Kane Has Earned Right to Sit at Football's Top Table with Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistSeptember 29, 2017

Harry Kane adds yet another match ball to his collection to draw comparison with game's finest.
Harry Kane adds yet another match ball to his collection to draw comparison with game's finest.Clive Rose/Getty Images

Canadian author Douglas Coupland once said, "forget sex or politics or religion, loneliness is the subject that clears out a room." If football were to add an alternative fourth member to the holy trinity of taboo subjects, what constitutes being world class would vie with the size of Romelu Lukaku's appendage as a hot potato perhaps best left to burn itself out. Not literally, of course.

At the request of Lukaku, and in line with common decency, the latter will be left where it belongs, in the player's shorts, which leaves the thorny issue of the former. More precisely, for the purpose of filling this column, whether Harry Kane's midweek UEFA Champions League treble for Tottenham Hotspur has helped convince those still wavering over his world-class credentials. 

All three of his goals against an admittedly limited APOEL side were typically lean, with Kane in that understated way of his making them seem almost plain despite the fact in their unnerving accuracy they were all perfect finishes. Often cited as being a throwback to a different era, a proper No. 9 in a world of those of the false variety, he has a modernist's appreciation of clean lines and unfussy adornment.

The primness to the way he dispatches chances perhaps disguises just how ruthless he really is. His manager Mauricio Pochettino was on the money when he reluctantly conceded how parallels could be drawn between Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo, in that they are both "killers" in front of goal.

With no fuss, Kane may as well have a silencer attached to the end of both of his feet. Forget the nice guy routine, there's little doubt Dirty Harry would have the gumption to use it on Neymar if he was in Edinson Cavani's position at Paris Saint-Germain. 

In itself, a perfect hat-trick against the Cypriot champions was mightily impressive but hardly remarkable. What has precipitated a deluge of think pieces about his current standing in relation to the Premier League's other most potent frontmen, indeed in comparison to Europe's best, including the twin titans of Spain, is the frequency with which he is pulling off such feats.

The 24-year-old has now scored six trebles in 2017 (he has netted nine hat-tricks in total for Spurs), which is as many as Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski have managed between them over the same period.

To talk of great footballers in terms of numbers always feels like standing in front of a Mark Rothko painting with a Pantone colour chart, or ranking William Shakespeare's oeuvre in terms of word count. The vogue for dissecting data using metrics like expected goals is like watching a film with the director's commentary playing over the top.

There was once a time when it was possible to enjoy a meal without having the chef sat at your table, explaining how he cooked it in between mouthfuls. Breaking the fourth wall can be an interesting exercise, but this critic best enjoys football, like art and food, as a visceral rather than educational experience. 

Sometimes, though, a player's numbers start to become so extraordinary it is almost as if they have taken on a life of their own, to evolve into a separate entity. It is unavoidable not be drawn towards what becomes a story in its own right.

It has been this way with both Messi and Ronaldo for years now. Each and every goal they score exists not just in the context of a given game, but instead as something wider running alongside it. Often before the opposition kicks off again, they have been extrapolated and reconfigured to become more about Messrs Messi and Ronaldo than Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The idolatry rhetoric that attaches itself to both players is perhaps unique to the modern game, with disparate camps slavishly devoted to one or another. The cult of the player has long-since outstripped that of the club. Is it Barcelona and Real Madrid that draw blanks, or Messi and Ronaldo? 

It is fast becoming a similar scenario with Kane, with his individual exploits attracting more attention than Tottenham's per se. While some players would deem this all-pervasive coverage as being wearying, Kane channels it as motivation.

"I use it," said Kane, per The Telegraph's Jeremy Wilson. "With social media these days it's difficult to stay away from it. I want to be one of the best players in the world, so when people put it up and I see I am close to those players, it is a great incentive to get closer and go to the next step."

To date this season he has 11 goals, despite again failing to register in August. He's also hit the woodwork a further five times. In a perverse way it almost seems deliberate how a player who has always had his doubters starts so slowly. It's as though he is teasing out his critics before clipping them around the ear for ever having had the chutzpah to doubt him.

The 34 goals he has scored over the calendar year in 30 appearances in all competitions for Spurs eclipses by some distance any other Premier League player. His nearest challenger is Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero, who has scored 10 fewer in three matches more.

Messi is the only player in Europe's top five leagues to better Kane's total. If Messi and Ronaldo redefined what is possible in terms of goalscoring in the modern era, Kane, certainly in terms of numbers, has a strong case for being right up there with the best of the rest. 

For the past three seasons he has scored 20 league goals or more, with the previous two of those culminating in him winning the Golden Boot. Given his penchant for hat-tricks, there is good reason he is the favourite to win it again this term, despite the threat posed by the likes of Aguero, Lukaku, Alvaro Morata, Alexandre Lacazette, Gabriel Jesus et al.

For a 24-year-old to have scored 108 goals in 173 appearances for a club of Spurs' stature is nothing less than phenomenal. Would there be any debate to be had over whether he should be deemed world class if he had done the same in a Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona shirt?

His performances in Europe, though, will for many elevate Kane's status quicker than any sustained brilliance domestically. For all the talk of the competition having lost a little of its lustre in recent years, the rest of Europe does not necessarily acquiesce with a view the Premier League is the be-all and end-all.

It's almost as if we Brits have an inflated sense of self-worth. The rest of the continent has seemingly been rolling its eyes at us without our knowledge for years now. Who'd have thought it? 

It is in the Champions League where Messi and Ronaldo laud it over mere mortals. Between them they have scored 202 times in Europe's premier club competition, with Ronaldo leading the way with 109 in 142 games to Messi's 96 in 116. Remarkably, in each of the past 10 seasons, one or both of them has top scored in the competition. 

Alfredo Di Stefano's 49 goals in 58 games for Real Madrid between 1955 and 1964, which yields a strike ratio of 0.84 per game, means he is the only player in the history of the European Cup to better Messi (0.83) and Ronaldo's (0.77), respectively. There is more of this type of stuff in the editor's cut. 

Kane may only have seven Champions League goals to his name, but it's a measure of his accelerated career how he has managed it in just five appearances.

It's worth noting here, perhaps, how Ronaldo failed to score in his first 30 appearances in the competition. No English player has ever topped the five goals Wayne Rooney managed for Manchester United in the 2009/10 campaign. With five already this term, Kane will almost certainly usurp him while having one eye on his England record, too.

In terms of league goals for the year, fans of Southampton (33), Swansea City (33), Burnley (32), Watford (31), Stoke City (28), West Bromwich Albion (27) and Crystal Palace (26) have all seen their respective clubs score fewer than Kane has managed in 2017, per Opta.

Kane has also outscored Ronaldo, who has managed 15 goals in 20 games in La Liga compared to Kane's 25 in 23 in the Premier League. While Messi's 34 in 27 has him out in front, Rio Ferdinand's proclamation on BT Sport (via The Independent's Luke Brown) that Kane is currently operating on a level not dissimilar to a pair that share nine Ballons d'Or between them seems far from ludicrous.

That's not to say he's there yet, or indeed will ever get there, but rather to make a case for him being made welcome at the top table even if the best two seats in the house are already taken. Premature or otherwise, while Kane continues to score at his current rate, comparisons are unavoidable.

Spurs captain Hugo Lloris concedes Kane is currently operating on a different plane to his team-mates (via Sky Sports): "He is our main player, like in top teams, in Real Madrid you have Ronaldo, in Barca you have Messi.

"Ronaldo and Messi—they are from another galaxy but Harry has got so much potential to become one of the best. I am not worried—he is connected with the world, he is very calm, he is a hard worker and he is very ambitious."

Only once since Ronaldo first won the Ballon d'Or in 2008 have him and Messi not both been voted as the top two players in Europe (the Portuguese missed out in 2010), but nonetheless, there is growing reason to believe Kane may one day break the duopoly.

It is not, however, a view unanimously shared. Betting companies on social media labour the "one-season wonder" line after every goal he scores, in the same way they seem incapable of not labouring every single point they ever make, but once the sledgehammer jokes are delivered, what's left is still a fair number, many of whom are sound of mind, who can't quite convince themselves a player quite quick, quite skilful and seemingly quite normal might just be on his way to becoming the best player in world football.

Kane is so extraordinary he has achieved the impossible: he's the first underrated Englishman.

If someone like Neymar is thrillingly showy in the same way an actor like Al Pacino is impossible to ignore, Kane in the background has that rare capacity to make you forget you are watching an actor at all. And that is the most unique of gifts. When through on goal, he invariably imbues the relaxed air of a man dressed in silk pyjamas perusing the Sunday papers, with a pot of fresh coffee on the boil and nowhere else to be.

Thierry Henry recently claimed on Monday Night Football (per The Independent's Evan Bartlett) Aguero is the only world-class striker in the Premier League. It is charming to know his Arsenal allegiance is still strong enough to warp his judgment.

To put this view through a Sopranos filter—often the best way to make sense of a world that has long-since lost its own—it's essentially like saying Kane isn't even a made man. If Ronaldo and Messi are the sparring bosses, Tony Soprano and Phil Leotardo at the end, surely Kane is at the level of a Consigliere, or at the very least a Captain. On the contrary, Henry claims Kane is less Silvio or Paulie than a mere foot soldier. Maybe even the kid who buys the sandwiches.

Henry is not alone in being a tough taskmaster. Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said in over a quarter of a century at Old Trafford he considered only four of his former Manchester United players to have been world class. Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Ronaldo cut a queue that left the likes of Ferdinand, David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam and Roy Keane outside to argue with bouncers about being let in.

One suspects the latter subscribes to the Groucho Marx dictum not to have an interest in joining any club that would have him as a member, which if nothing else is comforting news to the doormen.

Regardless of the individual subjected to scrutiny, it has forever been a contentious debate. For starters, the parameters for acceptance have never been officially rubber-stamped. To some it's a broad church, to others a club so secret and selective even half of its members are unsure of if they are in it or not. Maybe if you have to ask, you're probably not ready to join.

If shining at an international tournament is key criterion to be deemed world-class, then George Best and Giggs wouldn't make the cut. Neither would any of Valentino Mazzola, Bernd Schuster, Duncan Edwards, George Weah or Cantona. Di Stefano, who like Best is a mainstay on any list ranking the greatest players of all time, never played in a World Cup finals despite having represented Argentina, Colombia and Spain. No one can ever accuse him of not hedging his bets.

If replicating domestic form when in foreign climes is high on the agenda, then what of John Barnes? A player sent from heaven when wearing a Liverpool shirt, yet when he swapped it for an England one, it was as though he was stuck in some kind of purgatory, never quite at ease. Hell was never being able to test himself against the continent's finest when at his peak due to a blanket ban on English clubs in European competition from 1985 to 1990, with Liverpool not allowed to compete until a year later.

Alan Shearer better hope no one on the door is keeping count of silverware given the Premier League title he won at Blackburn Rovers, in 1995, represents his solitary trophy, disregarding Golden Boots.

The greatest Premier League goalscorer of them all spent the final decade of his career at boyhood club Newcastle United. There's little doubt had he won the title at Newcastle when they were runners-up in 1996/97 it would have meant so much more to him than the sackful he would have bagged at Manchester United over the same period. Alas, he didn't.

And that's likely to be a choice Kane may have to make over the next few years—maybe the same will be the case for Pochettino. Ronaldo left Manchester United because he knew there was something bigger and brighter out there for him. Deep down, Kane, for all his admirable and no doubt heartfelt public devotion to Tottenham, probably realises a similar path may open up to him before long.

Next up for Kane and Tottenham in Europe is the biggest test of them all. A trip to the Spanish capital to face Real Madrid. "It is going to be exciting—I have never been to the [Santiago] Bernabeu," said Kane, per The Telegraph's Wilson, sounding not unlike a child who has been promised a holiday to Madrid will encompass a guided tour of the stadium.  

Though sweet, it should not disguise how he has always had a single-mindedness about his career pretty much unique to those that ultimately end up where they always felt they should be. This is, after all, a man who told reporters after the APOEL game how he was already planning on building a trophy cabinet for the trophies he's yet to win. 

Without wishing to invite parcels filled with excrement from Spurs supporters, there is a pervading sense next month's meeting in Madrid may prove an informal audition for both parties.

After all, there's little doubt Kane looks the part in white.


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