches, this is exactly their game plan. Former Brazil playmaker Zico, speaking about the country’s chances for this World Cup, said: ‘Of course Messi won’t play on his own and Argentina have an impressive “collection” in the form of Ángel di María, Sergio Agüero and Ezequiel Lavezzi. But these guys seem to know its Messi’s show, that 70% or 80% of the balls have to go to him’.

Messi’s genius seemingly transcends the collective. It could be argued that the fascination with the individual within a team sport would mean that the focus would be on Messi regardless of whether he was the team’s leader or not. Perhaps it is easier to focus on individual moments, than something more complex. People have created heroes and villains for centuries and individual acts have a universal quality.

Prior to the last World Cup France captain Thierry Henry was widely vilified for his handball against Ireland in the World Cu play-off. Henry had been deemed to send Ireland out and France to South Africa. However, while there is no denying the French player cheated and the officials failed to adequately perform their roles, very few had mentioned Ireland’s role in the act.

The awful defending by Paul McShane or the fact Henry was able to take the ball down in the opposition’s box. The goalkeeper not coming for the ball or the many chances Ireland missed to finish the game before that point. That estimation may seem as cruel as Henry’s act, but the hard truth was there were numerous other factors in the result. For the handball to be effective there needed to be mistakes made before and after the act.

However that was all forgotten as the footage of Henry handling the ball, twice, played on endless loop for days and weeks. Henry was a villain and that was that. The margins in football are slim, but become tighter through the condensing of events into individual moments or acts. The middle ground shrinks further and further.

So, if Messi can lead his country to glory, on enemy soil, he will be the proud father of success. If Argentina falls short, it will be his failure. Over to you Leo.

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