The day Diego Maradona died was a particularly sad day in an especially sombre year. Two thoughts have stayed with me in the days and months since his death. The first is my surprise that the passing of Maradona – a player whose career ended when I was just two-years-old – hit my emotions so hard. I never saw D10S play live but the news of his death felt like a personal loss. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when the idols of my childhood pass on so Thierry – if you’re reading this – please outlive me.
My second thought was that despite Maradona’s ridiculously decorated playing career, the football world’s outpouring of emotion barely mentioned the contents of his trophy cabinet. He was loved for something much harder to quantify than league titles or golden boots. It was Diego’s ability to make people feel a kind of way that made him so beloved.
“They may forget what you said – but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
How football makes us feel is something the whole game would do well to remember. Winning titles and avoiding relegation has financial consequences and the emotional release of achieving either as a fan can be titanic, but I’ve got to be real – nothing entertains me more than a 5-star skiller making a defender look silly. I live for the fun side of football.
“Ronaldinho and Zidane’s unpredictability on the pitch made every second of every game must see.”
But we live in a time when football players expressing themselves on the pitch feels harder and harder to come by. Ronaldo went from a stepover sensation to a goalscoring superhero. The numbers him and Messi put together are so absurd it’s hard to be impressed by 30 goal strikers anymore. The world’s best teams are defined by tactical geniuses on the touchline and “system players” on the pitch, leaving mercurial talents and showboaters in the shadows. Meanwhile, on a more serious note, the scale of social media abuse directed at players after a misstep is hardly building an environment where players are encouraged to take risks and be themselves. It’s no exaggeration to say a miscontrolled flip-flap could result in ugly scenes going down in the DMs.
It feels like so much of modern football is looked at through a prism of financial outcomes, stat culture and social media abuse. It’s turned the free-flowing beautiful game I grew up loving into something far more forensic.
I want more 5-star skillers back on the pitch.
Ronaldinho and Zidane made me fall in love with football. Their unpredictability on the pitch made every second of every game must see. I spent afternoons watching Joga Bonito ads. Eric Cantona’s call to “play beautiful” had me falling over myself in the garden trying to emulate the things I saw these players doing (the satisfaction of finally nailing an around the world for the first time is a joy I haven’t replicated since).
You had to be there. pic.twitter.com/6aZu1APBnP
— VERSUS (@vsrsus) February 27, 2021
Playground bragging rights went from who could score the most goals, to who could score the best one. Establishing dominance in the year group now came in the shape of replicating whatever stepover combination CR7 had pulled out the previous weekend. I was an Arsenal fan, but game recognises game.
Under the radar skillers also earned a place in my heart. Middlesborough’s Tuncay Şanlı’s turn on Jamie Carragher still makes it impossible for me to take his punditry career seriously. And who can forget Yannick Bolasie’s majestic spin against Eriksen? If you line up the timelines it’s probably the exact moment he realised he wasn’t going to win anything with Tottenham and his hairline abandoned him.
The most popular teams in the game have always had a showman who can unlock the door and break the lines. Leicester’s history-making title win of 15/16 is largely (and rightly) credited to the bagsmanship of Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante’s superhuman stamina, but my favourite memory of that season (other than Vardy’s Mufasa tweet) was Riyad Mahrez choosing violence every single match day. The man seemed to be on a personal crusade to make Soccer AM’s Showboat his own personal stage. Barca’s most patient passing teams have also had the likes of Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Messi and Neymar. Madrid’s Champions League dominating squad were propelled by the lethal goalscoring of Cristiano Ronaldo, but it’d be criminal to ignore his fancy footwork alongside Marcelo, Di Maria and Bale as they danced towards La Décima and beyond.
That turn, that run, that finish ?
— Premier League (@premierleague) January 1, 2018
Silverware aspirations to the side, smaller teams benefit hugely from having more audacious forwards. Allan Saint-Maximin has almost single-handedly dragged Newcastle over the line to secure points as he finds his feet in the English game. He’s the first player to make Newcastle remotely watchable since Hatem Ben Arfa, whose solo goal against Bolton proved that sometimes all the tactics and defensive positioning in the world are no match for a player who is ready to create art. Infinite respect also goes to Bolton’s own Jay-Jay Okocha, who decided that the best way to retain possession and run down the clock for a point against Arsenal was a rainbow flick from the corner flag.
Mid-table teams and relegation candidates scrapping for points at the bottom have very little between them. A dose of imagination here and there might be the necessary difference to rise above your immediate adversaries, and turn you into a must-see team rather than one you avoid at all costs.
Pundits too have played their role in dampening the aspirations of more creative players. Souness and co. calling for Pogba to be tried at The Hague every time he drops a dance video likely influences less confident players to curtail their expression. The memory of the ever petulant and mediocre Joey Barton criticising treble-winning, Champions League winning, Brazil talisman Neymar for doing too many tricks will never escape me. Nor the fact Neymar was actually booked by a referee for showboating during a match.
“Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Eberechi Eze and Bukayo Saka are doing their best to provide 5-star moments.”
Thankfully there’s a talented new breed of players unshackled by the bitterness of some corners of the game. Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Eberechi Eze and Bukayo Saka are doing their best to provide moments that give schoolkids grazed knees trying to copy, which is how it always should be.
The world’s a difficult place right and football is no different. There’s so many games it can be hard to keep track, and the lack of fans in stadiums can make even the most eagerly-anticipated games feel like a dress rehearsal rather than the real thing. It just doesn’t feel the same.
And that’s why we need to feel the game now more than ever. Exciting players help us do that. We need to celebrate them for it.