James Corrigan: The greatest ever team? That's not such a tall story (except in Britain)
Never mind all that 'Boys of '66' malarkey, it's the 'Boys of 6ft 6' who genuinely excitein the traditional academies of the Premier League
Monday 30 May 2011
The Brits always fall for it, don't they? Frank Bruno v Mike Tyson, Tim Henman v Pete Sampras, England v Diego Maradona, Cheryl Cole v Nicole Scherzinger. Each time the nation ignored that sage in their head who screamed "no chance" and instead, over a series of hype-inducing days, became seduced by that kindly old lady in the heart who insisted "there is always hope, my dear".
Well, guess what? Choke yourself on her balm cakes, scold yourself on her Earl Grey, because there isn't always hope. In fact, when you are up against the very best and you are, erm, British the only thing on offer is the traditional consolation to take from the inevitable humbling. So, like that stiff-upper-lipped captain on the Titanic who ordered his wailing passengers "Be British!", we all say in unison: "There is no shame in losing today. Sometimes you must take your cap off, say well done and give credit where it's due."
Of course, you could always keep your cap on, say "bugger off" and give credit where it may also still be due; muttering that Tyson isn't as good as Ali, Sampras is no Laver, Maradona is a cheaper version of Pele and Nicole is not quite Paul Merton. But such a response wouldn't be British and the bitterness would run the risk of inspiring enough rage to do something about the gaping divide. We couldn't act so ungraciously because essentially it would cheapen the failure. Commendable on one level, lamentable on the other. There is such comfort to be found in convincing yourself that nobody could or would have prevailed against this lot. Even when there are teams and individuals out there who have prevailed against this lot.
Is there any danger of that with Manchester United? Barcelona were brilliant sure, Messi was mesmerising no doubt, Xavi's X-Factor was indisputable and the pressure was so intense United had to crack. Yet hang about, we knew all this before. So how come in the eyes of experts the same XI have gone from "beatable" in the build-up to "unbeatable" in the aftermath? All in the time it takes to roast a chicken. In fact, nothing whatsoever had changed.
But it has and it will when the grand judgement is delivered. The history shall now be written for future generations one day to bash down with their own self-serving declarations – "No you didn't have 'the greatest ever team', we did."
Saying that, "our greatest ever" would surely give "our grandparents' greatest ever" and "our grandchildren's greatest ever" one hell of a contest, if not one hell of a beating. If only we could prove that. So what can we claim without contradiction, what can we say about this Barcelona that even the realest Madridian in the Real Madrid fan club could deny? Well, with an average height of 5ft 8in they are "the smallest side" ever to win the Champions' League. And that is a fact we should not only celebrate but also illuminate. Particularly here in sizeist Britain.
For decades, our football scouts have been informing short, slight lads that they are simply not big enough to make it. Now the reply will be: "Well, what about Messi?" He's 5ft 7in when he stands on his tiptoes, which happens to be every time he is on the ball. But the grizzled figure in the trench coat will not listen. He'll shrug his shoulders just like he did when told that Maradona was 5ft 5in, Pele was 5ft 7in and that even Sir Bobby of the Charlton's extraction was 5ft 8in. The scout is given a tick-list and on it height and weight are underlined. Britain wants its players big. Never mind all that "Boys of '66" malarkey, it's the "Boys of 6ft 6" who genuinely excite in the attritional academies of the hurly, burly, breakneck Premier League.
No offence to Michael Carrick, a decent enough player, but if he was 5ft 6in instead of 6ft 2in, do you think the scout, and then his managers thereafter, might have taken rather more notice of the limitations in his passing, his shooting, his tackling? Of course they would. Carrick would have been overlooked and Xavi would been forced to retreat to the Wembley concourse to find another statue to run around. Furthermore, Steven Gerrard (6ft) and Frank Lampard (6ft 1in), so long those great white-shirted hopes of the England midfield, would have been lost in the system.
But then, look at it another way. How many gifted young talents have been sent off packing to sell dodgy endowments purely because they didn't satisfy this or that physical ratio? How many gifted young talents would, if they knew what they could have become, bemoan being English, Scottish or Welsh?
Would Messi have been fast-tracked through the British pyramids, like he was first in Argentina and then in Spain, so that at the age of 23 he could be hailed alongside the game's most legendary of legends? Or would the macho, moronic mutterings so favoured by Andy Gray – "let's see how he would cope on a rainy night in Stoke" – actually hold some sway in arriving at a mind-boggling assessment? Take a look around the options available to Fabio Capello for the match against Switzerland on Saturday and you decide.
Yes, the Premier League is "the biggest", but that doesn't begin to establish it as "the best" and certainly not "the greatest". Those tiny Catalan giants should have confirmed that once and for all.
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