The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.

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The Game Has Evolved

Brazil's flag and Argentina's flag, uneasily united

According to my friend Dennis, Argentina versus Brazil is the biggest rivalry in sports. Rangers versus Celtic? Doesn’t want to hear it. Barcelona versus Real Madrid? Doesn’t want to hear it. Yankees versus Red Sox?

“Who?” he asks. “You don’t understand, my friend.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and pauses, like a priest granting advice to a troubled parishioner. “When we play Argentina, it isn’t football, it’s a…” He rams a closed fistArgentina plus Brazil into an open palm and asks Pablo something in Portuguese.

“A battle?” I ask.

“Yeah, man. It’s not a game. It is a fucking war.”

I lean back in my chair and take a sip of beer. The neighborhood cat rubs against my leg. We are sitting on Pablo’s back porch in the quiet evening. Earlier in the day I watched Barcelona thump Real Madrid. Pablo and Dennis missed it, they were busy. It was a game I scheduled my day around, but my two Brazilian friends regarded it with almost complete indifference, despite the three Brazilians who participated. That’s what set off this discussion: my indignation regarding their apathy. How could they not care about such an important rivalry, featuring not only the best team in the world but also the best player—Messi?

“I just don’t really like the Spanish league, dude,” says Pablo.

“But it isn’t even about liking the league. It’s about an appreciation for the best.”

They both sort of shrug. Pablo takes a deep drag on his cigarette. “And Messi’s the best player in the world?”

“I think he’s one of the best ever,” I say.

Dennis looks as if I have slapped him. “He is not a Pelé or a Maradona,” he says. “He isn’t even a Kaká. He isn’t going to do anything in the World Cup, man.” Dennis describes the plan by which he thinks rival teams will shut Messi down: employing bands of thugs who will do nothing but kick him when he gets the ball. “That’s it. They will just do like this.” From a seated position he karate kicks at my legs then wipes his hands against one another, as if knocking off dust. “They will take him out.”

“For me,” says Pablo, “Garrincha is the best of all time.” He puts his laptop on a stool and we spend the next fifteen minutes watching Garrincha perform stepovers and feints. The defenders give him an absurd amount of space. “Look at that,” he says. “Look how far away they stand.” Pablo is getting excited. “Look at that! They are scared of him, dude.”

Watch Garrincha highlightsAt times I love these greatest-ever debates, and at times they just seem stupid. As we watch these grainy black-and-white highlights I think how silly it was for me even to bring up Messi. He is Argentinean; of course he isn’t the best. This is why Dennis is talking about Kaká even though lately he’s looked more like a Sunday league player than a Brazilian maestro. Dennis once told me that “we all have a little Argentinean man inside of us, and this little man has the name Ego.” Of course Messi isn’t the best.

As I listen to Pablo and Dennis breathlessly narrate the soccer clips, I can’t help but think that Garrincha’s moves wouldn’t work in the modern game, with its physicality and tactical sophistication. Even my brother, who has played soccer fewer than five times in his entire life, notices that “the game has evolved.”

Pablo and I weren’t even alive to watch players of Garrincha’s generation. How can we include them in our “best ever” lists? Pablo places Garrincha at the top of his list simply out of respect: his list of achievements and the mystique of his name. While these players deserve to be remembered, we should stop comparing them to players in the modern game because it cheapens everything. Even if Messi wins three World Cups and five Champions Leagues, even if he wins the FIFA World Player of the Year five times, there will still be doubters because generational comparisons are impossible.

I propose that we shelve the greatest-of-all-time argument. Let’s talk about players in more quantifiable, generational contexts. There has got to be a frame of reference. Messi, Rooney, Ronaldo, Kaká, and whoever else emerges in this generation should be compared to one another based on how well they played together and against each other as contemporaries. They will never win when compared to the Pelés, Maradonas, Cruyffs or even the Garrinchas. The cultural memory of these players carries too much weight. Save the debate for something more tangible.

The clip finishes and we sit for a moment in silence. “So, you guys agree with me that Spain will win the World Cup, right?”

Pablo and Dennis lean back in their chairs and shake their heads. “No way, dude,” says Pablo.

Dennis grinds his fist into his palm, “We are too strong for them, too physical.”

Of course you are, of course you are.

Brian Blickenstaff grew up in Southern California. He is now a graduate student in Mississippi, where people play a different kind of football.

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The Game Has Evolved

by Brian Blickenstaff · April 23, 2010

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