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Talking a good game

4 October 2009 ~ One of punditry’s perpetual rhetorical teasers is to ask how the players of certain eras would fare in today’s game. It’s a bit like wondering how Henry the Eighth would govern modern Britain or what sort of script Shakespeare might have produced if he’d been commissioned to write an episode of Doctor Who. Given the futility of musing on how Tom Finney would fit into a 4-5-1 aimed at grabbing a 0-0 away draw, you’d think that former players would know better than to get involved in such discussions.

But every now and again they can’t resist telling us that today’s players would never have made the grade in an earlier time when the game was not only better but, of course, much tougher. This week’s fulminating ex-pro? Step forward Gerd Müller, who boasts an admittedly admirable record of 68 goals in 62 internationals for West Germany. Those numbers speak for themselves, but old Gerd can’t leave it at that. “When you look at the forwards in today’s German team,” he said, “in earlier times they wouldn’t even have got a sniff of the ball.” He’s referring, by the way, to Miroslav Klose (47 goals in 91 games for Germany), Lukas Podolski (34 in 66), and Mario Gómez (11 in 28). All numbers overshadowed by Müller’s Bradmanesque average, but impressive in the context of modern stats, even if Müller didn’t enjoy the luxury of outings against San Marino and Liechtenstein. England’s only currently comparable striker is Wayne Rooney, with 25 goals in 55 appearances.

Germany coach Joachim Löw made the obvious rebuttal that you can’t make such comparisons across the decades because strikers are no longer allowed anything like the space they used to enjoy. “Football has made massive advances in the art of defence,” he said diplomatically, without bothering to add: “So wipe that Pilsner foam off your beard, Grandad, and quit whining.” But maybe countering such comments is besides the point. What these old pros need is a bit of love and to be told that no one’s forgotten their amazing but historical feats. It’s all about the legacy. Just read Müller‘s appraisal of his namesake Thomas, the emergent Bayern Munich striker yet to be capped:

“That young lad is unbelievable, he can shoot with left or right, just like me, he’s strong in the air – you can take him to the World Cup.” There’s the key phrase: just like me. Müller is German football’s proud father who wants to nurture a worthy successor to his title “The Nation’s Bomber” (not one that comes across terribly well in translation). As the Germans start to worry they might not top their World Cup qualifying group and face the dreadful, nerve-teasing prospect of a play-off game, the man who once scored a winner in a World Cup final just wants to remind everyone that he was once the best centre-forward in the world’s best team. And that their best chance of repeating that feat would be to choose a striker just like me. That’s all.

There was a comparative spat in the United States this week, when the US national team’s former record-goalscorer, Eric Wynalda (34 goals in 107 appearances), said that the player who overtook him, Landon Donovan (41 goals, 118 caps) only plays well in easy games. Donovan’s response was: "I think everybody in the soccer world knows the jealousy issues that Eric carries. I don't think two seconds about what Eric has to say." Now there’s a proper slapdown.

It’s telling that the cross-era comparisons almost always involve forwards. No one is ever really concerned whether Jack Charlton would have partnered well with John Terry. Strikers have traditionally carried not just the burden of scoring goals, but the team’s ego as well. Even when they play for your own team, a cocky striker always make you feel ambivalent when he scores – you’re happy, of course, but you wish he didn’t look so damned pleased with himself. But if they weren’t driven by a certain greed for glory and attention, they might just be another holding midfielder with personality issues, not jealousy ones.

There should be an international retirement home pandering to the needs of old frontmen, open to the public and the media, who can come to pay homage or bag quotes on a slow news day. Somewhere on the shores of Lake Zürich, with a sign next to the door saying Dunscorin’, with old TV footage on a permanent loop and retired pros like Müller, Wynalda, Hristo Stoichkov and Romário playing each other all day at table football, then congregating in a cosy bar at night not listening to each others’ stories of legendary past feats and comparing the youth of today with the talents of yore. That way they can be gently spared the indignity of being told by outsiders: “Sorry, but no one really cares.” Ian Plenderleith

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