By Paul Gardner
Ever since the 17-year-old Pele was the star of the 1958 World Cup we’ve been waiting for another talented teenager to come along and emerge as a superstar by taking over a World Cup the way that Pele did.
Of course we’re still waiting. It’s been 56 years and the closest we’ve come was a tremendous goal that the 18-year-old Michael Owen scored for England against Argentina in 1998.
We ought to have realized by now that Pele was a one-off, a phenomenon, and we’re unlikely to see his like again. The World Cup is not for teenagers. But the idea of the young genius, a kid with wonder in his eyes and magic in his skills, who bursts suddenly on the sporting scene and is immediately better than everyone is evidently one that has an abiding appeal. It’s something we all treasure. We want it to happen, so we keep it alive. We keep looking for the miracle that was Pele to repeat itself.
It nearly happened in 1978 -- I mean, maybeit nearly happened -- when the Argentine coach Cesar Menotti decided that the country’s 17-year old whizz-kid was not ready, and left him off the team. And without Diego Maradona, Argentina won the World Cup anyway, so who’s to argue?
We’ve seen all 32 of this year’s World Cup teams now, and we know, yet again, that there won’t be any teenage miracles to thrill us. But maybe we’ve got the next best thing: a team with twoterrific youngsters.
We’re a few years north of the teenage line here: James Rodriguez is 22, and his teammate on the Colombia squad, Juan Quintero, is 21. James (he’s known by his first name) wears the hallowed No. 10 for Colombia, indicating the playmaker, the guy who runs things, who makes everything click.
That’s already a hell of a responsibility for a 22-year-old, but with Colombia the role carries an awesome added burden. Just weeks before the World Cup Colombia lost Falcao to injury. One of the most feared goalscorers in the world, Falcao was good enough for many to believe that Colombia were a one-man team. Without him, forget Colombia.
So far, in Brazil 2014, Colombia has won both of its games and has scored five goals -- two of them from James. That’s almost a luxury, because Rodriguez’s main work has been as a playmaker and he has been doing that in splendidly ubiquitous and skillful fashion, earning FIFA’s Man of the Match award in the 3-0 win over Greece.
Yesterday, Colombia beat Ivory Coast 2-1. James was again The Man of the Match. He scored the first goal with a powerful header -- showing yet more versatility, because heading is not considered a strength of his, not at 5-foot-10).
But Colombia’s second goal, the winning goal, is worth attention. It was scored by Quintero, who had come on to the field 17 minutes earlier, for his first taste of World Cup action. Quintero got his chance thanks to James -- who else? -- who stole the ball in midfield, a sudden, totally unexpected switch in the direction of play. But Quintero was immediately ready as he sprinted toward the Ivory Coast goal. The ball went rapidly from James to Teofilo Gutierrez to the speeding Quintero who controlled it immaculately, dribbled forward and chose exactly the right moment to his a hard low shot past the advancing goalkeeper.
A breathtaking goal ... and who were we thinking of as the tiny 5-foot-6 left-footed Quintero made it all look so easy? Yes, this was a goal typical -- and worthy -- of Lionel Messi.
So Colombia is through to the next round. Where it can test the orthodox wisdom that you don’t -- or can’t -- win the World Cup with kids. Maybe not, but the youngsters certainly liven things up, with their soccer and with their smiles.
One team that will not be around when the second round starts is Australia. And there is no reason to regret that, for the Aussies have never done anything to bring enjoyment or good soccer to the World Cup. They first turned up in 1974, where they lost to West Germany and to East Germany and tied Chile 0-0, and failed to score any goals.
They were pretty bad, crude, but this was the first time, a learning experience maybe. Trouble was that Australia didn’t qualify again for another 32 years. When they returned in 2006, they showed few signs of improvement. Physical play was still the norm, with plenty of rustic tackles. Yet they powered their way into the second round where they held Italy 0-0 until the 95th minute, when the Spanish referee gave Italy a penalty kick. So Australia departed, while their devotees (themselves and the English, mostly) poured bitter criticism on the penalty kick.
On Wednesday, as the Aussies lost to the Netherlands, we were reminded, several times, of this “highly controversial” penalty from eight years ago. The commentators, Brits mostly, left no doubt where their sympathies lay.
With the underdog Aussies. Fair enough, but not when the underdogs show no sign of willingness to play decent soccer. But the thing is, they did do that against the Dutch. It wasn’t exactly the Beautiful Game, but it was 10 times better than anything the Aussies have ever shown us before. The Dutch didn’t need any last-minute controversial penalty kick to beat them, but the Aussies had played well, and they had, finally, shown signs of wanting to play soccer rather then rugby.
The English, it seems, will go home early, too. No surprise there, but again we have a team that seems finally to have understood that its traditional strengths are not necessarily the ones that matter in the modern game. Change in English soccer takes time.
Doesn’t it ever. A hell of a long time. While I was watching England succumb to the inspired Luis Suarez, on the Daily Mail’s live blog one of their journalists posted this: “England must put more pressure on the Uruguay goalkeeper. He looks like a weak link.”
That insight, more accurately it’s a cliche, is one that I must have heard hundreds of time. It comes from the days (in the 1940s and 1950s) when the English were quite certain they had the best goalkeepers in the world. Which meant that foreign keepers were automatically inferior. So they should be rattled with lots of shots and, of course, crosses. After which, England would win the game. The fact that England hardly ever does win games like that (well, against San Marino, maybe) is a reality that has yet to sink in.
Getting stuck in and peppering goalkeepers with crosses can not be thought of as essentials for intelligent, World Cup-winning soccer.
Then there’s Spain. They’ve ruled the soccer world since they won the 2008 European Championship. That’s a long time, so its demise should not come as a surprise. But it does surprise that the team, which hasn’t changed much, which isn’t full of older players past their best, should so suddenly look so ordinary. The Spanish collapse against the Dutch looked like the collapse of everything. This marvelous team suddenly looked inept, incapable of doing anything to stop the rampant Dutch. Just one of those days? I think not, because the Spanish were equally unable to keep the much less rampant Chileans at bay.
Something has gone. A missing link? That sounds much too mechanical. That old musical mystery, The Lost Chord, comes closer. Harmony has disappeared. Can we expect it to return as suddenly as it vanished? I don’t think so. We will get a new Spanish team, faithful to its style, but it will be different because the chief maestri -- Xavi and Iniesta -- will be missing. Yes, that’s all to be regretted, but that’s soccer, the modern game. Just as we shouldn’t be looking for teenagers to rule the World Cup, we shouldn't be expecting dynasties either.