Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the death of the individual
There is no I in team.
We’ve already lost you, haven’t we? You’ve already rolled your eyes in distaste at a cliché you’ve come to expect from TV pundits. Stick with us though.
The post-mortems have been conducted, ladies and gentlemen. Argentina, Germany, Portugal and Spain’s premature exits from the 2018 World Cup have been the subject of much debate and pub-chat. It would be naïve to suggest that the reason these sides boarded a plane departing Russia can be attributed to one problem. Like anything in life – from explaining why you really, genuinely, actually wrote up your essay but that your dastardly printer broke, oh, and the internet went so you couldn’t email it either - there are a number of different factors that have converged to doom the hopes of the respective nations.
Yet in the case of Argentina and Portugal, specifically, there is something to be said for the damaging reliance on the individual. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – have any other words ever been paired together so frequently in the history of writing? – have both come to define their national sides. Ronaldo triumphed in France two years ago, literally becoming player-manager as he limped off with just minutes gone in the final but conducted his own orchestra on the side-lines. His example has been used to scorn Messi’s inability to do the same with Argentina, but anyone pertaining to that point of view probably thinks that Paul Pogba will never truly be great until he gets a damned sensible haircut.
Apart from frankly outrageous talent that bridges the two together, there is also a national burden that links their causes. The diminutive Argentine and the imposing Portuguese are, were and will continue, to be seen as the only hope of glory. It is this pursuit of success that has, ironically, halted both country’s World Cup ambitions. One player can make a difference, even win a game, but one player cannot win a tournament.
What about Portugal’s Euro 2016 crown, you cry? Did Ronaldo score a single goal in open play in the knock-out rounds, is the retort? Granted, he led by example, rallied his troops and become a priceless outlet, but it would be a disservice to Fernando Santos’ work in building a unified team to credit Portugal’s victory as simply Ronaldo’s. Two years ago, Portugal were not reliant on Ronaldo, even if he had a big impact. It was Portugal-less Ronaldo that overcome a French side on home soil, don’t forget.
In Russia, Portugal were heavily dependent on the Real Madrid man. He single-handedly plucked a draw from the jaws of defeat against Spain in their opening group game, but it was a worrying portent for the rest of the tournament; this was now a side who can’t properly function if Ronaldo is stifled.
So, we move onto Messi, who’s face of anguish during the national anthem told the whole story. This isn’t 1986, when Diego Maradona’s brilliance could paralyse a whole team. Football has moved on and with it, greater tactical intelligence and awareness of how to shut Messi down: cut the supply lines. It’s very hard to defend against Messi, but it’s a lot easier when you know virtually every move is designed to get him on the ball. It was predictable and laboured. Had Jorge Sampaoli refused to make Messi the linchpin of the side, and instead given licence to the likes Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuaín and Kun Aguero to take centre stage and play their natural game, it would’ve taken the pressure off Messi. At times it seemed like Argentina muddled the true purpose of football: their sole directive was to find Messi, rather than the net.
This World Cup has reminded us that the collective is greater than the individual. If we look at France, who’s swashbuckling victory over Argentina in the last 16 was a vindication of Didier Deschamps’ refusal not to gear his whole side around, say, Antoine Griezmann. Instead, the Argentinian defence had a bewildering number of options to cover: the searing pace of Kylian Mbappe, the brute force of Olivier Giroud, the dexterity of Griezmann, the driving run of Paul Pogba or the over-lapping bursts from France’s full-backs. It was multi-faceted and hard to contain.
For Portugal and Argentina, it was one-dimensional, formulaic and simple to contain.