Why can't this generation's best transcend to major tournaments?
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Legend and myth give us many warriors whose strength or skill in battle made them worth ten or more normal soldiers. Hercules, Achilles, Karna, Beowulf, Atalanta, Cu Chulainn. Football has its share of such heroes from Pele to Cruijff to Maradona. Some, like Achilles with his heel, were known for having a specific weakness. In the current generation of FIFA heroes, that weakness appears to be winning international trophies for their countries.
Among the ranks of 'living legends', only Cristiano Ronaldo has reaped national glory. Even with a fresh generation of stars such as Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix, the Selecao are happy to continue riding CR7's back until the 34-year-old can no longer carry them.
Winning a World Cup, AFCON, Euro or Copa America requires navigating three group stage matches followed by either three or four elimination matches. At worst, that's only seven Herculean tasks rather than 10 although it might be interesting to see Ronny or Lionel Messi figure out how to clean out the Ataturk Olympic Stadium after the 2020 Champions League final. That would be a match for the Aegean stables providing either superstar can get there first.
We're wandering back into club football, however, and we're discussing heroes who can't get it done with their international sides. Here's a look at several.
Why hasn’t an active legend like Messi who averages 40 goals per season helped his country win any major title at senior level? He made many Argentina faithful believe it was possible with Under 20 World Cup and Olympics successes but their faith has withered in the ensuing decade. Like Jason in his pursuit of the Golden Fleece, Leo has journeyed far and wide in search of glory and conquest. To date, he is yet to find it.
Messi’s inability to win a trophy for his country at the senior level doesn’t come from a lack of trying. The Barcelona star led his nation to a World Cup final in 2014 then followed up with two Copa America finals in 2015 and 16. Tragically, he came away emptyhanded. In this year's Copa, Brazil sent him packing in the semifinal. The 32-year-old will have one more crack at the South American title next year. We can only wait to see if he can make the 2022 World Cup.
Sergio Aguero, Angel di Maria and co.
Jason had his Argonauts. Messi has La Albiceleste. In terms of skill and valour, there is little difference.
Few will dispute that Sergio Aguero is the greatest Premier League striker since Thierry Henry. The diminutive Argentine scarcely finishes a campaign without battling injuries yet scores no less than 25 times per campaign. With 231 strikes in 338 appearances, Aguero is Manchester City’s record scorer. He has sailed with Messi for over a decade now but hasn't been able to make a difference in Argentina's futility.
The parade of names who join them in failure is long. Angel di Maria, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Mascherano, Martin Palermo, Paulo Dybala, Ezequiel Garay, Gonzalo Higuain and too many more.
Yes, Ibra is still playing. Like it or not, MLS counts.
The big Swede likes to brag about individual accomplishments, making Los Angeles the perfect place to end his career. Although he has yet to hoist silverware in the United States, his club achievements in Europe are legendary. League titles with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. More than 500 career goals.
Unfortunately, that never translated into success with Sweden, unless you count that ridiculous 30-yard bicycle kick against England. Of course, he didn't have any Argonauts to back his play. The closest the Yellow and Blue came to a trophy was the Round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup.
You knew we'd eventually roll around to the Brazilian playboy. Despite his theatrics when fouled, Neymar Junior remains one of the best dribblers of his generation. He knows how to score too. His achievements at club level make him the most expensive player in history. It’s why Brazil relies heavily on him. This year's Copa America suggested that may have been a mistake.
With Neymar, the Brazilian senior team hasn’t won a trophy. Without him, they just did. The Paris Saint-Germain star is regarded as Brazil’s new Pele but do they really need to build castles around his name? The Selecao's success at Copa America 2019 shows they’re a stronger force without the 27-year-old trying to do everything himself.
The plague has seemingly caught up with Liverpool’s Mo Salah. Unstoppable with Liverpool, he can’t help Egypt win anything.
Like Messi, Salah drove Egypt to the AFCON final in 2017 where they lost. Failure to go beyond the last 16 in 2019 battered his Ballon d’Or chances if he had any to begin with.
The root of the problem
The tendency to believe all the hype, forget that football is a game for 11 players and take too much upon themselves is the Achilles heel for all these superstars.
Of the group, only Zlatan has any right to complain over the lack of quality among his compatriots. Egypt is the AFCON's most prolific champion. The current side had other players of quality. Trezeguet. Mohamed Elneny. Ahmed El Mohamady. Ahmed Hegazi. As hosts, Salah and his crew should have done better in this year's tournament.
Obviously, Neymar, Aguero and Messi can have no complaints about their teammates' ability. It bores down to cohesion. A team that can’t play well together can’t win together. The big star can only try so hard. Some will argue his comrades must step up. Others will say he must let them. Either way, we're talking about a collection of talented individuals rather than a team united in a common cause.