Sign up here to receive Rory Smith’s weekly newsletter on world soccer, delivered to your inbox every Friday.
All of a sudden, it feels as if the future is at hand.
Kylian Mbappé has replaced Neymar as the centerpiece of Paris St.-Germain’s bid to conquer world soccer. Frenkie de Jong is ensconced in Barcelona’s midfield. Matthijs de Ligt is the cornerstone of Juventus’s defense. Kai Havertz has been identified as the solution to all of the German national team’s many and varied problems.
And, in Madrid, Diego Simeone has reshaped his Atlético Madrid team around a slight teenager from Viseu, Portugal, with only one season of senior soccer under his belt — if that, really — named João Félix.
In many ways, Félix’s story is the same as all the others. The details might vary a little, but the pattern is familiar. His talent always shone brightly. He had to overcome some hardship or challenge. He has the strength of character to deal with the pressure being heaped on his young shoulders.
What stands out about his story, though, is its speed. A year ago, Félix was only on the cusp of Benfica’s first team. It was not, really, until January that he broke through, carrying the team to the Portuguese championship and earning himself, in the process, not just a $138 million transfer to Madrid, but a place in that cadre of players who now seem to be the generation that will replace Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s best players.
Others have previously worn that tag, of course. Neymar, for a long time, seemed to be the player in waiting. Some might have made a case for Eden Hazard at various points during his career at Chelsea, or possibly even Paul Pogba, before he contracted Manchester Uniteditis.
In reality, though, their timing was wrong. Ronaldo has endured as an elite performer for longer than many, perhaps, expected; at the Champions League draw in Monaco a few weeks ago, he (kind of) joked that he has a few more years left in him at this level.
Messi is only 32, and if anything he has been getting better over the last couple of years. He will decline at some point, of course, his influence waning and his brilliance dulling, but Neymar and Hazard will be nearing 30 by the time he vacates his perch. Their chance may well have gone.
Félix and Mbappé and the rest, though, will be coming into their prime then. History teaches us that a couple of them may have been diverted from what seems, now, to be their destiny, hampered either by injury or a poorly-chosen transfer. It is from this group, though, that the heir to Messi and Ronaldo will come.
It is, you sense, something of a poisoned chalice. It will only become clear in time quite how Messi and Ronaldo have contorted our expectations for the world’s best players. They have changed, fundamentally, what greatness looks like.
No matter how good Félix or Havertz or de Jong proves to be, it is unlikely anyone will score as many goals as regularly as Messi or Ronaldo. It is almost impossible to expect anyone to make the superhuman seem so attainable as often as they have. Nobody had done it before. It is likely that nobody will do it again.
The worry is that has a negative effect on whoever comes after: that we do not appreciate them for what they are, the talent they have, because we focus so intently on what they are not, on what they could never be. One of them will be the best player in the world, a generational talent. It is part of the legacy of Messi and Ronaldo that even that, perhaps, may not seem enough.
Whether This Makes Sense May Depend on Your Age
This week brought the annual uproar that greets the release of the player ratings on the FIFA video game.
You may or may not know the drill: Electronic Arts, the game’s creator, announces how many marks out of a hundred it has given each player on its database (so Lionel Messi, the highest-ranked, gets 94, Cristiano Ronaldo 93, Neymar 92 and so on), and various people (including, often, the players themselves) get angry because they disagree with certain assessments.
Electronic Arts is, of course, taking on an impossible task: it is no surprise that Liverpool fans are outraged that Arsenal’s Shkodran Mustafi (83) gets a higher mark than their own Joel Matip (82). (This is a bad example: Arsenal fans are probably pretty outraged, too). Of course, fans think their favorite players should be ranked higher than their rivals’, and of course Jadon Sancho thinks he should get a higher mark for his passing.
But it is, odd as it may sound, an important thing. It is easy to scoff at how high-profile the announcement of some computer game ratings has become, how much it seems to matter, even beyond tribal point-scoring and personal pride. It is, after all, only a computer game.
Maybe this is one of those things that breaks down on generational lines. FIFA — and a couple of other gaming brands — are now part of how many people (including players) consume soccer. It is, in many cases, the first way in which people consume soccer. It is a crucial point of entry, and a central part of the game’s ecosystem. For many, it is as much a part of the soccer experience as going to a game or watching one on television. Those of us who do not necessarily understand should not seek to undermine that.
Paul Scholes: Thoughts on a Gif
Manchester City went all out, this week, for Vincent Kompany’s testimonial. A host of stars descended on the Etihad Stadium to pay homage to him: there was a team of Manchester City legends, and a squad of former Premier League stars. The club has renamed a street near its stadium in his honor, and has announced plans for a statue, too. (Kompany missed the game, sadly and appropriately, because of an injury).
The star of the show, though, was Paul Scholes: one clip of the former Manchester United midfielder playing an effortless, first-time, outside-of-the-boot pass to slice open the City defense immediately went viral, accompanied by the sort of breathless praise that greeted Rose Lavelle doing anything more complex than tying her shoelaces at the World Cup. (Sample tweet: “Rose Lavelle, hit me with a truck.”)
Scholes was a wonderful player, and one who won a host of honors during his career, but it is curious just how revered he has become in retirement. Doubtless, it is in part because a peak Scholes would be of almost incalculable value to United now. Part of it is fashion, too: admiring Scholes is a sign of good taste.
And yet I wonder if there is more to it than simply not knowing what we had until it was gone. Scholes was not admired enough while he played. He is feted just a little too much now that he doesn’t. I have a feeling that the disconnect is rooted less in a desire to right a historical wrong and more in the changing values of English soccer. It has more room for, and appreciation of, a player like Scholes now than it did for him at his peak, and it wants to show it.
In Case You Missed It
◾️ I wrote last week that women’s soccer would be taking center stage in Europe, for one weekend only, and it more than lived up to expectations. Manchester City hosted Manchester United in front of more than 30,000 fans, and Chelsea managed to draw just shy of 25,000 to Stamford Bridge for its game against Tottenham. There has, clearly, been a post-World Cup boost. The challenge now — in England and elsewhere — is to sustain it.
◾️ I’ve been getting increasingly worried by Arsène Wenger: he keeps saying he’s got job offers, and then not taking any. I can rest easy, though, because he’s about to be back in gainful employment. With FIFA.
After both the homophobic incidents in France and Romelu Lukaku’s being subjected to racism in Italy, Craig Collar writes that the problem is not restricted to Europe. “It is the same justification that Mexican fans have used for their ‘puto’ chants for opposition goal kicks,” he said. “It’s abhorrent, and until there are points deducted, games played behind closed doors, or games terminated and forfeited, it is going to continue.” Craig argues governing bodies have to “lead here on racism and homophobia, or it’s just another sign of their lack of moral fiber.” [U.S. Soccer made an effort on that front before and during last Friday’s friendly against Mexico.]
And a good idea from George Hebert: to prevent players feigning injury, institute a rule that if you leave the field with an injury, you are not allowed back on for five minutes. “The time could vary, but it must be long enough to discourage diving and fake injuries,” he wrote.
Thanks, as ever, for reading. We return to domestic action this weekend: I’m at Manchester United against Leicester, but the most appetizing game is probably Juventus’s visit to Fiorentina: Juve is not exactly popular in Florence. As ever, I’m on Twitter, keep the suggestions, questions and reviews coming to email@example.com, and remember to tell all of your friends to sign up. It’s much appreciated.