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The Con of the Modern "Great"

Name a great player of the past. Pick any one you fancy. Pele. Maradona. Cruyff (not you Jordi). There are plenty. Undoubtedly great players whose names will forever live on in the annals of the game.
Now pick a modern one. Zidane? Rivaldo? Ronaldo? Figo? Undoubtedly good players. But can they really be described as great? How are we defining "great"? Let's be honest, it is an overused word. The advent of the internet and various forms of digital communication has opened up a world we could only dream of even ten years ago, and the ability to produce one's own copy has taken the word great, in a footballing context, and abused it. On the other hand, what did "great" mean back then that it doesn't now?
What makes a truly "great" footballer?
We're not here to dissect the word great; this isn't an English language class. But let's not forget some things. The notion of greatness implies an ability to overcome the barriers placed before a person, to rise above the rest and make an example of oneself.
To overcome the barriers. Rivaldo stated recently that he would probably never play in England, despite attracting the interest of Manchester United. Why? For a start, the weather is terrible in Manchester. And second, the English game is too fast. He is suited to the Spanish kind of play, and it's too late in his career to change his way of playing now. He offered Ronaldo as another who would struggle amidst the pressures of what he seems to believe is the "kick-and-rush" English style. Tell me now that Rivaldo is a great player. Rubbish! He is a very, very good player, technically accomplished and possibly the best left-footed attacker in the world, but his refusal or inability to dip his sublime left foot into the murky waters of the Premiership marks him out as less than great.
A great player adapts to the difficulties around him; in this case, the new environment of a hard-and-fast type of play. It may take a while, but sooner rather than later they adapt, they change, and they become a better player because of the experience gained.
Rivaldo refuses to do this, saying that the Italian game is more suited to his style. For this reason, he chose the San Siro rather than Old Trafford to showcase his talent for the coming season.
He could slot himself in up front or just off the strikers in most Italian teams and play his majestic brand of attacking football. He'll probably be an enormous success; he may even win a few things. But he will not be a great player. How many European footballers of the year within the last five years (i.e. since the money within the game really kicked in and the quality became centred in two or three countries) have plied their trade in all three of what have emerged, by general consensus, the best leagues in Europe? That's England, Italy, Spain, and not in that order.
Now granted, there haven't been many Englishmen flying the flag outside the Premiership, but then no-one is seriously suggesting that any of our current batch of high-profile Englishmen are great players. Hell, you'd struggle to argue that any of them are even world class. Loyalty to one's side and all is fine, but where was Rivaldo's loyalty when he was transferred from Deportivo, who gave him his chance outside Brazil, to the mega rich Barcelona? Where was that loyalty, that pride in playing for his own country, when he threatened to boycott international fixtures because of crowd heckling?
Loyalty is an alien concept on both sides of the divide. Rivaldo isn't refusing to come to England because he's afraid he'll hate the weather. He's not refusing to come to England because United won't pay him what he wants. Deep down, he's not coming to England because he's afraid.
Any player who truly wants to be regarded as a great by future generations will want to continually test himself. Of course Italy is a new challenge, but in terms of style it's too similar to the Spanish game. There's time, there's space, there's room to manoeuvre, and the referee will book a player for looking at him the wrong way. He will not grow as a player. And frankly he could do with growing. He could do with eliminating the blatant diving which is unbecoming of a Brazilian, and he could do with the increase in pace.
Witness the Anfield leg of the Liverpool vs. Barcelona game. Apart from one moment of sublime vision which nearly brought a thirty-five yard goal, the game passed him by as Liverpool used home advantage to dictate the pace of the game, which was never less than turbo-charged. He was denied time, space and opportunity, and floundered as a result. Living in the comfort zone with Barca as their main creative output after the loss of Figo, he looked lost when pressed. He is a fine player, but to become great he needs to push himself, forget about the rain and the money, as any player intent on greatness would do, and change his mind about the English game. Any club would love to have him, though few could afford to do so.
Somehow one cannot envision Ronaldo failing in the same way. His game is built on speed and power, and he has time on his side. Rivaldo's is fast running out.
The same applies to Figo and Zidane. Ah yes, I hear you cry. Doesn't that mean that players such as Didier Deschamps, who has played in all the big three leagues in the last four years and competed in the Champion's League with teams from four countries, are therefore worthy of being called great?
The fact is that although Deschamps is a good player, he is a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. He is a midfield terrier, and he too found the pace and physicality of the English game too daunting. Say what you like about Marcel Desailly (and many Chelsea fans will tell you that half the time he looks as though he can't be bothered), but up to now he's stuck it out at Stamford Bridge, despite his continual whingeing. Let's not forget, also, that both have approached England only as their careers come to an end, securing a final (and hefty) cheque to make retirement that bit more financially secure.
And what of the old players, I hear you cry? Cruyff, Maradona and Pele never played in England. Can't argue with you there. By these standards, none of them are worthy of being called great either. But the fact is the game has changed, and the world has changed with it. The same criteria do not apply today where they did even six years ago. Who can imagine the likes of Malmo and Nottingham Forest, even Ajax, challenging for the European Cup within the next five years?
The rationing of quality amongst the countries of the world wasn't as black and white as it is now. Loyalty too meant a little more then than it does today, when Eric Cantona can be voted the greatest Manchester United player of all time by kids who are far too young to even know the name Duncan Edwards (a true Manchester United "Great" from the 1950's, and who was tragically killed in the Munich air-disaster which wiped out most of the Manchester United team of the day). For many who have seen both in action, the talismanic Frenchman would not have been good enough to clean Edwards' boots.
And what, in the midst of all this, is the worth of the European Player of the year award, or even the World Player of the Year award? Every year it seems to go to someone frequenting the Spanish or Italian Leagues, and every year the temptation must grow for these players to stay where they are, win things in comfort, pick up silverware by the truckload and earn more money than many of them can ever have dreamed of.
Perhaps Romario had a point when he bemoaned the constant focus on Europe at the expense of his awesome goal-haul back in Brazilian football. Granted, even he never played in the Premiership, but he ripped Manchester United apart on more than one intercontinental match, and anyone willing to try his luck in the bizarre world of Brazilian soccer deserves a medal for bravery if nothing else!
How many of the top ten stars in either of the top two leagues will be playing Premiership football within two years? There has been talk of Batistuta, Figo, Davids, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Salas, Kluivert and Zidane all coming to England. Let me tell you now; it isn't going to happen. There are always exceptions, but these prove the rule rather than shatter it. Those that do come will wait until they've aged sufficiently to lever that figure as an excuse for poor play. This problem is roundly ignored by the likes of Middlesborough, who seem to assume that quality is not indicated by great play but by extortionate wage demands.
If the reasons for staying put were loyalty, love of lifestyle or a need to repay the faith so many have invested in so few, it would be understandable, but these players will probably just swap teams within the same country, or transfer to big teams of the other. They will never come to England, never bless the Premiership with their talents and their tantrums. In the long run, however, it's as much their loss as it is England's.
Adapted and reproduced courtesy of


By Paul Rigg


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