12 April ~ English football has always had an uneasy relationship with all things continental. The absence of any teams from "The Best League In The World" in the semi-finals of the Champions League this season has been greeted as a national disaster but this would not have always been the case. When the tournament was first created in 1955, Chelsea were forbidden from entering it by the Football League chairman, Alan Hardaker, and even the England team did not play in a World Cup until 1950.
While this insular attitude thankfully no longer prevails, its remnants can still resurface. Although Barcelona have spent the last year routinely outclassing the best the Premier League can offer, leaving their opponents not so much beaten as thoroughly humbled, the league’s cheerleaders have complimented them through firmly gritted teeth. Only now have people in this country acknowledged that Lionel Messi might just be the best player in the world.
Refusing to see what was glaringly obvious, the blinkered claimed he never turned up in big games, which was not true, or that he underperformed against English teams – as if that is the only way to evaluate a player. Messi’s 40 goals this season have been put down to the weakness of Spanish defences, but Arsenal are the only side he’s scored four against.
There is a desire to bring down teams who achieve transcendence. Barcelona’s dominance in Spain is laughably derided, sage voices here offering the view that they’d like to see their “pretty, tippy-tappy football succeed week in, week out against Stoke”. After all, it is impossible to judge a player’s greatness until he has proved himself against Rory Delap. Reserve all judgement otherwise.
Three weeks ago, Phil Thompson described Wayne Rooney as “streets ahead” of Messi. Rooney is undoubtedly having a fine season, yet surely even he would admit that Messi currently has no equal. While Sky are within their rights to promote their product, they also have a duty to provide objective punditry. Sky are not the only ones guilty of Premier League tub-thumping. When the Daily Mail reported on the FIFA World Player of the Year last year, their headline ran The best players of the world (and Xavi), a breathtakingly stupid statement that is only made to look even more ridiculous by each meticulous display from the Barcelona midfielder.
A national newspaper behaving in such a lazy manner is just part of the malaise. When Manchester United were drawn with Bayern Munich in the last eight of the Champions League, and Bordeaux or Lyon in the semi-finals, it was glibly asserted they would breeze through. That would be a Bayern team containing no-marks such as Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger, Lyon who knocked out Liverpool and Real Madrid, and Bordeaux, the French champions. Ignorance is bliss. Reality is harsher. Jacob Steinberg