For the past decade, the Ballon d’Or pedestal has featured two very different dudes: one, short and skinny with unkempt hair and a wry smile; the other, a tall and muscular dude with an Adam’s Apple the size of a softball and skin fake-baked to a dark orange normally associated with oompa loompas. I speak of Argentine Lionel Messi and Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet, without detracting from their accomplishments, I want to take a step back from the “individual star player” discourse that permeates the web.
In fact, I actually want to dissect and deconstruct it.
As a starting point, in the West, we love us some individuals. Or, rather, more accurately “the individual,” which historically makes some sense. During Europe’s Renaissance period, this crazy idea that each and every person possessed dignity and value gripped the old world. Kings stopped beheading individual peasants on a whim and, eventually, governments transitioned from divine right monarchies to democracies. Bills of rights proliferated, the Guggenheim press was invented, migration patterns pushed populations westward, to the Americas, and then eventually Al Gore created the internet. Now you can’t click on more than three soccer articles without coming across a Messi vs. Ronaldo comparison. Every month, one of them breaks a new “record” nobody really cared about until just now.
Today, sports writing and culture at large fawn over the individual. While a focus on individual excellence is certainly reasonable, this phenomenon in soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, is particularly curious since it, in essence, is a game that lends itself to the brilliance of the collective more so than the single person. There are just too many bodies playing defense on the field for a single player to consistently create goals for him or herself. And thus, even the greats need a strong supporting cast. In Barcelona, can you imagine the brilliance of Messi without the stunning Spanish midfield of Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets? And in Madrid, while Cristiano Ronaldo has set the all-time goal scoring record for Real Madrid, the singular focus on his amazingness hides Madrid’s long and troubled history of fixating on star players.
Real Madrid’s galacticos policy is a perfect example of the blind spots that arise by focusing on the star. Here’s a brief and depressing history lesson: At the end of the nineties, things started to go a little too well at the Bernabeu. The Merengues won the Champions League in 1998, 2000, and 2002. That’s three titles in six years, even better than the current Barcelona team’s three Champions League titles in seven years (09, 11, and 15). The team had a great coach, Vicente del Bosque, and a healthy roster replete with star strikers, gifted midfielders, and graceful defenders. However, Florentino Perez, elected president of the club in 2000, was blinded by the star player narrative of sport. He wanted big names on the back of jerseys so that he could sell more jerseys and tickets. In 2002, lesser-known player Claude Makelele (who?) was sold to Chelsea and Del Bosque got the axe also for not going along.
In their place, Perez signed David Beckham and a never-ending carousel of coaches. Real Madrid quickly went from the top of Europe to a huge, stinking mess. Titles and trophies dried up. Weird individuals with odd names like Luxemburgo and Juande Ramos coached teams featuring Thomas “grooossss” Gravesen. The ship’s course began to straighten when Ramon Calderon became president. Suddenly, stars were replaced by Emerson, Mahamadou Diarra, and even Fernando Gago. The closest the team came to flair was the Dutch midfield tandem of Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Dutch strikers Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Jan Huntelaar bagged plenty of goals, but did not inspire one’s imagination.
And that was okay. In fact, it was better than okay. In 2008, Real Madrid was so far ahead of the Barcelona of Ronaldinho that they were treated to a pasillo in La Liga’s Spring Clasico. And who doesn’t love a good guard of honor from your rival?
But then Perez returned as President. He signed Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kaka. Madrid fans worried about a Galactico 2.0 era with big names and few trophies. However, the team has also brought in talented midfielders like Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos.
Today, Ronaldo may not bag goals at the same feverish pace, but Benitez’s Real Madrid has the best offense in La Liga and the second-best defense. The stars have not shined brightly, but Isco, Jese, and Lucas Vasquez have contributed key goals. The collective has trumped the individual. Things could be better, but it’s not a crisis point.
At Barca, the opposite may be true. The expensive signings of stars like Neymar and Luis Suarez has the team atop La Liga, but also may be papering over cracks. Barcelona manager Luis Enrique introduced a more vertical style last season, at odds with the patience and possession ethos nurtured at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy. Also, a few great performances from Sergi Roberto aside, the cantera-to-first team pipeline has dried up a bit.
Based on their ages (and that most cruel crippler of all: time), soccer fans must accept that we are on the eve of a decline for both Ronaldo and Messi. However, they’ve both basked in our attention too much anyway. An unhealthy obsession with a single player like Messi and Ronaldo can cause us to overlook either a beautifully crafted team (like Barca circa 2011) or not realize we’re aboard a Titanic headed for an iceberg (Real Madrid circa 2003).