Sunday 25 February 2018

James Lawton: Some of us can't buy Barca trio's 'greatest' label

Don't forget past masters in rush to hail Amigos

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez may well be the best attacking trio there has ever been. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez may well be the best attacking trio there has ever been. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters
Luis Suarez celebrates a goal against Celta Vigo (REUTERS/Albert Gea)
James Lawton

James Lawton

No doubt there is justification in the hailing of Barcelona's brilliant MSN - as Messi, Suarez and Neymar have come to be known - but there is also a casualty.

It is the ability to salute the football Caesar of the day - or in this case three of them - while keeping faith with the gods of the past.

How else can we interpret the fact that Barca coach Luis Enrique has scarcely drawn a frown with the assertion that his already fabled strike force has a quality unprecedented in the history of the game?

You might call it living in the moment. But then again you might also say it is outright vandalism, not just of the grandeur of so many great players but also the idea that the world's most beloved game is still in possession of any kind of critical faculty - or functioning memory.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi (Reuters/Albert Gea)
Barcelona's Lionel Messi (Reuters/Albert Gea)

And how does it go? Something like this, "Messi, Suarez, Neymar the best that's ever been? Absolutely, just load the video and see for yourself."

There is much to see, of course, and not least last weekend's tidbit of the Messi trick penalty worked with Suarez en route to the swamping of outgunned opponents, but what about context and perspective - and a certain reluctance to recall that another star of Barcelona - and claimant to the title of the world's greatest player - created a similar play 34 years earlier.

He did it for his serial European champion club Ajax. His name was Johan Cruyff, who was earlier christened the Golden Dutchman when he first moved to the Nou Camp.

But then no-one said he was the best ever, though they certainly might have been tempted to if they had forgotten about names like Pele and Di Stefano and Gento and Puskas and Best, Law and Charlton.

They might also have been cautioned by a new kid on the World Cup block the year Cruyff pulled his penalty ruse out of the hat. His name was Diego Maradona, who four years later was the king of the football world in Mexico City.


Real Madrid forward Francisco Gento in April 1969 (AFP/Getty Images)
Real Madrid forward Francisco Gento in April 1969 (AFP/Getty Images)

MSN is obviously a force for the ages, a merging of South American brilliance and, as exemplified by Suarez, some quite extreme cynicism.

But the best ever, the ultimate football combo? I'm sorry, I just can't buy your box of videos.

The problem is too much genius, too much competitive character, too much raw nerve and courage in the face of tackling which was more like physical assault and left Maradona, for one, on pain-killers for much of his career, gets in the way. The film may be grainier, jump around quite a bit, but then if you were lucky enough you might just have seen some of them in the flesh.

Here, for starters, are three football 'tridents' to ridicule Enrique's claim on behalf of MSN: Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Real Madrid; Pele, Tostao, Jairzinho, Brazil; and Best, Law and Charlton, Manchester United. Between them, Di Stefano, Puskas and Gento annexed the first five European Cups, and if the first two of them had wonderful statistics (Gento was the flying wide man), it was the regard of their peers which still tells the most significant story.

Puskas came late to the party, having first to extricate himself from the Hungarian revolution, but he finished with three European triumphs and this tribute from Bobby Charlton: "He was simply miraculous, he did things for Hungary and Real Madrid which you could hardly believe."

Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas (Zoltan Thaly Jr/AFP/Getty Images)
Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas (Zoltan Thaly Jr/AFP/Getty Images)

Included were 156 goals in 180 matches for Real, 352 for Honved in 341 games, and 84 in 85 for Hungary, the team which for a few years mesmerised all of World football. When Puskas ravaged England 6-3 at Wembley it was observed, "The England captain Billy Wright chased Puskas as urgently as a fire engine with all bells ringing but unfortunately he was going in the wrong direction."

But it was Di Stefano's aura which reached mystical levels. No-one was more captivated than the young Charlton, a travelling reserve for a European Cup semi-final at the Bernabeu. Many years later he recalled: "For me the impact of Di Stefano crossed all boundaries. I was simply riveted by his performance.

Pele, Georgie Best, Denis Law, Johan Cruyff, they would all make their claims to be the best talent I ever played with or against and it is an argument that could go on for ever but there was something unique about Di Stefano that night at the Bernabeu. He appeared to have everything worked out. He had the power and the skill and he knew every string to pull. I found myself asking, 'Who is this man who takes such control of a game. Who tells everybody what to do, who shapes everything'."

When Di Stefano was voted player of the 20th century by Ballon d'Or winners, the citation signed by Pele, Eusebio, Sandro Mazzola and John Charles declared that he was the most complete player in the history of football.

Many would make that claim on behalf of Pele, who four years after by being kicked out of the World Cup in England, won the prize for a third time in Mexico with performances which were breathtaking in both their brilliance and humble understanding of the team concept. Beside him Jairzinho was a prodigy of power and speed who scored in every game of the tournament. They were abetted by the endless subtlety of Tostao.


Best, Law and Charlton took English football to another level of poise and beauty and tigerish ambition in an age of brutal defence and all three were Ballon d'Or winners.

Cruyff, Johnny Rep and Piet Kaizer carried Holland to the World Cup final they should, but for a severe case of overweening self-belief, have won in Munich against Franz Beckenbauer's Germany.

Brazil's Ronaldo redeemed himself while winning his nation's fifth World Cup on a rainy night Yokohama in 2002 and the company he kept, Rivaldo and the young Ronaldinho, certainly claimed their place in the roll call of great attacking trios.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema, all £200m plus worth of them, may believe that under the great Zinedine Zidane, - who certainly had his moments when he formed a partnership with the other Ronaldo and the predatory Raul - they too will develop the claim they made in the Champions' League final when beating down the obdurate Atletico Madrid two years ago.

Meanwhile, MSN will surely continue to invade that space granted by the negligent memory of football today. Much of it will be dazzling, at least as far back as it goes.

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