Roy Hodgson’s late choice of Crystal Palace’s greatly gifted attacker Wilfried Zaha seemed on the face of it a strange even a bizarre one. Not because this is a very young player who lacks ability for he clearly has it in abundance but because there is no guarantee at all that he might not decide to play as the formidable Didier Drogba wants him to, for the Ivory Coast. Where he was born and where he left when he was only four years old, for England.
On the eve of the friendly in Stockholm, made more meaningless by the minute-by-minute withdrawals, Zaha was saying that it was a 50-50 chance whether he would commit to England or the Ivory Coast. This selection might be seen as Hodgson’s way of persuading him to plump for England but all in all to choose a player who isn’t wholly committed to the colours seems a strange thing to do. Also, alas a bleak sign of how short the England team is of talent; and of the current futility of friendlies.
Once upon a comparatively recent time, they would matter very much but international football has been swamped by the sheer superfluity of official tournaments which grow more and more bloated all the time. Now Michel Platini who is proving such a disastrous and disappointing head of UEFA wants to enlarge the European Championship to grotesque size.
What chance in such circumstances do friendlies have? Some of them have been among the classic games of all time. But it is long ago indeed that the only tournament which British international teams contested was the British Championship itself; which actually was allowed by a beneficent FIFA to act as a qualifying group for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. That was the occasion when the deeply perverse Scottish FA officials decided that their team would go to Brazil only if they actually won the British Championship. They lost, however, to England in Glasgow, though a shot which hit the England bar could have given them the point they needed. So, perversely, they stayed at home.
Every now and then we have a meaningless, even fatuous, attempt to decide who is or was the greatest footballer of all time. Now the disputable title appears to be in prospect for the Barcelona and Argentina attacker Lionel Messi who has scored the astonishing total of 76 goals in 59 games allegedly putting him equal with none other than the surely incomparable Pele, with nine more games to come, in which he could overhaul the 85 goals in 60 games netted by Der Bomber, alias Gerd Muller of Bayern Munich and Germany.
We all know that comparisons are odious and in this case they seem irrelevant and silly. Pele, for goodness sake, scored all those goals for club and country as a mere 17-year-old; and I shall never forget watching the two amazing goals, one with foot and one with head, which he got in the 1958 World Cup Final in Stockholm, against the home based Swedes. Injuries blemished the next two World Cups for him but in 1970, in Mexico, he was more deadly, original and dominant than ever, with a host of goals and “assists”, not least in the Final versus Italy in Mexico City, when he headed one spectacular goal and laid on two others.
All credit to Messi for his great skill and opportunism, but what did he achieve with Argentina in the last World Cup in South Africa? And when does he ever head the kind of goals so often scored by Pele? Muller was a penalty area predator who swooped on any chance but no one ever called him any kind of a Pele. If you want a great Argentinian star it was surely the tireless supremely ubiquitous Alfredo Di Stefano, inspiration and supreme maestro of the Real Madrid team who won the first five European Cups; a man playing Total Football long before it was ever invented. He scored in profusion but goals alone are surely not the ultimate criterion.