Stars of the Euros? Hang on a sec
VIENNA, Austria -- OK, so I've tried my best. I've held my tongue throughout this tournament. But, the fact is, I've had it. I've had enough of people telling me that Miroslav Klose and Karim Benzema are overrated donkeys because they haven't had a good Euro 2008. Or that David Villa is now the best striker in Europe (heck, he's not even the best striker on his national team). Or that Andrei Arshavin is the second coming of Zinedine Zidane.
I know that judgments are by their very nature subjective. Fine, I accept that. And I can also see how the European Championship is, together with the Champions League, the pinnacle of the sport (at least in the Old World). But you have to be a complete idiot to pass summary judgments on a few weeks' worth of matches in June.
Take Benzema. OK, so he only featured in two games and -- apart from a vicious strike against Italy which was well-saved by Gigi Buffon -- he did little shine. An idiot concludes that he's just another anonymous player. A scout looks at him, notices his touch, his strength, his pace, his balance, his athleticism and concludes that, yes, he's actually pretty good. Probably better in fact than, say, Roman Pavlyuchenko who has been drawing rave reviews.
There's a difference between playing badly and being a bad player. Pavlyuchenko has had a good tournament. Benzema has not. A good scout can tell you that. But what if you're not a scout? What if you don't spend your life watching soccer? Well, you can still use a modicum of common sense. Do the tiniest bit of research and you'll see that Benzema had an exceptional season for Lyon and that he did so at a very young age. And, when making up your mind about the player, take into account what he has actually achieved (not 10 years ago, but two months ago).
Arshavin is another fine example of this. Until Zenit St. Petersburg's run to the UEFA Cup, I would bet my left eye that 90 percent of mainstream fans outside of Russia had never even heard of the guy. Now, all of a sudden, he has a monster four months on the big stage and supposedly Barcelona and Arsenal are ready to break the bank to sign him. Oh, and, according to some, he's Zidane minus the monk's haircut.
Watch Arshavin in person and you can see a guy with a deft touch, good range of passing and excellent mobility. Plus, a keen understanding of the game. Great. But the fact remains that, apart from the Bayern Munich semifinal in the UEFA Cup and the quarterfinal against Holland, he hasn't really faced quality opposition (he will against Spain, of course). Can we please reserve judgment before comparing him to Zidane?
The point here is that everything gets magnified in big tournaments and big matches because the world is watching. Fine. And I accept that it takes a special player to do it on the big stage. But there is also such a thing as having the game (or Euros) of your life, no? Four years ago, Milan Baros had an exceptional Euro 2004. Some were ready to put him in a class with Thierry Henry and Ronaldinho. Don't they look stupid now?
Can we not have a tiny bit of appreciation for luck, happenstance, being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time, whatever you want to call it? Can we not look beyond performance and, instead, evaluate characteristics? Who's fast, who's slow, who's gifted, who's not, who's bright, who makes poor decisions, etc.
One of the most respected talent evaluators in the game once told me how to judge a player.
"First, don't watch him on television, because anyone can look good on television," he said. "Second, ask around and get as much information about him from people who see him regularly. Over time, you'll learn which people's judgments to trust and which people's opinions to ignore. Third, watch him in person as many times as you can.
"Fourth, try to watch him when he's having a bad game. The way his teammates react to him playing badly is often the single most important indicator of whether or not they trust him. And, remember, his teammates will know him best. Fifth, look for tangible qualities like speed, strength, technique and tactical intelligence. Those will always be there, no matter how badly someone is performing [provided they're fit, of course] and no matter the quality of the opposition."
Words to live by. Words to consider when making summary judgments on players at competitions like this one. Otherwise you may find yourself looking like a fool faster than you can say Salvatore Schillaci or Oleg Salenko.
SI.com's Gabriele Marcotti will report twice a week from the 2008 European Championship.