WITH Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in their autumn years and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on a retirement tour, the football world is asking itself where is the royal line of succession? Kylian Mbappé is being touted as the greatest thing since Pelé and there are big hopes for Atlético Madrid’s João Félix, but are these players the contenders to the throne?
It has to said that Mbappé is genuine top-drawer quality. What separates the likes of Pelé from so many of the pretenders – how many times did Brazil claim to have found the “new Pelé”? – is the timing of arrival. Real class, genuine brilliance shines through at a very young age. For example, players who have promise that goes on for some years, but never truly surfaces, are not “Pelé class”. Paul Pogba is a good example, a gifted but mercurial figure who is approaching 27 years of age and is still being talked of as having potential. His time has, arguably, passed.
Pelé, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Johan Cruyff – all of these players were in the spotlight from their teenage years. In Britain, George Best and Jimmy Greaves, to name but two, were making people sit up and take notice when they were 17. Players that get to the top by working hard and making the best of their abilities, such as a Kevin Keegan, are not in the same category.
We have been fortunate to have seen two magnificent players produce sublime performances on a regular basis for many years. It has been something of a golden age but there are times when the game is dominated by the team ethic and very few individuals rise to the surface. Football and its peripheral industries – broadcasting, media, advertising, kit and boot manufacturers, for example – must now be wondering who the faces of football will be in the coming years. After all, personalities sell products, not hard-working teams of journeymen.
The Guardian top 100 list for 2019 demonstrated there may be a shortage of up-and-coming players to step into Messi’s shoes. Only 13 of the 100 were 22 years old or younger, with two teenagers, Jadon Sancho and Erling Braut Haaland both on Borussia Dortmund’s books.
João Félix, 20 years old, commanded an enormous € 126 million fee when he moved from Benfica to Atlético last season. Félix has not settled too well in Madrid, although that huge price tag may have something to do with early teething problems.
Félix has found the transition from Benfica to Spain difficult, not least because Diego Simeone has a very defined style that has proved successful for Atléti. Félix has said he is “tired of defending and not attacking” and has been going a little misty-eyed about his time at Benfica, claiming he didn’t realise how happy he was back in Lisbon.
Simeone, defending his starlet, has said that players need time to settle but added that they need to be “committed and dedicated” to play for the club. When Atléti signed Félix many people felt it was a gamble, and so far it hasn’t paid off. The youngster has been substituted in 12 La Liga games out of 15 he has started and he’s scored just two goals.
Were Atléti a bit too hasty with their big cheque? Félix had played just 40-odd games for Benfica, admittedly scoring 20 goals, but perhaps second season observation was needed to determine just how good he could be, and maybe a major tournament such as the European Championship was needed to see how he performed at the very top level? Too often, a player struggles to live up to his debut season but Atléti will surely persevere with a player who is undoubtedly a big talent, but Spain is a step-up from the Portuguese league. At € 126 million, an aborted project will be an expensive write-off to make.
Bold transfers rarely work out. Fernando Torres, one of Félix’s predecessors in the red and white striped shirt, rarely looked like a £ 50 million player when he moved from Liverpool to Chelsea, and students of the game will recall under-performing million pound players in Britain like Garry Birtles, Justin Fashanu and Steve Daley, to name but a few. Félix is not at that stage yet, but at the moment, he looks a little over-priced.
As for Mbappé, his next move is probably going to be to Spain, although Liverpool have been linked to the World Cup-winning Frenchman. Predictably, Barcelona and Real Madrid will be ready to pay the huge fee that Paris Saint-Germain will be seeking and if Félix comes good – which he probably will – then La Liga will have succeeded in replacing the Messi-Ronaldo axis with two of the world’s outstanding young players.