Team collective more important than individuals
True, he was seeking to place himself in a tradition of some of his illustrious compatriots, but even so I always found it a depressing declaration. For what it is worth, my view is that far too much attention is given to these individual awards.
In some collective sports the star can make the team. But football is so fluid that it can only happen the other way round - the great player emerges when the collective balance of the side is correct. The team makes the star - and 2010 provides us with some compelling evidence...
There is no-one I would rather watch than Lionel Messi. I was in at the start - I saw the beginning of his rise in Colombia at the 2005 South American Under-20 Championship. I would not swap him for Mesut Ozil plus Sami Khedira. But come the 2010 World Cup it was the German pair that came out on top, their team brushing aside Messi and Argentina on their way to a 4-0 win in the quarter-final.
Barcelona's Lionel Messi failed to make a major impact at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. Photo: Getty
So where was the world's best player? Messi proved unable to reproduce his Barcelona form in South Africa. Some will say that the occasion was too big for him - there is a school of thought that ascribes everything to psychological motives. Indeed, the mental side of the game is important. But football is not played on a Viennese couch. It has its own dynamic, where the technical, the tactical and the physical come into play. One of the most important questions is, to my mind, not talked about enough: what is the team's collective idea?
Argentina in the World Cup were caught between ideas. After the difficulties in qualification coach Diego Maradona appeared to be taking a cautious, counter-attacking side to South Africa. He had a back four made up of four centre-backs.
Then, during the competition he got carried away with a romantic commitment to push forward, and ended up in the confusion of a team that could neither defend nor attack with efficiency. Maradona still had his full-backs at centre-back, so outside him, instead of the attacking thrust of his club colleague Daniel Alves, Messi had the out of position and uncertain Nicolas Otamendi. Behind Messi, Maradona's original idea was to have Juan Sebastian Veron distributing the play much as Xavi does for Barcelona. But come the big day, Maradona was unable to see past a sentimental bond with Carlos Tevez, and Veron was dropped.
This came undone inside two minutes. Veron's height meant that he carried out a useful role heading away set pieces at the near post. Without him Argentina went straight behind from a free-kick played into exactly that position. And then as Maradona's team sought to play their way back into the match, they lacked someone who could play Messi into the game, and so the number 10 was forced to drop ever deeper in search of possession. In effect, Messi was setting up the play for Tevez - a bit like Michelangelo holding the brushes while an enthusiastic, but less gifted apprentice does the painting.
Without a coherent collective idea Argentina could not get the best out of Messi. When he reached the danger zone the Germans were able to crowd men around him and reduce his effectiveness. More recently, though, Khedira, Ozil and their team-mates could not get close enough to Messi to throw sand at his backside. This time, of course, they were representing Real Madrid and he was playing for Barcelona, a team where the collective idea and its execution work like a dream.
The balance between attack and defence is achieved by keeping the team compact - in this way, in an era dominated by the counter-attack, they can take the opposite path. Their game is based on possession, as much as possible in the opponent's half of the field. Staying compact means that when they lose the ball Barcelona can apply pressure and stop the opposing counter at source. In possession, the man on the ball has plenty of options for the pass - the ball is moved at pace with precision.
There is plenty of width to stretch the opposing defence and either create two against one situations down the flanks or slip the runners from midfield, with Messi equally happy breaking towards goal or supplying the killer pass. Put Messi in such a collective context and he can be unstoppable.
The world's best player could not do it on his own for Argentina in the World Cup. Meanwhile, Spain won the competition with a huge debt to Barcelona, both in terms of personnel and style of play. They passed and passed and passed again, probing for holes. Without Messi Spain had nothing like the power of penetration that Barcelona enjoy. Their goal tally was not great, but they were attractive and worthy winners, probably seen at their best in the semi-final, when they completely dominated the German side that had eliminated Messi's Argentina with such ease - events which should make 2010 stand out as the year of the collective idea.
Comments on the piece in the space below. Questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) I want to know what are your thoughts on Brazil hosting the World Cup in 2014. There has been lots of scrutiny on its preparations with respect to the time and their security issues. Do you think they can stage a successful World Cup, after the allegations that the facilities required for the World Cup will not be ready by 2014? Also, recently, this scrutiny has made England put in its name for hosting the World Cup of 2014 instead of Brazil [probably out of desperation and disappointment], if it does not go well with Brazil, as Mexico did for the 1986 World Cup. What are your views on this?
A) I would be amazed if Brazil were to lose the tournament, both because Brazil are so important to Fifa and because I think they will be ready. True, they have made an awful start, wasting years. The outcome of this is that the government will be forced to step in and spend more public money - from the point of view of the Brazilian taxpayer 2014 will probably cost more than it should and the legacy will be less than it could be. There will be problems staging a tournament in a country the size of a continent - airport infrastructure is a problem, and even if this is resolved there is no way of dealing with the massive difference in temperature between some of the host cities.
That aside, I expect Brazil to rise to the occasion and stage a successful World Cup.
Q) I would be interested in your opinions of what the smaller South American nations, particularly Uruguay and Paraguay, are doing to be successful on the international stage and what steps do you think smaller population countries like Wales and Northern Ireland could be doing to improve their prospects of World Cup qualification? Are their national leagues more developed? Is it the technical aspect? Presumably these countries don't have massive budgets, so is there a key reason?
A) In part there is the aspect of tradition - this is a region of the world where football is of immense importance to national self-esteem, and the achievements of one generation inspire the next, and so on. There are also economic factors - football as a way out of poverty. So in comparison with European nations, there are more youngsters willing to take a chance on a career in the game. Maybe one interesting factor is the role taken on by the FA in youth development. This is something that really started in Argentina in the mid-90s with Jose Pekerman. Based on the evidence of the global market - Argentina was going to lose players to Europe at an ever younger age - Pekerman used the youth teams in an important way - looking for technically gifted players from all over the country and giving them a crash course in the identity of Argentine football. The youth teams were (and are) where the players were developed and secured for the long term future of the senior Argentina side. Uruguay are doing something similar, and over the last 20 years Paraguay have also given great importance to their youth sides. Part of the question, though, is this - what type of players are you developing? The shortcut at youth level is to look for quick success by going with the biggest youngsters. But that is little good in the long run, and youth development is always about the long run. Uruguay are giving priority to technically gifted youngsters, and Paraguay, who once had a reputation for being limited battlers, are now showing that there is far more to their game. I think that a key factor in this progress is the importance given to the Under-20 side as a conveyor belt through to the senior team.