Winners need a devil in the detail

See no evil: Like Jesus, Lionel Messi lacks the simple, cold-hearted gene the author argues is required to operate at his best during these high-stakes games. Now Cristiano Ronaldo, however, has plenty of World Cup Evil. (Mladen Antonov/AFP)

See no evil: Like Jesus, Lionel Messi lacks the simple, cold-hearted gene the author argues is required to operate at his best during these high-stakes games. Now Cristiano Ronaldo, however, has plenty of World Cup Evil. (Mladen Antonov/AFP)

At the World Cup, evil is good. Let’s qualify that: actual violence or depravity is not necessary for a footballer to dominate on the world’s greatest stage. What is necessary is a bad attitude — an amoral imagination that stops just short of smoking-gun criminality.

The cliché is that the superstars are fuelled by their “passion” for the game.
But ordinary, honest passion is a recipe for mistakes. Most players who boss the show at World Cups possess a cold, emotional toughness, a relentless will to power and a Machiavellian eye for the psychological weaknesses in their opponents. Let’s call it World Cup Evil (WCE). It’s a bit like Big Match Temperament (BMT), but nastier.

You can often see this quality in a player’s face, sometimes even more plainly than in his actions on the pitch. For example, Mo Salah doesn’t have WCE, whereas Diego Costa does.

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Just look at Salah. He looks like a poet whose girlfriend has dumped him because he can’t get over the death of his pet gecko. Look at Costa; he has the face of a man who has killed several people with his bare hands and isn’t worried about it.

WCE is only loosely correlated to pure football ability. Even Leo Messi, the world’s greatest player, doesn’t really have it — or at least, not enough of it, on the evidence of his majestically freaked-out performance against Iceland.

The penalty kick is always a telling psychological test, and Messi’s patchy record from the spot was exhaustively researched by the Icelandic goalkeeper, Hannes Halldorsson. “I looked at a lot of penalties from Messi and wanted to get into his mind and what he would think about me.” Halldorsson wouldn’t give away any more than that, but it’s generally accepted that Messi’s matchless technical prowess has tempted him into mixing it up too much when he takes spot kicks.

Messi loves to surprise, to adapt to the situation and the opponent — but that requires decisions, and decisions trigger anxiety, and anxiety invites calamity. If Messi slammed each penalty into the top right corner, he would scarcely ever miss. But that would be too simple, too cold, too evil. By contrast, Cristiano Ronaldo has WCE in spades. His particular strain is not so much a cunning mentality as a sort of psychopathic egomania. Ronaldo flatly refuses to accept the possibility of his own imperfection. That’s a horrible quality in a person, but it’s a great quality in a football deity who has enough talent to sustain the fantasy of perfection. Hence, he claims the divine right to take every free kick in a dangerous position that his team wins — even if a teammate has a superior free-kick conversion rate. CR7 even struggles to accept a historic victory that he hasn’t personally secured; witness his hilarious sulkiness amid Real Madrid’s post-match celebrations in Kiev last month, after Gareth Bale’s heroics had cruelly upstaged him.

Ronaldo’s fate in Russia will hinge on whether his Portugal teammates are savvy and nasty enough to keep up with him, just as Messi is at the mercy of his own comrades.

All of which brings us to a politically indelicate question: Do some footballing countries possess more WCE per capita than others? Why do Iceland (population 300 000) and Uruguay (population 3.4-million) field such mighty and streetwise teams with such scant human resources?

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And why do some big countries with millions of young footballers and ample investment in development — think England, the Netherlands, the United States, even South Africa — field national teams who are notorious for folding under pressure?

All those case studies are devilishly complex, but one thing’s for sure: every football culture needs some devil in its detail. Pure ability is a lovely thing, but you never overcome the odds without knowing how to deceive, intimidate, provoke, insult and disrupt.

Sadly, African teams don’t have a strong tradition on the evil front. Cameroon were a tough and cynical outfit back in 1990, and so were Senegal in 2002. But those campaigns aside, the African challenge has generally been far too honest for its own good. So, it was good to see a bit of cold-eyed wickedness in Senegal’s victory over Poland: M’Baye Niang’s scavenging instinct was impressive when he pounced on a wildly unpredictable Polish back pass to net the winner.

That said, his fellow Teranga Lion Ismaïla Sarr should probably stop diving so blatantly in the opposition box. His efforts were noble and tireless, but they were never going to be rewarded in the age of video-assisted refereeing. Even so, it’s the thought that counts.

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