What makes a football legend?

In When Saturday Comes, the point was raised that Messi, whilst a star, is not quite yet a legend. To explain this fact, it is pointed that people who are considered legends, like Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, redefined their sports and thus achieved this status. It was not the records, it was that untangible quality that makes people stare in awe.

Even though I do agree with the conclusion, I believe the article fails to be convincing. The first reason is the comparison of a player from a team sport which fields 11 players on each side, with players from sports of 1 vs 1, 6 vs 6, 1 vs 1 and 5 vs 5, respectively. The main point of the comparison is that the more players on the field you have, the less likely it is to influence the outcome of a single match, let alone one season or a career. That means that boxing, hockey, golf and basketball are more likely to have players who could redefine the sport and mark one era simply because of the influence of numbers: they had less players to dominate at any given moment.

Taken from this point of view, it begs the question: who would be, under that fuzzy definition, the real legends of football (soccer for those americans unfortunate enough to read these lines)? Well, Maradona and Pelé would be the obvious answers. Who else? Puskas, di Stefano, Cruiff, Beckenbauer, Sindelaar, Yashin? These were undoubtably greats, but were they legends in the sense that they redefined the game? Well, in some cases, the answer is obviously yes, but is is also easy to point other players who redefined it even more despite being somewhat lesser players. For Pelé, read Zagallo, the man who transported almost single-handedly the game from the 4-2-4 to 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 (Alf Ramsey’s 1966 England did much in this sense as well). For Puskas, read Hidegkuti, the man who played the completely revolutionary withdrawn forward role to such perfection that he brought the WM to an unnofficial end. Could they fall under the definition of “legends”? Certainly so, in some quarters or in their own countries, but probably not globally in the history of the game.

Then how to establish this definition? Well, what makes Pelé a great and a legend? In 1970, he played in what was arguably the best national team of all times, a side as ruthless as it was artistic. In 1962, he spent most of the time injured and saw Garrincha destroy side after side and take most of the plaudits. In 1966 he was injured and Brazil were kicked out (literally) of the tournament by very good sides who also aimed at stiffle their quality. In 1958 though, at just 17, he inscribed his name in history books through taking the whole tournament by surprise and scoring some emblematic goals (the most celebrated of which was the 3-1 in the final). Of course, his goals (over one thousand of them by his own reckoning) and a stable and uncontroversial career (as opposed to that of the equally brilliant Garrincha) meant he managed to create his own legend, something very much aided by the emergence of global television and his willingness to appear in movies to further his own image.

That was one side of things. What about Maradona, the man that came to challenge Pelé for the title of “the greatest”? Well, this was a different proposition. Maradona won only one world cup, but differently from Pelé, he dominated it in a way never before seen and playing for an Argentina team that was decidedly average. Furthermore, he imposed not only his football, but also his own will and personality, as exemplified by his “hand of God” comment. On the way to the title, he also scored some emblematic of goals (actually, the most emblematic of them all, followed by an almost equally ridiculously good one against Belgium). Finally, once marked ruthlessly in the final, he created constantly spaces for his teammates by dragging opponents out of position and then made the brilliant pass for the decisive goal. The World Cup in 1986 pretty much encapsulated Maradona’s career (minus the drugs): unbelievably brilliant player playing for an average team and carrying his teammates by pure force of genius and will. The absence of more major tournaments or more individual records become, under this light, unimportant. His term of comparison, in WSC’s article, would naturally be Muhammad Ali.

How does Messi measure up to this then? Well, truth be told, he does not. Not yet. He is far too young and his career has still far too long to go. He may still fall down some celebrity drain and his genius may come to be seen as a light that shone intensely for four seasons and then disappeared. It also looked like Ronaldinho could have challenged the greats, for a couple of seasons at Barcelona, but then parties, the weight of celebrity and his own willingness to leave overcame the determination to suceed and stay at the top level of football. The lack of a World Cup trophy should not be an impediment to Messi’s ascention to the list of legends, because that trophy is not as important as before. It used to be the only chance to see the best players in the world (Pelé is hardly remembered for his Santos career outside South America), but the ascention of global television and YouTube mean that such tournaments are no longer necessary for global recognition.

However, Messi’s bane may also be the lack of a tournament defining performance. Either the carrying an average Barcelona to the Spanish or European title or being the dominating player of the tournament in a Copa America or World Cup that Argentina wins. These are his only paths to legend status. He may break every record in existence and that will not be assured, as it will always be mentioned along the words “yes, but he played with Iniesta and Xavi/Fabregas/Thiago“.

Legend status is not achieved by gods, it is achieved by demigods. As much as Zeus was the most powerful god in Olympus, it is Heracles who achieved the immortality level. It is only the spark of failure that brings certainty of transcendency. Without humanity, this is impossible. And we still need to see Messi’s humanity and frailty before passing judgement on his legend.

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Chelsea are Champions League winners

Granted, late comment, but truth be told, those of you who read these lines probably already read the most relevant comments elsewhere before.

As expected, both teams followed their own game plans: Chelsea played deep and tried to hoof long balls in the direction of Drogba, and Bayern played their passing game based on the wings and aimed at crosses for Gomez in the box or shots from just outside the box from the wingers and midfield runners.

The biggest surprise in both sides was the use of Bertrand on the left side of Chelsea’s midfield to help Ashley Cole dealing with Robben and Lahm. The use of a second left back ahead of the first has been used before, especially by sides facing Barcelona and hoping to stiffle Dani Alves. Also Mourinho used Eto’o and Pandev to that effect during his famous semi-finals matches against Barcelona two years ago. Besides the obvious use of deploying a more defensive minded player to help out, the positioning of this player, which will be deeper than a normal winger’s would be (as exemplified by Kalou on the other flank), guarantees that wingbacks will have less space to run to. Therefore, fast players like Alves or Lahm have more difficulties in imposing themselves offensively and the fluidity of the side is reduced.

This is precisely what hapenned to Bayer as the double play of Robben cutting inside and Lahm surging on the overlap was consecutively made difficult by the lack of spaces in which they operated. This was further compunded by a reluctancy from Lahm to cross from deeper positions, which meant that there was always a Chelsea player on hand for the block. Thigs were not worse only because of the clever movement from Thomas Müller, who frequently drifted right to drag defenders out of position when Robben moved inside and thus created space. These movements were responsible for some of the misses by Robben, Kroos or Gomez throughout the game.

On the left, Ribery and Contento had some more freedom due to two factors. On the one hand, Kalou offered less protection than Bertrand and this caused Bayern to have too often a 2 on 1 situation against Bosingwa. On the other, Bosingwa is himself a less acomplished defender than Cole and had therefore more problems to stop the attacks. It is no coincidence that both Bayern’s goal and the penalty originated from that side. Also the cross for Gomez missed header and the one for Müller to volley wide came both from the left side. The upside of Kalou’s utilisation in this position was that Contento always seemed ill at ease going forward and seemed affraid of runs behind his back.

Di Matteo opted for the deep positioning and long balls, but also decided to play Mata very high up the pitch to stiffle the action of Kroos and Schweinsteiger. This meant that Chelsea had more of a threat going forward, but the clever exchange of roles by Bayern’s deep midfielders while doing forward runs meant that Mata was always well watched and he struggled to make an impact. Still, had he played deeper, this might have opened up the possibility for both Schweinsteiger and Kroos to play closer to Chelsea’s box which, given their prowess in long-range shooting, could have caused even more defensive problems.

Drogba played his usual lone forward game well, but differently from the matches against Barcelona, here he did have two players who could challenge him physically (even if not quite match him) and the tandem of using Boateng for the physical challenge and Tymoschuk for the anticipation movement worked quite well throughout the match, with the Ukrainian having a good game at the back, even if never quite confortable. When he moved up to midfield, his insecurity and narrower range of influence (as compared to Luis Gustavo, Schweinsteiger or Kroos) showed enough that Mata had his best spell during the extra-time.

The truth is that, even though Chelsea assembled a very good strategy to deal with Bayern, the bavarians were more responsible for the blues’ first Champions League trophy more than the winners themselves. Missing clear-cut chances at this level is usually punishable by losses and this match was no exception. The match, on the other hand, showed the difference between a big-game player like Drogba (seven times he scored for Chelsea in finals, according to the Guardian’s MbM report of the match) and a big-game bottler like Robben. It is true that Drogba had only one chance and had his header been aimed slightly higher or lower, or had Neuer placed a stronger hand to the ball (in truth it was a missile), Bayern would have celebrated. Still, it’s in the details that the devil hides his tail and this time Chelsea had everything going for them. I do not think anyone would expect this Chelsea side to be better than Bayern Munich but for one match, for this match, they were.

Congratulations Chelsea.

Further notes:
1. In the penalties, Cech made the difference. Study of the opponent goes a long way. Neuer showed his courage in taking his penalty, especially after the torrid time Bayern’s fans gave him at the start of the season.
2. Cole was the outstanding player of the match. Drogba may have been the man of the match, but nobody did more than Cole, who frequently seemed to be in two places at the same time.
3. Müller. Did. Not. Deserve. This.
4. The moment when Drogba, after bowing to Chelsea’s fans, realises what he did with his goal and his penalty on his last match for the club must go down as one of the moments of Champions League history.

CL final: Bayern Munich – Chelsea

After eliminating the two main favourites in two highly entertaining semi-finals, Bayern Munich and Chelsea will play tomorrow for the Champions League Cup and the salvation of their respective seasons. Bayern may feel less aggrieved by the season after coming second in the Bundesliga and reaching the final of the German Cup, but in such a club used to be serial winners, this season feels very much a failure without any major trophy to show. In a final played in Munich, the bavarians will be hoping to celebrate the trophy at home and will be buoyed by the prospect, even if captain Philip Lahm reminded recently that Chelsea supporters will have as many seats available as the Germans.

For Chelsea, the sense of urgency is even more noticeable. Drogba may not be at the club for much longer, with his future still to be decided. Lampard, Terry, Cole and others may see time starting to slip away and view this match as very likely their last opportunity. After losing any chances of reaching Champions League football next season by means of qualification through the Premier League, Chelsea changed strategy and became more focused on the big matches and switching off in the meaningless ones. These elements make the blues a very dangerous proposition for Bayern in a one-off.

In terms of unavailable players, Chelsea will be missing some very important players, but the alternatives seem relatively straightforward. To replace Ivanovic and Terry as centre-backs are Gary Cahill and David Luiz, with Bosingwa ready to take the right-back spot. Replacing Ramires and Meireles in midfield will be even simpler, at least in terms of available personnel, even if not in terms of the energy these two men bring to the team. Essien will most likely not be available, so Lampard and Mikel will probably find themselves playing with Malouda (unless di Matteo decides to gamble on Romeu) in a well packed midfield which will try to squeeze out the space to the Bayern midfielders.

As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his preview of the match for Sports Illustrated, playing Bosingwa against Ribery and Contento or Lahm may leave the portuguese overwhelmed. Ribery alone is already likely to do that seen that he likes to cut inside to the left back of the defender and Bosingwa is considerably unhappy when faced with that option. After seeing Paulo Ferreira starting the match against Benfica in Portugal for the quarter-finals, it would not be completely unexpected to see him bringing his experience to face the tricky frenchman. Plenty will depend on who else di Matteo will place on the right wing ahead of the fullback. As Jonathan Wilson wrote, Sturridge would provide less defensive cover but more attacking prowess. Personally I believe di Matteo will choose the more defensive minded Kalou, especially considering the opposition options. If Lahm plays, Sturridge will face a less offensive player than Contento and one who would feel confortable with Sturridge cutting inside to his left foot. On the other hand, if Contento would add vulnerabilities to Bayern, it is also likely that with him and Ribery doubling on Bosingwa (or Ferreira) would pose too much of a risk. With di Matteo having shown himself a “safety first” tactician, it is likely that Kalou will line up from the start, with Sturridge being used as an impact substitute.

In terms of tactics, these seem quite straightforward. Bayern will bring Kroos to play alongside Schweinsteiger in midfield and Müller will advance to play just behind Gomez. Chelsea are likely to shut down the middle of the park and play deep. Even though this tactic is dangerous against opponents who can easily use the aerial threat of Gomez and Müller, it will also cause problems to the runs inside of Ribery and Robben, especially the latter. These will likely cause congestion in the middle of the park and will possibly shut down Bayern’s left flank (Ribery is much more adept at crossing from the byline). Chelsea will certainly have a tactic based on gaining the ball in that area of the field and hit long balls to Drogba, who will likely come out best against Boateng and Tymoschuk. Ideally Chelsea would have Ramires in fast support, but will have to rely on Mata and possibly Kalou to join these fast breaks.

As is common in CL finals, the match should be a tactical one, with both teams playing to their respective strengths and patiently looking for the goal that can settle the match. Personally and following logic, I can see Bayern winning the match but needing more than one goal (probably from Gomez) to cancel one from Chelsea (via or due to Drogba). Still, the lack of bench alternatives to impact the match may become the bavarians’ undoing.

One more in the bag

One more season is drawing to a close in Portugal and one more title for FC Porto in the bag. This brings the tally to an impressive 19 in 30 years under the leadership of president Pinto da Costa. Since taking over, Pinto da Costa has taken FC Porto from being a regional dominating club with some national success to becoming the dominating club in the country and one of the most established features in Europe. To place this in perspective, under Pinto da Costa, FC Porto have won 19 league titles (in 25 total), 12 (20) Portuguese Cups and 17 (18) Portuguese Supercups. Also internationally, FC Porto won 2 Champions Cup/League, 2 UEFA Cup/Europa League, 1 European Supercup and 2 Intercontinental Cups. This is an impressive trophy haul for just 30 years, especially after having been built on the back of only regional support.

2011/12 Season

This reference to Pinto da Costa becomes all the more relevant whilst reflecting on the season. After having been absolutely dominating in 2010/12 under the guidance of André Villas-Boas, FC Porto started this season with Vítor Pereira (the previous assistant manager) as the new man in charge and, whilst Pinto da Costa proclaimed him to be the man behind the scenes during the previous season, there was a sense of expectation and possibly of anti-climax as the season kicked-off. More than that, the departure of Falcao to Atletico Madrid had deprived the club of one of the best strikers in  world football and of the finishing outlet to the devastating attacking power of players like Hulk or James Rodriguez.

The season did not start badly for the champions. A defeat against Barcelona at the European Super Cup was not expected and the team showed a disciplined face, capable of asking questions of Barcelona’s passing game and only the natural difference in quality between both teams delivered the trophy to the catalans. In the internal front, FC Porto followed a long tradition and took again the Cândido de Oliveira SuperCup with a 2-1 victory against Vitória de Guimarães which betrayed some sluggishness in the passing and the movement of the players. Later on, rumours talked about some dressing room unrest, particularly after some uncharacteristically poor and low-intensity performances by João Moutinho, and spoke of a difficulty by Pereira of handling the squad.

The Secret Footballer wrote some time ago of the difficulties no. 2s tend to find when they are promoted, especially when they have to replace a very successful boss, as was the case of Villas-Boas. During the previous season Villas-Boas had shown a deft hand at managing some players, namely Guarín and Belluschi, two players who vied for the same vacancy in midfield, even if they presented different styles. Of course, a winning team is a happy team and a winning momentum can by itself take care of personal grievances, but team spirit is not built around it. In the absence of a true charismatic captain as was the case in the past at the club (João Pinto, Jorge Costa, Aloísio, Vítor Baía, Bruno Alves, etc.), Pereira had no support when handling some of the more difficult characters. The fact that Moutinho, having arrived only one season earlier from Sporting, a perennial rival, had been promoted to vice-captain.

The fact that Kleber was taking too long to show his obvious talent and that Walter was no replacement just highlighted the need to balance the squad somewhat, especially after Benfica had found their stride and taken the lead. At this point FC Porto simply offloaded Guarín and Belluschi on loan to Italy, bought Marco Janko from Twente to supply a reference point in attack; and added former club favourite Lucho Gonzalez who was itching to move away from Marseille. These changes were received with reluctance and big question marks, but proved inspiring. Moutinho became the absolute leader in midfield, Lucho brought quiet harmony to the changing room at the same time as he imposed the club’s winning mentality; and Hulk became free to roam more and do what he does best: rip defenses apart with power and trickery at high pace.

Benfica’s breakdown

Of course, nothing of this would work if Benfica had not started to stutter. Jorge Jesus’ is an obviously talented and astute manager but it is also obvious he believes his own legend too much. As has been common with his teams from February, Benfica started to feel the weight of attacking four different fronts simultaneously with about the same players and it showed, in particular when FC Porto turned on the psychological pressure. Whatever can be made of Sir Alex Ferguson or Mourinho in terms of mind games, truth is that Pinto da Costa could give them all a masterclass in this respect. He simply placed the pressure on the willing shoulders of Jesus and Benfica’s president Vieira, shrugged off the exit from the Champions League as a hiccup and ignored the League Cup as a minor competition. He realised that this season was all about the league and focused his team on it. More important, he sold this idea to a legion of devout and faithful fans who have become used to accepting what “the Pope” (Pinto da Costa’s nickname) says as holy writ.

Even though these changes did not cause the team to start perform as under Villas-Boas, they became much more of a reliable machine, capable of winning matches through work and by letting their star players open up the more closed defences. Not the Ferrari of the previous team, FC Porto were in the second season like a reliable old VW Golf which does not break down and is capable of some unexpected accelerations when necessary. Despite some possibly questionable referreeing decisions going their way (this is a perennial problem in portuguese football, something to address in a different post), FC Porto showed sufficient resilience and invention to beat Benfica away and thus justify the title.

Next season

With each year, the question remains: how long will Pinto da Costa stay at the helm. After 30 years in which even arguably mediocre managers managed to shine, it is now obvious that Pinto da Costa is the real driving force behind FC Porto’s most successful period ever (especially in the past decade). It seems now clear that Vítor Pereira will stay. The only alternatives Pinto da Costa would consider would possibly be Villas-Boas or Jorge Jesus himself. However, as Bruno Prata from Público (portuguese newspaper, link in portuguese) mentioned, Jesus himself burned his bridges to the Dragão with his comment «Porto? Those who reach the top do not go back!» at the mention of managing FC Porto. Pereira will be given the cance of building a side more at his image, but his biggest challenge will come if players such as Moutinho, Hulk or Alvaro Pereira leave (for the traditional hefty sums that Pinto da Costa always manages to extract from buying clubs). Whereas Hulk may have a replacement in James Rodriguez and/or Iturbe (another “new Messi”) and Alvaro Pereira may be replaced with some advantages by the brazilian promise Alex Sandro, Moutinho’s combination of talent, intelligence, movement and industry will be a much more difficult hole to plug. How Pereira solves these problems will give the measure of his qualities in a season where similar failure in Europe will not be tolerated.

Pinto da Costa himself already proved himself. He now just counts the days until his statue is erected just outside the stadium and/or, the Dragão becomes the Pinto da Costa stadiu. He might be a polemic figure and the most divisive personality in portuguese football, but seeing what he has achieved in all these years and what he brought to FC Porto and the country, it would be an act of the most basic justice.