What would we make of our legends of days past had they played in the present, a time of media exposure, constant fan interaction, in both positive and negative extremes. Johan Cruyff with his outspoken views, both political and sporting, would see him vilified from sections of the supporters and his belief in his own ability would win him little admirers. How would modern fans react to the iconic Alfredo Di Stéfano as he represented three different nations at international level? Would an 18-year-old Franz Beckenbauer be able to bounce back now, as he did in 1963, when criticised and dropped from the national team for refusing to marry the mother of his unborn child. How about George Best, a legend on the pitch but off it a man who partied often and partied hard, with drink and beautiful women in tow, how would this and his belief in his own legend go down with today’s public? Then there is Diego Maradona, the man that Lionel Messi is always compared with, a man of cheating, political viewpoints and drug taking, all of which is swept away to reward his quality on the field. This would not be the case in the modern day, he would become one of the most controversial figures in the sport and never held up to legend status.
Now if we flip the argument what would we see, imagine Lionel Messi in the 1980’s, a gentleman on and off the field, and outstanding ability. He would be regarded as the best of all time for sure, there would be no debate as to his stature in football history. We would talk of the great Brazilian Neymar who wowed fans with his tricks and skill, the powerful pacey Cristiano Ronaldo, a player capable of anything on the pitch. The Spanish stars of Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol and Casillas would be fawned over by the La Liga players of modern times, World cup winning legends to one day aspire to. In England we’d discuss the Champions League winning midfield greats of Scholes, Beckham, Lampard and Gerrard and the no nonsense defensive displays of the iconic John Terry. The players haven’t really changed that much over time, the change is in how we view them in the modern climate.
It’s hard to talk about legends when they are already here, but as players retire like Rio Ferdinand, Raúl and Alessandro Del Piero, their departure from the game has come with no great farewell. With achievements that go down in history they’ve disappeared from the limelight with minimum fanfare, hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come. We are in the midst of legends, the players who should be spoken about in a century from now as some of the greatest of all time. Messi, Ronaldo, Pirlo, Iniesta, Totti and Schweinsteiger. We can only hope that the current trend of denouncing our heroes as a cultural habit comes to an end and we can stand back and fully appreciate the masters before our very eyes. These are our modern heroes, we can’t cheer on a Puskás or Baggio, a Neeskens or Breitner, we have our current crop and they deserve our respect and admiration. We have some of the greats of the game, record breakers to a man, they are legends of our time and we will miss them when they are gone.
Further examples of the change in mind set by fans are that of Neymar, criticised for being a ‘show off’ and disrespecting his opponents, but he isn’t doing anything that Rivelino didn’t do in the 1970’s. Paul Gascoigne is one of the most popular English players in history, despite a number of personal problems in his life that became public. Yet Steven Gerrard, a midfielder that arguably achieved much more in his career and was devoted to the team and people he loved was hated by a number of people outside of Liverpool. Not because he was a bad player, or underperformed for his nation, but because he was a Liverpool player and they supported a rival team.
This isn’t just a change that has affected football fans though, it’s more of a general change in social mind set. In tennis there is Serena Williams, golf has Tiger Woods, Darts Phil Taylor and motor racing Lewis Hamilton, all are, or have been, the best in the World at their sport, contenders for best of all time. Yet each one has been victims of huge critique from the general public, from the fans of their sport. Whether it be fans of rival competitors, backing of the underdog or just a way of going against the system, fans find a way of feeding their negativity towards the people who should be regarded as legends of the modern era. Our Jack Nicklaus, Steffi Graf, Eric Bristow and Juan Fangio’s, but the respect is not what it should be. Even outside of sport, musicians, actors and artists are still very much in the public eye, but are not held in quite the same esteem of those in the past. The legends of yesteryear are still pined for, while those of today are routinely mocked and discredited of any real talent.
But what’s the reason behind this change? In football the days of hooliganism and crowd trouble are not gone, but thankfully have reduced significantly, instead of literal fights now we have a ‘passive aggressive’ hatred of each other. So in that, criticism and verbal attacks go from being against your rival fan, to your rival fans heroes. Then once that position has been taken it’s very difficult to look at the players you turned on in a positive or fair light based on their achievements in the game. Take Frank Lampard as an example, as Chelsea became a force both in England and Europe with their vast financial backing, Lampard was one of the better players. A true professional, he gave no reason to be the target of hatred and abuse, but as a key figure in the team and a hero to the Chelsea fans, rival supporters would pick on him as a way of attacking Chelsea fans. This affected his England career with his inclusion very often booed by supporters, a fate also endured by fellow Chelsea players John Terry and Ashley Cole. Now Lampard is at the end of his career, playing out his final days in New York, we should be looking back proudly as Englishman at his achievements. Premier League titles, Champions league winner, capped internationally many times, a goal scoring record breaker from midfield. But we don’t see him that way, well Chelsea fans do and to an extent so do Manchester City fans after his season at the Etihad. The media hype has not helped this mind set with fans, every game is built up as the biggest ever with huge repercussions, and this creates a win at all costs tribal atmosphere that has little love for anything or anyone outside of their own particular club.
This has had a damaging effect on international football, no longer are games played with an entire nation behind them in support, now support is split into factions aiming jeers at certain players, cheers at others. This is not just in England, where Wayne Rooney is one of many regular targets for those in the stands, bars and living rooms. In Germany recently Mesut Özil was booed by sections of the German fans, Gerard Piqué is bombarded by the Spanish fans whenever he touches the ball due to his pro-Catalan stance and even Lionel Messi was criticised by Argentina fans in the early years of his international career because of his Spanish footballing education. This all seems to stem from the increasing battle between club and country, a contest that club have been winning for the last decade. As an England fan it has been a while since I have watched the nation in a tournament, knowing that the nation is united behind them. Possibly the 2004 European Championships was the last time, after that the link between certain players and their club sides began to sway opinion on their ability and total support was lost. It was around that period that the last legends of the game were about to disappear, Zidane and Brazilian Ronaldo remain beloved by all with no mention of their various club sides, players who have come since then are struggling to be held up against the same standards.
Today players themselves are more exposed in the public eye than ever before, this extends to all sportsman and other celebrities. In the past there was always the shroud of mystique where the fans would never really know who their heroes really were, what they enjoyed doing, they would only see them on the stage of which they performed and would sit in awe. Now with news outlets delving deeper into their lives each year, and social media providing a direct connection from ‘Joe Public’ to the star, the mystique has gone, the curtain pulled back, they are revealed as normal people just like you and I. Maybe it’s against our human nature to revel in others quality and glory if they are just the same as us, maybe we need our heroes to be cut from a different cloth, almost that of myth, because after all legends and myths often travel hand in hand.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Legends of the modern game.
“When the legends die, the dreams end; there is no more greatness.“
They are the people who romanticise our sport, the superstars who had us glued to our television screens, the heroes we tried to emulate. Whether it be Romario, Baggio, Van Basten or Papin, they were our legends, beloved by millions, respected by all. Memories were created by these performers, generations inspired and with each passing moment their legend grows greater and greater. They were the past though, today we have a new bunch of superstars but has time changed? Will the youth of today be looking back in twenty years with such admiration? Will the legends of our time be remembered as legend at all?
I raise this question with one particular man in mind, Barcelona and Argentina superstar Lionel Messi. A player who plays for his team, with a smile on his face and breaks every footballing record put before him. Not only is Messi regarded as the best player in the World right now, he is arguably the greatest player the game has ever seen. An inoffensive player, uncontroversial, unselfish and without a huge ego, Messi should be the ultimate footballing icon, beloved by all, but this isn’t really the case. It seems football has changed, or at least the way the general public view it and the players who perform for them. ‘Club vs country’ and the hype generated by media platforms before and after games has created a tribal club atmosphere where a number of fans refuse to appreciate any player who has wronged their club, or been part of a team that has. With the example of Lionel Messi, I have spoken to a number of Arsenal fans who refuse to appreciate his talents, this is undoubtedly connected to his 4 goal destruction of their side in 2010. Real Madrid fans are also critical of the Barcelona forward due to their club rivalry, and as an Argentina international Messi is on the end of regular barbed comments from Brazilian nationals.
It's the same for Lionel Messi’s great rival to the title of ‘best in the World’, Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans of English clubs remember him from his Manchester United days, Barcelona fans criticise because of his Madrid performances, and the Portuguese star is often labelled as egocentric and self-absorbed. But is that really fair? Is the ego of Cristiano any bigger than that of Dutch legend Johan Cruyff? Is he any more self-absorbed than George Best? Yet both of those players are considered when discussing the greatest of all time. With his goal scoring record and list of trophies won, Cristiano Ronaldo, like Messi, should be also considered in that bracket. But in the current climate it’s difficult to see the heroes of our time being held up in the same regard as those of the past, the game is full of too much negativity.
Now you might say, “players have always been criticised”, and that is true, but that critique has not generated such ferocity and hatred as it currently does. An example of this is German World Cup winner Jürgen Klinsmann, who in the 1993/94 Champions League semi-final cheated with a theatrical dive that caused a red card for Milan defender Alessandro Costacurta, costing the Italian a place in the final. There was outrage at first over these actions, and when the German striker moved to Tottenham the following year the initial reaction to his diving was negative. Yet within a few months it had all been forgotten, Klinsmann became one the most popular figures in the Premier League, even mocking his diving in celebrations. Opposition fans applauded the striker, he received awards for his displays and when he left England’s shores he had received appreciation for his efforts from all corners. Compare that now with another forward who has been accused of cheating his opponents, Luis Suárez. The Uruguayan is borderline despised by opposition fans, loved deeply by his own club’s supporters because of his World class quality, but dismissed as a cheat by others. If Klinsmann was a player in this era, I feel he would fall firmly into the same situation as Suárez, no longer universally loved and admired, but labelled a cheat and vilified at every turn.