Why do footballers have to come to England to be appreciated?
Edinson Cavani is merely the latest in a long line of outstanding talents to fall victim of Britain's insular footballing opinions
‘Elite’ doesn’t come close to cutting it as a description of Edinson Cavani’s movement, a symphony in the art of the rise, fall and occasional inertia that makes the 33-year-old a world-class exponent of modern forward play.
The Manchester United No.7’s first-half header in last weekend’s 3-3 draw with Everton, his sixth of goal of the season, was classic Cavani – a feint to make for the front post, before spinning off Michael Keane to the space between the centre-back and right-back Mason Holgate at the far. Cavani’s nickname is the Matador, not just because he’s lethal in the penalty area, but because his adroit sidesteps and appreciation of space have their genesis in Corridas de Toros, themselves an inspiration for the Pasodoble dance.
Former United players-turned-pundits Gary Neville and Rio Ferdinand have lined up to praise Cavani’s impact at Old Trafford. When the former Paris Saint-Germain forward joined on a free transfer in October, however, the queue was altogether smaller.
“They signed a 33-year-old striker on deadline day that everybody knows has been available all year on a free transfer in Edinson Cavani,” said Graham Souness in late-October. “It was like a re-run of the late loan deal for Odion Ighalo last season.”
Cavani had scored 200 goals in 301 games for PSG and won 21 major honours in seven seasons in the French capital. He had a half-century of goals for his country, for whom he won the 2011 Copa America. Ighalo is a fine player who did the job required of him in 12 months with his boyhood club, but really?
Souness wasn’t alone.
“Go and spend £40million on [Wolves forward Raul] Jimenez. He’s a proven striker, a scorer. And then they go and get Cavani who will hardly play,” said Paul Ince.
Even before his PSG spell, Cavani had hit 104 in 138 for Napoli in the notoriously attack-averse Serie A. He still averaged a goal every three games last season, despite losing his starting spot only to generational talents (and egos) Neymar and Kylian Mbappe.
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The lack of trust in Cavani stems from not scoring a hat-trick whenever facing English teams in the Champions League, a 1-1 draw against Arsenal in the 2016/17 group stage the stick most frequently used with which to beat him. Sure, Cavani scored PSG’s only goal and earned praise from opposition boss Arsene Wenger for pressing like a demon, but that wasn’t enough for John Hartson.
“He normally needs three chances to score a goal,” said the former Gunner. “If he was a natural, more comfortable in front of goal, I think he’d be one of the best strikers in the world.”
By the end of that season, Cavani struck 49 times in 50 appearances in all competitions. Insularity on this island is nothing new. It wasn't Brexit that brought up the drawbridge to appreciating talent beyond our shores, we little Englanders have always struggled to broaden our horizons.
A 34-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic needed to join Manchester United to be appreciated by the illuminati, his route to acceptance only truly beginning with four goals, including a 40-yard bicycle kick, for Sweden against England in 2012.
#OnThisDay 2012: Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored this amazing overhead kick against Englandpic.twitter.com/yMHJcnMWyuNovember 14, 2019
“The most overrated player on the planet,” former Aston Villa, Sunderland and Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill said of Ibra – who had just won successive Scudetti – in 2006.
With tongue firmly pressed into cheek, Ibrahimovic later said of the Premier League: “It was good but the quality is a bit overrated.”
Francesco Totti may have won the World Cup and led his beloved Roma to a barely believable Serie A title, but that didn’t wash with Ron Atkinson.
“He’s a little t***, that Totti. I can’t see what all the fuss is about,” said Big Ron, unaware that his microphone was turned on at the 2002 World Cup. Let’s face it, he’s uttered far worse and his mind was probably elsewhere. “Are there any sandwiches?” he followed up. “I’m starving.”
The playmaker was forever damned for not winning the Champions League with the Giallorossi, unlike proud Englishman and fellow one-club man Steven Gerrard, and the Totti-bashing continued even after scoring a group stage winner against Bayern Munich in 2010.
“He’s never been accused of being a workaholic,” smirked Souness (again), the president of the anti-Totti brigade, on Sky Sports. “Yeah, he’s got talent, but you know my thoughts on him.”
Glenn Hoddle took up the baton. “No, he’s not top drawer. He’d have moved on if he was. Someone would’ve come and got him.”
“Glenn’s right,” concluded Terry Venables. “He has been a luxury.”
Despite managing on the continent to great success – delivering Barcelona’s first Liga title for 11 years in 1985 and taking them to the European Cup final the following year – Venables has Little Englander form.
“If it does come down to Messi against Ronaldo,” El Tel wrote before the 2009 Champions League final between the former’s Barcelona and the latter’s Manchester United, “give me Ronaldo. Messi is wonderful on the right but Ronaldo is terrific on the right, the left and through the middle as well. He also scores goals with his head, which Messi couldn’t do even if they put a top hat on him.”
Guess via which method Messi, his consecration finally complete, scored in a 2-0 win?
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A year earlier, another cornerstone of that Barcelona team struggled for appreciation, this time from noted Europhile the Daily Mail. “The best players in the world (and Xavi),” read the headline accompanying a picture of the pass master, Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi and Kaka at the 2008 Ballon d’Or ceremony. Quite right, too, Xavi was only the UEFA Player of the Tournament as Spain won Euro 2008 with a possession obsession he typified more than any other player.
“I remember that article,” he later told FFT. “It’s like Xavi has no merit. There are people who watch a different football.”
Years later, the Mail printed a retraction, as if 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s third stage of trust – “it is eventually accepted as being self-evident” – had predicted tiki-taka’s adoption by more than 100 years ahead of time.
Richard Keys is still on stage one – ridicule – and wears his badge with the pride of a Victoria Cross winner. Fancy-dans such as James Rodriguez shouldn’t bother.
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“If he was top drawer he wouldn’t be signing for Everton, whoever was in charge – I wouldn’t fancy him at Stoke on a wet Tuesday evening in November, but he’ll look great when the Toffees are two-up at home,” wrote Keysey on his ever-brilliant blog and ignoring the fact that not even Stoke fancy a wet Tuesday in Stoke at the moment. The Potters have won two midweek home fixtures out of 12 since the start of 2019/20.
“If I was Carlo Ancelotti,” he added, “I’d be going after Troy Deeney.” Deeney has scored seven Championship goals this season, six of them penalties. James has eight goal involvements.
“We are not going to play a different sport,” Ancelotti said soon after. “It’s football, the pitch is the same, everywhere.”
It’s probably time we Little Englanders realised as much.
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Andrew Murray is a freelance journalist, who regularly contributes to both the FourFourTwo magazine and website. Formerly a senior staff writer at FFT and a fluent Spanish speaker, he has interviewed major names such as Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero and Xavi. He was also named PPA New Consumer Journalist of the Year 2015.
By Conor Pope
By Conor Pope