The English football season is over but, with any luck, the best is yet to come in Europe.
It is fair to say that, for all the riches in the English Premier League, and for all the television exposure it gets around the world, it is not currently on the same level as the top Spanish, German or, more surprisingly, the leading Italian club.
The Champions League is the ultimate measure of quality, and the way Barcelona and Juventus won through to the June 6 final in Berlin speaks for itself. If anyone can recall seeing an equal or better attacking trio than Barça’s Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, I suspect that he or she must be over 60.
The only comparable trident might be Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Héctor Rial who led Real Madrid in the late 1950s.
All of the above strikers, except Puskás, came from South America. So, Europe provides the riches, but Latin America provides the street wise, sharp-witted predators. Quite possibly sport, like art, mirrors life.
However, if it is artistic players who catch your eye, I urge you to watch out for two figures at Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Andrea Pirlo is the playmaker for Juventus, and Xavi Hernandez has conducted the midfield rhythm, the tiki-taka of Barcelona and the Spanish national side for the past 17 years.
Pirlo is returning to the stadium where he, and Juve’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, helped Italy win the World Cup in 2006. Xavi might have to settle for being a substitute, but if there is any sentiment in the business of football, he will surely make his 766th and final appearance for Barça.
He was a child of La Masia, the academy that raised Catalans like him, but also recruited Messi at the age of 13, and formed Andres Iniesta from a similar age. Together they grew, and were schooled to grow, into three of the finest crowd-pleasers in the sport. If Messi is incomparable (yes, I believe he is, even in the era he shares with Cristiano Ronaldo), and Iniesta has magically quick feet, it has still been Xavi who set the tempo of the team’s mesmeric passing and movement.
This season, he has started 21 matches, and come on as a sub in 21. Time and age wait for no man, and his place is going to Ivan Rakitic, a younger, stronger player from Croatia who will never be the grand master Xavi has been, but has the energy that eventually fades in all of us.
Soon, Xavi will fly to Qatar where he will play out his time and begin to gain coaching experience with Al-Sadd. I believe he is destined to return one day as coach to his beloved Barcelona, and I hope so for two reasons. First, it would ensure continuation of the Catalan style, and second because I’d rather he does the playing and leaves the words to people like me.
Xavi has articulated his game thus: “It’s about doing something extra, not just winning. In football the result is an impostor. Greater than the result is controlling or dominating a match. That is the legacy.”
Those of us who write for a living envy this. Having such playing skills is one thing, explaining them with such clarity quite another.
Maybe I say that because I am English. It might not be just a coincidence, or a passing phase, that three of the clubs to reach the Champions League final over the last two seasons are from the Spanish league. Or, indeed, that until Germany won the World Cup in 2014, Spain reigned as world and European champion, too.
Xavi and Iniesta were at the centre of things, as they have been in the Barça Xl that has won eight La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, and a dozen other tournaments during their time.
Pirlo, one suspects, is among the very few creative players on their level. It might be significant that the playmakers of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, which all went out of the Champions League by the quarterfinal stage, were Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Santi Cazorla, respectively.
Their country of origin? Why Spain, of course.
So as with the strikers, the most imaginative players tend to be Latin. The hard graft and honest zeal of the English, epitomised by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, are commendable attributes―and will be much missed as that pair begins its semi retirement in America’s Major League Soccer.
But, again, it has been a South American, the Brazilian Phiippe Coutinho, who starred for Liverpool, the other English club that made, for a time, the Champions League.
Some will say that these things are cyclical, and that England’s turn will come again in Europe’s most prestigious tournament. Germany, too, hopes for that, especially the supporters of Bayern Munich, whose team had some fantastic results, scoring sixes and sevens, before going out to the magic of Messi in the semifinals.
If it does come again for Chelsea, Arsenal or the Manchester clubs, it will certainly require a marriage of the spirit of the English and the ability to pay for skills from abroad. Right now, some two-thirds of players in the Premier League starting line-ups are foreign, which helps to explain why England has not won the World Cup since 1966.
The EPL, rather like the Indian Premier League, is a world-class importer of talent. That is not wrong, it enhances the entertainment and makes for marvellously multi-racial team building.
I’m not against it, though in England’s case there might come a time when legislation is needed to open up opportunity for home-grown players to gain experience in their own league.
Youth is important on three levels. One, as we are about to see, the Xavis and the Pirlos, and even the Gerrards and the Lampards, cannot go on indefinitely.
Two, change is the spice of life.
And three? The sheer wonder of watching young players emerge and seek their own place as a natural progression in life. We look for them to emerge like chrysalis transforming into butterflies.
Two potential butterflies on the world stage might be Raheem Sterling and Martin Odegaard. Their innate talents are easy on the eye, but any top performer in any walk of life might tell them that talent is their gift, but it can desert them without the right temperament, a stable environment, trust and perseverance.
Football is not famous for bringing all of those into line.
Sterling is now 20. Last summer, in one match anyway, he dazzled at the World Cup, flying down the wing, tricking much more experienced opponents with his footwork and his balance. The England team manager believes in him as did, until recently, everyone at Liverpool.
Alas, Sterling, or more likely his agent Aidy Ward, seems to think they can do better than Liverpool. When the American owners of the club and the team manager Brendan Rodgers offered to treble his wages and get him to sign a new five-year contract worth ￡1,00,000 a week, the Sterling camp said no.
Either it was not enough, or the emerging winger has been persuaded that he should be playing for a better club, one that will play next season in the Champions League.
Ambition is a wonderful thing but so, as Xavi and Gerrard have proved, is loyalty. Sterling, with an ill-advised TV interview, and Ward with a shockingly sad newspaper outburst, have made the situation untenable. Ward went so far as to boast that if Liverpool offered his client ￡9,00,000 a week, he would not sign.
The agent in this case is alienating his client. Maybe that is intended, maybe it is a ruse to force Liverpool to sell him. And maybe the player and his adviser even knew in advance which super rich club (Chelsea or Manchester City for example) would pay him what he seeks.
They need to remember that Sterling was bought by Liverpool from Queens Park Rangers when he was an even younger pupa. He still has nothing to sell other than exciting potential. He is gifted, dynamic and brave, but years from maturity.
Wish him well.
Martin Odegaard is at an even more precocious stage. When he was seven, his father, a Norwegian national team player, saw the ability and the love of the game in his boy, and started devoting 20 hours a week to develop it.
By 15, Martin was in the Norwegian men’s game, a child, or at least an adolescent, who some compared to Messi. A week or so after he turned 16, Real Madrid won the auction to sign up young Odegaard―beating Bayern Munich and a host of English clubs (including Liverpool, which he adored as a child) to get him.
Part of the deal was that, although he would play for Real Madrid B, the second team under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane, he would train alongside Ronaldo and all the other stars of Real Madrid. Real is paying him a reported 40,000 euros every week.
On the final La Liga Saturday of this season, Odegaard stepped up to the first team. He made the dream debut, coming after 58 minutes in place of Ronaldo.
It was perhaps a symbolic handover. Ronaldo had already scored a hat-trick against Getafe, and the FIFA world player of the year touched hands and lightly embraced his substitute. After that, Odegaard―at 16 years, 5 months and 6 days, the youngest ever debutant for Real Madrid―was left to find his feet among the famous at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.
By the time the game was over, Carlo Ancelotti, the coach who handed Odegaard that opportunity, was about to be fired. Real had finished second to Barcelona in La Liga, and was knocked out of the Champions League by Juventus.
When the next season kicks off, the wunderkind of football will be among new players recruited under the next head coach in the hire and fire seat at the Bernabeu.
Youth might get its chance if the new management dares to try it.