Two men ruled over the football pitch over the last decade and a half. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Perhaps, they also oversaw a transition in the psychology of fandom. Something which was fuelled by an increasingly individualistic, if even self-obsessed, mindset of a new generation. This meant superstar players started being supported at a level, not matched by the teams they played for. The individual allure began to trump the group vibe. The result? Inane headlines across leading news channels along the lines of: “Messi and Argentina win the World Cup”. Ponder the order of those words for a minute.
But clearly, both these giants of the game are in the twilight of their careers. The torch is ready to be passed on.
So who might be the new pretenders to this throne?
Most experts suggest two names: Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe. I would add another to the mix, Vinicius Jr.
The first two made explosive starts to their careers.
Erling Haaland was knocking in goals for fun at Red Bull Salzburg and Dortmund already. But his first season at Manchester City has been truly sensational! There are very few, if any at all, who have adapted to the rough and tumble of the grind that is the EPL with such alacrity and aplomb. He is simply a goal machine.
Obsessed with seeing the ball cross the line one way or the other. While the other two, might be more inclined towards ‘the perfect goal’, Haaland is like a fanatical collector of them in any shape of form. Head, foot, shoulder, toe, deflection, scuffed shot, lucky break. He does not care. He just wants to bag them. Expect scoring records to fall over time. He is truly likely to be the ‘goal’den boy.
And if he wins the treble with Manchester City this year, his credentials for a long term reign might just be off to a great start. What might perhaps undermine his eventual status as an all-time legend is his being part of a national team (Norway), unlikely to go far at major national competitions.
Kylian Mbappe is probably ahead in this race right now. Already a World Cup winner, he has twelve goals in a mere two appearances in the competition. Looks odds on to emerge as the highest goal scorer in that competition. But there is more to his game. When on song, he is, at present, the most difficult player in the world to face for defenders. With a turn of pace more electrifying that your last energy bill, Mbappe frightens defenders like no other player. He also has a great skill set with the ball at his feet, and an eye for goal.
The missing piece in his trophy cabinet is the Champions League, the Holy Grail of club football. What holds him back is his seemingly immature behavior at times, especially when it comes to the question of who gets top billing. But over time, and with the right people around him, it is staggering to contemplate what he could achieve, both at club and country level.
Till a few years ago, it would have been difficult to put Vinicius Jr. in this elite group. While he arrived at Real Madrid very early on, as the next ‘big thing’, his performances failed to inspire. The tendency of hanging on to the ball a bit too long. His inclination to make bad passing decisions, and a lack of composure in front of goal, all undermined his progress. However, over the last couple of years, he has come on in leaps and bounds. Forging an excellent understanding with his striking partner-Benzema, he has become the cutting edge of the Real Madrid side.
Vinicius is a bag of tricks, who, when on song, can be an absolute nightmare for defenders. Him scoring the winning goals in last year’s Champions League Final also must have surely bolstered his confidence, about stepping up at the big stages. Plus, he is part of the Brazilian national team; perennial favorites at any World Cup, though that brings immense additional pressure as well. Vinicius is lagging the first two, but if he helps Real Madrid to another Champions League this season, he just might make up significant ground on that front.
To be honest, I would also like to see other young players mentioned in such conversations. Midfield wizards like Kimmich and Bellingham. Goalkeeping ‘Goliaths in the making’ like Donnarumma and Ederson. And cultured defenders like De Light and Saliba. But the media is clear where and on who the cameras will focus on these days.
What we can only do is sit back and enjoy these contenders display their wares over the next few years. It certainly is going to be an interesting ride.
(Vinay Kanchan is the author of ‘Sportivity’, ‘Lessons from the Playground’ & ‘The Madness Starts at 9’. He is the patron saint of Juhu Beach United, a footballing movement which celebrates the ‘unfit, out-of-breath working person of today’.)