Time to appreciate the Aleksandar Kolarovs of soccer

Posted by Rory Smith

Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesOn most teams, Aleksandar Kolarov would be a welcome addition.

Let's talk about Aleksandar Kolarov. Not enough people talk about Aleksandar Kolarov, which is a shame, because he's a fascinating individual with many varied interests, including botany and Agatha Christie novels.

How would you describe Kolarov? Would you suggest that he is a fine footballer, owner of 43 caps for Serbia, possessor of a fierce left foot, adept at swinging in viciously dipping crosses and capable of scoring wonderful goals from set pieces? Or would you see him as one-paced, occasionally a little work-shy and prone to lapses in concentration?

As a personal view, it's a little from column A, a little from column B. Kolarov is not perfect. He is not as quick as Marcelo or as consistent as Ashley Cole or as threatening as Jordi Alba. But he is not without his merits. He's a seven out of 10. He may not have been worth 19 million pounds, but he is certainly not terrible. You do not have his CV without at least considerable ability.

Which is why it is so odd that he is so regularly treated as though he were a plodding, part-time Sunday league player, why it is so strange that to a significant proportion of Manchester City supporters he is a source of deep-seated, hair-tearing, garment-rending frustration.

Kolarov is a good footballer. The problem is that we have lost that classification. The game in the 21st century contains no room for shades of grey. Good, decent, solid, OK: These adjectives no longer apply. There is black, and there is white. There is acceptable, and there is not. There is perfect, and there is awful. Anyone who is deemed not to make the grade is subject to the catcalls and the jeers and the demands that he be sold, ostracised, cast out into the wilderness, naked and alone.

Kolarov, of course, is not the only victim. There are countless others. Theo Walcott, Antonio Valencia, Lucas Leiva, Ramires, dozens, hundreds more, from the rarefied air of the elite to the scrap at the bottom of the Premier League and beyond. All fine players, all with a host of positive attributes, all condemned -- in some quarters -- because they have the nerve not to be flawless, all taunted as soon as they put a foot out of place, the error seized upon as proof of their incompetence.

Without wishing to sound like a misty-eyed nostalgist, it did not used to be like this. Teams have always had their show ponies and their carthorses. There was a time when the latter were almost as cherished as the former, when working hard in the face of your limitations was considered a virtue, not a crime.

No more. Gone is the tolerance for adequacy. Gone is the idea that while your left-back might only be decent, perhaps that is cause for celebration -- "we've got a decent left-back, that's not a problem" -- so much as a reason for concern -- "Kolarov's decent, but at the top level, he'll get found out." Decent, OK, all those words have become the insults they were never intended to be.

There are a multitude of reasons for this.

One, of course, is the accumulation and concentration of talent at the very top of the game. Teams can no longer afford a seven-out-of-10 player if they wish to win the title, or compete with the very best in Europe (although if you look at Bayern Munich or Barcelona, they have a smattering of players who are no more than decent, too: Daniel van Buyten plays for the former, after all). When you feel that your competitors can name a side of nines and 10s, the seven will no longer cut it.

Another -- and this is something touched on here before -- is that football seems to matter so much more now. Declining newspaper circulations and the desire to ramp up television and radio audiences has introduced a hysterical note to football coverage: As Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger remarked last week, suddenly every defeat is a crisis. The slightest failing is picked up on, whether it is collective or individual, and repeated ad nauseam on 24-hour television stations, analysed in countless blogs, picked apart by the insatiable jaws of the newspapers and the websites.

That has cost football its sentiment -- consider how Manchester United fans have expressed their desire to see Patrice Evra dropped, despite almost a decade of fine service; is he not entitled to play as he enters the autumn of his career, for all that he has done? Do the club, and the fans, not owe him that thank-you, that support? It has cost its patience and perspective, too. Football is a shark. If it does not keep moving, it dies. If you stand still, you fall back. There is no room for emotion, or loyalty. The race matters too much. It will be a disaster -- an absolute, irretrievable disaster -- if you do not win it.

Perhaps the most important factor, though, is the globalisation of the sport in the past two decades. Thirty years ago, the only chance English fans had to watch the very best foreign teams were in occasional encounters in Europe, or every two years at a major international tournament. You knew that Michel Platini, for example, was a wonderful player, but you did not know quite how much better he was than your team's star. The sphere of comparison was not quite so broad. Your left-back might have been limited, but so were 15 of the 21 others in the first division, so he did not look too bad.

That has changed now, of course. Fans can watch the very best in the world every week; they can see them play their side once a year. They can look at Barcelona and Bayern and know that is what football is supposed to look like, and they can then see quite how far from that standard their team is.

At the top level, of course, the fear is that they will never realise their ambition to conquer Europe until they have pared all the chaff from the wheat; lower down, the effect is more esoteric, less immediate. It is simply a heightened awareness of quite how many shortcomings each player has, quite how far they are from the ideal.

That breeds dissatisfaction. It breeds contempt. It turns decent and good into insults; it highlights everything that is wrong and casts a shadow over all that is right. It makes Kolarov, and all the others, criticised for what they cannot do, rather than celebrated for what they can. And it robs a little of the innocence of the game, makes it less of a sport and more of a demand for entertainment. It is an expression of a desire to see machines, not people. Part of the joy of sport is seeing your fellow man exceed his limits. It removes all of that. It costs football its humanity.


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