Sports cinema is littered with cult classics, movies that stick to a basic plot line: rag-tag group is assembled, something happens to make them come together, they succeed against all odds. From “Major League” to “Slap Shot,” chronicles abound of seemingly strange bedfellows making magic at the precise right time.
Real life is also festooned with examples, but as we take just a glancing look at what makes Messi, Suarez and Neymar work so well together (and apologies for digging up yet another Michael Jordan parallel), the best example can be found in the Chicago Bulls teams that were graced with Dennis Rodman. It’s a successful partnership with roots in need, a symbiotic linkage that can produce magic.
For the unfamiliar, Rodman was a mess. Not a hot mess, just a mess. But he could do one thing better than anyone else in the National Basketball Association: get rebounds. The then Bulls coach Phil Jackson correctly surmised that if you gave a great attack even more opportunities to score by also getting the best rebounder in the game, success should follow.
The complexity was that Rodman was a head case that Jackson had to integrate into an already smoothly functioning Bulls team. Three elements were essential to that integration: trophy lust, a last chance and Michael Jordan.
Every player wants championships. That’s the most obvious one. But Rodman’s litany of behavior problems was long, and limited the possible teams that he could go to. The Bulls showed up like a glittering lifeline — the best team in the game, led by the best player in the game, wanted to sign him up. He had to behave, or the fancy life of an NBA superstar was at risk. But the third aspect of the Rodman trilogy was the biggest, in Michael Jordan.
Jordan wanted to win. Jordan wanted to do whatever it took to win. You were either with him, or against him in a world bereft of middle ground. Rodman had to behave, as much for the superstar as the coach, or he was done. And so he did, dyed hair and all, becoming an integral part of a championship Bulls team and also bringing to mind, in the here and now, Luis Suarez.
Suarez wasn’t a hot mess, but he was a rash of disciplinary problems. It will forever be unknown whether his Italian carry-out snack at the World Cup affected his market power, but Barça came calling. As with Rodman, this was a glittering lifeline. And as with talented players who had behavior complexities such as Balotelli, the clock was ticking, and Suarez had to make this work. As with Jordan, Barça had Messi, who wants to win with a fervor identical to that possessed by any great player. The “dictator” talk is a myth, but you can rest assured that Messi will tolerate no impediments to his success. Suarez had to behave for Barça, but he also had to meet the expectations of the best player in the game.
Rodman was relentless. He fouled, pushed, shoved and got under the skin of opponents. He moved constantly in his single-minded task to perform his role to the best of his ability, and he was extraordinary at it. Substitute Suarez for Rodman, and you have the exact same kind of player, right down to the histrionics. Rodman was noted for taking charge fouls. An opponent would run into him and he would fall back, arms and legs akimbo, sliding across the hardwood as if struck by a bus. Note Suarez, when he is fouled.
The dirty secret, of course, is that the Bulls/Barça needed Rodman/Suarez every bit as much as the player needed that second chance, that opportunity to walk the straight and narrow and while they were at it, take part in unprecedented success.
Messi and Neymar were lovely, but Barça needed a 9, and not just any 9. That team needed a pain in the ass that could score goals, an Eto’o for the modern age. Was cost no object? Almost assuredly. Some will suggest that Liverpool got fleeced in that deal, that Suarez, in a world in which Gareth Bale cost 100m, 80m was a bargain. Maybe. The challenge was fitting him into a team that already had two stars.
When Neymar came to Barça, it was, in his words, because he wanted to play with Messi. That’s certainly part of it, but you don’t have to be much of a cynic to see that Neymar has a program, and Barça is part of it. Much was made of him turning down the dazzling millions of Real Madrid for the opportunity to ply his wares in Catalonia, but look at the situations.
RM was a wide-open team, that already had a superstar player at the position Neymar liked to play. So then what? Barça had nobody in that position, in effect. It was a role ready for Neymar to move in, like a house furnished with the best in appointments with folks such as Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Busquets.
Barça was also a disciplined team, which suited the needs of Neymar — a system that he could be part of, a way to demonstrate that he could control his mercurial skills in the service of a greater good. And there was also Messi, the best player in the game, a player that it was essential Neymar play with, rather than against. Moving to Barça was a slam dunk, aided again by the Messi factor. Like Suarez, Neymar already knew that Messi would take no nonsense, that the club with a history of jettisoning the biggest superstars when they became difficulties wouldn’t take any guff from him. But again, Barça needed him as much as he needed Barça.
The biggest reason Messi, Neymar and Suarez works is because of fear, and hunger. Nobody wants to screw up, particularly when you have been given the opportunity to perform something extraordinary. Suarez needed the opportunity. Neymar needed the finishing school, Messi needed players capable of allowing him to expand his game, and win more trophies.
It all seems so simple, yet people are surprised at how well the trio work together, at the selflessness evinced by the three best attackers in the game. It isn’t Ronaldo not celebrating with the rest of the team when someone else scores a goal. It’s Neymar, laughing and using a pet name for Suarez after the Uruguayan took a goal that was meant for him. Messi set up that goal because he doesn’t need any more goals. He does need a focused, fully committed team around him, and two of the most crucial components are Suarez and Neymar.
Jordan used to call the Bulls “my supporting cast.” It wasn’t until he started thinking of that group as a team that he was part of, that things really began to soar. On a lesser team, Suarez would have come in as the big man, THE man. What would that have led to? Who knows, for a man whose demons often hover dangerously close to public view, even now. With Messi, he is the striker. Not The Man, but the striker. Neymar can’t be the (let’s face it) prick that he was a lot of the time at Santos, because he is sharing a lineup with a collection of consummate professionals, led by the best of them all.
Commentators are used to the context of players and egos, so the situational selflessness of Barça’s powerhouse front three seems weird. The Real Madrid Galacticos were great players with no real incentive to work well together. They were baubles, rather than part of a plan. It’s a similar problem that we see in Manchester City. It’s expensive assembled parts, but when everyone is a chef accustomed to making the souffle, who performs the more mundane task of dicing the veggies? Nobody on that roster has the whip hand. At Barça, Messi does.
But Messi doesn’t wield that power the way that Ibrahimovic used to at PSG, a sometimes petulant despot. Messi leads by example. You can’t act like a superstar with a massive ego, because he doesn’t. How can you prance around when the best midfielder in the world silently goes about his job, sporting a haircut inspired by his daughter’s favorite cartoon character? It’s an odd sort of tyranny, one that Ibrahimovic rebelled against, scoffing at the “schoolboys” of Barça. But that classroom discipline and control were precisely what was needed by Neymar and Suarez, who are thriving in that environment. You can’t be the best when somebody else is. All you can do is work to meet the class standard.
What’s most important is not, however, the teacher, even as Luis Enrique has an immense role. It’s the quiet kid in the corner, the genius whose science experiment is going to win the competition. Everyone wants to be on the team with him, so they do what is necessary. It’s simple, when you think about it.