The False Nine’s Greg Johnson, Rob Brown and John Guillem take a look at the brilliance of Andrés Iniesta, Michael Laudrup and Zinedine Zidane, and ask who is the greatest…
Football today is a package deal of quasi-mythological narratives, disseminated and consumed by the widest possible array of people. Hipsters, tweeters and bloggers all have as much of a vested interest1 as former internationals with limited vocabularys. We see so much attention going to the playing careers of former greats such as Michael Laudrup, often by those who never witnessed his football first hand or even second hand, from the reportage of the day.
This is not to say that players now experienced third-hand through the distance of time and history – Di Stefano, Puskas, Schiaffino, Masopust and their ilk – weren’t as utterly magical as their legends suggest. Due to our age, we lack the personally acquired experiences and evidence required to know for sure, but from reading the accounts of published witnesses, listening to the memories and thoughts of senior fans and pundits, and watching the various selectively edited YouTube montages and videos now available, it seems that those purported to be worthy of a place in football’s cultural canon were indeed sublime. In a sense, we’ll never really know, because one of the main selling-points that contemporary football has is the personal aspect of its narratives.
Introverted yet influential, with an unfussy technical excellence and an ever-growing list of honours and feats accumulating upon his mantelpiece, Andrés Iniesta is now something of a living football saint to both the self-appointed connoisseurs of the game and well-grounded, matter-of-fact spectators alike. The Spaniard seems shrouded by an almost unknowable mystique of significance which pervades his every action, from the elegance of his touch up to his trophy winning goals and assists.
History is crowded with heroes at the best of times, and after the canon of the game’s best-ever strikers, there is no other role that suffers such a congestion of potential all-time greats as the attacking midfielder. In some ways, it can be an even more contested position being that in the past, two striker formations were the norm while until recently multiple playmakers and offensively focused midfield artists rarely appeared in the same team. Today, whether it’s Chelsea’s burgeoning Haz-Mat suit (+ 1 of Oscar, Ramires and co) or Madrid’s brilliantly unbalanced line-up of Ronaldo, Özil and Di María, attacking midfielders have come to outnumber and often outscore the forwards they once selflessly fed.
It’s lazy and inaccurate to talk about any position as if it were only staffed by identikit players fitting a narrow, standardised mould based on a certain style or physique. In fact, due to the creativity and freedom often afforded to the attacking midfielder and its derivates, their playing stock is often filled with the widest array of interpretations and unorthodox types. Even postmodern anachronisms are welcome, as they slip in and out of relevance thanks to the cyclical flux of football tactics and fashions.
Iniesta is a player that falls in the middle of the leylines that join up these categories and types. Part winger, part playmaker, part forward, part pivot, he is a melting pot reference point to both the past and the future, and well on his way to becoming the definitive attacking midfielder of his generation. But does his legend stand up to those immediately before him in the lineage of past players who carried this mantle as the stand-out players of his type, Michael Laudrup and Zinedine Zidane? In fact, does the Barcelona midfielder’s rising status threaten these two established idols? While the blurry definition of a generation confines players to comparison mostly with those they played with and against at their peak, an era can stretch further out, potentially into comparison with other great names. Should Iniesta keep winning, improving and inspiring, could he become the midfield genius of the modern era, a period that could claw back into history as far as the playing career of the current Swansea manager depending on your preference.
No one comes close to Iniesta: Spain and Barcelona’s superhero – Greg Johnson
Have the night off Jamie Redknapp, I’ll take things from here: literally no one else comes close to Andrés Iniesta at his best in today’s game. His balance, poise and ball control is comic book quality. As an archetype he would be the perfect character to base a counter-series to Roy of the Rovers around, inoculating Britain’s youth against the corrosive influence of Roy Race’s unlikely last-minute heroics with the virtues of patient technique and the intelligent moulding of a game’s momentum.
Lionel Messi may play like a PlayStation footballer wearing cheat-code Velcro boots, but Iniesta is arguably the more elegant and efficient dribbler, even if he mostly uses his powers to provide for others rather than score himself. Before he fired his club and country to World Cups, European Championships and Champions League finals, Iniesta’s goal scoring form lingered as a question mark against his obvious ability. Yet when he eventually came to answer his doubters, it wasn’t as an attempt to try and compete with Ronaldo, Falcao and Messi for the Pichichi each year but to choose his moments with expert timing. Iniesta is a “big game player” in the same way that Clark Kent is Superman: an inner potency hidden away within his slight, unassuming frame and shy, retiring demeanour. Though we’ll later hear about Zidane’s perfect volley against Bayer Leverkusen as an indomitable artefact of his greatness, similar reverence may be due for Iniesta’s suckerpunches.
With Iniesta regularly playing alongside Messi, David Villa and other clinical goal scorers however, we can afford to step back and admire the player as a provider, hardworking cog and all-round footballer. In fact, it is within his less direct and measurable talents that his true genius lies. From the gentle nuance of his feints to his explosive surprise bursts to the by-line in which he seems to appear as if emerging cloaked from stealth mode, he is somehow instrumental yet discreet in taking apart defences and carving up the six yard box for others to take advantage of.
It was the Spaniard who ran the first of Barcelona’s two Champions League final victories over Manchester United, regardless of the post-match plaudits sent Messi’s way. Although well on their way to what would become a clean sweep of five trophies in one season, during the opening exchanges of the first half of that final in 2009, the Catalans seemed unsure of themselves, as if caught up on the choking weight of the occasion. Step forward Iniesta who, more-than-anyone, snatched hold of the game and dominated United’s hapless middle-ground, exacting a brutal disassembly of Michael Carrick’s game that the Englishman took over two seasons to fully overcome. This wasn’t a selfless defensive shift by a player sacrificing himself for the good of the team however, but superiority of skill and technique under pressure by a complete attacking midfielder. Armed with his footballing utility belt stocked with a sharpened set of tools, he dissected the game from within and handed his teammates the assurance they needed to dominate.
After all, they would never have made the final without him. In the semi against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, it was Iniesta who slotted home the injury-time equaliser to send Barcelona on the away goals rule. Just a year later he would complete a similar feat in firing Spain to their first World Cup against The Netherlands in South Africa.
Though he doesn’t wear a cape, or don speedos on the outside of his kit, Andreas Iniesta is a superhero, blessed with the otherworldly abilities of the Son of Krypton, with La Masia his well-funded and character forming bat cave. Zidane may have been the greater physical specimen and Laudrup the forerunner, but Iniesta is an upgrade on both, if only due to the fact that yesterday’s football lacked the pace and power of today’s superior athleticism and pressing. Of course, had any of the names earmarked as timeless players benefitted from developing in these far more intense times, they too would have benefitted from the exposure to the modern game like the diminutive Spaniard.
It will be interesting to see how Iniesta develops and changes as Xavi’s career winds down to retirement. The prospect of whether we’ll be watching him assume that mantle, or continuing on in his present role alongside a new regular partner such as Cesc Fabregas, is intriguing, especially with the rise of Pep’s Bayern (tiki-taka 2.0, or so we’re told) and Real Madrid’s Back To The Future hiring of Ancelotti, the Italian Del Bosque. Perhaps it is the next period of his footballing life that will define where on the list of greats Iniesta’s name falls? Having so long been the match winner in two of the greatest teams of all time, a little adversity may be exactly what his growing legend requires.
Like only the most important artists, the great Dane’s work was elevated after his “death” – Rob Brown
There is a cliché in music journalism that the Velvet Underground were not properly appreciated until some ten or twenty years after their best music was released. Having initially missed out on commercial success, it was only when younger bands influenced by Lou Reed and company came through that the masses realised just how brilliant they were.
Thus it is said that while not many bought The Velvet Underground & Nico, almost everyone who did loved it and was inspired to start their own band. The group’s greatness comes not from their songs’ popular impact but from their lasting influence; from the legions of imitators who took their prototype and developed it to make independent art-rock a global juggernaut.
Michael Laudrup is football’s Velvet Underground.
While there were earlier players who had individual aspects of his game – Franz Beckenbauer had the football brain, Gerson the ability to dictate games for fun and George Best the ambidextrous technique and commitment to footballing beauty – no-one put those elements together so perfectly until Laudrup. He was the prototype of the twenty-first century playmaker: the first and therefore the greatest.
Every skill for which Zinedine Zidane and Andrés Iniesta have become world renowned was first performed by Laudrup. The captivating combination of balletic grace, flawless control and incisive vision that characterises them came from the hours of practice they put into imitating Laudrup’s every move. Everyone knows that Iniesta’s personal hero is Pep Guardiola but even Don Andrés considers Laudrup the better player.
Particularly during his glorious spell under Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, Laudrup’s intelligent, clinical approach broke new ground and set football on course to become the skill-obsessed game of space manipulation it is today. Coaches across the continent saw the devastating simplicity with which he played and sought to create a little Laudrup of their own. Those who taught Zidane and Iniesta succeeded.
More than his statistics, his medals and his ludicrously watchable YouTube highlights reels, Zidane and Iniesta are Michael Laudrup’s true legacy; his lasting contribution to football. The success they have achieved is his as much as it is theirs, in that without his influence it would never have happened. For that reason, Laudrup stands head and shoulders above his protégés as the greatest playmaker of them all.
No buts: Zidane is the ideal – John Guillem
Zinedine Zidane was the greatest 10 of the modern footballing era, whenever that started. The advent of the Premier League was when they invented football, right? Arguing over ‘great’ players is a funny one, in part because of the the way we ‘own’ ‘our’ football narratives. It risks becoming a dispute over favourite colours, a selection based on impression rather than a gestalt that we feel all can accept. Which, in a way, is perhaps for the better – it gives everyone something to do, and preserves variability and variety of opinion and interests (the basis of any good war).
A common error when discussing ‘great’ players is the attempt to overlook the fact that there isn’t a definite or widely accepted basis to establish the veracity of your perspective on the so-called “greats”. The closest thing we have to an objective method of judgment is to approach the records of these players deductively, analysing trophies, club statistics, international statistics, and even salaries and ‘iconicness’ (which you might try to quantify in terms of adverts, sponsorships etc.). Zidane stacks up well on all of these bases, particularly the last of them. Aside from the tediously over-referenced headbutt, which comprises – along with David Beckham – the entirety of many Americans’ awareness of soccerball (yes yes I know I know, MLS on the rise, lots of hip and aware young Americans blah blah); there’s the goal against Leverkusen (‘think of the staging, think of the impact! Instant myth’); and let’s not forget Zidane’s numerous post-retirement turns in lamentable Adinike™ adverts. Seeing Zizou in a cowl as a sort of handsome Nick Fury-cum-Gandalf, gathering a mighty fellowship of mighty warriors footballers from the free races of Middle Earth all over, doesn’t foster a sense of the epic so much as seem… silly. Never mind, it’s a rarity to see ex-footballers advertising much aside from underwear (or betting, if English). That’s got to count for something, right?
Yet these reasons are all symptoms of Zidane’s condition of greatness, rather than a definition of the state itself. I’m not sure how to capture the indisputable realness of the ‘great’ disease in words – it feels to me like the only way to do might be to air continual hyperbole-ridden montages in commercial breaks when the football’s showing. Perhaps pundits’ contracts should be amended so that once per programme the alpha male pack leader of the show being recorded is forced to burble something like “and, of course, Zidane was the best”.
Then again, none of this really matters. The attributes Zidane had (being a superior physical specimen than the likes of Iniesta) and currently has (turning the heads of Varane and Isco, seemingly being actually quite good as a sporting director/scout/dealbroker/whatever it is he does) are totally irrelevant. His greatness is a matter of ontology: it is a necessary condition of modern football to find Zidane great. Indeed, I think he was aware of this, which is why he took it upon himself to behave like a real human being when someone insulted his family (he’d won the world cup before, after all), and take appropriate action – he was greater than the occasion itself, which allowed him to escape the myth-world and enter an emotionally real space2, where he existed as a person as well as an icon, without losing his status as an icon in so doing. I can see no greater indication of greatness than that.
However, for the sake of argument (and the premise of this article), I’ll take a more facile/’final’ Top Trumps style approach to Zidane the Great:
- He devoured Brazil. There are very few who could boast his head-to-head record against the greatest footballing nation.
- Germany ’06: he carried his country to a World Cup final they had no right to contest. Above and beyond being a feat of greatness in itself, it gave him the right to head-butt his way into retirement without reproach. And if you do find it reproachable, then fuck off.
- Zidane shaped the actual way individual footballers play, specifically how they receive the ball and make short passes, in visual terms (which obviously entails kinaesthetic terms as well) more so than any other player in this modern period. Though he wasn’t the one who invented the hand point, it somehow feels as if he did anyway. Given the experiential and visual nature of football’s mythos, you could say that in a very real sense (i.e. the realness of the myth narrative) he determined the existence of our current Spain and Barcelona sides. Can you follow that? If it’s of any interest, I’d say that in this ‘modern’ period the only body which has had a greater influence on the way the ball is kicked would be games like FIFA and Pro Evo. Which is another subject entirely. Many would prefer to pretend that footballers have not paid any attention to video games3 – but it’s certainly an index of greatness: one man was almost as pervasive in his kinaesthetic legacy as a coterie of immensely permeating games. And he managed to transcend consumption at the same time, albeit only in certain magical moments4 – the Leverkusen goal, the head butt blah blah blah blah
- “Vested interest of power and/or money is perhaps the most potent factor standing in the way of freedom for the individual. New discoveries and products are suppressed because they threaten vested interests… The medical profession has a vested interest in illness… The real-estate lobby has a vested interest in the housing shortage…The police have a vested interest in criminality. The Narcotics Department has a vested interest in addiction. Politicians have a vested interest in nations. Army officers have a vested interest in war. Vested interest, whether operating through private, capital or official agencies, suppresses any discovery, product or way of thought that threatens its area of monopoly.” The Job, William S. Burroughs.
- “All the terrible tragedy of life would be attributable to our dislocation in time and space; but since time and space are merely our way of perceiving things, but otherwise have no reality, even the greatest tragic pain must be explicable to those who are truly clear-sighted as no more than the error of the individual.” Letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck, dated August 1860.
- “To say Pirlo picks up a controller every now and again is an understatement. Though he can’t precisely recall how many football games he has played on it, he estimates that it’s “at least four times” more than in real life.” As Goetze heads to Bayern, Pirlo describes Guardiola’s allure, James Horncastle, ESPN FC United.
- “In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen” The Adding Machine, William S. Burroughs.