As the plaudits shower on the gifted Lionel Messi, why do I keep thinking about Ron Clarke, a largely forgotten Australian athlete? A middle distance runner who, between Olympiads, set record after record, but who, when it came to the Olympic Games themselves, never came close to a gold medal? Anticlimax after four years anti-climax.
So where is the analogy with Messi, author of those five glorious goals? A somewhat distant one, I admit. Simply that for all his brilliance with Barcelona he made scant impact for Argentina in the 2010 World Cup.
Decent enough performances early on, no impact in the crushing defeat by Germany. Afterwards he insisted he was satisfied with his own performance and he didn’t as some people did, put any blame on Maradona as manager.
The fact seemed to be that where he has such a free rein at Barcelona, popping up so incisively in attack wherever he wants to, under Maradona he was confined to being a more lateral position. Was there at the bottom of this a competitive urge in Maradona, whether he realised it or not, unwilling to see his own World Cup thunder stolen?
For how could it be? Those two matchless solos at the Azteca in 1986 against England and Belgium. His essential contribution in Argentina’s path to the Final four years later although, for much of the time, he was virtually playing on one leg.
But if the World Cup like the Olympics is the ultimate criterion, how can the best of the best be anybody but Pele?
I was privileged enough to see him excel in two such tournaments, the first in Sweden in 1958 at the astonishingly early age of 17, when, after a hat trick against France in the semi final, he scored two spectacular goals against Sweden in the Final in Stockholm; the first coolly and calmly juggling the ball in a penalty box crowded with hefty Swedes before driving his right footed shot home, the second with a glorious header, soaring above the defence, though he stood no better than 5 foot 8.
With all due deference to the splendid Messi, when did he ever head a goal like that; or like the one Pele headed to put Brazil ahead against Italy in the World Cup final of 1970 in Mexico City? Not to mention the two jewelled diagonal passes he gave later in the game to the right, enabling Jairzinho and Carlos Alberto to score.
Pele for me was simply incomparable and were I to choose a runner up, it would be Alfredo Di Stefano, the third Argentine on the short role of honour. But then, Di Stefano never played in the World Cup finals.
As a youngster he left his native Buenos Aires to make money for a while in Bogota, Colombia who were then out of FIFA and could pay as they pleased; nor not play at all when it came to transfer fees. Then as we know, Di Stefano, when Colombia came back into the fold, took off for Spain and triumphantly, autocratically, ubiquitously led Real Madrid to five consecutive triumphs in the first European Cups, here there and dazzlingly everywhere a miracle of pace, stamina and versatility.
Forgive me if I don’t join the ecstatic chorus of praise for the recent documentary QPR: the four-year plan.
What right have I to pass judgement on a documentary? Well, I did conceive and write the BBC TV programme European Centre Forward, mostly shot in Turin, its protagonist the England ex-centre forward Gerry Hitchens, which won the silver bear award at the 1963 Berlin film festival. And in 1966 I wrote the commentary for the official World Cup film, Goal!
It was typical of the blinkered arrogance of Flavio Briatore, the tycoon who had had his troubles in Italy, and later would be drummed out of Formula 1 for deliberately instigating a crash. He was revealed in all his vanity; the fly on the wall technique certainly delivered remarkable moments, but where was the context?
Why did we have just one evanescent sight of Bernie Ecclestone, who was supposed to have put some of his immense wealth into the club? Why did we learn nothing of the billionaire steel mogul Mittal who was also supposed to be bank rolling the club; though we did see his conscientious relative who tried at least to bring an element of sanity into the proceedings.
Why was it not emphasised that Gianni Paladini, who acted as a kind of chorus to Briatore as Chairman, had no money in the club and hence no real power? It might even have been mentioned, though it had happened before the documentary was made, that he’d been threatened with a gun before a match by people who demanded he signed himself out of office? A case which came to criminal court but bewilderingly resulted in no convictions.
Why were we not told that Paulo Sousa, so shabbily turned out of office simply because he said he’d not known that one of his stars had been moved out, was a famous Portuguese international in his day? A fly on the wall can see only so much, despite its compound eyes and I wish we had been told more.
By Brian Glanville