Ronaldo & Messi: Are you coming?

Will they be in South Africa next year? Are we bothered?

Will they be in South Africa next year? Are we bothered?

With Portugal and Argentina both faltering in their attempts to qualify for next year’s World Cup, there has been much discussion about whether or not it would be somehow improper or unworthy to have a World Cup in which the world’s best two players do not take part. This of course assumes that Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the world’s best players which is an argument for another day, but either way, they’re in almost everyone’s top five, and their absence would raise some eyebrows.

However, I take exception to concerns that the World Cup would not really be the World Cup without the likes of Messi and Ronaldo there. While both are great, great players who would undoubtedly bring much to the tournament in terms of excitement and glamour, I don’t see that the World Cup is concerned with individuals. It is a tournament which sets out to determine the best football team in the world after all and so if Messi and Ronaldo aren’t there, I won’t be losing any sleep.

Indeed, it says much about the nature of the individual in this sport that Argentina and Portugal are struggling to qualify. Portugal look likely to secure a playoff place unless they slip up against Malta tonight while Argentina may sneak through if they can get a result away at Uruguay – no easy feat considering they’ve won on the road only once in this campaign while Uruguay’s singular home defeat came at the hands of Brazil.

Given the amount of superlative and hyperbole that seems to surround the every action of Messi and Ronaldo, it seems somehow implausible that their respective nations could find themselves in the first place. So often acclaimed as world beaters with the ability to win games on their own, this qualification campaign seems to stand as a tower of realism amongst the hype. Seen in the harsh light of day, Messi and Ronaldo are both just one eleventh of teams that haven’t been good enough to make the World Cup, nevermind conquer it.

Indeed, you could possibly go so far as to suggest that Argentina and Portugal may even be suffering as a result of having these two superstars in their midst. The hype and attention that follows them around can not be an easy thing to deal with for their squad-mates. Standing constantly in the shadow of these “greats” could invoke either complacency or resentment in their countrymen, leading to a fractured atmosphere amongst the squad.

Because let’s face it, Argentina and Portugal are both excellent teams, at least on paper. Crammed with top stars, we’re surprised that they are struggling to qualify not just because of Messi and Ronaldo but because on their own merits each squad should be easily comfortable of World Cup qualification. This to me suggests very strongly that something is amok in both camps, something is preventing them from playing to their potential.

Of course, it may well not be the influence of Messi and Ronaldo. I would suggest that the main problem Argentina face is self-inflicted: they appointed Diego Maradona as their coach. While he was undoubtedly a fantastic player, one of the best ever, he has very little managerial experience and from the evidence so far, no real tactical knowledge at all. Despite all the talent that Argentina has to call on, they clearly need more than just motivation from Maradona, something that the little rotund master doesn’t possess.

Portugal’s problems are less easy to relieve from the shoulders of C-Ron. Their squad is less talented than Argentina’s yes, but in Carlos Queiroz they do have a coach with significantly more experience and tactical prowess than the South Americans. It’s also fair to suggest that while Messi seems like a fairly introverted character, C-Ron is little more than an ego straining at the seams of a corporeal cage and it’s not difficult to imagine that some squad-mates may not take too kindly to his probably domineering presence.

However, whether or not the two galacticos are the cause of the problems of their respective sides, we should certainly not mourn the exits (should they eventuate) of these teams from the World Cup. While it is exciting to have all the ‘big names’ in the hat when the draw for the group stage is made, the fact is that the thirty two teams in the bag will be in there on merit. The qualifying stages are designed to determine the thirty two most worthy competitors and no matter how things look on paper, it is performance on pitch that counts.

What’s more, it probably wouldn’t be taking too big a leap to suggest that the World Cup qualification stages are in fact designed to allow the ‘bigger’ nations a relatively simple qualifying process. In South America especially, the four automatic spots should be easy pickings for the region’s ‘Big Two’ while the European seedings usually ensure that the top nations should be able to pick off the minnows, while those unfortunate enough to draw a particularly strong ‘second tier’ side always have a playoff spot within easy reach.

Of course, no matter how furiously FIFA attempt to wrangle the big names (and thus the big money) into their showpiece comp, they can’t rig it entirely and football has a funny old habit of kicking you in the nuts when you try to manipulate it. In fact, if Argentina and Portugal do fail to qualify despite the overbearing odds in their favour you really must conclude that they simply weren’t good enough to justify a place in the world’s top 32.

At the end of the day, while some people take their kicks from seeing the world’s best players performing to their best, the fact is that football is a team sport. What’s more, football at its best and most enjoyable is always witnessed when a team truly plays not as eleven individuals but as one fully cohesive unit – think Arsenal’s Invincibles and Barca’s all-conquering side last year.

The innately elitist nature of international football – picking the “best of the best, sir!” – will always diffuse that focus somewhat and I feel that is what’s happening when people question the validity of a World Cup tournament without Ronaldo and Messi. While undoubtedly some of the best individual footballers in the world at present, and talented enough to make you think that they ‘deserve’ success, the simple fact is that their nations haven’t yet shown that they deserve to be at the World Cup, and that’s what counts.

Plus, you try telling sides like New Zealand and Bahrain (who are currently midway through battling out a straight duel for a rare and precious spot) that the World Cup will be less good without Ronaldo and Messi. The World Cup will be as brilliant as it always is without them, it will be a festival of football and will see thirty-two great teams playing hell for leather to try and prove that they’re the best team in the world.

Ronaldo or Messi will win this year’s individual player awards, I have no doubt about that, but that in no way means that they belong at the World Cup. Football is a team game and it’s far better to have 11 good players than one great one. Argentina and Portugal fans would do better to hope for a great team performance from their squads in tonight’s decisive matches than a moment of individual brilliance from their superstars, because they’ll each be facing eleven resolute opponents and one man against eleven on a football pitch? Them’s insurmountable odds.

Have your say:

Would you miss the presence of the world’s best players in South Africa next year? Do they deserve to be there? Do they need to be there? Please leave your thoughts below…

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