Is World Cup success so important for critical acclaim?

THE football world is reaching the end of a cycle, one that has been dominated by two individuals, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both players, worshipped in their own countries and admired worldwide, went tumbling out of probably their last World Cup. This has saved us the tiresome narrative of Russia 2018 being the last-chance saloon for both players, who will now never add the very top prize to their long and impressive list of honours and achievements.

It is hard to weep for too long for two individuals who are extremely wealthy, have won [almost] everything and need not worry about their futures. Success is not guaranteed, whoever you are, but also the World Cup is not the only way to be regarded as one of the all-time greats. Or is it?

Messi and Ronaldo were accompanied by a very average collection of players. Neither could, at their advanced stage, lift their teams to perform beyond expectations. Elevating team mates can be achieved, but it is much harder when the key man is over 30 and energy has to be conserved. Maradona did it in 1986, but he was in his prime and he couldn’t do it a second time, although in 1990 he almost repeated the trick.

Both players’ are securely in the game’s pantheon, but there will be critics that point to a lack of tangible success on the international stage. Cristiano Ronaldo did lead Portugal to the European Championship in 2016, but Messi has yet to win a single honour with Argentina.

Ronaldo started 2018 as if he meant to win the golden boot, but Portugal were not strong enough to give their talisman a prolonged World Cup journey.  Messi, however, ended 2018 in much the same way as he walked off the pitch in 2014, unfulfilled, unhappy and damaged. His body language in this World Cup resembled a frustrated man, annoyed at the mediocrity around him.

Passing the baton – Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe. Photo: PA

Their failure proves one thing – that, essentially, we are in the age of the team game, not the era where individualism can carry a team of lightweight quality through. Even the superior talents of Messi and Ronaldo cannot undo, on a sustained basis, the systems and ethics of well-drilled teams. Consider the last few winners of the competition, Italy (2006), Spain (2010) and Germany (2014), none of these will be remembered as being brimful of outstanding individuals, but they will be rightly recalled for their collective will, economy of play and true spirit of teamwork. Sides that went to the World Cup on a mission and did the job required.

And yet that doesn’t stop the world longing for a superb individual to dominate a World Cup, not least the pundits and the media. Now Messi and Ronaldo have gone home, everyone is willing Frrance’s Mbappé or Neymar of Brazil to step-up. Or perhaps Belgium’s Eden Hazard. If there’s a romantic story, it is surely Kylian Mbappé’s to write, a youngster who will be compared to the young Pelé if he manages to keep scoring. Neymar is supposed to be the heir apparent to Messi and Ronaldo, but he doesn’t always convince and he has acquired the bad and tedious habits of play-acting that will win him free kicks but not friends.

We ask the question again, does a star player need the World Cup to shine brightly? Look at the list of players who have not won the competition: Alfredo di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff, George Best (never even played in a finals), Eusébio, Lev Yashin, Michel Platini, Ferenc Puskás, Marco van Basten, Luigi Riva, Gianni Rivera and more. Has a lack of success prevented them from being revered as all-time greats? Not really.

Not winning the World Cup should not tarnish the reputations of two truly great players. After all, national teams do not have a transfer market, playing for an under-achieving nation cannot be avoided or sidestepped, it’s like the old saying, “you cannot pick your family”. In club football, players of the calibre of Ronaldo and Messi gravitate to the biggest and wealthiest clubs. That just cannot happen in international football.

So now we’re waiting to see who will be the successors to Messi and Ronaldo. If nothing else, the World Cup should provide some pointers. It’s been a decent competition so far, there are more thrills to come, but it is surely a case of “le roi est mort, vive le roi!”.

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