The small guys -- from Jimmy Greaves to Lionel Messi -- are the ones who matter most

By Paul Gardner

This week has brought home, in as dramatic a way as I ever recall, the joy and the sadness, the ecstasy and the agony, I suppose the smiles and the tears, that sports bring with them.

It might have been any sport, but in this case it was our sport. Soccer. On Sunday we learned that Jimmy Greaves has suffered a serious stroke. That name, that simple name, may not mean too much to today’s fans, which is a great pity.

Jimmy played in England from 1957 to 1971. Not all that long ago, but time marches so quickly and so brutally on. Already the photographs of Greaves in action, so many of them in black and white, look dated.

A terrible lie, that. There was nothing dated about Greaves. I saw quite a lot of him in his first two years as a youngster with Chelsea. He played his first game as a 17-year-old, and he scored a goal. Well, the previous season with Chelsea youth team, he’d been running riot, scoring 122 goals, averaging close to three goals a game.

And that prolific goalscoring never stopped, never, throughout his 14-year career. In 157 games with Chelsea he scored 124 goals. In 1961 A.C. Milan signed him (a rare move -- English players were not then -- indeed, are not now -- in much demand in Europe). Greaves had a miserable homesick time in Italy, lasted only long enough to play in 12 games. In which he managed to score 9 goals.

Back in England, he joined Tottenham Hotspur. Games played: 321. Goals scored 220. It was the same story with England -- 57 appearances, 44 goals. With the England under-23 teams, he averaged over a goal a game -- 13 goals in 12 games.

The beauty - and, yes, that is the right word, the only word that tells the tale -- of Greaves’s play came from the smooth artistry of everything he did. At 5-foot-8 he was not a big man, not at all in the long English tradition of bulky, bruising No. 9s (though his coach at Chelsea, Ted Drake, had been just such a player for Arsenal).

Even so, Greaves practiced his artistry in the hard world of English first division soccer, where vigorous tackling and heavy shoulder-charging dominated. Greaves survived -- and those stats tell you he did more, he dominated.

He was -- certainly for me -- a joy to watch, quicker and sharper and smoother than his opponents. Always. The goals came as a result of those instincts, most of them -- well, most of those I recall -- scored from within the penalty area.

The movement and the ball control seemed always just right, just what was needed at that moment, no more no less, the finish was also whatever was needed, a vicious blast of the ball, a carefully aimed side-foot, a neat header.

Somebody -- actually, it may have been Greaves himself -- said his “secret” was that he was always so cool and unhurried in the penalty area. I think so, that seemed likely. It went with Greaves’ image of a happy boy, a cheeky, chirpy, London Cockney spirit who enjoyed every second of what he was doing. Though he wasn’t strictly a Cockney, having been born in Essex, but apart from that dismal 1961 interlude in Italy, all of his pro career was played with London clubs -- Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham.

For Greaves, soccer -- which meant goalscoring to him -- was a simple affair. He just did it. He came up with a wonderful comment on the theories of the new breed of technical coaches who were beginning to gain influence in England in the 1960s: “Listening to them, you’d think it must be easier to split the atom than to score a goal.”

Greaves had his post-career problems with alcohol, but he went on to become a much admired and loved TV star. The cockney humor was infectious.

If only we had more Jimmy Greaveses and fewer atom-splitters on the field today, how much better a game soccer would be.

Get well, Jimmy.

From sadness to joy. But still with beauty. On Wednesday we saw Lionel Messi score two magnificent goals for Barcelona. Goals that were born of pure soccer artistry. I don’t need to extol the virtues of Messi the soccer player -- especially not at this moment, when he is being hailed as “the greatest ever.” Maybe so, if such a thing can ever be proved.

But Messi from Argentina and Greaves from Essex, so far apart geographically, are blood bothers is soccer. Players who always seem to have fun, who play with boyish glee. Beyond that they have something else in common. Greaves is 5-8. Messi is 5-7.

For soccer giants, they are small men. Is that their secret then? I admit, I think that way. I was already thinking along those lines in England in the late 1940s when I watched a lot of Arsenal games. A good team at that time. The star -- well, the teenage me appointed him the star -- was their Scottish inside forward Jimmy Logie. It seems to be agreed nowadays that Logie (he died in 1984) was 5-4 tall. Or short. Which seems impossible, but may well be the truth. He was always the smallest player on view. And usually the best. A wee bundle of trickery and of course artistry.

Just like Diego Maradona (5-5), Pele (5-8), Romario (5-6), Landon Donovan (5-8) and many more. Even Johann Cruyff, who was 5-11 can be added. For he was as slender and lithe as a willow. Not a physical presence.

Players of surpassing brilliance who were never going to dominate any game with physical play. To succeed in soccer they had to develop the real, the true soccer skills, the ones that make the sport special. In plain English, they had to become real soccer players.

Sometimes I fear that these specially gifted small players are disappearing from the game. Probably not. But there is always the fear that they will be bullied out of it by the loud voices that keep calling for physical play, that like to remind us, in braying tones, that soccer is “a man’s game, it’s a contact sport.” The ones who currently bang on about “going down too easily,” the ones who are always so ready to find excuses for violent play.

Quite definitely, I have reached the stage when I no longer have the slightest patience with those guys. Do they really want a sport without Greaves or Pele or Messi or Donovan? A sport in which hard-tackling iron-men are allowed to stamp on artistry whenever it manages to surface. A sport in which fouls that involve tripping or mugging the artists are called “good fouls.” And where anything that looks like real soccer is sneeringly called “tippy-tappy” play -- that was John Terry’s recent put-down of Arsenal.

Against this Neanderthal thinking, there has always been a thin line of the sport’s very best players, determined to show that a true soccer game is one that showcases soccer skills. Not one that looks like rugby.

Soccer owes a huge debt to all those little guys -- very much including Jimmy Greaves -- who have graced and enlivened the game in the past, and to the incomparable Lionel Messi who, with skill and superb artistry, leads the sport today.

10 comments about "The small guys -- from Jimmy Greaves to Lionel Messi -- are the ones who matter most ".
  1. R2 Dad, May 9, 2015 at 1:55 a.m.

    Good read; these smaller players have shown us the fallacy of "bigger is better". You can add the Atomic Ant to that list, showing MLS management that magic excites the crowds, not full-blooded tackling.

  2. Thomas Brannan, May 9, 2015 at 4:26 a.m.

    Tuesday, 17th October, 1972 GOODBYE GREAVES MATCH, Price 70p. Spurs vs. Feyenoord. Ticket # 0025. Park Lane Stand. Still have it. Laminated.

    First half Greaves is at the top of the box, left side. Ball goes all the way on the ground to the far right corner. GOAL.
    Goooo Jimmy, Jimmy. Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy Greaves. Clapping then SOLD OUT, clapping then SOLD OUT. etc.

    Still have pictures of the line outside and the game. One of the best soccer experiences I ever had.

  3. Joe Linzner, May 9, 2015 at 8:52 a.m.

    An article to treasure and a walk into yesteryear which incredibly parallels my own remembrances..To my recollection it has always been the small player that made the game magic, beginning with the world cup in 1954. There too the magic was supplied by those who today would be shunned as being too small. Hannappi, Ocwirk, Koerner, Puscas, Hidekuti, Wagner and the list is endless. It is truly sad that we have adopted the english game here in the US where Bigger is always better, wher the ability to bounce people off the ball is more important than pure technical skill on the ball..I remember being part of select team invited to play Santos back in the '60s' and having a small black Pearl weave in and out and score at will. We lost 10-1 although I do not recall who scored for us I do remember one goal specifically as I was on the 16 Meter Line marking rebound...Fro 30 Meters he touched the ball into the upper right corner with a hook that to this day has me perplexed...... That day was totally depressing for me because it made me realise what a totally pedestrian player I truly was......However the Joy of watching Santos play with the ball and us certainly is a memory I will never forget....Good column Mr Gardner.

  4. David V, May 9, 2015 at 11:32 a.m.

    What an ignorant comment... "Sometimes I fear that these specially gifted small players are disappearing from the game." ... where has PGardner been for the past 9 years? Though all past their primes... these are small players... David Villa, world's most prolific goal scorer from 2006-2010 (his prime was 2008 or 2009), Xavi and Iniesta, but equally good but in their own ways... the best midfield duo of all time.. Hello Gardner? anyone home?, you are more England/English bias than you advertise to be... the greatest national team of all time enjoyed these players, (feel free to pick which year or years within the following time frame, 2006-2013, they dominated all for an unprecedented time... they may have peaked in 2007-2008, but you England bias typed didn't even know that because they weren't on your radar screen until the trophies were one, they have the longest unbeaten streak in history, even Pele said they were better than his '70 team... the best club of all time enjoyed these players (Barca 2010-2011, which is better than this year's version, as great as the current team is)... one last point, to ignorant coaches in British football and EPL-wise-only coaches and/or American-anglophile coaches (most here in the US are anglophile coaches... not sure why though)- to all these woefully ignorant coaches (by the way, what has England done or won since they were lucky 49 years ago?) - to these coaches, I often remind them that Pele, Messi, Xavi, Villa, Iniesta, Maradona, Garrincha, Puskas... none of them would have made it here in America, because brilliant American coaches, in their Anglophile ways, throw out those type of players from the player pools by the time they are 9 or 10 and concentrate on "pace and power" (to quote the England/English mantra...

  5. Ric Fonseca, May 9, 2015 at 12:09 p.m.

    Hey, David V, even though many times I do not agree with Senor Gardner, I believe your rant is quite pedantic and sophomorish. I suggest you read this of the newest of PG's articles and get the gist of what he's conveying, the brilliance of Greaves and Messi while mentioning others of similar height, and sure PG is a sort of a "displaced" anglophile (by birthright) and while he is, then I too am a "Latino/Mexicophile" - also by birthright, and so I will just close by saying to you, so what?

  6. Alvaro Bettucchi, May 9, 2015 at 4:39 p.m.

    All I can say to this article is....."AMEN!" I have been an "Earthquake" fan, since day one, during the NASL. I love the "beautiful game", but the MLS is slowly becoming the old physical English game. I hope it stll can be saved.

  7. Lou vulovich, May 9, 2015 at 6:26 p.m.

    What Paul fails to mention is often the little guy is not a front runner when he is very. The little guy
    Shows a lot of skill and brains and potential but there is no development plan for him, no one cares that he will reach his physical peak later at 19-20-21, so he is usually pushed aside if he can not protect himself or is not looked after and protected by referees. So my advice is if your son is small and talented teach him to be tough early and resilient, don't look for coaches or referees to protect him it will not happen. He has to be tough without compromising his style. Than he has a chance created by himself, because no matter how many Lionel Messi come and go sadly the little guy will always have to prove himself again and again.

  8. Kent James, May 10, 2015 at 3:18 p.m.

    Paul rightfully celebrates the success of the little guy, but David V. has a point about the little guys (I'm looking at you Barcelona) having a resurgence of late. And while the sublime skills of a player like Messi are a joy to behold, diminutive size is not necessary to be a great player; I think one of the most beautiful aspects of the beautiful game is that the body you were born with does not dictate your ability to achieve success. Athleticism is always a plus, but sometimes a lack of the same encourages players to develop guile, and deception, to allow success over more athletic players. And even teams can adapt; teams with less natural talent can succeed, through teamwork and disciplined defense. In short, soccer is a very democratic sport; all are welcome and all have a chance to succeed.

  9. BJ Genovese, May 11, 2015 at 8:59 p.m.

    Well said Lou, they will have to prove themselves always. Here in the US when the little player loses the ball or has a bad play its ingrained in most coaches though process to think its becuase he is small. Given less chances to prove pushes them to not make mistakes. Refs here dont help. Most of the time when they do go down they think its because they are smaller and lighter there for it was an easy fall... and they dont get a deserved call. I love this article. Im biased and have a Son who was and is usaually the smallest on the pitch. But he is still being invited to stuff and regarded highly. I believe its because of these players mentioned in PG's article. Smaller players still have to work hard to be the best technically and tactically. But we need coaches and DOC's that can not be pressured for results in development. They have to worship potential.

  10. Thomas Hosier, May 12, 2015 at 12:51 a.m.

    Being the grandfather of the smallest player on the pitch I gotta go with Paul ... the little guys bring the magic with their quickness, low center of gravity and relationship with ball. My grandson has led his team in assists and goals scored since he started playing at U6. At U15 he is still the generally the smallest player on the pitch. With that said he is also the most fouled player in the game. Still only about 1/2 the fouls committed on him are ever given during a game. The refs allow to much thuggery and muggery .... pushing, tripping and grabbing without consequences. I agree with Paul the thugs and muggers have got to go ... it is all in the hands of the refs, the coaches, and the parents. Why develop skills if you can be thug and a mugger without consequence. Thanks for the article Paul!

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