After Javier Hernandez came off the bench for United—who were losing 2-0 to Aston Villa at Villa Park—and scored three goals giving them an unlikely win, Chicharito was asked leading questions about his almighty greatness, he responded: “The most important thing is the three points, it doesn’t matter who scored the goals, who’s the man of the match, the most important thing is that Manchester United are top of the league and we came back from 2-0 down and it’s a good result.”
For some reason, journalists seem obsessed over painting strikers as massive, near-psychopathic egotists. The Guardian for example has a story this morning with the headline, “Daniel Sturridge: I’d score 20 a season if Chelsea gave me a chance.” The point is to get the reader to scan it and think (or say) to themselves, ‘Sturridge, what a massive bellend.’
Except what in fact transpired was a reporter pointedly asking Sturridge whether he’d score 20 goals if started regularly for Chelsea, to which the striker replied:
“I’d hope so. It’s always difficult to say I’d score 20 goals a season. But if any player’s given a regular run then you’d hope that if they’re playing at a top club and given opportunities to score goals they’d be able to do that. I do believe I’m a centre-forward, I do believe I’d be able to help the team win games. Whether I can do that by scoring goals, making assists, just being there, being a physical presence – whatever I can do to help the team win I’ll try and do that.”
What would the Guardian headline writer have him say instead? “Probably not that high, I would say less than 10″? This is exactly what you’d want your second string striker to say. And yet he’s portrayed as out of touch with his own place in the pecking order.
That’s not the only example of character assassination today. Wilfried Zaha, the young Ivory Coast/England winger with Crystal Palace was the subject of a Telegraph piece with the headline, “Wilfried Zaha: I don’t think anyone is better than me – except Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.” So what did he actually say?
“I want to come up against defenders who will properly test me,” he says. “I’d never look at someone and think he’s better than me, unless it’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. When I get on the pitch it’s my time.”
The forward’s game is about mind-boggling skill and close control, all delivered at searing pace. Manchester United experienced it first-hand in a Carling Cup tie at Old Trafford last December, Fábio da Silva limping away clutching a strained hamstring and a bruised ego. Zaha had expected more of the full-back. “I was so nervous for that game,” he says. “But, as we stepped out, I thought I’m obviously here for a reason, so just go out and do what you normally do. I’ve not really come up against a defender yet where I’ve thought: ‘What can I really do to go past him?’
Which, unless you’re wilfully misreading his tone, comes across as a player trying to boost his self-confidence through positive reinforcement. He clearly believes in his own ability and wants a bigger challenge than he feels the Championship affords him. Cocky? Definitely. But in context, he’s not really in effect saying he’s only less good than Messi or Ronaldo.
Those La Liga strikers too seem to be the subject of one or another ‘ego in the balance’ pieces in Spain almost every week. The once untouchable Messi now gets flack for telling players where to go and when to pass. Ronaldo…well, not much to add to the discourse there.
This media obsession with ego seems almost entirely limited to strikers or forwards, which makes sense. Their position requires creativity and guile, and success is measured in goals, not successful pass completion rates or reliability in take-ons. You rarely hear playmakers asked if they can think they can beat Iniesta’s key pass rates, or defenders if they think they’re better than Vincent Kompany.
The football press loves them a good ego, hence the outsized attention Mario Balotelli receives each week regardless of what he actually does on the football pitch. The irony however is the days of the out-and-out forward are quickly receding. Modern strikers must drop deep, pass, and help out to defend, as Rooney’s slow transformation at Manchester United will attest. Even a player like Cristiano Ronaldo, who was once notorious at United for predictably beating full-backs, cutting in, and shooting when passing would have been better, has altered his game to reflect the ambition of his club, and in turn has achieved success at Real Madrid.
For now however, it’s still fun to paint forwards as ambitious pricks. Just don’t bother reading their words in full, though.