"While you were looking away, a dog yawned in the sun and in the distance, a train blindfolded by a tunnel window by window, regained vision. I thought of all the things that could happen when we are looking away, the universe we miss in a blink."
These are lines by CP Surendran, a poet from Kerala, India. We look at the unlikeliest of sources for a clue to the answer to the Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate. Why? Because all the conventional sources of opinions have been paraphrased " with different words conveying the same sentiment " ad nauseam. This piece brings into the question the necessity for that debate.
World Cup 2018 has said no to the quarterback culture in football. We were told that this World Cup will stage the denouement of the Messi vs Ronaldo debate. Instead, in the grand unveiling of things, (and in the many twisting of plots to the point the narrative went out and did the tango): the trapdoor gave way under them. On this occasion the spotlight was turned off and the stage lights were turned on, and the cast and crew came to the fore.
Messi and Ronaldo have been made examples of by lesser individuals but teams with better ethos. It has been a World Cup of teams that celebrate the men who pull the weights behind the curtains, so that others may be the centre of attention. It's been a World Cup of Russia, Mexico, Uruguay, France, Croatia, Belgium, Sweden, Iceland, Senegal. It's been a World Cup of wholesome minor miracles. The football on show has forced us to do away with our preconceived notions. The 2018 World Cup has forced us to pay attention.
It was football's way of reminding us that the player-managers thing is so 1990s. It serves as a reminder to take off the blindfolds we wear in our insular love for individual stars, and think about the universe of things we miss. Incas, Meso-Americans and the Mayans, all due respect to them, were a sun-facing culture, and like the teams of Egypt, Argentina and Portugal, projected themselves through the identity and for the purpose of their respective godheads, only to see them crumble with time.
Highlights from the Uruguay vs Portugal game will be saved as evidence of how effective a team can be when the game is played to each other's strength and around one's weakness. Edinson Cavani was covering for his left back on counters, and Luis Suarez bit on the heels as an auxiliary defensive midfielder to help out a younger Lucas Torreira. Everyone was playing for each other. And even though their gameplay left a lot to be desired in terms of exuberance, it had a kind of wholeheartedness that makes you want to order a pizza or two for everybody else watching the game with you.
But it's not really your fault, really. When you distill the Messi vs Ronaldo debate to its very essence, it's a who's-got-the-bigger-CPM-rates competition between superbrands Adidas and Nike and their marketing teams. In our viral content-driven distraction, we forget that football is really a team game. The new football fan is asked to choose his idols first and his team later, and more often than not, he ends up doing just that.
Just as nature did with the ice age, this was football finally detoxing itself, like it did once before in the 1990 World Cup. After the Real Madrid and Julen Lopetegui sabotage of Spain, it needed one. Joachim Low, Jorge Sampaoli, Fernando Santos have been put out of their misery, and have the option and the freedom to go back into actual, proper management again, where it isn't your highest-paid-player preaching tactics. Meanwhile, come August, Lopetegui (the newly instated 'manager' of Real Madrid), like Zinedine Zidane before him, will learn of the kind of stress player-power entails. It makes a manager bald from the inside.
The Messi vs Ronaldo debate is lamentable. It's a sickening saturation point of the modern football conversation. It's the LeBron James-ing of a sport that is a sum of distinctly individual parts working together. The quarterback, in American Football, is the player towards whom all play and attention is directed: the rest of the team are there to ingratiate his need for glory, the team can only do well when he does well. This, in our version of football, is problematic. The quarterback culture in football took the form of a shrine where the concept of the team came to die at the feet of demigods footwear brands have constructed, where seemingly even managers go with offerings.
Before, the World Cup was merely a stage propped up by the greatness of Pele and Maradona. In 2018, it looks like World Cup has finally wrestled back the narrative. Football has regained its vision, and we dare not blink.