Football is a weird, often absurd thing that makes us forget what it in fact is, which is entertainment.
As young people caper about a flawlessly manicured lawn in a quest for an inflated sphere, the next fat paycheck and maybe, just maybe, glory, supporters forget all of that. We clutch our replica shirts, scream invective or exultation after the result of an athletic clash which is nothing more than an entertaining game. Yes, football is life. But it is, at its core, a game.
Within that game things happen, moments of magic that elevate via that weird, vicarious thrill that makes us live through the athletes or teams that we support. Sometimes, like an electric shock an athlete jolts us into life and because of how the sporting world exists now, via 140-character blasts that vie for attention like newspaper headlines in massive print, there is hype. And where there is hype, there is scorn and cynicism, sarcasm and calls for calm.
It has happened before and will happen again, just as it is happening right now to Munir El Haddadi.
I often wonder if players really seek fame. I wonder if, you were to ask them if their quest to be the best at their craft came with the consequence of headlines, scrutiny, photographers, hype, praise and scorn as a talented human being is buried under Mount Crap, how many of them would instead opt to be football coaches or schoolteachers. The money is great, but at what cost? I just want to kick a damn football.
It’s a safe bet that a year ago a significant percentage of the culer populace had zero idea who “Munir” was. People who followed the Barça youth systems knew exactly who he was, but most people focus on the first team. So a young player had talent, and developed until his name began to creep into the edges of our consciousness, some kid kicking ass for Juvenil A, soon to be promoted to the B team.
This summer he was tapped by Enrique to train with the first team, then play friendlies. And he shone. Then came the season’s first test against Elche and he passed, sliding around the pitch, a bracing amalgam of precociousness and energy, slamming in a goal and making people say “Wow!”
Next match, against a more difficult opponent rubbed off a lot of the luster and the buzz died for but a moment, until Spain’s first team coach called him to replace an injured Diego Costa, and the second stage of the rocket blasted off. Suddenly, a kid who has barely started shaving is getting adult-sized truckfuls of hype and scorn, being called “the next Messi” as often as people are saying “Hmph!” But reality is a lot simpler, when you really think about it.
Every generation has its legends, players who are measuring sticks for other players who become the “next” someone or other. Kubala, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kluivert and now Messi and Xavi, human talent filters that reduce an individual to a “next” entity that squats in the shadow of greatness.
Munir is a talented young player who is learning to play a difficult game at a higher level. Watch him. Enjoy him. Any hype should be taken with a grain of salt and doesn’t necessarily need to be countered with scorn or sarcasm. As mountains are built up, what’s the hurry to tear them down? Time and life do that rather effectively.
Gai Assulin was the “next Messi,” until he wasn’t. Bojan Krkic came before there was a “next” anything, the “Boy of a Thousand Goals” who is now a sub in the cold, rainy Stoke of myth.
Great players … truly great players don’t come along very often, even as people rush to replace them. In American basketball there were so many “next Michael Jordans,” some of them appearing even while Jordan was still the best that anyone had ever seen. And when Jordan had the opportunity to encounter these pretenders he would invariably destroy them with a glint in his eye, presenting the world with a tangible reminder of the rarity of true greatness. “Now that I am done destroying you and your team, would you like an autograph?”
The talents of Munir are worth commenting on, as they are considerable. That makes him a noteworthy player. But even Messi himself isn’t the “next Messi,” as the goal machine of myth and culer legend morphed into a strolling, gimpy player allegedly saving himself for the World Cup. Greatness doesn’t come often, which is why great players are legends. Halls of Fame are more crowded than they should be, frankly, as every generation wants to have its own greats to enshrine and provide affirmation. You had yours, but we have ours.
And players get dubbed the “next” something or other when we should simply be enjoying them, watching them develop and remembering that amid all the tears, billions of dollars and anthems it’s all just a game — a game in which greatness is fleeting and failure is a constant.