Why DaMarcus, Cuauhtemoc and Hidetoshi are upstaging bigger names
Tuesday June 18, 2002
The World Cup does funny things to people. Take the reaction in some
quarters to the departure of so many favourites from the tournament.
If Manchester United and Arsenal were both beaten by lower-division
opponents in the third round of the FA Cup would the pundits fret that
we would not see more of Henry and Beckham in the latter stages?
Of course not. In domestic football such upsets are taken as part of
the romance of the Cup, and if Rochdale and Carlisle can have romance
so, surely, can Denmark and Sweden.
Apparently not. The keening for the fallen greats that filled the
sports sections at the weekend was loud enough to rattle the windows.
Their departure has, it seems, drawn the magic from the competition
and left us all bereft.
Who would you rather see in the quarter-finals of the World Cup: Rui
Costa or Landon Donovan? The answer, you might think, is that it
depends where your sympathies lie. Doubtless there are people who are
pleased that Raul and Gaizka Mendieta will, in the parlance of the
star-worshippers, "grace the quarter-finals with their presence"
instead of Kevin Kilbane and Mark Kinsella, but I doubt you will find
many of them in Dublin.
It's simply a question of perspective. Belgium, routinely used as the
epitome of dour northern European-ness by English pundits keen to show
why it would have been better for us all if Argentina had progressed,
actually scored three times as many goals in the group stage as
England. One man's efficient result-grabbers are another's dull
The notion that the progress of the giants guarantees quality,
meanwhile, is patent nonsense. France 98 was as shock-free as an
episode of The Waltons and I know which tournament I'd rather be
As for the departing stars, with the exception of the injured Zinedine
Zidane, it's hard to have much sympathy or regret. They are out
because they didn't do what they are paid to do - dominate games. It
is hard to imagine, for example, that Diego Maradona, a man who cared
to the point of mania, would have let Argentina play in the half-baked
way they did for the first hour against England.
Franz Beckenbauer (as president of Bayern Munich, hardly neutral on
the subject) announced at the weekend that the failure of so many
great players to influence games was down to tiredness. The Kaiser was
concerned about the number of matches they are required to play,
though the enervating effect of celebrity may have taken just as much
of a toll on some of them.
Footballers nowadays are famous in a way that would have been
unimaginable even a decade ago. They are as feted as film stars, and
film stars tend to take unkindly to having their scenes stolen by
ratty-haired unknowns with spotty cheeks. Film stars, of course, have
stuntmen and body doubles to do the rough stuff for them. Footballers,
for the moment at least, don't.
If Luis Figo spent Portugal's brief spell in the competition looking
like he was disappointed not to be playing on an oil tanker with a
silver ball, a funky soundtrack and Eric Cantona as the referee, you
can take his point.
How much more fun it must be to do a few flicks and volleys for the
cameras than to be continually buffeted and harassed by a load of
sharp-elbowed Americans and Koreans who have never attended a movie
premier in their lives.
Anyone who had achieved the wealth these men have done would begin to
wonder what they were doing running about with Stig Tofting and Thomas
Gravesen booting their ankles. To do otherwise would reflect a
dullness of the imagination - like those people who win a rollover
jackpot on the lottery and then declare that they intend to go on
working in the dry-cleaning business.
Johan Cruyff, a trendsetter in so many ways, signalled as much when he
refused to travel to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup. In Cruyff's
coldly logical assessment the financial rewards simply weren't worth
the risk to his health and the disruption it caused to his family.
After this World Cup I suspect other stars, urged on by their clubs,
may follow his lead.
It will be disappointing when they do, but better than watching
players, like ageing rock stars on one final tour, simply going
through motions. Many of the outsiders - Senegal stand out - and some
of the established performers - Ronaldo, for example - play like they
love football. Unfortunately many of those who have gone played like
they loved only themselves.