Defining World Class

"courtesy of @8bitfootball"

“courtesy of @8bitfootball”

There is an old adage that is true across all walks of life, but is particularly poignant in the world of sport. It goes, ‘Form is temporary. Class is permanent’. But what does that mean? And with the topic being wholly subjective to personal opinion and preference how do we, as individuals, define the parameters to which the term ‘world-class’ can be donned upon a player. I’m certain somebody with more time and resources could make a fairly interesting book out of trying to provide a true definition but in lieu of those aforementioned gifts I’m going to try to do it in around a thousand words. Wish me luck!

Before I look at what world-class is I think it is pertinent to provide some context to my conclusions by defining the term ‘Form is temporary. Class is Permanent’. In my eyes, and remember this is just one man’s opinion, the magic of one moment whilst glorious and beautiful does not make a world-class player. Neither does a series of these moments sporadically appearing over a one or two year period. I would also suggest that for any players in their late teens to be dubbed as ‘world class’ without being prefixed or suffixed with word ‘potential’ somewhere around about it is highly unlikely, although not impossible.

For me, to be world-class, a player has to have a body of work littered with moments of outstanding skill, supplemented by both personal and collective achievements whilst possessing an almost Zen-like aura that demands the confidence of your teammates in every little thing that you do having earned the respect those who deem themselves man enough to stand up against you. What world-class should definitely not be is a catch-all statement for any player, especially a young player, who is billed as the next big thing, something that the likes of Adnan Januzaj and Ross Barkley have been lumbered with in this current season. They may prove to be in the future but at present they are nowhere near; but who is?

Let’s start by making things easy for myself. Lionel Messi is world-class. He’s a statistician’s wet dream, sending goal records tumbling and in this current season turning his considerable talents to the creation of goals over scoring them himself in a slightly amended role within Tata Martino’s Barcelona set up. He is already a human highlight reel of footballing excellence and has shown in countless Clasicos and Champions League finals that his level of performance is not lessened even when the skills of the opposition are at their greatest. There has been criticism levelled at him for the perceived lack of success in the blue and white of Argentina but his skills at club level, perceived by some as superseding international football asking of the modern game, more than make up for this and with a World Cup as close to home as it is ever going to be who’s to say that 2014 will not be his crowning moment.

So what of his perennial challenger for best in the world Cristiano Ronaldo, is he world class? Once again I think the answer would have to be yes, although not as decorated personally Ronaldo still has a goals and assists record that makes the mind boggle. He’s won titles and Champions leagues and in international colours for Portugal he is as close to a one-man team as you will get at the highest level, exemplified by the way he singlehandedly dragged his team to Brazil scoring a hat-trick just when it looked like Sweden had got the better of his nation in Stockholm.

Then there is his nemesis on that particular day, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Winning titles in Holland, Italy, Spain and now France playing for some of the most famous teams in world football. Often derided as being not as good as he thinks he is there is no question that he possesses an aura that demands your attention, and once he has it he is capable of some truly memorable things, would Messi or Ronaldo have had the audacity to attempt a 45 yard overhead kick, never mind score from it? The fact that on that playoff night in Stockholm that he too was moments away from dragging his team to what potentially could have been his last World Cup almost goes forgotten such was the performance of Ronaldo and although he may be at level just below theEl Clasico rivals he too has earned the moniker of ‘world class’.

Being world-class should not be solely reserved for those who strut their stuff in the final third of the pitch. For me the greatest player I have ever seen is Zinedine Zidane, and with a flick and a twirl he changed the meaning of the verb poise to simply read ‘Zizou’. The film, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is not only achingly beautiful from an audio and visual standpoint but essential viewing in understanding why he was so good. His symbolic walk past the World Cup in 20o6 after the head butt heard around the world perhaps tarnished the man but not the playing legend.

The captain of the eventual winners that year Fabio Cannavaro was another world-class performer. Diminutive by centre half standards he is rightly considered one of the greatest central defenders of all time as well as achieving the almost impossible for a defender by winning the Ballon d’Or. In Italy he was known as ‘The Berlin Wall’ so great was ability to make even the greatest strikers look like a Sunday league stalwart feeling the effects of the night before. Perhaps only Vincent Kompany currently has the ability and aura to do even a fraction of what the Italian did for the profile of central defenders in the modern game.

What about Suarez, Ribery, Rooney or Bale, surely they’re world-class? Some will argue they are but does the sum of their personal achievements to date even come close to comparison when stacked against those of just one of the aforementioned individuals? I don’t think so. Nor am I suggesting that the names I have mentioned are the only ones worthy of the title world-class.

Ronaldo, the Brazilian version in this instance, was a part of two World Cup winning squads with his performance in the 2002 final seen as redemption to the farce that was his appearance in the very same game 4 years earlier. Henrik Larsson, whilst spending the majority of his career in Scotland blew away those doubting his class with career defining spells at Barcelona and Manchester United and it would be remiss of me not to make mention to Barcelona once again and the midfield mastery of Spanish midfielders Xavi and Anders Iniesta. There will be a few more, but not many, and for each of these men all have individually contributed to the evolution of the game across the globe and in doing so forming the essence of what world-class should be. Not reserved for the best, or even the very best but for those that have helped form and continue to define footballing generations.

If you enjoyed this then maybe you will enjoy www.meatfilledpastries.com. My footballing adventure searching out the tastiest snacks at grounds across Scotland and beyond. The link is on the right hand side.

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The Boys Who Cry Wolf

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The AFC U22 Championship is not usually where I would find inspiration for the things I write but an incident in the quarter final between South Korea and Syria was sufficient in prompting me into writing about something that more than a niggles. In this instance, with South Korea comfortably leading 2-0 they followed popular convention and kicked the ball out of play so treatment could be given to an injured Syrian midfielder. Syria, however, never got the memo and from the resulting throw in proceeded to score an ultimately meaningless goal in their sides 2-1 defeat in Oman.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, think back to 1999 and that infamous moment when Arsenal striker Kanu, galloping forward in a way that only he could, passed a ball through to Marc Overmars to score the winning goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield United. There was such an uproar that Arsene Wenger felt obliged to offer a replay which Arsenal duly won, would he have been so generous had it been against Manchester United, we’ll never know. There is countless other examples, including that of Luiz Adriano, who after scoring for Shakhtar Donetsk against Nordsjaelland in the Champions League from what should have been uncontested dropped ball, found himself handed a one game suspension for unsportsmanlike conduct.

This issue continues to evolve, highlighted most recently in a game featuring Arsenal once again. With 20 minutes to go and the scores level Arsenal were on the attack with Chelsea midfielder Ramires down in the centre circle, the ball was at the feet of Aaron Ramsey who, clearly unsure what to do, decided to kick the ball out. A decision that brought a handshake from opposition midfielder Frank Lampard but raised the ire of Olivier Giroud and a number of his teammates who believed Ramsey had thrown away a potential advantage in one of the biggest games of the season. Was Ramsey right to do what he did? And to that matter is it right that it should fall into the hands of the players to make that decision?

Well I think the answer should be a resounding no, in today’s footballing climate where going down injured is employed more as a tactic to break up play and time waste as opposed to the occurence of an actual injury. Why should a player place his trust in the fact that another player is not ‘at it’ for want of a better term. We’ve seen it hundred’s of times before, a player goes down, the ball gets played out and minutes later the he is running about at the peak of his powers without a physio even entering the field of play. It’s frustrating to watch and I’d imagine equally frustrating to play alongside as well.

Perhaps the referee should intervene, they already have the right to stop the game for a head injury why not expand that remit to include any injury that they see worthy of a stop in play? Surely a better idea than player intervention but on deeper contemplation still subject to the same fundamental flaws that are a result of a member of either team kicking the ball out of play. Well, except in this situation there is the added pantomime of the player being guided off the pitch only to be waved back on seconds later whenever it takes the official’s fancy.

Then there’s the third option, we don’t stop play at all. I’m not a heartless man, I’m just a man who is fed up of games being interrupted because a player who has got a blade of grass stuck up his nostril is dealt with in the same manner as a player who has torn a ligament or broken a bone. Now generally I’m not an advocate of rules of other sports being transferable to football. I think the addition of a video referee would be a step too far, taking away some of the controversy that we as football fans thrive on, and that sin-binning in a football context would not be as effective as a deterrent as it is in ice hockey and rugby. With that said the method in which players are treated during a game of rugby could and should be implemented in the football matches of today.

For those unfamiliar of the procedure when a player goes down but the game continues and a physio comes on to the field of play to administer treatment when and where required. If the injury is serious then a communication is made to advise of such and the game is stopped.

None of these actions require new technology, they would reduce gamesmanship and time wasting, stop the needless to and fro from the touchline of players and, in theory, as an action it is instantly implementable. I say ‘in theory’ as there would still be a bit of working out to do in relation to such a change. For example if a player is being treated on the field of play do they become inactive? I would suggest they would, meaning that if a defender is lying stricken they can’t play an opponent onside whist at the other end a striker can’t resurrect themselves suddenly whilst realising that they are clean through on goal.

As a resolution it’s not perfect, a first draft of any proposal is testament to that. When a foul is given and there is a natural stop in play then bring the physio on and let treatment be given but don’t then make the victim of the foul traipse off the pitch because you made someone else who was chancing his arm fifteen minutes earlier do the same thing. Like many things in football the best resolutions involve the mythical concept of common sense but until such time arrives in that the myth becomes a reality I think those with the ability to do so should empower themselves to ensure that yet another one of football’s more annoying foibles doesn’t continue to blight the game that we love.

How to Celebrate the FIFA Way

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The last time I went to a game of football and the team I was supporting scored a goal I celebrated, if it was a really big game or a really important goal, I really celebrated, fist pumping, hugging people beside me that I didn’t know and letting out a colourful barrage of joyous expletives that only a Scottish football fan can. Do you know why, because it feel’s brilliant, a release of tension built up over a week of knuckling down and doing some of the things that you necessarily never wanted to do in the first place, all to pay for that ninety minutes on a Saturday, Sunday or whatever day it may be where anything could happen.

Now imagine you are a football player, finely tuned to give everything for those same ninety minutes and you score a goal, what you do next is crucial, how do you celebrate? A knowing nod to the crowd? Do you kneeslide to the corner? Do you gather your teammates together for a ridiculously over choreographed routine involving the lady whose quietly minding her own business at the first aid station, or do you simply stand arms outstretched soaking in the cheers or boos that the crowd are bellowing at you and you alone? Sometimes the classics are the best and wrapped up in the emotion of it all you pull at your sleeve hard and the next thing you know you are whirling your top above your head like you’re about to take off. As things calm down you put your top back on and jog back to the centre circle where you are greeted by a referee standing with his hand in the air waving a yellow card in your face.

Seriously!?!? I know this isn’t a new phenomenon, but an incident in a match between Everton and Southampton agitated me so much that it prompted the words you see before you. With Southampton 1-0 down and 20 minutes left to go substitute Gaston Ramirez took a pop at goal that had no right to go in but Joel Robles in the Everton goal made a hash of it and so with joy Ramirez spun away to celebrate taking his shirt off in the process. That’s not all though. He then gave the shirt to a young Everton fan sitting in the front row. So not only has he pulled his team back into a difficult game but also contributed to making that young fans trip to Goodison one he will likely never forget. His reward for all these positive efforts, a yellow card. It’s just ridiculous.

A quick history lesson, in 1999 Ryan Giggs scored perhaps the greatest FA Cup goal of all time in a semi final against Arsenal that was the culmination of one of the great rivalries of the modern era. A majestic run and finish that continued after the ball had settled in the goal as Giggs, with the hairiest chest seen in the UK since Pete Sampras last changed his shirt at Wimbledon, sprinted around the pitch with his top waving wildly in the air. Did he get booked? Of Course not. So what’s changed?

Well not a lot, a quick glance at the FIFA 2013/14 rulebook and what merits a cautionable offence in relation to the ‘Celebration of a Goal’ can be read as follows:

A player must be cautioned if he removes his shirt or covers his head with his shirt.

Leaving the field of play to celebrate a goal is not a cautionable offence in itself but it is essential that players return to the field of play as soon as possible.

Referees are expected to act in a preventitive manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the celebration of the goal.

In the case of Gaston Ramirez, was common sense used? I don’t think so, and in the numerous other cases where a player is booked for the removal of their shirt is common sense used as best practice? I’m not sure.

It’s all abount interpretation. My interpretation of the rule would be that unless the removal of the shirt is done so in an inflammatory nature or to display a message inappropiate in its context to its surroundings then a yellow card would not be required. However the mandatory wording of the initial law would mean that if this was in force over the last 20 years Fabrizio Ravinelli would have had as many suspensions as he would have had goals, renowned for pulling his shirt over his head whenever he scored a goal, he would have been left to twiddle his thumbs as part of his celebratory routine.

Arguments that players should not show their bare chest are becoming redundent when so many players wear body hugging under armour to prevent muscle strains and a common sense approach can be used in countries where such a gesture will cause offence. The removal of garments to flash an individual sponsors logo like the infamous Nicklas Bendtner boxer incident may cause the bean counters in Geneva a headache but in actuality cause no real harm. In fact the huge deal that FIFA made of it only highlighted Paddy Power’s cause further and that’s without the ludicrousness of a fine that was greater in amount than many given to clubs across the globe for the overt use of racism, violence and homophobia within their grounds.

I am not saying the rule is wrong, as I have stated in some instances a yellow card should be considered, what I am suggesting is to take away the mandatory nature of the caution and let actual common sense on the part of the referee decide the players fate. If we don’t then moments like the one experienced by that young fan at Goodison will be a thing of the past and in my eyes that can not be for the good of the game.