Soccer’s superstar players never materialized here at the World Cup. The game’s best – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Wayne Rooney, etc. – often failed to lift their play and, in turn, their teams, to a level this grand stage demands.
The conventional wisdom on why: They were too selfish, unable to adapt to the team concept of a national squad.
Then there’s Diego Maradona’s take: Unlike the past, the stars weren’t selfish enough.
“Today the players are more collective, more team players,” the Argentina coach said after his own star-studded team was bounced from the World Cup. “They want to do everything with their teammates. It is a different type of game right now.”
This goes against so much of what we’ve come to believe, and expect, in sports. The reason that Uruguay and the Netherlands square off here Tuesday in a semifinal is because they embraced selfless, team-oriented play.
Such a mentality is celebrated.
What Maradona is suggesting is that this line of thinking has become so widespread it’s actually killed the star player, who no longer acts like a star player. Rather than demanding his place in the natural pecking order of pure talent and past performance, they sink back into the pack.
Such thinking would carry little weight except it is Maradona who said it. Who could know more about what’s needed for a talented player to morph into a larger-than-life superstar and dominate the World Cup? No one owned this event the way Maradona did in 1986 when he led Argentina to the title.
His implication is that the star needs to act like the star. That he is better than his teammates is a given. Rather than apologize for it, he must remind them of it, make them respect it. He must lead not by being one of the guys but by being above the guys. It’s the cult of personality, if you will.
“I think we were more selfish,” Maradona said, which has to be the first time an old player said that about a bygone era. “Maybe before it was about being selfish players who [made the] rest of the team work for us.”
Today’s players receive remarkable hype – television commercials, video games and media attention. They are single-name personalities around the globe.
Yet you’d never hear one say that the rest of the team works for them. They’d be vilified. Instead today’s stars go out of their way to support their teammates and talk publicly about how no one player is more important than the other.
Only some players are more important, Maradona notes.
Consider the most competitive environments on earth – the military battlefield, the flight deck of a commercial airliner or a hospital operating table.
This is where failure is not an option. In those cultures, the delineation between the star (the general, the lead pilot) and the others (private, flight attendant) is clear. Often socialization between classes is prohibited – enlisted men do not dine with officers – and the word of the higher-ranked person must be respected.
When having open-heart surgery, no patient would care if the lead surgeon is friends with or helps empower the nurse. In fact, the idea that the nurse would fear disappointing the lead surgeon and would clearly defer to him at all times might be considered a positive. You’d want the most brilliant talent to be the leader.
In Maradona’s day, he says, that carried over to a soccer team. He was Diego Maradona and they were not.
“Time changes in life,” Maradona said.
In this time, the star player must be humble and supportive. And not just on the field, but in all parts of team life. Obviously all players know they need others to make them better in the game. Someone has to pass them the ball. Or receive a pass. But off the field, is one for all, all for one really the best concept?
It’s difficult to say. Maradona only knows the mentality that made him lead a country to World Cup glory. It certainly isn’t the only way.
Perhaps it is one of them, though. And with most of the world’s top individual players home watching the semifinals, with criticism of their selfish play ringing through their heads, maybe the opposite is true. Maybe they weren’t selfish enough.
Maybe Maradona’s correct. Maybe the soccer world has gone soft.