Friday, 20 September 2019

What Does a Great Player Look Like Now?

It seems like the future is here.

Kylian Mbappé has replaced Neymar as the centerpiece of Paris St.-Germain’s bid to conquer world soccer. Frenkie de Jong is ensconced in Barcelona’s midfield. Matthijs de Ligt is the cornerstone of Juventus’s defense. Kai Havertz has been identified as the solution to all of the German national team’s many and varied problems.

And, in Madrid, Diego Simeone has reshaped his Atlético Madrid team around a slight teenager from Viseu, Portugal, with only one season of senior soccer under his belt — if that, really — named João Félix.

In many ways, Félix’s story is the same as all the others. The details might vary a little, but the pattern is familiar. His talent always shone brightly. He had to overcome some hardship or challenge. He has the strength of character to deal with the pressure being heaped on his young shoulders.

What stands out about his story, though, is its speed. A year ago, Félix was only on the cusp of Benfica’s first team. It was not, really, until January that he broke through, carrying the team to the Portuguese championship and earning himself, in the process, not just a $138 million transfer to Madrid, but a place in that cadre of players who now seem to be the generation that will replace Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best players.

Others have previously worn that tag, of course. Neymar, for a long time, seemed to be the player in waiting. Some might have made a case for Eden Hazard at various points during his career at Chelsea, or possibly even Paul Pogba, before he contracted Manchester Uniteditis.

In reality, though, their timing was wrong. Ronaldo has endured as an elite performer for longer than many, perhaps, expected; at the Champions League draw in Monaco a few weeks ago, he (kind of) joked that he has a few more years left in him at this level.

Messi is only 32, and if anything he has been getting better over the last couple of years. He will decline at some point, of course, his influence waning and his brilliance dulling, but Neymar and Hazard will be nearing 30 by the time he vacates his perch. Their chance may well have gone.

Félix and Mbappé and the rest, though, will be coming into their prime then. History teaches us that a couple of them may have been diverted from what seems, now, to be their destiny, hampered either by injury or a poorly-chosen transfer. It is from this group, though, that the heir to Messi and Ronaldo will come.

It will only become clear in time quite how Messi and Ronaldo have contorted our expectations for the world’s best players. They have changed, fundamentally, what greatness looks like.

No matter how good Félix or Havertz or de Jong proves to be, it is unlikely anyone will score as many goals as regularly as Messi or Ronaldo. It is almost impossible to expect anyone to make the superhuman seem so attainable as often as they have. Nobody had done it before. It is likely that nobody will do it again.

The worry is that has a negative effect on whoever comes after: that we do not appreciate them for what they are, the talent they have, because we focus so intently on what they are not, on what they could never be. One of them will be the best player in the world, a generational talent. It is part of the legacy of Messi and Ronaldo that even that, perhaps, may not seem enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment