In the wake of the Three Lions' failure to qualify for the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland, I’ve been forced to try and decipher the true meaning of the term "World Class."
I don't mean the term as it is by the English, but as a general epithet used to refer to the truly great footballers like Pele, Maradona, Eusebio, Zidane, George Best, Puskas, and Di Stefano.
The World Cup, Euros, African Nations' Cup, and Copa America have always been used as a yardstick to distinguish all-time great footballers from the merely excellent.
Today, questions have arisen regarding who is the superior player—the French midfield maestro Zinedine "Zizou" Zidane, and the Brazilian fat-boy Ronaldo.
Barring injury and typical Brazilian vices, I thought Ronaldo Luiz Nazario de Lima was supposed to be the greatest player of this generation—considering his skill, pace, and his emergence at a relatively young age at PSV and Barcelona, where he was voted the World Footballer of the Year at the unprecedented age of 20.
Ronaldo managed to write his name on the world-class wall quite early compared to Zidane, who came on to the stage at the relatively older age of 26. Zidane's first posting on to the world stage was during the 1998 World Cup—and boy, didn’t he conquer the world!
At club level, Zidane wasn’t always the master he was on the big stages. But give him a Final, and he would show you what kind of player he was—Bayer Leverkusen and Brazil can both attest to this.
But is it fair to christen any player with a smidgen of talent as "world class"?
From Wayne Rooney right through to Alexander "The Duck" Pato—these days, any player who excels at club level is considered "world class." Shouldn’t there be a separate classification for such players? To put players such as Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Dimitar Berbatov, Joe Cole, Steve Lampard, and Raul Tarmudo—just to name a few—on par with the world greats is completely ludicrous.
Then, there is the emergence of young players—always referred to as "wonder kids" by the English press. Every kid that is linked to a big European club is called a wonder kid—which is understandable when considering players like Anderson, Benzema, Ben Arfa , Dosantos, Bojan, El kun Aguero, and Aquilani.
But labeling Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Darren Bent, Aaron Lennon, Stewart Downing, James Vaughan, and Darren Fletcher as future world beaters is sickening. The same was said about David Dunn, Shaun Wright Phillips, Michael Owen, Ivan de la Pena, Francisco Javier Yeste, and David Bentley.
Where are they now? Are they "world beaters"? I don’t think so.
Of all the young players you have to spare a thought for the mesmerizing Lionel Messi—the best player in the world at the moment—and the Portuguese trickster Cristiano Ronaldo. I believe these players are world class, considering what they have done for both club and country.
Messi has not done so much at the national level, because of the inanity of Jose Perkerman, who blatantly refused to unleash him during the 2006 World Cup. But Ronaldo's case is clear, having guided Portugal to a European championship final and World Cup semi-final, as undoubtedly their best player. Combined with the tremendous season he had with united, his accomplishments bolster my view.
The English are quick to refer to Gerrard as world class, just because he scored a wonder goal against Olympiakos and spearheaded Liverpool’s comebacks against both Milan and West Ham—but that doesn’t that make him an excellent player.
In 2001, David Beckham—as his country's captain—took center stage to help England get a much needed draw against Greece and qualify for the World Cup finals. Fast forward to 2007: Gerrard is supposed to be at the peak of his powers, yet was completely clueless as Niko Kranjcar and company ran the show in the midfield when Croatia upset England.
English supporters will defend him, saying even world-class players will have off days—but if that’s the case, then Gerrard has only had off days for England. He missed a spot kick against Portugal in the world cup and decided to attack a certain 20-year-old Portuguese whiz kid, blaming him for England’s failure to qualify for the semi-finals.
Within the EPL, it’s hard to remember Stevie G dominating a game against the Big Four. He has lots of huffing and puffing, tackling and endless stamina, but precious little skill, creativity, football intelligence, or consistent technical ability. Even Rafael Benitez seems to agree, considering his comments after the Merseyside derby.
So, before we join the English press-driven wagon in labeling the next Pele, we should try to consider each player’s ability and performance on the big stage. Pele and Maradona didn’t have illustrious club careers to write home about. It’s their performance at the world Cup that helped them attain legendary status in football.