Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Matter of Klaas: Why Messi Is Bad For Football

This is yet another sensationalistic title used in order to catch your costly attention in these dark ages of being-in-a-hurry-for-no-reason we live in. Lionel Messi, The Argentinian forward who will surely end his career holding more records than anyone who ever played Association Football, is not helping the sport he seems to enjoy dominating. Well, he is. But, not really.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a 28-year-old Dutch striker, who plays his football for Schalke 04 in the German Bundesliga, is the perfect example of Messi’s negative impact on the game. This guy has the perfect striker’s body (balance of size and agility), is tactically aware(he’s Dutch, that’s not a surprise), shows great movement on the pitch, and holds a good sense for putting the ball in the net. He was tipped by myself and several other football weirdos (Luis Van Gaal…) as a potential improved version of the Great Van Basten. In other words, the perfect striker. Some will argue that many had their claims as being great centre-forwards after Van Basten retired. They would be right. I would take George Weah, Ronaldo (the original one), or Romario any day of the few remaining weeks we have left on this planet. They were all blessed with one or more outstanding abilities that made them extraordinary footballers. They were all great strikers. But not perfect.

(I am obsessed with perfection because, well, some people are. We like the idea of the possibility of improvement. As I’m typing this, I realize this obsession may be the engine for evolution, a force driving us towards flawlessness; then I think of the people who run the world we live in, and I remember we are going nowhere)

If you’re Dutch or German, you know who I’m talking about. If you have a knack for remembering names you hear every week on Sports shows, you somehow vaguely think you might have heard it. If you’re a footster*, you only know of Dutch football come international competitions. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. It’s not everyday you meet a guy with a name you’re convinced could mean something badass in a foreign language. You have to understand why I waste my time talking about him. KJH, aka The Hunter, doesn’t look like a modern day striker. He barely looks like a footballer. In fact, he barely looks human at all. He’s very lean, doesn’t seem to have pace or strength. Only a perfect sense of his tasks on the pitch. He’s no Drogba, no Zlatan, no Van Persie, no Higuain, so no outstanding physical strength, no Kung Fu moves, no perfect first touch. Just enough of all the attributes required.You can’t really classify him as “one of those strikers”, because there are very few of his breed left playing at the highest level to compare him to. This piece is about the forgotten wonders of today’s Football.

So, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, (I just copy-pasted the name by the way), who never fully reached his potential – like most Humans –, who for too long showed glimpses of what it would be like to have a computer program play striker, has finally lived up to the almost forgotten expectations some had for him. A couple of days ago, (or weeks, I’m too lazy to check) and we’re in April, the dutchman scored his 40th goal this season (in all competitions). As I’m writing this, he’s top scorer of the Bundesliga with 23 goals, already his best career return. His club Schalke are currently third, a spot that would ensure them Champions League football next season. He also leads the Europa League in goals with 10. He has scored more international goals than his fellow countryman Van Persie in fewer caps (they’re also born six days apart). If you know a little about European football, you know that only a handful of strikers were able to reach these figures. And there are 5 leagues matches to go. Which means that unless our friend gets injured, he could possibly finish the season with 50 goals. I can’t think of the last time this happened, before the Messi/Cristiano era. I could look it up, and I would probably find a photocopy of an old yellowish newspaper article as a Wikipedia reference, talking about a man wearing leather boots, who scored his 50th goal (in December) in a game that ended 9-7. That fucking long ago. I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture, and that’s what matters.

And why don’t you know this? Because Messi has already scored 58 goals this season. And you’ve probably seen them all for they were most likely all amazing (minus the penalties).

“We’re living in exciting football times. We are witnessing the greatest player possibly of all time, playing in the best team we’ve ever seen.”

I’ve heard so many variations of this in the past years, and I disagree with the first sentence. Messi is the best player ever, and Barça are pretty close to perfection. But that’s not a good thing. We’re missing out on so much other greatness occurring. Did you know that Cristiano Ronaldo scored more league goals than Messi last season? Did you know he’s currently leading La Liga in scoring? We’re so hooked on Messi that we tend to forget about the actual numbers. It’s almost as if we’ve created an alternate reality where Messi is in fact the absolute best in stats and that everyone else just stopped existing. As if we wanted to get it over with.

“-Is he the best yet?” -Well, the stats show that he will be but, for now… “. - Let’s just say he is, and then, he will be”.

Us humans are real good at that. Creating realities. I’ve heard TV commentators defend Messi whenever he misbehaved on the pitch. I’ve seen a referee pull a second yellow card out after a Barcelona player fooled an opponent from behind, only to put it back in his pocket when he realized it was Messi he was about to send off.

In the real world (whatever that is), Huntelaar’s season shows way more progress than Messi’s and is a way better story. Huntelaar is turning 29 this season, which means he only has a few years left. Messi is 24, and is beating his own already incredible records from last year. He’s won 3 straight Ballon d’Or, and will win it again this year, unless Cristiano scores a hat-trick in the Euro final and wins it for Portugal. What else is there to expect from him at club level? Can he really get better? Can he humiliate more defenders on his next goal? Let’s bet all our money Messi scoring 38 hat-tricks, blindfolded, on one foot next season. Seriously.

Speaking of Cristiano, because of Messi dominance, I feel we’re not fully enjoying Ronaldo’s incredible achievements. He is also exploding every individual record there is at Real Madrid, every other week. This kid grew up thinking he would one day dominate the football world. And he is. Only some other dude half his size is dominating him. Sad. No one likes Ronaldo and they don’t even know why. When you ask, fans say he’s too cocky, his goals aren’t crucial or important(which is bullshit), or that he’s a douchebag. True. Most footballers are douchebags. Cristiano happens to be the top one. People don’t like Cristiano Ronaldo because they love Messi. As if they had to choose one of the two. As if men have never liked two people at the same time…

I chose Huntelaar as an example because I honestly believed in him from the beginning, stuck with him during his disappointing times at Milan and Real Madrid, and today I find myself enjoying having been right about him all along, by myself. The kid is joint top scorer of the German league with another striker also having an outstanding season, Mario Gomez. Ze German. Will also finish the season with over 40 goals. No one cares.

I could’ve used Van Persie’s season to prove my point. But the fact that he plays in a league that normal people actually watch, and that he captains a club that is easy on the eyes (for the opposite effect watch Stoke City play, or whatever it is that they try to do), has helped him gain and keep global recognition in the Football world for his wonderful season. So his story is not a secret. We could talk about Raul’s smashing revival season at 35 after Real Madrid dropped him like a dog (incidentally he plays alongside Huntelaar at Schalke), or about the fact that a large number of 90’s Italian footballers are currently managers (Mancini, Di Matteo, Ancelotti, Simone, Conte, Donadoni, Ferrara…). We should be celebrating Swansea’s football, or highlight Newcastle United’s close-to-perfect buying policy. Instead, we watch Barça play and wait for Messi’s goals and unsuccessfully try to tweet something original describing his greatness.

Messi is bad for Football. Okay he isn’t. There are stories out there that need to be told ‘though. And who better than him, to help us tell a few of them? Thank the Gods for Messi.

*Footster: Football Hipster.

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