When Ronaldinho bamboozled defenders playing for Barcelona at the height of his powers, the circus tricks, the footballing impossibilities he performed every match set him apart as a truly exceptional individual. For that period he was supernatural, the things he did were mind-boggling. The thing is, Ronaldinho wasn’t, and isn’t, the only player capable of those kind of circus moves. Look at Gerard Pique playing in this exhibition futsal match. He’s skinning his team mates at will, scything through the court equipped with all the flicks and tricks you’d ever need. Plenty of players have the technical ability to pull off what Ronaldinho can pull off. But they’d never dream of doing it in a real match; they do it in five-a-side exhibition matches, or in training. It’s a rare combination for a player to not only have the talent to pull off a reverse elastico, but to have the audacity to do it in a competitive match. When a player has these two qualities, the ability and the confidence, then the real test of their worth as a footballer can be measured. Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Bale; they all can (and, crucially, will) attempt the audacious in a match, whether it’s a gob-smacking piece of skill, or a strike from an outrageous distance. If it comes off, it’s magical. If it doesn’t, it’s Adel Taarabt.
I hope that the Milan fans can see past this hot flash. The once great European power is experiencing a damaging pause in quality, firmly embedded in the very middle of Serie A. Since selling Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG, they have steadily declined to a level of domestic mediocrity that no one would have predicted. They recently loaned Adel Taarabt from QPR, a player who was deemed not good enough for Fulham, 20th in the Premier League. He scored a beauty of a goal on debut for Milan, and has since proclaimed it is his aim to be as important for Milan as Messi is for Barca. The man has never been accused of a dearth of confidence. And this is the problem. The reason that Ronaldinho was a superstar, and the dear Adel is not, is that Ronnie’s confidence in his ability matched his actual ability. When he took on a defender despite an easy pass to a team mate being on, he usually beat the defender, justifying the slightly selfish act. When Ronaldo attempts the knuckle-ball free kick from miles away, he can actually bash the ball into the net. Taarabt was famous for having the audacity to try and take on the entire opposing defence, to beat 3 or 4 players on his own, but only getting past 1 or 2, and then smashing the ball high and wide in a vain attempt to bail himself out, meanwhile his exasperated colleagues work on developing a throat nodule. Audacity can mean the difference between a superstar and a liability. The real star players are able to check their ambition; Messi knows when to make the easy pass or when to embarrass the defence. Often it’s something that players, of any sport, can grow into.
And it can be deceptive; if someone was to only watch Andros Townsend’s England performances from this season, he would look like the most dynamic and talented player in the squad, a genuine and prized talent. But the smaller sample size betrays the truth, that Townsend is actually ineffective when doing his Gareth Bale impression much more often than not, which explains his lack of appearances for Tottenham for the last few months. He may grow out of it. He can look to basketball for inspiration, specifically at the evolution of Indiana’s Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson, as have the Pacers in general, has improved markedly this season. Last season, Stephenson was the type of player that could go either way; he electrified in moments, had some incredible games, but was often brash and foolhardy, taking on too much, attempting ridiculous shots too often and hurting his team for it. This season has seen a change though; his minutes are up, from 25 to 36. His points per game are up from 9 to 14, his assists too. His defensive rebounds have doubled. He leads the NBA in triple-doubles this term. There has been a noticeable improvement in his temperament and play, and it has meant he’s now seen as a reliable star on this team, not a flash in the pan kind of player, who could win you a game just as easily as he could lose it for you. He realised that he was playing above his station and has consequently elevated his game to match his confidence (or maybe vice-versa).
A Taarabt era Fulham fan.
It’s a balance that sportsmen of any sport need to align, and to do so, you need an element of humility as well as audacity. Zlatan can talk the talk because he can walk the walk.