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Soccer at its dumbest when it downplays its stars
by Paul Gardner, September 24th, 2009 1:06AM



By Paul Gardner

There are some games that get on to television and you wish that they hadn't. They present the sport at its worst -- dull, formless, boring -- and you hope that no one at all is watching. That last requirement seemed to have been achieved at the recent Concacaf Champions League game when D.C. United played at San Juan Jabloteh.

I've never seen an emptier stadium than that -- other than an empty stadium, that is. But all those fans who didn't turn up knew a thing or two. Those of us who watched on television soon found out. The game was the absolute pits. As a promo for the anti-soccer brigade, it could hardly have been better.

Best forgotten. As it soon was, because we've had Barcelona on three times since then, and this is a magical team to watch. Among the intellectual coaching circles it is of course considered gross and ignorant to single out individual players -- especially known stars -- but how is one going to play down the role of Lionel Messi?

It seems that the very air crackles every time he gets anywhere near the ball, crackles with the suddenly supercharged expectations of thousands of fans who know that something unusual, something brilliant, is likely at any moment.

Of how many players can you say that? Messi, obviously -- then there's Cristiano Ronaldo and after that there's a small collection of outstanding players who make things happen, but without the sheer style and glitter and glamour of Ronaldo and Messi. Players like Kaka, Wayne Rooney, Xavi, Didier Drogba - and then a much larger group of just plain stars.

But those two, Messi and Ronaldo, are something special. Well, they're lucky, aren't they? After all, they're always playing on top teams, surrounded by top players who can make them look good. True enough, and if you're in the business of belittling stars -- which plenty of coaches are, for their own rather narrow reasons -- then you can adopt the old attitude that you'd like to see Messi or Ronaldo trying to battle it out in the second division somewhere -- how good would they look then, huh?

It's a pretty daft question, but it gets asked -- and hinted at -- all the time. The jealousy that surrounds players of great talent is quite surprising, as are the vindictive attempts to malign them.

The favorite one, of course, is the slur that stars never do any real work. They don't run, they don't fetch the ball and -- a huge black mark in the modern game -- they don't do enough defending -- "tracking back" I believe it's called among those in the know.

That criticism always comes with a reverse side -- because if the star isn't doing his share of defending, then someone else will have to do it for him (this is clever, modern, tactical thinking that I'm giving you, so please refrain from ribald comments. Thank you.)

Actually that criticism doesn't sound too bad to me -- and the people who make it fully realize that it's not the strongest of anti-star arguments. So they dramatize matters. The stars need help because they won't do the "dirty work." There now, that'll show 'em. So stars are too hoity-toity, not to mention too well paid, to do anything other than be glamorous.

The next stages are perfectly logical. It's then quite OK to measure a few kicks at the stars and to bring them down to earth, literally, because they're too big-headed anyway.

As a corollary to that, instead of praising the stars, who get too much attention as it is, we should laud those who do the dirty work -- those who are forced to do the dirty work by the laziness of the stars.

And so we arrive at a quite extraordinarily distorted image of the sport of soccer. I started off talking about an awful game, one simply not worth watching. A game without outstanding players, with next to no remarkable skills on view ... but with plenty of hard work. I'm not sure it was dirty work, I'm not an expert in that area, but it may have been.

My identikit of the "dirty-worker" is a frantically busy, powerfully but not massively built, midfielder who charges around making often reckless tackles, knocking opponents down, and then protesting vigorously to the referee when he gets carded.

This is a type of player -- let's drop the derogatory description and just call him a hard-worker -- who is admired by a certain type of coach. It should not be a secret where most of those coaches come from. Unfortunately, there are too many of them, and others under their influence, in MLS. Last night, Columbus played well enough, but lost at home to Cruz Azul. I would argue because Columbus has too many mere hard-workers on its team, and not enough skill or creativity. Later, the Colorado Rapids (who, we were assured at the beginning of the season by their coach Gary Smith, would play like Arsenal) dropped two precious points, for exactly the same reason. Smith likes hard-workers -- resulting in a team that is a bore to watch and cannot produce anything surprising enough to break down the San Jose Earthquakes -- the team with the second worst record in MLS.

One thing I do know about these players who do the dirty work: the really skillful teams -- take Barcelona as an example -- don't seem to need them. A team might be able to accommodate one such player, but when there are several -- which is a problem with MLS teams -- then the style of the team suffers, even though it may contain an outstanding player. Yes, those stars need help -- but not that sort of help. To support them, they need quick players with sharp soccer brains, players who can hold the ball when necessary, can beat opponents one-on-one, can pass accurately and quickly. And who do their share of running and tackling without making a fetish of it. Barcelona is such a team.

Last night, nearer home, Mexico's Cruz Azul gave a pretty good exhibition of good soccer based on calm, skillful ball control. And that was against "America's Hardest Working Team."


  1. Kevin Leahy
    commented on: September 24, 2009 at 8 p.m.
    Anyone watching Messi on a regular basis knows how hard he works on the defensive side of the ball. Ronaldo isn't too bad at it either. Who would not want either?

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