The other night, I was standing outside the players tunnel before a Paris Saint-Germain game when Zlatan Ibrahimovic walked past. It was scary. Up close, the Swedish forward looked like a superhero: 1.95m tall, a chest the size of Pamela Anderson’s and the hungry glare of a man who has done his exercises, eaten his greens and had his afternoon nap every day for years.
Today’s great footballers are incomparably fitter than their predecessors. But their perfection goes beyond the physical. This is the best time in football’s history to be a star. The game has been restructured in their service. When the Golden Ball for the world’s best player of 2013 is awarded on Monday – most likely to Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid – it will resemble an Oscars ceremony in the golden age of Hollywood.
The football star used to live like a rock star. He was pursued by groupies. He expected his body to give out by the age of 30. He didn’t make fortunes: Eusébio (who died last Sunday) earned about £4,000 at Benfica in 1969. And so most stars lived large. After all, being a genius meant you didn’t have to work hard. Ferenc Puskás in the 1950s was fat, George Best in the 1960s an alcoholic, Johan Cruyff in the 1970s a chain-smoker, and Diego Maradona in the 1980s a fat cocaine user. The temptations of stardom were magnificent; succumbing was almost the point.
Best after 1968, and Maradona and Pelé for most of their club careers, played with unremarkable teammates. Maradona at Napoli often received passes behind him – which he would kindly applaud. Few of these men aspired to weekly brilliance. Pelé was forever crossing the planet playing meaningless exhibition games. Argentina in the 1980s, during Maradona’s prime, won just 35 per cent of its matches, fewer than in any other decade, calculates the sports economist Stefan Szymanski. Maradona turned it on for World Cups but rarely in between.
When past stars tried to turn it on, they’d get kicked. In 1966, Pelé limped out of the World Cup; in 1983, Maradona’s ankle was crushed by the defender Andoni Goikoetxea (“The Butcher of Bilbao”); and, in 1992, Marco van Basten’s career was effectively ended by injury aged 28.
What transformed the star’s lot was TV. Before the 1990s, few matches were televised. A European fan might have seen Pelé play perhaps 10 times in his career, whether on TV or in the stadium. Then Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi built TV channels on football. Suddenly the game had to become more entertaining. Stars were now TV content, and so they needed protection. Football’s authorities cracked down on fouls, banning the tackle from behind. Today, Lionel Messi gets a free kick almost whenever he is touched.
TV made big clubs richer. A very few rich clubs came to monopolise the best players. Messi joined Barcelona aged 13, and has spent his entire career there playing with excellent teammates. Just how much this aids his performance becomes clear when you watch him struggle alongside inferior colleagues with Argentina.
Big clubs have made a new deal with stars: we’ll pay you fortunes if you’ll live like professionals. Ibrahimovic says that if you have his talent, success is a choice: you just have to decide to work for it. Today’s stars do.
The supreme example is Cristiano Ronaldo. Footballers of his build, with high proportions of fast-twitch sprinter’s muscle fibres, tend to break down early. That happened to the 1990s stars Ronaldo (of Brazil) and Michael Owen. But through unceasing exercise and diet, Cristiano has encased himself in steel. After returning from a game abroad, he sometimes takes an ice bath at 5am. He is arrogant because he believes, correctly, that he made himself through hard work. Currently, Madrid is festooned with 19m-high posters of him in his underpants. It’s not an advertising campaign that anyone ever contemplated for Maradona.
Today’s stars rarely get injured. They are equipped to produce genius twice weekly almost for ever. Ronaldo has been averaging more than a goal a game for nearly five years at Madrid, the highest ratio in Spanish football’s history. In 2012, Messi scored an unprecedented 91 goals.
The greatness of today’s stars can seem automatic. Arsenal’s manager Arsène Wenger has said Messi is “like a PlayStation”, a sort of human computer game. Something has been lost in the process. Maradona offered the spectacle of the footballer’s struggle with the inner man. Messi offers only a perfectly professional genius, as if Claude Monet had signed a contract to produce masterpieces twice a week and then actually did.
Messi is a genius like Monet, but Messi’s genius is easier for most people to appreciate. He gives TV subscribers everywhere a glimpse of something higher. To paraphrase Cruyff’s biographer Nico Scheepmaker, our lives today are richer and more pleasant than they would have been without Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic. We owe this daily happiness in large part to Murdoch and Berlusconi.