By Paul Gardner
I have not found the prospect of the upcoming World Cup overly enthralling. Quite aside from the obviously political and anything-but-soccer reasons for staging it in South Africa, I find am finding it difficult to get excited about the soccer itself.
Why would that be? Mostly, I’ll admit, because of Brazil. Yes, I feel that Brazil probably is the favorite to win it, and rightly so. No other country has the wealth of talent available that Coach Dunga has to choose from. But it’s Dunga who is at the center of my Brazil problem. I just don’t like the way he has Brazil playing. He calls it effective, and no doubt it is. But what it is not is Brazilian.
Dunga’s Brazil is soccer pragmatism at work. Winning is all, it is the end that matters -- the means to that end are of little value, apparently. So Dunga will give us an “effective” workmanlike Brazil and no one will complain -- should it win the World Cup.
It may well. But it might equally well win by playing in a more traditionally Brazilian way, with a good deal more inventiveness and style and artistry. There’s no way of telling -- you don’t get to replay the World Cup and try a different style to see what might have happened. If Brazil wins, the Dunga way of doing things will, alas, be hailed -- even though there will be no proof at all that he couldn’t have been equally successful with a more stylish team.
So Brazil will disappoint me. I look instead to Spain for sparkling soccer. They can do it. But will they? Disappointment is a word that supremely describes all of Spain’s World Cup campaigns up to now, 12 of them, starting in 1934. Not even a semifinal appearance to show for all of them. Spain has never got beyond the quarterfinals.
But maybe we have a new Spain. Spain carried off the 2008 European Championship in great style, so maybe this is finally a team that can win the big one. I hope so -- though, if you get my meaning, I shall not be disappointed if the Spaniards disappoint me, yet again.
Argentina? Well, I’m not sure. In many ways Argentina was the best team in Germany four years ago. Certainly better than the over-praised Germans who knocked them out. But will the Argentines, under the shaky tutelage of Diego Maradona, be any less prone to losing games they should have won? Until last week, I did not rate them at all -- mostly because I feel they are short of top rate defenders. But then, they played solidly to beat Germany. Maybe . . .
As for England, another team to be numbered among the serial disappointers, I don’t rate it too highly. But, perhaps ...
And there you have it, a “maybe” for Argentina, and a “perhaps” for England, hesitations that may change all my thought about World Cup 2010. The maybe is named Lionel Messi. The perhaps is Wayne Rooney. Two terrific players, both very much in form, and doing precisely what can take their teams to World Cup glory: scoring goals.
There are obvious similarities. Both are young (Rooney is 24, Messi 22); neither is a big man - Rooney is average height at 5-foor-10, while Messi is small at 5-7. Both wear the No. 10 shirt. Rooney has played 58 times for England, scoring 25 goals, Messi’s totals for Argentina are 43 caps with 13 goals.
There is a key difference -- Rooney is right-footed, Messi is left-footed. And there is this: Messi is a typical Argentine creative player, in the unbroken tradition from Jose Manuel Moreno to Omar Sivori and on up to Diego Maradona. Rooney strikes me as something of a throwback to the days in the 1940s and 1950s, when English soccer had a school of brilliant inside-forwards, including Raich Carter, Wilf Mannion, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen. It is Mortensen -- muscular, speedy, a thunderous shot with both feet, a powerful header -- whom Rooney most recalls. I’d never thought that much of Rooney’s heading, but just lately he’s scored some great headed goals.
A year or so ago, I would have added another difference, one that argued strongly against Rooney ever achieving greatness: his bad temper and generally poor sportsmanship on the field. Not any more. In no time at all, Rooney has undergone an amazing change, from a peevish wild boy, to a disciplined player who can be trusted with the captain’s armband.
As for Messi, it is of course his uncanny dribbling that catches the eye and makes him such a threat to opponents. It frankly defies analysis and any description that I have to offer while tying to praise it is likely to diminish it instead.
Both Rooney and Messi are currently in superb goalscoring form -- it’s almost as though Messi’s three goals for Barcelona yesterday were his reply to the pair that Rooney scored for Manchester United earlier in the day.
It is extremely rare for a single player to dominate a team’s World Cup performance. In fact, it’s really only happened once -- when Diego Maradona was the one-man inspiration who led a solid, but not great, Argentina to the the 1986 title. Not even Pele did that - both in 1958 and 1970 he was a star among many Brazilian stars.
But suddenly we have two possible candidates for inspirational glory. England and Argentina seem to me to be good teams that could be raised to victory by outstanding performances from Rooney and Messi. There is even a third possibility, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, a superstar with the potential to transform another not-quite team.
This is exciting stuff, not least because it puts players, rather than coaches, in the spotlight.