The End of the Legends Era
All across Europe, the old lights of football have either gone or are going out. The era of club legends may have passed for good.
Photo by PA Images
What do Steven Gerrard, Francesco Totti and Antonio di Natale have in common? Answer: in the eyes of a manic 21st century audience, they all failed. Not in an objective way, of course. Steven Gerrard's trophy cabinet is hardly a litany of failure, and Totti's, while more of a shelf than a cabinet, has a World Cup winner's medal on it. Di Natale can only show you records: Udinese's most capped player and top goalscorer, plus the Serie A Golden Boot for 2009/10 and 2010/11. But this is the paradox of elite-level sport: in the eyes of all the hopefuls who at 20 were told by their clubs they weren't quite up to it, you are a massive, raging success; yet to the viewing public, you are only a qualified one.
None of this trio were ever part of a dominant team. They've got one league title between them – and, on the basis of hypotheticals you're probably aware of, they could have had a lot more. Gerrard, particularly, had the chance to slot neatly into that Mourinho side whose title-winning campaigns live so vibrantly in the heart and the mind, if by 'live so vibrantly' you mean 'I can definitely just about remember that awkward bro-hug with which big JT carried Abramovich towards the Chelsea fans at Bolton, although it's possible that's just the stock footage I've seen most on TV'.
Whereas, Stevie, I still think about the header you scored against AC Milan a couple of times a year; about how utterly it represented putting not just every ounce of your technical ability behind it, but every emotion you had for where you were, and who you represented. Roma fans, I'm sure, have a special place in their mind where they watch all the chips and feints and long-range thunderbolts of their icon; a place that, I'm afraid, is inaccessible to any guy who treats your club as little more than a service provider.
It's passed into horrible logic that this is what clubs are. Liverpool are basically a hinderance to Raheem Sterling, an annoyance he might have to put up with for one more season; Paul Pogba is apparently at Juventus until he finds a real club to join. The received wisdom on this is simple – it's about money. Edinson Cavani is used to living a certain way, and he has no desire to be 50 and forced to live differenly. There's surely some truth in that, but I think, especially for the younger generation of Twitter-fed players, there's something more compelling, a heightened new reality where Antonio di Natale forms a cautionary tale. In years to come, how will he convince people he was once a baller? Where are the unarguable status symbols?
The Champions League final was a perfect goodbye to what must sadly be termed the Legends Era. Each side featured at least one player who has, in orders of magnitude, one of the key attributes of a legend: they stayed. They waited. If you look back to before the mid-noughties dominance of Barca, Xavi wasn't a whole lot of anything to the team, and was actually somewhat derided by the Camp Nou fans as Mr Sideways. Five years passed when he didn't win a single piece of silverware, a period of flirtation with bankruptcy, mid-table finishes, zero Champions League success, and a string of managers.
That is little compared to what Gigi Buffon experienced with Juve. Strange indeed it must have been for him to come home from Serie B games in stadiums as small as 9,000, to look at his new World Cup winner's medal. No doubt he was offered countless escape routes. But he stayed.
One could attribute this staying to wonderful foresight, that Gerrard knew in 2005 he was about to embark on a run to the most thrilling Champions League victory of them all, just as Xavi and Buffon knew that their clubs would return in their lifetimes to the summit. But I just can't give footballers that much credit for powers of mental acuity.
And I think it's something better than that. They felt bound to their clubs, unable to walk out on them; they put their own emotional attachment first. And it's a dangerous gamble, in objective terms, as di Natale's empty trophy shelf would attest. But you know who won a lot, after taking the smart move? Fernando Torres. He won the big one, he won the big one's ugly kid brother. And he will surely have, when his career is done, a clear administrative satisfaction at having in his collection the symbols that footballers like him are supposed to have. But the stuff that leaves you alone and slack-jawed in your armchair, at how effing solid-gold that experience was, inevitably requires your heart, decisions made on shaky grounds that somehow paid off. It was pretty obvious from his face when he celebrated scoring against Real Madrid this season, having made it back to his natural home of Atlético, that his heart was AWOL at Stamford Bridge. So the deal is this: you can follow guarantees and be left satisfied. Or you can gamble, stay and wait, and if you're lucky, be left fulfilled. A career, or a life. I wonder how much, in resonant terms, Totti's solitary Scudetto matches up against Zlatan's gargantuan collection.
All across Europe, the old lights of football have either gone or are going out. Giggs and Scholes, Raul, Zanetti, Gerrard, Puyol, Casillas, Totti, di Natale, Xavi. Big JT's body will surely collapse some time next season, after a decent effort this one. Schweinsteiger and Iniesta will probably pack it in around the same time, and still, making rational and perfectly judged decisions, will be Phillip Lahm, patrolling for a few more years. And then presumably there will be but one left; the fitting last act.
In Saturday night's final against Juve, he showed his most endearing quality: you can't take him down. He's 5 foot 7, by no means stocky – but you still can't. Cynical fouls leave you sprawled on your back, while he hares away. Football loves Messi.
Clearly he'll want to stick around to fulfil the potential of Barca's new dominance; but the test will come when the rabbit-motor inevitably slackens, and payday-clubs begin to circle. I can't tell you know much I'd like it if the Legends Era finally ends with Messi saying that all he ever wanted from life was to be the best at Barcelona, and nothing more.