When does football become art? When Messi plays. Or any great player.
Football, at its finest, is an incredible thing to watch. They call it the beautiful game for a reason. It’s beautiful to see a team play from the back, put 15 or 20 passes together, and find a way of carving open the opposition. Or an exquisite finish. Or Messi being trapped by four players and somehow having this incredible special awareness, this 360-degree vision, to play his way out.
It’s something that even a player like me, who played most of his career at the top level, couldn’t do in a month of Sundays. He’ll do three or four things in a game that I didn’t do once in a career. It takes the game to another level. That’s when it’s beautiful. That’s when it becomes art.
Platini was a beautiful player to watch. Zidane – talk about artistic. The way he’d bring a ball down from the sky, this big frame that was just so graceful, like a ballet dancer.
Maradona as he jinked past players. When he scored against England in 1986 – not the one he punched, the other one – is the one time I felt I should applaud the opposition. I didn’t, obviously, but it was an incredible piece of artistry.
These players bring more than just goals or passes, they bring something that’s kind of incomprehensible to ordinary footballers. I mean ordinary by comparison: even those who have played at the very highest level. Watching the absolute greats of the game is quite something to behold. And that’s what you hope for in a World Cup. You’re looking for that grace, who’s going to be the next artist, the next conjurer, the next great player.
Playing alongside them will always lift your game, unless you let the inferiority destroy your confidence. Playing with Messi is a lot easier than playing with Andy Carroll, or me. Nothing against Andy Carroll. Messi will see you in positions that ordinary mortals never will.
Like art, football stirs feelings – there’s nothing like when your team score, that explosion of emotion. It’s to do with the value of a goal in football. It’s not like basketball or rugby where scores are so frequent they don’t mean as much. In football, it’s generally a huge moment.
It’s multiplied when you score. If your team have a massive game, and they score in the last minute to win – it’s like that times 20, because it’s you. It’s an explosion of joy and relief.
In the World Cup semi-final against Germany in 1990, equalising when you’re 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go, there’s that immediate sense of joy – the fact that it’s you who’s scored a goal that will go down in history, and relief that you’re back in the match. It’s sheer, unbridled joy.
But football is bigger than that moment. It’s the world game, played on every corner, in every country. People talk about the security concerns of going to Russia, but football can bring people together. Players of all colours and ethnicities are going to an area where we’ve seen issues with racism. Hopefully it can make a difference.
Let’s look at football positively, the change it can make. It’s done that in so many parts of the world, including this country. In the Seventies and Eighties, when I played, it was awful. The racism was disgusting, it was everywhere. People were throwing bananas on the pitch.
I remember John Barnes being accosted by two England fans saying he shouldn’t be allowed to wear the shirt. Now, every dressing room has a mix of people from different cultures, different parts of the world. People don’t say, “He’s black.” They say, “He’s a good player.”
Sometimes we don’t give football credit for that. It’s one of the great things about our game.