It WAS interesting to note Walter Smith’s re-emergence yesterday shortly after the winner of the Ballon d’Or was announced, with Cristiano Ronaldo comfortably ousting Lionel Messi for the title of world footballer of the year.
It was Smith’s Rangers who Messi once described as “anti-football” following a 0-0 draw with Barcelona at Ibrox.
You wonder, then, about the Argentine’s reaction to Roy Hodgson’s Ballon d’Or selections, and whether it was much different to the coughing and spluttering they provoked in many of the rest of us. It may certainly encourage Messi to think again about coming to British football, a prospect several newspapers south of the border leapt on following non-committal comments from the player about what the future holds for him at Barcelona. Reporters put two and two together and got Manchester City or Chelsea.
However, Hodgson did little to alter England’s reputation as a dour, regressive football nation with his top three choices for Ballon d’Or, which, unhelpfully for him, were published for all to see. The one thing an England manager does not need to do is gift anyone a stick to beat him with, particularly so soon after leading England to their worst-ever World Cup finals performance. Hodgson, however, has gone and done just that. “Is this madman really in charge of our football team”, was the gist of the reaction on social media yesterday.
Of course, Hodgson, being a cerebral, Philip Roth-reading kind of fellow, might simply want to firm-up his credentials as the thinking man’s coach, one who, when given an option of Ronaldo or Messi, opts, erm, for Javier Mascherano.
Remarkably, the England manager, when casting his mind back over 2014, came up with Mascherano’s name when contemplating the finest player on the planet. The Argentina centre-half may indeed be the answer to this question: Who offered the most harrowing description of an on-field injury last year? Mascherano, you may recall, went into detail about “tearing” his anus when recalling an admittedly fine last-gasp tackle that deprived Arjen Robben an almost certain goal in the World Cup semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands.
But you wonder if even Messi would argue that his countryman was the finest player on view last year. In fact we know he wouldn’t, because as captain of a national team, Messi, too, got a vote – he had Mascherano in third place, behind another compatriot in Angel di Maria and club teammate Andres Iniesta (no-one is saying these awards are unbiased – we should just be grateful Hodgson did not vote for Jordan Henderson).
If not quite anti-football, then there is definitely something pro keeping-things-tight-at-the-back about Hodgson’s selections. The phrase Hobson’s choice is a popular expression for when there is no choice at all. But the England manager had a myriad of candidates to consider. Most obviously, he had two players reckoned to be in the pantheon of all-time greats. Neither were too shoddy last year, either.
But Hodgson set out his stall (or should that be parked his bus?) by nominating a centre-half, a goalkeeper and a full-back/defensive midfielder. Mascherano was joined by a hard-to-quibble with Manuel Neuer and Germany World Cup-winning skipper Philipp Lahm.
All three were standouts in the World Cup, most of which Hodgson was able to watch without disturbance at home after England’s quick exit.
But Ronaldo broke the record for Champions League goals and Messi, while not quite as sparkling as normal, still helped keep Barcelona in the hunt at home and abroad with over 40 goals.
Hodgson wasn’t the only national coach to go down the contrary route. A certain Robert Williamson of Kenya, Bobby to me and you, steered away from Ronaldo and Messi as well. But before dismissing this as to be expected from someone who once pointed Hibernian fans in the direction of their local cinema if they wanted entertainment, Williamson did at least nominate a player who scored a few goals at the World Cup, Germany’s Thomas Müller. He also plumped for Diego Costa and Iniesta.
While slightly left-field in that he had, like the rest of his Spanish team-mates, a poor World Cup, Costa left his mark on European football by helping his then club, Atletico Madrid, win the Spanish title and reach the European Cup final. He has also began this season for Chelsea on fire, which counts towards the award. It is, after all, for excellence over a calendar year.
But can anyone truly say that, when all is said and done, you would not want Ronaldo in your side after what he achieved last year? He scored 31 league goals last season and has 26 already this season. Maybe Hodgson doesn’t like the way Ronaldo preens and worships at the altar of, well, Ronaldo. We don’t all have to join Ronaldo at the poolside, gazing dreamily at his own reflection – he was at it again on Monday, ruining his hitherto surprisingly humble winner’s speech by emitting a primal howl of victory at the podium. But failure to warm to his personality is not a reason to discount his abilities and achievements.
And then there’s Messi. With Messi in your team anything is possible (the same cannot be said, surely, of Mascherano, or Neuer or Lahm). Messi might not have dragged Argentina to the World Cup title on his own in the style of Diego Maradona, but he still, as much as anyone else, Mascherano included, helped get them to the final. Not that Hodgson seemed overly impressed – nor Gordon Strachan for that matter, with the Scotland manager snubbing Messi but including Ronaldo in a top three made up by Costa and Robben.
It is, of course, all just a matter of opinion. But would you want to trust your national team to someone who thinks neither Messi nor Ronaldo were among the top three footballers on the planet last year?