World Football: Champions League and the Return of the Pint-Sized Maestro

illya mclellanSenior Analyst IFebruary 15, 2011

Golden ball and the three dwarves.
Golden ball and the three dwarves.David Ramos/Getty Images

Football was started as a pastime by which it would be possible to maintain a level of fitness and engage in some competition. It has evolved much from what it was, consuming large numbers of the global population with its allure. The fame, the riches, the triumph, the despair, these things that become the reality of those minds engrossed in the strange energy that football is.

Fierce nationalism, pride in a coat of arms, these are not new things. They are with us still, even in the illusory "peace" the world apparently enjoys. For though war rages on in some parts of earth, the so called "peaceful nations" of the world still revel in the guttural glories of combat, though now it is between teams of men or women, who play at war in professional sport, so that the blood-lust of the populace is sated.

This is one description of what football is anyway. After this and very much with it are of course, the clubs, the history, the stadiums and the legends, built up upon an unobtainable pedestal. The history of the game is revered as it would be were it a religious text, and of course, it is a religion to many.

As with all forms of human endeavor and enterprise, there have been many different styles and types of genius that have graced the football pitches of history. 

From the tall strong centre forward, to the pint-sized midfield maestro, the crafty and cultured outside defender, the fast graceful wingers who flew down the touchlines. There have been many types to play the game and names that are remembered with much admiration and wonder.

The physics of the game have progressed to a point where the game is now played at faster speeds than ever before, not necessarily because the athletes are better, but because they are conditioned to levels not considered as early as 10 years ago.

Sports science has evolved to astonishing levels of application, so that it enables players to play for longer and to new levels of endurance. A new game in some ways, but with most of the old ingredients.

Though for a time, in the mid to early part of the last decade, there were those who even said that football had changed so much, that the era of the smaller slighter built player was practically over. It was apparent for a time, that this was the case.

The little players were hard to find, there was a marked shift in the size and athleticism of players it seemed. The style of football had morphed so that it was all super fast and reliant on fast balls forward to strong players who could knock it down and then muscle into position for the rebound or to put in a strike.

Smaller players were unable to cope, it seemed their time was over, it seemed we had seen the end of the "Pint-Sized Maestro".

Big strong players became the norm, dominating the game everywhere, outmatching the few smaller fellows they came into contact with. 

It went on for awhile, this dominance that came from the larger physique, then slowly, like the sun creeping over the far off horizon at dawn, came the rebirth, the return, and the new awakening.

The "Pint-Sized Maestro" returned.

As evidenced in a recent interview with Xavi Hernadez by Sid Lowe of the Guardian, Xavi is quoted as saying that  "I'm happy because, from a selfish point of view, six years ago I was extinct; footballers like me were in danger of dying out. It was all: two metres tall, powerful, in the middle, knockdowns, second balls, rebounds…but now I see Arsenal and Villarreal and they play like us."

The player who was being pushed and battered out of the game has returned, and he is better than ever. The little men who play now have taken the game to another level, the top storey of the tower of babel, and their sped and technical skill, often has larger players resembling training cones.

There are of course many examples and the most obvious of course, is the player spoken of as the best in world football, the man with a smile on his face, who plays like he is in the park with his friends, Lionel Messi.

Messi is an exceptionally strong and resilient player though, so it is not entirely a matter of him being too quick, and in fact, Messi was on the rise as the bigger fellows were still quite dominant. It was often seen that Messi would be hacked down or bustled over by physically more dominant opponents. 

What has emerged beyond this though, is the dominance of teams of little players.

Barcelona have a core of three midgets.

Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.

These guys run the show. They are almost untouchable, just because they cannot be touched.

They play football that is too quick, with reflexes and anticipation that leave the crowd clapping sometimes in awestruck silence. They have brought about a revival that the purists have welcomed with relief.

Football was never about who was the biggest and the strongest, and nor should it be. It is a game that relies on guile over brawn, technique over muscle, and instinctual finesse over strength. Gone are the tactics of bruising the opponent to submission, gone are defensive strangulation's, overwhelmed by sheer speed and will to defy the physical factors that dominate most other sporting pastimes. 

The most astonishing thing about last seasons Champions League was that Inter Milan were able to strangle a team such as Barca. They did though, and the Inter fans were overjoyed to see it.

The terrible thing was that it was anti-football triumphing again. It was the drilled precision of rigorous and brutal defensive tactics coupled with unstoppable speed on the break. Such a thing is to be admired in many ways, as it is surely the perfection of a certain art within the art of football.

The change has been seen since this though, as Spain won the world cup, playing the game as it is meant to be played, with passing, movement and technique.

They were panned by many as being boring, though this had more to do with teams being to scared to play them, than they being boring. Spain even slumped to a loss against Switzerland. The Swiss would be first to admit that their victory was quite possibly one of the ugliest in world cup history, as their negative tactics stifled the players who would go on to lift the trophy after a mauling in the final by the very nation that gave the world "Total Football", the Netherland's.

The Spanish won out in the end, and their club giant Barcelona proceeded this season to blitz La Liga with football that has to be seen to be believed. The greatest victory of course the 5-0 mauling of the team coached by the very man who orchestrated their downfall in last seasons CL final, Jose Murinho's Real Madrid.

As the Champions League takes centre stage again, there will be many pint sized maestros on display, from Andres Iniesta to Paul Scholes, the little man is, luckily for us, still on the prowl, probing for an opening, playing a killer pass, bringing down the ball like a mother setting her baby in the crib. Long may it continue.