Some of you saddos and monomaniacs out there may disagree, but I reckon you can have too much football. Too many games and too much chat about them. Too much verbosity during commentary and too much analysis which actually amounts to too little of the stuff.
Too many clichés, too much media-trained mulch, too much stating the obvious, too much beating around the bush. Too much Europa League on Thursday nights – way too much of that. To many sentences beginning “To be fair… ” when it should be “To be boring… ” Too much copying (tiki-taki, jumbo notepads, airplane seats, tugging of lugs, talking behind hands) and not enough originality.
Too much money and too much of it being wasted at Manchester United, the club of the great Denis Law who once told me: “Mine’s was the classic spartan Scottish upbringing of the time: clothes were bought on tick, music was a comb and paper and Christmas was a Dinky car, a tangerine, a packet of Spangles and an uncrackable nut – and the lad next door got no more.” (The Lawman knew the value of money, all right, and especially the value of a double-headed coin with which he always won dressing-room bets). But then a moment happens and like a bad penny – maybe two-headed, definitely dire – football spins back into your life and reclaims your heart.
Two moments, actually. The first was surprising, given the identity of the central characters. The second had a protagonist prompting no surprise whatsoever. Lionel Messi might not have invented football, not unless his growth hormones contained an anti-ageing component, but he’s done the next best thing: he’s saved it.
First, though, Leeds United. Last Sunday, trying to beat Aston Villa to keep alive faint hopes of automatic promotion back to the top-flight of English football where they used to rule with a snarl and a stamp courtesy of their captain Billy Bremner, the Elland Road team edged ahead. But their goal was controversial; a Villa man had lain motionless on the turf and Leeds simply carried on playing.
What happened next has already gone down in history. Leeds’ Argentinian coach, Marcelo Bielsa, instructed his players to allow Villa to equalise straight from kick-off. One of the Leeds defenders half-thought about intervening, presumably out of instinct, but the opposition were able to walk the ball into the net. With an excitable flutter of the hand Bielsa had dealt the reputation of the fallen giants of West Yorkshire a complete makeover. Admittedly it’s so long ago that they were “Dirty Leeds” that a generation knows nothing of the tackling-with-extreme-prejudice of Bremner, Terry Cooper, Paul Reaney and Norman “Bites Yer Legs” Hunter (though not Eddie Gray). But the black arts as practised by the team in white shirts aren’t easily forgotten by those who witnessed them and winced. And Bielsa, pictured, did more than that. Such is the kick-your-granny desperation of clubs to claw their way into the Premier League to get at its obscene riches that he improved the image of the entire English game. No more, too, could it be said – almost exclusively by English voices – that Argentinians possess a naturally cynical disposition towards football and the winning of games. Here was the antidote to Antonio Rattin, the corrective to Daniel Passarella kicking you in the tunnel (as once happened to Graeme Souness).
There was some cynicism about Bielsa’s gesture right away. Leeds were destined for the play-offs; he would never have waved Villa through if victory was going to guarantee his team promotion. This just demonstrates how mean-spirited football has become. Give the man a Fifa Fair Play Award. Give him the Nobel Prize for Peace. Oh and tell the English hero, Frank Lampard, now manager of Derby County, that he was lucky to have Bielsa spy on his training sessions earlier in the season and should take it as a compliment.
After Elland Road, the Nou Camp. Now, a headline of “Messi wonder goal” possibly won’t have newspapers flying off the shelves. But it should (even if you chancers don’t buy papers any more). Or at least we should all have greeted his second against Liverpool on Wednesday like it was the first of his stupendous career rather than the 600th. We must not become blasé about the greatest footballer there has ever been – that would be such a sin – for one day he will be gone. Shortly after his 823rd goal, perhaps.
“Leo might even play until he’s 45 – who knows?” says Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Messi will be 32 in June. The man with the best seat in the house must, like many, fight the temptation to think of Messi’s goals as ho-hum howitzers and routine rockets. “We live with a genius, but we live with a genius as if it was normal,” he admits. For a president, though, he’s more of a student of the game than others of his ilk, saying of the phantasmagorical free-kick: “If you look, the ball goes right past [the defender’s] ear… it might even brush it. We see a wall; Leo sees a gap.”
Oh that all presidents and chairmen were like this; oh that all co-commentators were less like Steve McManaman who chose to find fault with Liverpool goalkeeper’s Alisson’s reactions. This is not the first time the chump has been churlish about Messi. I’m not saying the player should be praised to the heavens for everything he does, just because he’s Messi, but such sneering and scepticism is the modern style, isn’t it? Everyone has an opinion now – often a cutting one – and the means to air it. McManaman may think himself contrary and bold for expressing his on air but he just comes across as a bit of a git. It was a goal out of this world. Yes, another one. In the TV studio, an ex-Barcelona player and a Liverpool hater because he once played for Manchester United jumped around and hugged each other. I was irritated by this display – yet another football cliche; they were aware the cameras were running – and thought about making it the main topic of this column but the culprits only deserve a footnote. Two little Argentinians should get all the glory. Thanks to Lionel Messi and Marcelo Bielsa I love football again.