Coaches, of course, can be relied on to say something. Without doubt they are the most frequently quoted contingent in the sport of soccer. They can also be relied on to make themselves highly visible during games by frequently throwing histrionic fits -- it wouldn’t amaze me to learn that we actually see more of the coaches during a telecast than we do of any individual player.
But ... if all the coaches’ statements were bundled up and thrown into the sea, it would be a very good day for the sport, and a very bad one for the fish (as Oliver Wendell Holmes once said about another matter).
Little do they say that is rewarding to read. Even when something interesting escapes their mouths, it is frequently vitiated by an ulterior motive.
For instance. Here we have Arsene Wenger complaining that he has no time at all for the Ballon d’Or award, evidently believing that it causes much too much attention to be given to individual players. If I read Wenger correctly, he’s not begrudging Cristiano Ronaldo his award, but is objecting to all the hype and hullabaloo that surrounds the prize.
Is that really what Wenger thinks, or is he concealing his real motive? I’d say that of all coaches, Wenger, with his relentless pursuit of intelligent soccer, has earned the right to be believed.
I have for a while now, thought of Wenger as one half of soccer’s Odd Couple. The other half being Jose Mourinho. Of course, the two never agree -- but, oddly, this time they do.
"I think Wenger said something that is interesting," Mourinho said in a recent interview. Never mind that Mourinho makes that sound like a rare event -- it is interesting that Mourinho finds Wenger interesting.
Mourinho is praising Wenger for his Ballon d’Or comment. “I think he's right,” says Mourinho, “because in this moment football is losing a little bit the concept of the team to focus more on the individual.”
I’m wondering whether Wenger will welcome that support, coming as it does from the guy who is the sport’s No. 1 headline-hogger. For Mourinho is quite definitely a coach who has plentifully earned the right to have his every utterance thoroughly combed for signs of self-promotion.
You don’t have to look very far -- not least because this is ground that has been trodden before, many times. The determination to downgrade the stars has always been around (a survey of those most keen to promote it would make “interesting” reading, no?). Having demoted the stars, it’s not really feasible to upgrade lesser players in their place, so it’s “the team” that gets the praise. A suitably anonymous collective. But it does have a voice. A self-appointed one. The coach.
The coach will tell us what’s what, why we are wrong to believe that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are match winners, and why the most brilliant star is really no better -- well, no more valuable -- than your average defender.
Suddenly, the focus has shifted. Twice. Talking about soccer in terms of its stars is wrong (a judgment that I do not disagree with). We should be assessing things from a team point of view. (Well, yes -- maybe. It depends). Who can speak for the team? The coach, naturally. So we find ourselves back to dealing with an individual again -- not a player who’s better than everyone else, but a coach who knows everything.
Thus does the self-deprecating Mourinho ...
[I really have to interrupt myself here to bring in a classic piece of Mourinho faux modesty, one in which he trips himself up most perfectly. He tells us “The manager is not the most important person in the club -- of course not. I keep saying, the most important person in the club is first the supporters, secondly the owner, third the players, and then I come.” Note that “I.” The logical fourth member of Mourinho’s list, to go with the anonymity that shrouds the other three contributors, would be “the manager.” Not for Mourinho. For him it is “I”. Me. Mourinho.]
The self-deprecating Mourinho. He may even have something original to say about the individual vs. team squabble, but his determination to shove himself center-stage all the time undermines his words.
Anyway, with all due respect to Wenger, I do not believe there is a case to be made here (and certainly not one that ends up eulogizing coaches). I suppose it is clear enough that some players are better than others. And that some are massively better. That difference is already recognized, well before the Ballon d’Or puts in an appearance, by the size of the players’ paychecks.
Now, the fact that top players earn phenomenal salaries -- many times what top coaches rake in -- must clearly impact the relationship the two. The players earn more money, they get more mentions in the media, they win more awards.
Welcome to celebrity soccer. That is where we are in 2015. If there are coaches who find that difficult to live with, if they believe it interferes with their ability to create, manage, and inspire a team, I think they have a case. But that’s a problem that goes with the job -- one they’re paid (quite well, after all) to solve.
That Mourinho should add his voice to Wenger’s anti-Ballon protests -- and then turn his support into a vehicle for self-promotion -- is no surprise. We’ve become used to egocentricity from “the special one.”
The Ballon d’Or is not going to go away. The chances are high that there will be more of these awards, probably much less honorable, but the marketing mob will ensure that they are accompanied by celebrity galas. Wenger would have us believe that whatever soccer value the Ballon has is overwhelmed by its nuisance contribution. But trying to ignore it, which seems to be Wenger’s approach, is to make out that star players either don’t really exist or that they’re more trouble than they’re worth.
That’s considerably more acceptable than Mourinho’s disreputable approach ... but can it really be that bad when a worldwide vote of national team coaches and journalists selects Ronaldo or Messi or whoever for what has become the sport’s highest award? Individual award, that is.