Great players rely on great moments. Over the course of an entire career that’s blindingly obvious, particularly because greatness itself is constructed from glistening, seconds-long highlights. Without an accompanying showreel, there can never be a truly elite player.
The current generation offer an argument to the contrary. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have been incontestably the finest players of this era, but they also defeat that “single moment” theory. There was still a time when they were each less than they are today, but their respective careers weren’t really spawned by anything which can now be properly isolated. There was a before and after, certainly, and seasons during which they were they yet to sear the fat from their excellence, but there has always been an inevitability about their passage through the game.
Shortly after turning 21, Messi would score 23 goals in 31 La Liga games. Likewise, though Ronaldo suffered through a self-indulgent phase at Manchester United, he was different from the first moment he took the field in their colours.
In both instances, neither player allowed the public enough time to dispute their talent. Within the blink of an eye, both were brilliant. In 2017, some of the internet’s angrier voices may still squabble over which of the two is better but, pedantry aside, there isn’t – and never has been – much of a discussion.
But that isn’t normal. In most cases, an appellant great must walk a path of loud dissent before, finally, flashing his ability in such a way that the detractors can either fall silent or look contrary. It might be a goal, a save, or an enduring performance but, whatever its nature, it carves a player’s credentials in stone and grants him entry to a category which he’ll never leave.
Nothing illustrates that more vividly than a World Cup. Over the next two months, a whole range of players will become inextricably bound to events which define who they are in perpetuity. In front of a global audience, goalkeepers will fumble crosses, attacking-midfielders will decorate games with wicked pieces of skill and forwards will score sensational goals. What happens before or after is slightly incidental; the die will be cast.
There are some obvious examples of this: Gareth Bale’s twin performances against Inter Milan, for instance, or Wayne Rooney’s goals during the 2004 European Championship. To be ultra contemporary, perhaps Mohamed Salah’s absurd burst of form during the season which has just finished will be viewed as his new normal. Even if he regresses back to his previous mean in 2018-19, to some Salah will always be the player that he is today.
Further back, Paul Gascoigne’s influence on England’s 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia provided some calm clarity within a turbulent career: yes, Gascoigne was that good, no, Bobby Robson couldn’t afford to leave him out of the Italia ’90 squad. Once in Italy, his performances against Holland and Germany gave gave birth to something else entirely in Gazzamania, but that night at Wembley was still the tipping point: onto the nation’s shoulders Gascoigne had gone and there he stayed until his personal issues hauled him back to the floor.
Michael Owen’s career is another case in point. Injury would shorten his prime dramatically, forcing greater emphasis on his early years, but there was certainly a perception of Owen which existed before and after his goal against Argentina in 1998. He left the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard as the same player he was when the England bus pulled into the ground, but he occupied a different place in the game’s hierarchy. Prior to kick-off, there was a legitimate debate to be had over his inclusion in Glenn Hoddle’s starting line-up. Afterwards, once the tears had dried, nobody was lobbying for Teddy Sheringham and, more importantly, nobody again would apply any asterisks to his Liverpool goals.
It’s a process which pays no attention to tactical suitability or to anything beyond a very literal form of worth. Prior to the 2006 World Cup, Owen Hargreaves publicly stressed his own value to Sven Goran-Eriksson and clearly viewed himself as his country’s premier spoiling agent in midfield. Nobody agreed, at least not loudly enough to be heard. Hargreaves had, by that point, never played for an English club and had encountered thick distrust as a consequence. Even his selection in the 2006 squad was treated as a controversy. Within six months, though, he would be voted England’s Player Of The Year; essentially, a reward for holding back the Portuguese tide in the quarter-final.
Hargreaves was never a “great” of the game, but that 120 minutes turned him from being an oddity player who “wasn’t really English” to someone who embodied the national spirit and around whom the team should be built. He played very well that night and perhaps never gave a more complete international performance, but there was something more to it; he was good in the right way, the British way, and in a manner which chimed so loudly with the collective mood that the debate was over forever. England needed Hargreaves. From curious, useless appendage to heart and soul in 120 minutes; when his career was eventually lost to fragility, it became a low-grade national tragedy. The key detail in that transformation was not a win, a goal, or a triumph, but that Hargreaves gave the right performance in the right setting. That’s what has allowed it to endure and to shape how he’s thought of to this day. Owen Hargreaves, in an England shirt at least, is what he was that day and, in certain corners of social media, the absence of such a player – if he ever truly existed – was being mourned after Gareth Southgate announced his England squad.
For added complication, there are several active players in this country who remain locked outside the special territory. Not beneath greatness, as such, but precluded from universal approval.
Tottenham’s Harry Kane, for instance, has just fallen a couple of goals short of winning his third golden boot in succession, yet – beyond his own fanbase – still faces a fixture-by-fixture battle for his reputation. Kane is a worthy example because, to some, he is never more than a single miss away from being revealed as a charlatan forward who has simply stumbled to the top of the goalscoring charts. “Doing it at the World Cup” would go along way to curing that, despite the reality that Kane will – in the first two group games at least – face far inferior defences to the ones against whom he plays each and every week. In real life, the greater the sample the more reliable the evidience; in football, the opposite is almost true.
Conversely, Juventus’s Gonzalo Higuain and Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani are both examples of what happens if that singular moment isn’t flattering. Each possesses a fabulous goalscoring record, domestically and in Europe, but both are trapped within the shadow of poor form or profligate performances. Higuain admittedly has a tendency to lose his nerve when it matters most and Cavani has missed some extraordinary opportunities in the past, but those few occasions are afforded far too much weight.
That illustrates how acceptance of talent can sometimes work in two different stages. The players mentioned have nothing left to prove to their respective supporters, but all remain on trial with the general population; their reputations are set in stone in one sense, but entirely fluid in another. Gareth Bale, who will not start in next week’s Champions League final against Liverpool in Kiev, is further testament to that – albeit in the reverse: the Welsh forward is a star of the game everywhere in the world apart from in Madrid. He may have scored some wonderful goals in Spain, even as recently as last week against Celta Vigo, but he continues to search for the emblematic proof of his Real worth.
He looks like he belongs at the Santiago Bernabeu, he’s even scored iconic goals in the past, and yet, still, something isn’t quite right. In Madrid, he remains in a purgatory between very good and excellent and, according to reports, is absolutely for sale when the transfer window opens in June.
It’s the vaguery which makes this such an intriguing area of the game. Some players, of course, never reach a point of mass acceptance, instead spending their careers as objects of a never-ending debate. For others though, these figurative landmarks become the cornerstones of their legacy: Roberto Carlos’s swirling free-kick at Le Tournoi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Champions League double against Lyon in his second season at Ajax, or Gheorge Hagi’s enthralling performances at the 1994 World Cup. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re truly representative, more that they’re shown to have created the sort of reflexive association which can never fade.
Players search for that kind of permanence their entire careers, only without ever knowing what it is, where it’s hidden or how it can be attained.