Horrible news via Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. Walter Bahr, one of the true giants of American soccer, died this week. His most celebrated achievement was serving as captain of the 1950 United States World Cup team. He was also a tireless advocate for the game in this country, a highly decorated and accomplished player, and a terrific storyteller. Bahr was one of the men who kept the game alive here during its most obscure and challenging period. He would have been a star in any generation, from 1893 to 2018. RIP, Captain.
Sorry this was late. I got sidetracked by Landon Donovan turning heel. I thought I had something intelligent to say about that, and the larger issue of American fans being asked to cheer for Mexico, but I was horribly wrong. Even I’m not interested in why American fans would cheer for Mexico, and by the nine billion names of God, I *did* cheer for Mexico against Germany. It was underdog versus overcat, and it ended up being one of the highlights of World Cup upset history.
Besides, what good would it have done if they lost? Mexico still went, we still didn’t. Cheering for someone to fail when we’ve already touched bottom – well, there’s a point where schadenfreude becomes gauche and churlish. People are having fun, and at the expense of Germany. Let them, for God’s sake.
Okay, sorry, but Landon. Alexi Lalas was, we thought, the face of American soccer. Comes the World Cup, and Fox Sports looks like it might have an English-language viewer problem. So Fox Sports dispatched sent Alexi Lalas – Alexi Lalas, the man who took a ball shot from Ramon Ramirez back when this rivalry became a rivalry, to beseech American fans to cheer for Mexico.
And the reaction from American fans? “Oh, you.”
Landon does the exact same thing for Wells Fargo. And people lost their ever-loving minds.
It wasn’t even that good a commercial. Four years ago Wells Fargo, or to be fair their advertising agency, gave us Don Ovan and Hat Trick Rick. That was the first funny Landon Donovan commercial in English, something that fifteen years of incompetent US soccer marketing made look impossible.
This year, he’s being warned that someone’s buying Mexico gear in his name. Landon proudly reveals a T-shirt. One that, I guess, cost $150 American.
I know, it was supposed to be a jersey, but they didn’t have the rights to show the official one. Although I wonder why Wells Fargo didn’t simply say that Adidas and FMF had given their consent.
But let’s talk about a couple of players who have accomplished nearly as much on the international stage as Donovan – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Or, better still, let’s don’t. The idea of picking one player as the greatest of all time – or, if you’re an irritating 21st century antiliterate cable sports hot take show social media commenter, “GOAT” – is one of my pet peeves. Here’s what my pal Karl had to say about things like this:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
What Marx is saying here is that we can only judge players by how they performed against their peers. And we can only use statistics, such as team accomplishments, in the context of their lives and opportunities.
Are World Cups the supreme accomplishment? What, then, do we do with Best and Weah?
In fact, what do we do with the pre-Telstar era? Histories of the World Cup are filled with names that contemporaries praised to the skies and beyond. How on earth can we evaluate these claims fairly? Was Garrincha really better than Leonidas, and were both worse or better than Socrates? Would Sindelaar have been the first great German player, if his attitude toward Anschluss had been less noble?
Probably Lord Kinnaird, he of the nine FA Cup final appearances at every position, would have been badly outclassed in later decades by his social inferiors…but who’s to say? By all accounts, he was the Sergio Ramos of his time. Given modern technology and training, he might well have terrorized players and fans around the world.
Are Champions League wins the measure of the best against the best? It’s tempting enough, but there stands Pele. Pele’s worldwide fame greatly eclipsed that of Di Stefano’s Real Madrid, but both players accomplished records that it’s almost impossible to see being equaled. Irritatingly, Di Stefano’s Spain career was disappointing and injury-riddled, and he never played in the World Cup.
Five European Cups in a row would seem to be an accomplishment that would settle any argument. But when France Football took it upon themselves to re-run the Ballon d’Or voting to account for years when non-Europeans were disallowed, it allocated no less than seven to Pele – including the one that Di Stefano won in 1959. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ballon_d'Or (It’s possible that France Football was indulging in what a later generation would refer to, allowing for technological advances, as “clickbaiting.”)
Which brings us to the two greatest players of our times, for a given definition of “our” – Zidane played in living memory, you know.
It was always going to be peculiar to see how this World Cup would factor into the Ronaldo versus Messi controversy. I think we all agree it’s probably the last hurrah for both players, certainly as the focal point of their teams. Four years ago, Messi came as close as anyone can, before losing to Germany – which puts him in literally the exact same column as Cruyff and Puskas. And he did win the Golden Ball. Although (book-length rant about the World Cup choosing the Golden Ball winner before the final mercifully deleted).
Messi could have skipped this tournament and been assured of immortal status. Then someone decided to photograph him with a goat. Since GOAT is a term of very recent usage forming an acronym in a language not his own, I choose to think for his sake he thought it was just a silly picture. Or he was mulling over a transfer to Guadalajara.
Will this tournament affect Messi’s legacy? And is it fair? I don’t quite know yet but it sure looks like it, and I don’t quite know yet but it sure doesn’t look like it. Zidane and Maradona both exited the international stage in more or less disgrace – Zidane’s legacy was affected and Maradona’s was not. Mike DeCourcy makes the case that Messi and Argentina’s pratfall against Croatia is indicative.
DeCourcy has a point. Messi also doesn’t even have a measly, pitiful little Copa America, while Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to European supremacy for the first time in 2016.
Sorry, briefly taken over by a Real Madrid fan account. But Cristiano Ronaldo does have a real bonafide international title. And he’s doing so well this tournament, that we have to conclude he was a good deal more injured than certain American fanboys would have led you to believe back in 2014. Yeah, sorry about that. Ronaldo at 50% would have skinned us alive, that’s pretty apparent now.
The tournament is of course not over – hell, it’s barely begun. Reputations are there to be destroyed, created, and back again. I’d prefer if people talked about their favorite players, rather than the greatest players. There are just too many things that could have happened or could have happened differently. Even with a conversation about the game’s all-time, immortal players. Ask Roberto Baggio how these discussions would have gone, if a penalty kick had gone in back in July 1994.
Okay, so, ixnay on the Costa Rica darkhorse tip.