Posted on February 2015.
None of it matters.
Messi was absent from the UEFA Team of the Week, but Ronaldo was in there. So what.
Some don’t think that Messi is better than Ronaldo. So what.
The Premiership is called by many “best league in the world.” So what.
At the end of a remarkable week of football, in which Premiership teams dropped like flies in a firestorm, comes the blizzard of analysis pieces. “If it’s the best league in the world, what happened?”
The answers are simple and obvious, really. The running and industry that makes for excellent television as people sit down, ooh and aah as they watch a giant, high-def screen and tackles go flying in. The reason that Prem sides used to be better in Europe is that they had managers who understood that you have to play different ways when you go to Europe, rather than suffuse your side with the institutional arrogance attendant to being “best in the world.” Chelsea will go farther in Europe because its manager understands that a team has to play different ways in the league, as well as in Europe. It also has to play differently in the first leg at home, vs the second leg away, or vice versa.
Only a fool would give Barça the space that City allowed in that first half, and Pellegrini isn’t a fool. Is he a manager who believes in his side, to the extent of fully believing that they are equals to one of the best football clubs in the world? Yup. But that’s naïve, rather than foolish. Arsenal didn’t think that Monaco had a chance against them, and played like it. But just because Monaco is in Ligue 1 doesn’t mean they are terrible. It just means that they are in a league with a different set of requirements and standards of excellence.
Arsenal might still turn that tie, just as City might. The broader question, as people snuffle and snort about the Prem’s status, hot on the heels of a giant TV contract, is what does it matter? The Premiership exists in a vacuum. It isn’t the “best league in the world” because of any status bestowed by anyone. It’s the “best league in the world” because people became convinced that such a thing is true. You say it enough times and it becomes so. But if people already know that the Prem isn’t the best league in the world, why the surprise when its clubs get bounced from Europe? Do Prem neutrals find the “best league in the world” stuff just as seductive as Prem devotees?
If this wasn’t the case, the hand-wringing would be largely absent, replaced by a much simpler, “Duh.” Yes, we all like to pick on the rich kid, but the Prem got that status by understanding how to put on a show, marketing that league and not being run by jackasses. The language is also English. Yes, we know that given the dominance of foreigners in the Prem, language is a distinction lost to logic, but people don’t think that closely about the game. “It’s English. I speak English.” And the influential U.S. market becomes a monolingual slam dunk.
The Prem doesn’t have to be the best, people just have to think that it is, and the myopia will build. In many ways it’s like Formula One, a sport whose press is predominantly English, and whose roots are felt by many to be, even as the sport is one of the most truly international at every level.
A story came out Friday about the organizers of the British Grand Prix, which is customarily held at Silverstone, wondering what kind of championship F1 would be without Silverstone. There again, it’s a peculiar kind of myopia that comes from a status bestowed by tenure. F1 did just fine without Spa (Belgium). Why would it somehow be devalued because of the absence of Silverstone? It wouldn’t, any more than the Prem will be devalued because its teams are absent from the European stage.
The Prem is, in the U.S., on a major network in NBC. That means that any, all and everyone can see it. You don’t need cable, or a special sports tier as you do with La Liga. You can just turn on the TV, and there it is, available to people who might not even care about football. “Hey, looka those little guys go!” The matches are broadcast in crystalline HD, and miked in a way that makes “You’ll Never Walk Alone” positively spine-tingling. Meanwhile in La Liga you get vague echoes of what might be the sound of fans in a stadium.
A colleague who doesn’t give two craps about football suddenly stated talking to me about the Prem last season, when matches started being broadcast on NBC. You want marketing? That is marketing. People can snuffle all they like about the technical prowess of Spain, or the packed stadiums and screaming supporters of the Bayernsliga. Nobody cares because they can’t SEE it. It’s the same reason nobody cares about Europe and its effect on the Premiership. Liverpool won’t stop being a storied club because it got bounced out of the Europa League. Arsenal won’t stop being Arsenal because it lost to a Monaco side who will next have to have tryouts among its supporters to find a pair of CBs to rub together.
It doesn’t matter, because reality is what people believe.
The penalty of Messi
In the week’s Champions League football, Ronaldo scored a goal and Messi missed a penalty. Is making the Team of the Week as simple as that? Yep. Supporters crow about the goals that Messi scores. When someone hears that Messi dominated a match, the first question is “How many goals did he score?” “None.” “Then how did he dominate?” Goals are the currency that define greatness. It is in many ways hypocritical to crow about Messi becoming the all-time leading scorer, breaking this or that scoring record then snarl because the Ballon d’Or has been reduced to a goal scoring competition. He isn’t just goals, but the timing of the goals, the creation of the goals, all the stuff that he does in between the goals. Goals captivate, goals are the thing. So it makes sense that the most enduring image from the City match was Messi laying on his face, trying to burrow into the Etihad pitch. Why? He missed a penalty.
The two questions lingering are did that missed PK devalue the rest of his match to a degree sufficient to have him NOT make Team of the Week, and should we care? No, and no.
On an Internet where people can’t even suss whether a dress is black and blue or white and gold, how in hell are they going to parse whether a player is in fact GOAT. Many of them can barely find a picture of a goat. But the Internet has made affirmation more important than ever. It isn’t that we believe, it’s that we want others to believe. We argue, post statistics, scoff and snark. But at the end of it all, we are trying to convince someone that what we believe is “correct.” The Premiership has convinced people that it is the best league in the world, to the tune of a 5bn+ television package. That’s some convincing.
But as long as his supporters believe that Messi is the best, none of the rest of it matters. He missed a penalty that would have put the tie out of reach for City. Does that change anything? Depends on who you ask. If you believe that it does, it does. If you believe that it doesn’t then it doesn’t. The rest is a waste of bandwidth.
What’s interesting is the stat that of the 10 penalties Messi has taken after the 85th minute, he has missed half of them. Is a 50% conversion rate for penalties in the part of a match that makes converted ones potentially the most devastating an acceptable conversion rate for a player of Messi’s caliber? Here’s another question: what if Enrique suggested that Suarez start taking penalties?
When I raised that question on Twitter, the variety of responses was interesting. Some said “He’s the best, why would anyone else take them?” “It would be an insult.” But would it be? If Messi, as rumor has it, doesn’t like taking them, what’s the harm? Would it goad Messi into improving that aspect of his game? Would it pad Suarez’s goal totals now that Barca is getting penalties thanks to its altered playing style?
But there is danger afoot, Dr. Watson! A crisis even, if certain media critters are to tickle our credibility bones. “Penalties are as much mine as my PlayStation, dammit. Rip them from my sleeve-covered digits at your own peril, Asturian Man.”
The other complexity of course is how in the brimstone-scented hell can the Best Player Alive ™, the dude who bangs in massive goals at key times for his club like he’s booting a stray ball off the practice pitch, not also be an infallible demon from the spot? His lessers, the likes of Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic, who blasts rockets into various spots of the goal like he’s playing foot darts, step to the spot and you just look away, anticipating the partisan roar as a keeper dives for nothing. What the hell, Messi?
Is it as simple as a previously mentioned lack of perfection? That if he did all that AND banged the hell out of penalties, it just wouldn’t be fair. And what if he just needs something to work on? Michael Jordan wasn’t always automatic from the free throw line. Work, work and more work bred the player who, late in a basketball game, strolled to the free throw line, looked at an opponent who had been trash talking and said “This one’s for you, baby.” Jordan then closed his eyes and … swish. All net.
Are penalties a question of work, of honing that instinct just like a free throw? No, the free throw doesn’t have a multi-limbed colossus striving to outguess you, to leap to his feet in the aftermath and scream, “Yo gimme just got got, G! Hooooraw!” How is it that a player who successfully manages the audacious with a frequency that renders his merely exceptional goals mundane, pop a shot anywhere a keeper can get to it. Top corner? Sure. Corkscrew ball that curls off through the parking lot, comes in the back entrance and plops into the net? Okay. Off the post and in? Snore, but why not?
And yet, he misses. He’s missed them in friendlies, missed them with a Liga match on the line, missed them against Chelsea in Champions League. Why? Who knows. A penalty kick has never been automatic, never a guaranteed goal. But the percentage with which they are converted by mortal players hovers somewhere in the stratosphere. What’s the deal with the man who might truly go down in history as the best who ever played, for those who crave such a limiting definition.
And how wrong is someone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, a lesser being might be better equipped to grab a gimme.