Yesterday evening, Paolo Bandini posed an interesting question on Twitter. In the context of Tim Tebow’s remarkable 4-1 record as starter for the Denver Broncos despite being patently unsuited for the role of NFL quarterback, Paolo asked for the best examples of similarly ungifted sportsmen achieving great things. My contribution to the debate, which seemed more considered than nominating David May and Djimi Traore for winning the Champions League, put forward Lleyton Hewitt and Claude Makelele.
In my ever so humble one, Hewitt and Makelele reached the pinnacle of their respective sports despite a glaring lack of talent. Hewitt through sheer heart and desire; Makelele by cementing the importance of a relatively new position to the game of football. The hapless David May was an unused substitute for Man United in 1999; and the ludicrous Traore’s anonymous ninety minutes on the pitch in Istanbul might have been a great moment but hardly constituted ‘great things’.
My argument for Lleyton Hewitt’s lack of innate expertise at tennis did not cause much controversy. However, the assertion that Makelele might not have been a gifted footballer caused contention and consternation in some quarters. After some intelligent comment in favour of Makelele’s giftedness, I thought it appropriate to use more than 140 characters to better describe my position.
Makelele anchored some of the great midfields on the continent during the 2000s: Real Madrid from 2000 until 2003; Chelsea from 2003 until 2008; and France throughout. He won 4 league titles in Spain and Italy, won a Champions League and played in a World Cup final. To pilfer a line from the eloquent Rob Smyth, Makelele carried the water so that the Galacticos could walk on it. The Frenchman was such an integral part of the Real Madrid team in the early part of the last decade that when he was sold they won nothing for the next four years. Integral? Definitely. Crucial? Yes. A pioneer, even? Possibly. But a gifted footballer? No.
While Makelele’s positioning was always peerless, his reading of the game unparalleled at the base of midfield and his appetite for the gritty side of the game unmatched – he was severely limited in many other critical aspects of midfield play, attributes usually associated with the genuinely gifted central midfielders of the last 15 years: Xavi, Scholes, Ballack, Pirlo et al.
Unwilling, nay unable, to play a telling forward pass; in possession of a mediocre first touch and completely devoid of the intangible ability to take a game by the throat and bend it to the power of his will – all true footballing gifts possessed by each of the afore-mentioned central midfielders, Makelele might have been a uniquely important player but one suffering from a drought of talent with a football at his feet. He achieved great things in the game despite being supremely ungifted; a living exponent of the potential of nurtured robotics instead of natural sporting ability.
The most vivid example that I can recall of Makelele’s limitations took place in France’s opening game of Euro 2008 against Romania. Patrolling the midfield with the similarly crab-like Jeremy Toulalan, Makelele was the most generous contributor to the stodgiest international performance in living memory. With Makelele hopelessly unable to prompt the French in the direction of the opposition goal, the dynamic attacking quartet of Ribery, Malouda, Anelka and Benzema were utterly starved of possession, and the spectators of the will to live.
In a similar vein and despite his undoubted defensive attributes, Makelele often struggled to turn the tide when his team were not on top in the game. Obviously, for the Galactico-era Real Madrid and Abramovich’s Chelsea these were rare occurrences. The European Cup final of 2008 was one such notable occasion, Makelele toiling woefully to exert any influence of proceedings in the first half and get to grips with his direct opponent: Paul Scholes.
Another example of this was during the France England match in Euro 2004 when that most derided of central midfield partnerships – Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard – totally swamped Makelele and Patrick Vieira for 85 minutes with only Gerrard’s penchant for suicidal backpasses denying England a draw on the night and victory in the group.
Makelele’s contribution to modern football has been fundamental – if perhaps the reason that so much of the game in this era is stifled by negativity. It may be telling, that in a generation when every single elite team plays with a man, or even two, in the Makelele position that it is Barcelona who currently produce unquestionably the most beautiful football with a player in the shape of Sergio Busquets who reads the game as well as Makelele ever did, and combines that with a sublime array of passing, movement and strategic thrust in that most pivotal position of the 21st century.