“The other day it was clear that Spain lacked Messi,” Riquelme told ESPN, “Spain do not have Messi and Argentina do not play like Barcelona. We have the best player in the world, but we must find a way to play him, otherwise we will not win anything.”
Having the greatest player in the world is, most of the time, a really good thing for your team. If it’s pick-up basketball and you have the six-six guy with a good inside game, you lob it down low to him every time. And you probably win most games. In backyard tackle football, you’ll need to ban kick-offs if one team has a six-two two-hundred pound track star who will receive the kick and break ten tackles on the way to the opposing end zone.
On the pro level, it’s not that easy. We wouldn’t watch if it was. Jordan’s Bulls won six championships, but there’s still a fairly healthy debate over whether or not Jordan would have been Jordan without his coach and supporting cast. The Yankees have won twenty-something titles, but only a few of those since the Steinbrenner family decided to start cherrypicking the top talents in baseball (which, to my knowledge, was circa 2000). The analogies in football are probably the most apt: whether it’s Marino, Manning, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, or whoever, the greatest talents often don’t come with Super Bowls. To put it concisely: on the pro level, having the best player in the world on your team does not guarantee you’ll win championships. Why is this?
Sometime in the early 2000s, ESPN columnist Bill Simmons unveiled a paradox he called the Ewing Theory (he attributed it to his friend Dave Cirrilli, tracing it’s heritage to the mid 90s). If you’re familiar with it, just skip to the next paragraph. If you aren’t, the name comes from the idea that Patrick Ewing’s teams (the Knicks and Georgetown) consistently underperformed because they were too dependent on Ewing’s (admittedly formidable) talents. The phenomena was put to the ultimate test in the 1999 playoffs when Ewing tore an Achilles heel in the second round of the playoffs against Indiana. He was the Knicks’ best player, and the Pacers were no pushovers. What should have happened was an easy series win for Reggie Miller and crew and a trip to San Antonio for a showdown with the Admiral and little Timmy Duncan. What actually happened was a hard-fought upset for the Knicks and a tough loss in the Finals against the Spurs. Ewing was the Knicks’ best player. There’s no way they should have done that well.
The Ewing Theory describes a fairly common sense sports reality that having the best player in a given sport on your team can lead to an absurd amount of attention from both his teammates and his opposition, the overwhelming gravity of such attention sucking the potential for a given side into a realm of relative mediocrity. I’m probably not blowing your mind by pointing out that it’s only very rarely that individuals win championships in team sports. So why is anyone surprised that Argentina continue to underperform on the international level despite having not just Messi, but a scary cadre of attacking talents? I shouldn’t be causing you to run Twitter-side in outrage at the idea that Messi in his prime is not helping Argentina (we could have a similar conversation about Cristiano Ronaldo at Portugal, but we won’t).
OK, let’s back up a bit. Before we assess the complexity of Messi playing for Argentina, let’s take a look at the tenets of the theory combined with previous examples in soccer history where you could apply it. Simmons says that for the Ewing Theory to be applicable, you need two conditions (taken directly from “Ewing Theory 101” on the ESPN Page 2 website):
- A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
- That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement) — and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
Simmons posited the theory for use in American sports. Let’s frame it in terms of international football’s (arguable, of course) three biggest stars: Pele, Cruyff, and Maradona. Pele won his first World Cup in 1958, crashing the scene with his exuberance and flair. No Ewing Theory there, because he wasn’t really known at that point, and he played the entire tournament. 1962: Pele injures himself in the first round against Czechoslovakia. That satisfies criteria two (mostly). Was he receiving an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest? After his first World Cup, you’d have to think so (as much as it was possible back then).
Alright then, we have Ewing Theory. What goes on to happen? Owing to the all around excellence of Garrincha and the rest of the Selecao, Brazil win their second consecutive World Cup. Practically speaking, this is a perfect example of the Ewing Theory, with one exception. With the amount of quality on those 60s Brazil teams, it’s hard to truly evaluate whether or not they needed to be dependent on Pele (the same way it’s hard to evaluate whether Barcelona now needs to be dependent on Messi). In other words, it’s not a stretch to imagine Brazil winning in 1962 whether or not Pele is injured. Take 1966, when Pele gets injured yet again. Brazil flames out in the first round. Why? An aging side on which Pele was, in fact, crucial to success? The rest of the world caught up and caught on to the samba style? It’s difficult to to pin down. Either way, 1966 doesn’t fall in Ewing Theory territory. Nor does 1970, Pele’s crowning glory. He was healthy the whole time, they win (permanently) the Jules Rimet trophy and that team goes down in history as one of the best ever.
So Pele isn’t perhaps the best example of what’s going on with Messi and Argentina. Those Brazil teams were more like Barcelona than Argentina today. What about Cruyff? He led Holland to the final in 1974, and after winning the first penalty, was more or less marked out of existence by Berti Vogts. This was the peak of Total Football, Cruyff’s prime. There is a sense that Holland were too reliant on Cruyff for production in that game, and that’s why they were unable to score past the first minute (keep in mind that the Dutch had beaten Argentina, East Germany, and Brazil by the combined score of 8-0 in the previous three rounds); but there isn’t any Ewing Theory possibilities. What happens next World Cup? For several complex(ish) reasons, he doesn’t play. What do the Dutch do without their best player? Make it to the World Cup final yet again. Here’s another fairly clear Ewing Theory in which both criteria are satisfied. Do Holland do any better if Cruyff plays? Maybe, maybe not. You’d have to think that if West Germany could figure out a way to limit Cruyff in such an important situation, Argentina would have as well. Nonetheless, Cruyff’s situation is perhaps the clearest Ewing Theory predecessor for Messi yet.
What about Messi’s direct ancestor predecessor, El Diego? He was a non-factor (mostly) in 1982, but he absolutely ran train in 1986. Whether or not you want to say that he won that World Cup on his own, he was absolutely the best player on the pitch, and literally won the quarterfinal using his own two hands and feet. No Ewing Theory there. Maradona was hampered by an ankle injury in 1990, but he still played the entire tournament. Argentina are beaten 1-0 by West Germany after inching into the final by the closest of margins (they won the previous two rounds by penalty kicks). No Ewing Theory there either, because criteria two isn’t satisfied. If you widen the lens to include the Copa America, however, you see that Argentina won two straight in 1991 and 1993, both without Maradona. Not only did they not win the Copa at any point with Maradona, they hadn’t won the competition at all since 1959. At this point, the Ewing Theory parallel should be pretty obvious. Maradona was the most famous player in the world at that point, and he more or less retired from international action after the loss in 1990 (with the exception of the 1994 World Cup steroids thing, but we’ll just try to forget about that). Instead of going into a post-Maradona sterile funk, Argentina win the next two international competitions they play in. Having the icon, the-guy-you-need-to-give-the-ball-to off the field meant that Argentina were free to utilize the talents of Leonardo Rodriguez, Sergio Goycochea, Gabriel Batitusta and others. Ding ding ding.
Before we move any further, a caution: It’s difficult to assess the viability of these psychological theories on the international stage because of the relative sparseness of the games. Take Maradona. Can you truly assess how Argentina fared when he retired by looking at the 1998 World Cup? By that time, Argentina (in theory) could have rejigged their entire formation and personnel. They could have gotten over the whole post-Maradona malaise. Same with Holland in 1978–if they knew Cruyff wasn’t playing going into the tournament, they could have made several adjustments which allowed them to progress to the final, which say nothing about how dependent they were on him. There are also other large psychological theories at work, most notably the Barcelona-Spain nations-do-well-that-play-on-the-same-club-team theory. All that to say, the Ewing Theory was formulated on the basis of American sports which play every other day or every week. Trying to apply it to international soccer might cause heretofore unknown complications.
Alright. Is Messi keeping Argentina from winning trophies? Messi has performed reasonably well in pretty much every international competition he’s played in since he became Messi. He was instrumental in winning the 2008 Olympics, but honestly, the dynamics of the game are all weird because of the age rules and who does and doesn’t send in teams. Other than that, Argentina don’t have any hardware to their name since Messi’s debut with the senior team in 2005. That’s a span of six years, two Copa Americas, and two World Cups. He was barely a factor in the 2006 World Cup, but was very good (several assists and a few goals) in the 2007 Copa. Argentina lost in the final 3-0 to Brazil. The 2010 World Cup is a weird situation. On the one hand, Argentina didn’t do that badly (a quarter-final loss to a very good German team). They also would have probably lost to Spain anyways. But that brings up an important point: why did they lose so badly to Germany, why would they have eventually lost to Spain? On paper, they are as talented as any team in the world. Messi, Higuain, Tevez, and Aguero, a midfield featuring Cambiasso, Di Maria, Mascherano, Javier Pastore? Even their defenders and keepers start for big time European clubs, so it’s not like a shoddy defense is the issue. Tactically, I don’t have an answer–I’m not fellow O87 writer Eric Betts.
Regardless, four coachs in five years haven’t been able to figure it out. That’s another surprising aspect of the situation: why can’t four guys who are professionally trained coaches (Maradona not withstanding) figure out a way to take a scary-talented nation of footballers and put them in a formation that causes them to beat the teams they are supposed to beat? It’s not simple, but I think there’s an explanation–Reverse Ewing Theory. Ewing Theory posits that a team with a superstar will sometimes play better without him or her because of over-dependence; Reverse Ewing Theory goes further and suggests that having a superstar actually hurts a team’s chances of winning a championship. Again, it comes down to dependence. If all the players and coaches are relying (even unconsciously) on Messi to just be Messi and score an absurd amount of goals, opposing defences have it too easy. Limit Messi and there’s no plan B. The other nine guys out there will be handcuffed by the idea that Messi needs to create goals for him. It sounds like a nebulous or iffy explanation, but it absolutely works in practice. The fact that Barcelona have been owning for the last four or so years has a lot to do with Messi, but even more to do with the other nine guys around him. Case in point, Iniesta’s goal against Chelsea to send Barca through to the final in 2009.
Riquelme puts it best in the quote at the top of this article. Argentina aren’t Barcelona, and can’t be. There’s no way for me to know if Argentina’s coaches just suppose that Messi will reproduce his form on the national level, but the results would seem to suggest that. The question isn’t whether Argentina are overreliant on Messi. It’s natural to expect the best player in the world to win games for you. The question that I have, and the point of this essay, is not whether Argentina are overreliant on Messi, but whether they would fare better without him. Barcelona were Barcelona before Messi was Messi. Puyol, Xavi, Ronaldinho and crew won the UCL in 2006 before Messi started scoring more than James Franco after Spiderman. It’s like adding Randy Moss to the Patriots in 2008 or having Jon Hamm guest star on 30 Rock. If you’re driving a Ferrari, adding XM radio will only make it better. You see where I’m going. International football doesn’t really work like that, at least not in Argentina’s case. Argentina haven’t really made a mark on the international level since Maradona retired (other than the couple of Copa Americas with Batitusta in the immediate aftermath of his retirement). There’s little in the history of soccer to suggest that one man, even with the prodigious talents of Messi, can win a championship for an entire country (yes, yes…Maradona. But a) he got lucky, and b) that team was really good even without him, as I’ve pointed out several times).
The one major unknown in the entire situation is what Argentina would look like if Messi weren’t on the pitch (again, I’m only evaluating important international competitions, not silly friendlies). God forbid the little Argentine get injured, but I would be interested to see how Argentina would act if he wasn’t an option. History suggests Argentina might not do that badly. I’m not suggesting Messi retire from international football, or even that he take a break. But if I were an Argentinian manager, I would start formulating game strategies where he isn’t the focal point. Put him back on the wing, where he can work his magic without being the center of every attacking move. Maybe that’s the best way to play Messi: As though he weren’t there.