Now only the most die-hard fan of American basketball will remember that name. He blasted into the National Basketball Association carrying the nickname “Baby Jordan,” after the already-iconic Michael Jordan.
His NBA career lasted 4 years.
A comment in the last thread noted that Ivan Rakitic, for the commenter, has for the past two matches “looked like a Barça midfielder.” Isco is the “heir apparent” to Andres Iniesta, and we know this because there are many articles that tell us he is. Marc Bartra is like unto Puyol, and Thiago Alcantara would have been the next Xavi, had that mean ol’ board not sold him for a few shiny trinkets and a friendly or something.
Standards are a fascinating thing. The Xavi comparisons for Rakitic were cringe-worthy for so many reasons, mostly having to do with athlete iconography. Returning to the hoops analogy, the reason there is, can not and will never be another Michael Jordan (sorry, Mr. James, or do you prefer King?) is because the truly amazing athlete doesn’t come along that often. When one does, it is a stupefying amalgam of talent, drive, durability and luck. Those players are coachable, usually mean in an unrelenting way and would run over their own mothers to get to that next level.
Sebastian Vettel might win as many F1 drivers championships as Michael Schumacher, but will never be the “next Schumacher.” Football has and will bring us many “next Messi,” but does anyone honestly think such a thing will happen in any of our lifetimes? Watch the player, and answer that question. Does the fact that there is a “next Messi” more often than there is a “next Ronaldo” mean anything?
So what of the notion that an athlete becomes more valid if he is defined by an existing template or parameter? Messi and Ronaldo are two very different players. You can’t compare them, making efforts to define which is “best” doomed to adolescent bench racing. Iniesta simply is. Why the need to replace him? When the one that we have goes, let him go. Next Xavi, next Puyol, next whatever. Hell, there’s already a next Neymar even though the current Neymar is still developing into something. The Barça teams of the recent past weren’t great because of any sort of magic. They were great because they had a group of iconic players working at something close to their prime.
We snarl at the board for letting opportunities go, for not building the team in a way commensurate with the designs on excellence that we all think the Barça legacy deserves. But how, exactly, is that supposed to happen? What goes on when Puyol leaves? How do you replace a Xavi? He isn’t some aging athlete, clinging to faded glory like a life raft. He’s still one of the best midfielders in the game on his day. If he were that easy to replace, he would have been.
It’s taken Barça how many years to find an attacking trio something like the equal of Messi/Eto’o/Henry? Great teams are irreplacable. If greatness was that easy, it would happen more often. So it is with players and notions of conforming to some sort of template.
Standards are an odd thing. The Rakitic looking like a Barça midfielder statement intrigues because of the curiosity sparked by that idea. Is it an idea or a person? Does that mean Xavi? Does that mean a mixture of passing and vision? What does a Barça midfielder look like? Deco? Guardiola? Keita? Iniesta? Xavi? What are the attributes of this being? Balance, vision, passing skill, that remarkable gift to almost be able to see into the future, know what to do with the ball and exactly how to do it.
Is that a Barça midfielder of necessity, or just an excellent midfielder. After all, that description could encompass Modric, Isco, Alonso, Kroos, Scholes, Pirlo.
The shorthand that athletics uses to define can also limit. Isco isn’t the next Iniesta. Does the nomenclature make an implication by association? Yep. Like it or not, it does. And that association makes it difficult for a player to meet that standard. Even Iniesta can’t meet his own standard. How is another player supposed to?
Our game isn’t just played with speed. It’s also evaluated with speed. The age of social media and the race to be the first with an online opinion makes that speed like something even space ships can barely keep pace with. Crises come and go, player careers spark into life and then ebb in mere weeks. Just as quickly as media outlets and supporters build them up, these things are torn down. RM is the best team ever, like Guardiola’s sides. Now they’re in crisis. Now they’re back. Whoops! Hang on.
Barça is a mess. Wait, the team is … nope. Crisis! Hang on … 11 in a row. Crisis over. Nope. Lost to Malaga. Crisis is back.
That same race extends to players. As a music journalist in my day job, I always caution my writers not to use another band to describe the sound of a band. “This latest song is like Modest Mouse meets Deadmaus.” Well, what the hell does that mean? Even if you use a band that you know to be part of the average person’s lexicon, “This track reminds me of if the Beatles had written a song for Michael Jackson,” what does that mean, exactly?
So even as we understand a phrase such as Raktic is looking like a Barça midfielder, what does it mean? Can Rakitic look like a talented midfielder who is starting to develop a rapport with his teammates as his role becomes more clearly defined? That’s a mouthful, but sure. Is he a prototypical attacking midfielder? You betcha? A bargain at 18m because of the skill set that he brings to the position? Absolutely.
Let him be. Sergi Samper probably doesn’t want to look at newspapers these days. Xavi, Guardiola, blabla, etc, etc. Lord today. We have all watched him play, and see an unusually talented midfielder with grace and balance, an eye for the right pass and when to make it. He reads the game beautifully, and is still developing. So there he is. Eric Bailly had a standout match for Villarreal in defense today, and his name is already coming up in statements such as, “I would take him over Musacchio, or (insert defender name here)”
What this world we all frolic in needs, it seems, is calm. Things are what they are. After we have had a wonderful boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, pet, etc, do all subsequent ones become defined by that one? Can you imagine a guy saying to a woman he’s dating, “I’m pretty sure you’re the next Babette, but I will need more time to figure that out.” Bonkers, right?