In January 2018, the late Hugh McIlvanney addressed a football writers’ dinner held in honour of Pelé with a speech that tackled the eternal question of how to compare the great players of past and present.
After acknowledging that nostalgia can bathe past heroes in a rosy glow, McIlvanney attacked “the tendency among more youthful generations ... to overworship the triumphs and triumphant figures of the here and now – to see them as raising the game to unprecedented standards of virtuosity”.
Ronaldo and Messi may be “spellbindingly entertaining and productive” but “what can be irksome is the ... urge to acclaim the present as in every sense the unchallengeable zenith of football’s technical standards.”
McIlvanney was right that many people believe that football (like other sports) gets better and better with every succeeding generation – but why do they believe this? In crude terms, it’s because if you watch footage of the 1958 World Cup final, when Pelé scored one of his most famous goals, some of the other action wouldn’t look out of place in the All-Priests over-75s five-a-side Challenge Cup.
McIlvanney accepts that footballers of today are fitter and faster than their predecessors: “The case is probably sustainable in relation to general levels of performance, helped as they are by considerably improved playing surfaces and rapid advances in the facilities and expertise applied to the treatment of injuries.”
He doesn’t sound like he believes today’s players deserve any special credit for being able to avail of general technical improvements, and indeed, anyone who argues that modern players are “better” because they get to eat better, train better, get better medical treatment and play on better pitches ... is missing the point. It’s like saying Donald Trump Jr must be better at hunting than the hunter-gatherers of the ancient Serengeti because it might take those guys a week to track and kill a lion while Trump Jr can shoot one dead within ninety seconds of jumping out of his LandCruiser.
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But McIlvanney neglected to mention the biggest change between the football of today and the era dominated by Pelé. The most revolutionary change is not technical, but cultural: it’s the availability of football itself.
Writing last Saturday in El País, Jorge Valdano described how Pelé in the 1960s was a near-mythical figure whose exploits the young Valdano followed avidly through newspapers and radio. He did not see Pelé play until he was 14, when his mother bought a TV to watch the 1970 World Cup. Remarkably, “this would be the first time that I would be able to see professional soccer players play.”
Can any football-obsessed kid of today even remember the first time they saw the game which – in its professional and virtual forms – now saturates the media that saturate their world?
The effect of this much greater exposure to top-level football is profound, because kids absorb and imitate everything they see. Once-rare skills now permeate the game. Lee Sharpe’s back-heel flick against Barcelona in 1994 was a stunning moment of improvisation that now seems part of every attacker’s standard repertoire. Every decent forward has perfected the curling shot to the far top corner that is so effective in video game football – Demarai Gray’s goal against Manchester City on Saturday is a good recent example.
Parents at kids’ football games watch in amusement as their children celebrate goals by pointing solemnly towards the sky although nobody they know has died, or raise one arm before taking a corner, despite the signal having no meaning to them or their team-mates, simply because that’s what players do on TV.
Coaches copy each other even more than players do. In a recent column for The Athletic, Juanma Lillo lamented the globalised sameness of football brought about by people like ... himself: “If you go to a training session in Norway and one in South Africa, they’ll be the same. ‘Look inside to find spaces outside’, ‘pass here, pass there’. The good dribblers are over, my friend. Where can you find them? I can’t see any ... We don’t even realise the mess we’ve made ... Everything is ‘dos toques’. Two touches. Because they all train with two touches, they all play with two touches. We’ve enforced ‘El Dostoquismo’ ... And I say this as a big exponent of a lot of these methods ...! I’m like a regretful father. If there was one person I would really like to take issue with now, it would be me from 25 years ago.”
Lillo imagines himself the Oppenheimer of the training ground: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of football.” Of course football hasn’t been destroyed, it has just changed.
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Compare Angel di María’s World Cup final goal with Carlos Alberto’s for Brazil in the 1970 final. Both are end-to-end moves in which several players combine to build up on one side before a pass is rolled to a finisher arriving on the far side. The Brazil move takes 30 seconds and involves nine players, nine passes, and 29 individual touches of the ball. Argentina’s is 10 seconds, five players, five passes, seven touches.
The magic of the Brazil goal is in the multiple changes of pace – most spectacularly in the contrast between Pelé’s leisurely pass and Carlos Alberto’s hammer shot, but also from the sequence of one-touch passes at the start, to Clodoaldo’s spectacular walking-pace dribble, to Rivelino and Jairzinho’s rapid work up the wing. The beauty of the Argentina goal is in the speed and precision of the collective execution – top-speed football at maximum efficiency – not a second, not a metre is wasted.
Is the Argentina goal better because it’s faster? Obviously not: it’s just different. The way today’s players are programmed doesn’t allow many Clodoaldo dribbles. The best players, in the time of Pelé as in the time of Messi, are the ones who can rise above the programming, the ones who create new ways to surprise.