Valdano: “We’re seeing a Messi with greater influence - not just in terms of football”
Jorge Valdano won the World Cup with Argentina in 1986. He analysed Sunday’s final and the battle between Messi and Mbappé.
Jorge Valdano knows how it feels to win the World Cup. He was crowed a world champion with Argentina in 1986, scoring in the final against West Germany. Now he will be watching his compatriots compete to lift the trophy in tonight’s final against France - a contest between two of the game’s great players, and club team mates, Messi and Mbappé.
What do you think of the final? Have the best two teams made it to the final?
They are two of the favourites out of the several team tipped to win it. Perhaps the teams that made the strongest case in the earlier rounds were England and Brazil, but these are worthy finalists too. They had mishaps along the way. Neither of them reached the final unbeaten. But their defeats were unusual in some ways - France lost with a team of mainly substitutes, Argentina lost a match they were expected to win.
How did Argentina recover from that horrible setback against Saudi Arabia?
That defeat had very positive effects on the team’s conduct. It united the players and made them aware that they were going to have to work harder. The coach discovered surprising players like Enzo, Mac Allister, Julián... players who gave him another dynamic, more security with the ball. And finally, after quite a rough ride, because, except for Croatia, Argentina had a hard time in every game, the best Messi popped up.
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What else can be said about Messi? We are running out of words...
It is very difficult to find words. I remember that in the late 1970s, a Brazilian journalist whom I greatly admire said about Pelé: “Writing is my livelihood, but where are the words to describe him!” With Messi there is a kind of literary contest to see who can best describe him as the star figure of the tournament. It is very difficult because he has decided to synthesize football. The same thing happened with Maradona, 10 seconds are enough for him to tell us what this game is all about.
Are we witnessing another Messi or have we seen two different Messis in one throughout his career?
He is a genius, but a thousand matches give genius wisdom. One fine day he went from playing as a right winger to false No.9 and kickstarted a revolution at the Bernabéu. For what we are seeing now, other things needed to happen. It wasn’t a coach who decided that Leo needed to transform himself - it was decided by time. Over time, his energy was being sapped and he had to adapt to a more rhythmic football, a more pedestrian style, but just as influential. Above all, in a team that knows how to play with a genius - and that is not easy.
Is Messi a challenge to modern football?
Totally. A serious challenge, too. A challenge that football will end up losing. Even Messi cannot constantly adapt to the trends in the modern game. And besides, he doesn’t have that much time left to tell us that this game can also be played by running a little less. Intensity has taken over football then all of a sudden a revolution is started by a guy who strolls around the pitch.
Do you think he deserves a World Cup for the career he has had, or is that a bit too romantic for the reality of football?
Many people say it. I have heard Mauro Silva say that and if a Brazilian says it, that means that millions of people must say it. If there was divine justice, Messi would deserve to lift this trophy. But I say that out of pure emotion, there are other emotions that are contrary to mine and they also count. And divine justice is one thing, it doesn’t happen that often...
Argentina will be up against France - and especially Mbappé, another scandalous player...
Yes, Mbappé is a different beast, almost antagonistic. There we have the demonstration that power is taking over football. For the trend to give us a slap in the face, only Haaland was missing at the party (laughs). He shows us another way of how to be a fascinating player. Football has a way of discovering original talents - players of the like we haven’t seen before and who are imposing themselves in a big way. Who can argue with Mbappé?
He plays at a different speed. He’s like an earthquake on the run.
And he also has patience to wait for his moment. In terms of athletic strength, he is impressive. It is not the same as what Bochini said about Cruyff: “He runs a lot but plays well...”. This one runs fast but plays well.
And then there is Griezmann, who has gone from being a No.11 to being a No.10 and now he is an all-rounder. Is it turning out to be a World Cup of playmakers rather than finishers?
What I’m seeing is the midfielder who Sacchi described as half a player has now become a player and a half. Now it’s Griezmann, Modric, Bellingham... players with an enormous presence who bring both quality and quantity. Those kinds of players are now having a very big influence on football. They have a lot of involvement and with so many interventions - most of them come off well and many of them unbalance the rival, and that is an asset for any team.
In this change of trend in the game the reason why Spain fell by the wayside... Have they become victims of their own style?
I still consider tiki-taca as the base of our game. And I say our game... Now we are seeing very athletic brand of football against which Spain cannot compete on equal terms. You can compete with technique. Now, the tiki-taca helps you cover 75 metres of the field and Spain does it better than anyone. But the last 25 metres is a different story. That’s why Mbappé and Messi are both in the final. Much of it depends on the generation of players that is emerging , but I think that if we do not have players who are decisive in the last few metres, you cannot just give up and carry on with plan A. If things do not go smoothly according to the magic formula, there is no need to give up. You have to find other ways.
Even the Dutch school changed with Van Gaal, the three central defenders, dropping back when they lose possession...
Yes, Van Gaal’s tactics have been discussed quite a lot, even in the Netherlands they accuse him of catenaccio, it seems to me that it is exaggerated, but this is a style football in which there is a real fight for space - there is a less and less space. Van Gaal said: “If I can’t find space at the back, why don’t I try to find it further upfield?” He took out two giants and ended up causing Argentina all kinds of problems. That’s what I mean by not resigning.
Is Real Madrid a good example of how to be a chameleon?
In a combinative game, winning is important. I am as guilty as anyone about exaggerating the beautiful game, but football is not only beauty; it is passion, it is madness… It has many ingredients. And for that you have to learn from Madrid. All the ingredients are valid.
Even Guardiola signed Haaland, a physical marvel, a radical change from his style guide...
Yes, and he is adding variants to his tiki-taca formula - the full-back turns into a midfielder, he plays with a false No.9... or with two forwards. And now he is going to have to seriously count on Julián [Álvarez]. We assume that some players gain a different status after a World Cup and Julián is a clear example of that.
You were crowned world champion in 1986, are all the feelings and memories flooding back?
Emotion has a very good memory. I remember absolutely everything. I remember the wait, the game, the talks I had with team mates, with referees, that’s why I say that today we are playing a game that lasts a lifetime. Furthermore, by coming face to face with the past and the future, this game will go down in history.
Can you compare Maradona of Mexico 86 with Messi in 2022?
Messi learned how to be happy. That reserved guy who always kept everything inside, has now started to let it all out. And that has allowed us to see a more liberated player. That was what most distinguished Messi from Maradona. There is still distance between the two of course. Messi glaring at someone and saying, “What are you staring at? get lost, idiot!” as barking, “Sons of bitches” to an entire stadium like Maradona did (laughs)… We are seeing a different Messi, without a doubt, one that is much more influential.
How do these guys handle the pressure of a final?
Maradona slept just the same! I couldn’t believe it because it was very difficult for me to fall sleep. Diego knew that he was not expected just to play - he was expected to win the match. On his own if need be. And yet they have so much self-confidence, they handle the pomp and fanfare in such a way that it doesn’t seem to affect them. They don’t wait around for it worrying, they wait for it with happiness.
The first World Cup without Diego could be the first for Messi...
Yes… And Pelé's health has also been a concern for everyone. It is good that football has memory, that Maradona is honored with the fact that Argentina is in the final, that we have remembered Pelé, one of the great names in history. It’s nice.
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