The usual suspects

Ronaldo or Messi are undoubtedly great players and are again in the race to win the Ballon d’Or. Yet if a truly great player might be expected to excel in World Cup Finals, neither has exactly ever done this. By Brian Glanville.

“Bound up the usual suspects!” was a famous line from a famous 1940s film, Casablanca. And it seems appropriate enough for the end of the year rankings for the top players. Awards, once given by the eminent magazine ‘France Football’, with each country’s voter — I was England’s for several past years — contributing a short list of five. Now FIFA have got in on the act as well. I speak of the ‘Usual Suspects” however because for some recent years it has been taken for granted that either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo will top the list. But should they?

What, might be asked, are the governing criteria: in a World Cup year, should it not be the World Cup itself? And where would such a measure leave Ronaldo or Messi, great players though they undoubtedly are. Yet if a truly great player might be expected to excel in World Cup Finals, neither has exactly ever done this. Ronaldo, indeed, though he was not seemingly fully fit, did play all three group games for Portugal but that was his team’s and his limit. It was arguable that he didn’t have the support he needed. Though Portugal’s writing was on the wall when they crashed 4-0 to Germany in their opening game, when their defender Pepe was expelled for spitefully striking the seated Thomas Muller.

Muller himself was surely a candidate for ‘Europoean Footballer of the Year’, with his hat-trick in the crushing of Portugal; the first from a penalty, followed by the winner against USA in Recife., another in the 7-1 rout of Brazil. Not to mention the goals he has been getting for his club Bayern Munich in the Champions League. A great player? Not quite, not yet. The equal of Ronaldo or Messi? By no stretch of the imagination. But if we are judging in a World Cup year, he could surely be a candidate for the European prize.

Messi also figured in the World Cup and by the time it came to the final, representing Argentina against Germany, he was plainly a spent force. In the early form he had shown for his country in the competition, he was remarkable. Certainly far more prominent and influential than he had been at the previous World Cup in South Africa, where he had been literally marginalised by Diego Maradona, so much less of a manager than he had been as a player. Messi on his orders had been stuck out on the left wing, where, indeed, he had started his dazzling career at Barcelona.

Now as we all so well know he is an attacker who can and does operate from anywhere and everywhere. Small and slight he can pop up and score from anywhere indeed. With his mesmeric ball control, his ability to find himself space where no space seems to exist. His cornucopia of European Cup goals include four in a Nou Camp game against Arsenal in 2010, one an astonishing lob when at full pace.

And in Brazil, four years later? He was awarded the ‘Golden Ball’ after Argentina lost the final to Germany, but it meant nothing to him and arguably should have been given to the remarkable Colombian attacker, James Rodriguez. Messi was far more concerned with the fact that his team had missed three real chances against Germany.

Overall, it was bruited that he, rather than the team’s manager, Alejandro Sabella, called the shots. In the first group game versus Bosnia, Sabella had him playing too deep in the first half. In the second he insisted on moving up-field and scored a glorious solo goal. And it was his goal just after the 90 minutes were up which gave Argentina a desperately close victory against a combative Iran team, gliding left across the penalty box before curling his shot home. “Of course we have a genius,” said Sabella. “He’s Argentinean. He’s in our team. Everyone would like to have one.”

When in the next match against Nigeria he scored twice in a narrow 3-2 win, the Nigeria coach. Stephen Keshi, declared, “Messi is from Jupiter. He is different. He is one hell of a player.” Yet again it was Messi who saved the next game versus the Swiss. With a couple of minutes to go, he dashed into the penalty box to set up Angel Di Maria — the man who missed the final — to score. Next round Belgium were narrowly beaten 1-0 with Higuain scoring. “Messi,” said Sabella, “was our water in the desert. When the terrain was dry, he once again gave us a chance to breathe the fresh air.” But too much had been asked even of Messi and he could find no water in the final.

Comparisons as we know are odious, and it would be invidious to compare Messi with Ronaldo. Where Ronaldo has the advantage in his great physical power. In addition, his abundance of talents include extreme prowess in the air where he jumps superbly and heads ferociously. Messi does his work strictly on the ground: the headed goal is a rarity. In Brazil, Ronaldo with all his gifts of pace, skill, flair, dynamic shooting, couldn’t bring a mediocre Portugal team to effective life, and the writing was plainly on the wall after that humbling 4-0 defeat by the Germans. Yet Ronaldo’s glittering displays for Real Madrid show his enormous talent at their best.

But why shouldn’t Arjen Robben be a strong candidate for European player of the year? Supremely unorthodox, a long-legged left footer playing on the right wing, he has perfected a style which is all his own, cutting in at pace to strike fiercely and often proactively for goal. Defenders when he has the ball must know what he is going to do but when he does it they cannot stop him. In Holland’s crushing 5-1 defeat of Spain in their opening group game he was in supreme form, scoring twice: and there were other, crucial goals to come. Like Muller, he had been a refulgent figure in the previous World Cup in South Africa. And this season, at the Stadio Olimpico, he toyed with the experienced Roma left back, the English international Ashley Cole, propelling his team to a devastating 7-1 win. A European Footballer of the Year trophy would surely be well deserved and reward a true original of the game.

Manuel Neuer has been much praised as the German goalkeeper, especially for his daring forays from goal, to function as a virtual sweeper.

His talents are unquestioned but his shocking foul in the final against Higuain which certainly deserved a red card prevents me from nominating him as a candidate for best European player.