Celebrating without wrecking: Munir El Haddadi, aka “The next nothing”

"Hi, Mom! Am I famous yet?" (Photo by Miguuel Ruiz for FC Barcelona)
“Hi, Mom! Am I famous yet?” (Photo by Miguuel Ruiz for FC Barcelona)

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.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

13 Comments

  1. Sangoku
    September 6, 2014

    Excellent. Many blame the media for overhyping and building a “pressure-cooker” atmosphere (around sportsmen and celebrities in general) but we tend to forget that the media is just a reflection of what a majority of people crave for. It’s the old ‘supply and demand’.

  2. Peter
    September 6, 2014

    Personally I have no use for this “New XXX” crap. There is one Pele. One Maradona. One Messi. One Stoichkov, one Ramallets. If he is good he will make a name for himself. People remember Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana. Those “New” guys are an invention of the click-generating, tree-murdering, fat-print writing media.

    There was no “New Koeman”, there was Puyol. This is the real deal, the real trial by fire – if people AND the press start using their names instead of the “New Legend” lazy journalism, that is the real proof that the player has earned his place in history.

    I suppose it’s quite obvious that I hope we talk about Munir the player in future. Fingers crossed and good luck with the qualifier with Macedonia. 🙂

    • TITO
      September 7, 2014

      You don’t need luck with Macedonia, we really suck.

  3. Davour
    September 7, 2014

    Just hope he has good people around him to level the dizzying speed by which his career is moving at the moment (like Messi?). The call-up must be understood for what it is: a way to secure his future services for Spain. It probably was a good thing that Sandro scored, too – sharing the spotlight is, perhaps, a bit humbling anyway.

    But in the best of worlds Munir will be patient, ready to step in and take over in 2-3 years, when Suarez will be in decline and Messi has retreated to a pure playmaking role!

    Neymar – Munir – Adama in 2016/17… or whatever.

  4. CuleToon
    September 7, 2014

    Kubala, [Cruyff,] Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Messi, Xavi and … Kluivert? 😮

  5. ciaran
    September 7, 2014

    I’ve seen so many ‘new’ everybody’s. Over the past years it has changed so many times. Players are put into a box based on positions on the pitch, nationality, height, hairstyles and everything in between.
    Ariel Ortega was a talented midfielder but one that always made me feel like he was going to waste his talent. He was the new Maradona while the old one was winding down and before he could fulfil, or fail to do so, his potential everyone moved on to the next new Maradona, Juan Roman Riquelme.
    The reason that I bring up these two players are that both of them occupy the same area on the pitch but couldn’t be more different from each other and from Diego.

    Any young player in world football at the minute who can dribble and score goals is the new Messi, and before the weight of that comparison has even crippled them, some other youngster does the same thing and they are forgotten. Impossible standards are set based on one of a kind talents.
    If becoming one of the best players in the world at 21 is the benchmark then how many people will ever achieve greatness? I’ve seen and heard people complain about Neymar losing the ball or showboating but he’s just a kid who loves football. I could watch him take on players and try different things all day. He brings a smile to my face that no one since Ronaldinho has.

    And now on to Munir. He had been an exciting talent for a while but it’s so easy to get worked up about young players that I try not to based on a couple of games here and there and some highlights. Munir is a unique player though. He shows incredible composure in most situations and for a forward that is more important than any other attribute. The variety of goals that he scores is quite spectacular and he is very versatile too.
    I hope much hope that he will continue to develop his game and become a great player but it is too early to expect it.

    If we expect him to be a Messi he might just turn out to be Bojan but if we let him become the player he is to become without that expectation he might surprise us all.

  6. norden
    September 7, 2014

    Calling someone new Messi is the same hype as calling one lost game a crisis.

    Anyway, I wonder what’s the strategy for this kid not to become new Bojan.

  7. Valdemar II
    September 7, 2014

    Sure. Munir’s career has just started, and there are several steps left for him.

    1. Making the first team squad
    2. Becoming a regular substitute
    3. Becoming a starter
    4. Keeping a good form for several seasons

    And inbetween this there is the test of his mental and physical maturity. If you are to be crass you could conclude that Munir will likely fail at one of these points. At the same time he is one of our largest talents. How many talents make one legend?

    The b-team steamrolled Zaragoza today; they’re a treat to watch. I’m liking our chances for a ‘league double’.

    • September 7, 2014

      Still isn’t a complete player. I see Deulofeu with more speed and physicality. But he’s coming along very nicely. The next year or two will be so crucial for him. He needs time against Liga competition, so that he understands (as we saw when he got that time in pre-season) the stuff that works against B defenders just gets snuffed out vs grownups, so to speak. All that stuff is important in developing him as a complete player.

    • BA
      September 7, 2014

      Zara are no slouches though; they were only relegated last year. i’m impressed and satisfied with Adama’s progress; he looks to be a seriously gifted athlete with plenty of in-game intelligence to learn the details over the next couple of seasons. we keep saying that we’re “blessed” with La Masia attacking talent, but i think at this point we should just all agree that La Masia produces tremendous attacking players period. we’ve got: Munir (the kid everybody is talking about), Adama (great physical gifts and sharp talent), Dongou (a classic in-the-box striker), Sandro (1-for-1 so far as a sub);not to mention Deulofeu on loan and Halilovic looking set to take Segunda by storm all by himself this season. just a huge wealth of potential talent.

      i really hope the cream is able to rise to the top for us on that front, because that’s our future; that’s how we compete in the long-term.

  8. September 7, 2014

    Euro qualifiers today. ALBANIA!!!! Also if you get a chance, check out the goals in the Ireland match. All high quality. Scotland showed very well against Germany in a 2-1 loss, as well.

    I even slummed and watched some American football, as my dog-ass Chicago Bears polluted my eyeballs in losing to the Buffalo Bills.

    • Doug
      September 8, 2014

      As a fellow Bears fan, they looked really bad – got pushed around by the Bills.

      Can’t wait for Barca to come back from the break.

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