By Utkarsh Srivastava Jul. 12, 2016
Far from being the solution, bona fide superstars are the problem. If you are a true fan of the Portuguese team, you might find yourself praying that Ronaldo goes the Messi way.
n the end, it was all a bit hollow. Yes, Portugal were crowned champions of Europe. And yes, 10 years down the line no one will remember that they only won a single match in normal time in the entire tournament. But as of now, the tournament is little more than a testament to the fact that football is utterly unpredictable and that the team with the most talent doesn’t always win.
For Cristiano Ronaldo, this was the Holy Grail. A major international trophy would surely be the clincher in the Messi vs Ronaldo debate. CR7 was predictably the centrepiece in the Portuguese team. While he had started off slow, the latter stages of the tournament did see some flashes of performance worthy of a three-time Ballon d’Or winner. The Portuguese train chugged on, not quite in the imposing locomotive sort of way, but more like the little engine that could.
Against all odds, Portugal found themselves in the final. They had been far from convincing, but there they were. Only the French hosts stood in their way. The stage was surely set for Portuguese prima donna. The man from Madeira would show to the world that he was better than that tax-evading “little flea”.
But then Dmitri Payet decided to take a closer look at Ronaldo’s knee. The tackle was robust (after all Payet does play for a team nicknamed “The Hammers”) and Ronaldo’s left knee was gone. His face did most of the talking (like it usually does) and tears welled up in his eyes (like they usually do). He had to be stretchered off and was replaced with Ricardo Quaresma, a man more likely to make the headlines for his hairstyle than his playing skills. It seemed game over for Portugal.
Except the Portuguese have made a habit of grinding out results. Éder conjured up a goal out of nowhere and Portugal walked out 1-0 winners, with Ronaldo somehow stealing the show with his touchline dramatics even though he only really played for around 10 minutes. Messi can’t even the scales on this one, unless he comes out of retirement. And it may appear that Ronaldo has finally won it all.
But if you are truly a Portugal fan, you might find yourself praying that he decides to follow Messi into retirement. For they might have gotten lucky this time. And this crippling reliance on their captain will cost them sooner or later.
Argentina and Portugal did not get their golden generations. But they did get their golden boys. Players who can seemingly turn any match on its head, who can transform any side into world-beaters, who don’t really need the help of their teammates to score goals. Players who could win.
Messi and Ronaldo are unarguably the two most talented footballers in the world right now. They have big pay packages, big houses, big cars (and in case of Messi, big tax problems). At club level, they have won everything there is to win.
With the national team however, even though Ronaldo might have seemingly tipped the scales in his favour by finally winning an international tournament, the performance of his Portuguese team has given Messi lovers a lot of ammunition to argue otherwise. While Ronaldo fans will smirk and point to the Euro winner’s medal, for a lot of neutrals, the contest is too close to call. They are two colossuses and one feels that more than one of them succeeding, it will take one of them failing to really decide the rivalry.
Yet, in midst of their epic battle, not many realise that they are actually hurting their national teams. For while the coaches and tournaments keep changing, as long as Messi and Ronaldo are playing, there can be only one game plan. Get the ball to them and watch the magic.
But it doesn’t actually work out quite as smoothly. Let’s look at how they have done in terms of quantifiable international success. Ronaldo can add the Euro win to his appearance in the 2004 Euro final where he lost to Greece. Messi has seen a lot more heartbreak as he has been to four major finals but has lost them all. Compared to their club records, their international records are quite frankly an embarrassment.
And that makes one think dangerous, even blasphemous thoughts; would their national teams be better off without them?
Messi and Ronaldo are exceptionally talented. Both of them will walk into any team in the world and improve it massively. And quite logically, their national team coaches make them the focal point of their team’s attacks.
Argentina and Portugal have a great wave of young talent coming in, especially in the midfield. Youngsters like Erik Lamela and Paulo Dybala have seemingly endless potential.
Except, it doesn’t always work. And as I saw the matches in which these two played, my mind flashed back to my high school coach growling to two of my teammates, “Just stick to number 7. Don’t even look at the ball or anyone else. Shut him down and we get the win.”
It worked then and it is working now. Argentina and Portugal run most of their attacks through their captains (Portugal more so than Argentina). And when that happens, the opposing coaches employ the most basic of strategies against them: put multiple defenders on them.
The multiple man-marking does lead to some boring matches. The Round of 16 match between Portugal and Croatia was called the “worst match at a major tournament”. The Euro final did not earn many awards for entertainment either. But it’s effective. Messi and Ronaldo do not play as well for their national teams. At least, nowhere as well as they do for their club teams. And before you bring up the Euro win again, let me point out that for all of Ronaldo’s passion and tears, Portugal won the final without him.Argentina and Portugal have a great wave of young talent coming in, especially in the midfield. Youngsters like Erik Lamela and Paulo Dybala have seemingly endless potential. The Portuguese youngsters are even more promising as their Under-21 team containing William Carvalho, João Mário and Raphaël Guerreiro was the finalist at the 2015 European Under-21 Championship. They also have a certain Renato Sanches in their ranks for whom Bayern Munich recently paid €35 million. These four have already made their mark on the senior team at these Euros.
Both these teams can have great futures if they allow their youngsters to flourish and develop a system around them instead of their superstars. For it is quite rare that a team built around a single superstar can achieve sustained success. One needs to only look at the Spanish dynasty between 2008 and 2012 or the Italians in 2006 to realise that teams win tournaments and not individuals.
The theory will soon be put to the test as Messi has retired and age is catching up with Ronaldo. And if it does prove to be correct, then Messi’s retirement might just turn out to be for the greater good.
Utkarsh is a lawyer-turned-journalist who worships Aaron Sorkin. He plans to one day emigrate to New Zealand, rear sheep, and teach incorrect history to high schoolers.