The importance of being ‘not that good’

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“Roberto Carlos floats the ball in, and Zidaaaaane! What a goal!”

Hampden Park, May 2002. Real Madrid had just won their 9th European Cup/Champions League and coach Vicente Del Bosque was all smiles, having guided his boyhood club to their second European victory under his helm. An unforgettable World Cup for a certain Brazilian ensued and he was swiftly pocketed by Florentino Perez to lead the charge for La Decima. Expectedly, Madrid won the Primera Division next season, but were denied a crack at the holy grail by a Del Piero and Nedved inspired Juventus in the semi-finals. There’s always the next year, you’d think. How long can a lineup of Carlos, Hierro, Zidane, Figo, Raul and Ronaldo go without a Champions League title anyway?

That summer, Perez proceeded to sack, inexplicably dare I say, the immensely successful coach, Del Bosque. His achievements in the four years at the club in that tenure read: 2 UEFA Champions League titles. 2 Primera Division titles, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup, Intercontinental Cup (now the Club World Cup). They sold another player too. Well, what’s with Real Madrid selling a player you ask? I shall present two quotes.

The first, by Florentino Perez:

We will not miss Makélelé. His technique is average, he lacks the speed and skill to take the ball past opponents, and ninety percent of his distribution either goes backwards or sideways. He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makélelé to be forgotten

The second, by one of the world’s finest footballers ever and Real Madrid playmaker at that point, Zinedine Zidane:

Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?

They’ve never really recovered, have they? Let me tell you why a player like Claude Makélélé was important. Because he wasn’t that good, was he? Not good enough to catch your eye, anyway. Why? Because he didn’t have the YouTube video compilation traits like most of his team-mates back then. Or even some from his brethren too, say a Vieira, Essien or Vidal. He was just … a player who did his job quietly while the more illustrious team-mates bagged the headlines. Chelsea picked him up and won back-to-back domestic titles from 2004 to 2006. But he wasn’t that good.

Fast forward to the Champions League final of 2009. Many say that Barcelona team was one the finest ever. I disagree. That is where they started to become one. They barely went past Chelsea (*cough* Tom Henning Ovrebo.. *cough*) in the semis and could’ve been beaten in the final but for a double-yellow in the semis to the player responsible for holding the Manchester United midfield together: Darren Fletcher. Before the guns are taken out, notice the use of “could’ve”. Without someone who could break their play, Xavi and Iniesta decided to give an exhibition on possession football. Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez and Berbatov tried, but failed. United had no chance against that team without dominating the midfield. Just like at Wembley in 2011. Giggs and Carrick had absolutely no shout against Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets.

When people talk of Barcelona with starry eyes, they talk of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi. Easy to forget they can work their magic fearlessly because they know there’s someone to bring back the possession should the opposition counter. Sergio Busquets, as we know him. He has been one of the most vital cogs in the Barcelona and Spain wheels for some time now. With all due respect to their skilled defense, midfield and forward-line, whether Spain would’ve won Euro ’08 without Marcos Senna’s contribution is highly debatable. Similarly, Carlos, Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo, Raul, Salgado attacked relentlessly because Claude Makélélé was keeping guard. Last season, Robin Van Persie’s goals were as important for Manchester United as Michael Carrick’s calm midfield play. I’ll end this list with an example that might be a bit unpopular: Xabi Alonso and Liverpool of 2004-09. Who would care about a skinny midfielder who doesn’t score too many when there’s a Steven Gerrard in your team?

Most football teams today are on a maniacal pursuit of ‘big’ players. The Neymars, the Bales and the Iscos. Not one bid for Sven Bender. Surprise, surprise. The big names are needed to propel a team forward, make no mistake. Arsenal’s renewed sense of optimism post Mesut Özil is a case in point. But they also need the Mikel Artetas and the Mathieu Flaminis. The someone who’s “not that good”. The someone who will do his job and walk into the dressing room without stopping for paparazzi. I look at Toni Kroos and I feel good everytime I see him play. He’s respected by people at Bayern and fans, and that’s it. He’s not a potential Ballon d’Or nominee like a Müller or a Ribéry. Chances are, with Götze coming in, he’s going to get even less spotlight in terms of impacting Bayern’s success. I highly doubt he cares. Pep Guardiola and Joachim Low can do a lot worse than keeping a talent like him in their respective team setups, for he goes beyond the flashy backheel or the nutmegs. You won’t find his videos on 101GreatGoals, naah. His breed, they concentrate more on a pin-point 5-yard pass, something that’s oft overlooked to disastrous effects.

Every once in a while, a player has come and got the world at his feet. He’s had the skill, charisma and in most cases, a story to endear. Most of these players would tell you, that they owe a certain degree of their success to some of the less illustrious workmen they’ve had as teammates. Don’t try looking up statistics, you won’t find any to back their words. Try reading through articles and interviews, or watching full-match videos from their time. Be a travesty if the classy simplicity of Rijkaard’s football got lost behind the grandeur of Gullit and van Basten, wouldn’t it?

Sarthak is a part of the @Football_P family. You can follow him at @sarthakdev 

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.