Watching live as Haaland, Bellingham and Mbappé fluffed their lines was exhilarating | Barney Ronay

Estimated read time 7 min read

This week I travelled 3,000 miles to watch the three best footballers in the world so you didn’t have to. All three of them were terrible. And it was great.

The Champions League quarter-finals were great. The early morning budget airline flights worked. All four teams were excellent in different ways. Just being allowed to report on Real Madrid v Manchester City, followed by Paris Saint-Germain v Barcelona the next day, walking through those city spaces while four sets of fans had a moment in the spring sunshine was a privilege, and a reminder of the many good things that are still there – warmth, collectivism, open borders – all of this only slightly overshadowed by Islamic State saying it wanted to machine-gun everyone.

Without meaning to sound like some kind of best-life-living Instagram douchebag, on Wednesday I had a ham sandwich in Madrid for breakfast, then a salami baguette in Paris for lunch. I felt like General Patton rampaging across Europe. Or like a good Hitler. Hitler in sandwiches. Hitler, but with a dominant interest in elite European club football. Or not like Hitler at all. It was good – and Hitler had nothing to do with it. Stop talking about Hitler.

Mainly the two games were confirmation that for all its failings, the sense of an industry that is now overripe, stretched thin by greed and power, the product at the centre is still brilliant. Perhaps when European football has finally eaten itself the last quarter-century will come to be seen as a version of Hollywood’s golden age, that founding beauty and energy still there, with just enough of the poison and greed and toxins to create a luminous, captivating, weirdly uncontrolled spectacle.

The 3-3 in Madrid and the 2-3 in Paris were both breathtaking at times. In many ways they were better because Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham and Kylian Mbappé, voted numbers one, two and three in the Guardian’s poll of the top 100 male footballers in the world a few months back, all had genuine stinkers.

This is not a criticism. They’re all still obviously brilliant players. They will, no doubt, be brilliant again next week, or in Haaland’s case numerically notable. The point is that all three were bad for good reasons. Their flaws, because even super-talented humans have flaws, were a key part of the spectacle, and indeed a handy reminder of something quite important.

Bellingham was bad in a subtle way. He was involved but also ineffectual, a weird combination. Rúben Dias generated a distracting beef. Bellingham struggled with the fact he wasn’t affecting the game. He became petulant and whingy. He looked callow.

Understandably so. It is extremely difficult to make up the game on the hoof against the best team in the world. It’s right that this should be hard for a 20-year-old. Bellingham has amazing attributes. No doubt he will learn quickly. But that process isn’t finished. The game is more difficult than this, the pleasure of seeing someone succeed at this level more complex. This is all good stuff.

Jude Bellingham is held off by Rúben Dias as John Stones watches on during Real Madrid’s draw with Manchester CityView image in fullscreen

Haaland was simply an absence, but an interesting one. He struggles in big games against good teams. And yes he has to be tightly marked for this to happen, thereby “occupying” a central defender, as he was at the Bernabéu where his contribution resembled a footballing remake of Weekend at Bernie’s, Madrid’s centre-halves taking it in turns to march this sky blue cadaver about the pitch in a full body embrace.

There is an argument that City just aren’t a good fit for showing the best of Haaland as a footballer, given his one really outstanding quality is his mobility and running power. Where is he going to run to in a team that crowds an entire game into the opposition’s defensive third? In games like this he can look like thin gruel, an essentially uninteresting footballer. His game, his legend, is defined entirely by numbers, by repetition of the same skill. It is surely a good thing that he will need to develop other gears against the very best, that to be great you need a bit more than this.

Mbappé had an off night in Paris. Barcelona defended really well on his side. He basically stood about while a brilliant game took place around him. Maybe there was a lesson in this. His career has been a one-man psychodrama over the past two years. Like Paris itself Mbappé has spent a lot of that time surrounded by farmers (a joke: Ligue 1 is full of youth and energy). But even a generational talent needs to be pushed hard. Again, this is good not bad. The flaws are part of the beauty. It should feel hard.

The point I’m getting at here is that we were in many ways misled by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, by the unclosing hand of their brilliance, by the black swan event of two such players existing at the same time. Messi is the greatest footballer ever. He just is. Let’s not talk about it. Ronaldo is also an all-time phenomenon. It was an accident of talent and conditions that they could dominate so relentlessly and for so long.

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It has also warped the discourse. Broadcasters loved the star-system dynamic. Merchandising and sponsorship loved it. The internet loved Goat-culture. A generation of football consumers emerged knowing only this. And that machinery is still in place. God may be dead, but the need to worship remains. Just as Britain feels the need to have a king because the structures of kingdom exist, not because some bald dude from west London is, like, just a really exceptional guy. So it is with football.

The muscle memory is still there. Star worship, celebrity fawning, supporting a player as much as a team is baked into the way the sport is presented. Everyone’s a starboy now. To like player X is to revile player Y, who must naturally be considered a fraud. Fan culture becomes fandom culture.

This isn’t very good for anyone. It’s clearly not good for the players to experience such violent extremes of reverence and scrutiny, a strange kind of torture by privilege. Jadon Sancho, to give only one example, has clearly had a very tough time trying to manage those forces. We will surely hear more in time about the unhappiness of elite footballers in this period.

It is also a great way of missing the beauty. The general standard is thrillingly high at the elite level, a consequence of money and talent hoarding, but still true all the same. Oh look there’s Frenkie de Jong, still apparently made out made of feathers and space dust. Here is Luka Modric, bouncing about at beachball speed these days, but still a giant floating mobile brain.

This is why Tuesday and Wednesday were so good, rare collisions of teams stacked equally with talent, a little chaotic in patches, but always producing sparks. Reducing this thing to an act of star worship or individualism really is to miss the roses at your feet.


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