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We were the lazy ones

These days, soccer players have to contest 10 or 20 more games a year than we did in my day, while pre-season matches are played out in paradisiacal destinations at 40ºC in the shade

Coutinho plugs his ears and looks up at the Camp Nou terraces after scoring against United.
Coutinho plugs his ears and looks up at the Camp Nou terraces after scoring against United.PAU BARRENA (AFP)

A deaf man’s conversation. Some soccer players occupy a parallel reality and this is mainly because none of the people around them dare to offer constructive criticism of any sort. It is more than their job is worth. I’d like to touch on the episode involving Philippe Coutinho, who is having a bad year. Valverde was patient with him, his teammates backed him and the fans whistled at him a bit, not much. Such is life. In the Champions League quarter-finals, he scored a good goal against Manchester United and decided to take it out on the crowd with a controversial gesture that did not go down well. By plugging his ears, he appeared to be asking the crowd: “What have you got to say now?” If the fans could answer, they might have said: “Don’t spoil the joy from this goal with your childish attitude!” (Perhaps not exactly in these terms, as it is hard to imagine a fan talking this politely.) And second: “If nobody else will tell you the truth, it’s about time you gave yourself a talking to – you’re old enough now.” Shame that the fans, like the player’s entourage, are unable to get this message across.

Some soccer players occupy a parallel reality and this is mainly because none of the people around them dare to offer constructive criticism of any sort

A complete player in the midfield. The midfielder. That is a man on a vital crossroads, sometimes planting the seed and sometimes harvesting the crop. The tasks that are assigned to him have a priority: he can’t afford the luxury of thinking about himself. What is required here is order, position and collective criteria. His play and speed are generally appreciated – the obvious aspects of his role. Guardiola was not only slow but he was also fragile; Fernando Redondo used his arms like oars to make up for his lack of speed; Xabi Alonso had a fat ass, to use the words of one manager; and nobody could have called Busquets quick... All were experts when it comes to passing the ball when on the attack and closing ranks when on the defensive. But what is often considered exceptional for one generation becomes routine for another. The arrival of Rodri at Atlético Madrid brought with it everything that was admirable about the best players of all time in one man.

Run, think, play… Sterling went from playing ball to playing soccer by combining his natural aptitude with four basic concepts: knowing when to move in, knowing when to take risks, understanding that the rest of the team is there to support him, and that the goal has corners. His sprinter’s muscles don’t fit into his body, and his glutes stick out like rocks, and act like a turbo when he accelerates, a brake when he stops and an efficient system of counterbalances. There was a time when he would run faster than he could think – either he ran or he thought. Now he can do both at the same time – as well as chewing gum – without getting confused. Guardiola primed him in first-class soccer and got the most out of him. By way of thanks, Sterling takes City a little further every day.

But before… The best example of how we can be tricked by nostalgia is not debatable but measurable. In this era of errant madridismo, when someone of a certain age comes up to me, it is often to make dubious remarks such as: “You and your teammates played your hearts and souls out on the pitch, not like these shirkers.” The truth is that we used to run between eight and nine kilometers each game, while these “shirkers” are running 10 and at times more than 12. More facts in support of the lazy: they also play 10 to 20 more games than we did a year while playing pre-season soccer against top teams in paradisiacal destinations where the temperatures soar to 40ºC in the shade and where they are told to win at all costs so as not to lose face. So unfortunately, we can’t pretend we were all better in the past; it seems the real shirkers were actually those of us who played our hearts and souls out on the pitch.


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