The Overwhelming Indifference of Talent

In the documentary Grizzly Man, the german filmmaker Werner Herzog tells us the story of Timothy Treadwell, an environmentalist who is passionate about bears and ventured into nature to film the animals routine. The dream turned into a tragedy, as Treadwell ended up eaten alive, along with his girlfriend, by two bears. At one point in the film, in a section in which Herzog shows us documented records exploring nature and seeing beauty in the animal cycle, Herzog delivers one of the most powerful lines in cinema in this century.

“And what haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”

The unequal relationship between human beings and nature is a theme much explored in Herzog’s filmography. In one of his first big films, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Herzog opens the plot with an aerial shot of a group of Spanish explorers walking through the Amazon mountains amidst a mist. The indifference of nature. Men who believe they are facing the destiny set by God – in this case, the discovery of El Dorado, the city of gold – are simply being swallowed by a force much greater than themselves. Logically, the expedition also ends in tragedy (and without any gold).

“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

I started this article by quoting Herzog because I don’t think, at the moment, of a better way to talk about talent in football than by citing it’s overwhelming indifference. This is not a defense of functional football (or relational, as you prefer), much less an attack on positional play. If I may be honest, I lack of background and even interest in participating in this debate. But it’s curious how talent always thrives. It may be Vinícius Júnior crushing his racists haters after scoring two goals against Valencia, or with Messi and Mbappé ripping defenses apart to score five goals combined in a World Cup final, or with 18-year-old Pelé scoring two goals in Sweden to crush the home team and give Brazil its first World Cup. The history of football is told after on the feats of the talented, and not anything else.

There is the Puskas era, the Pelé era, the Cruyff era, the Zico, Maradona, Ronaldo, Romário, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo era, and so on. What we see in football nowadays, however, is a disappearance of talent that is extraordinary – not in total, but in volume. What we see is mechanized football, which many make the mistake of saying “the collective stands out, it’s more of a ‘group’ sport now”. Bullshit. Everyone knows it’s a lie. Pre-Guardiola football was never about individualism, but about the collective being formed without ignoring the individual within each person, each individual. Football is a very human game, which at all times evokes myths and represents cultures on the field. People don’t love their teams because they represent their flags, but because they represent their lives and dreams. English bravery, Argentine tango, Brazilian baroque (which comes to light through darkness), and so on.

What I find curious is to see the cognitive dissonance that persists in guiding the sport in the 21st century. Cesc Fábregas is one of the stars of the game who talks about this. In 2021, for instance, Cesc stated: “(Football has evolved this way) Maybe due to a lack of talent. (…) What the current coach wants is for all the players to know exactly what they should do in the field. If I’m here, this player must be here, and another there, for the triangle-play to be like this. I don’t know (if the coaches trust the players less), but they are much more focused on how to make the players perform collectively. Before that, we did more individual things, more specific to the winger, the full-back, the midfielder…”

For Fábregas, the player’s lack of freedom of interpretation has undermined football. And no less. In recent times, football is played by different teams with little or no difference between them, regardless of country and culture. Football no longer represents cultures, but methods. It’s a logic that comes from the capitalist market, not from people. The field became a big office. But the employees in this office are still people, and the sooner football as a whole remembers and values this, the sooner we can save the sport from its recent dizzying decline.

But why do we deny it? Why can’t we admit and work in a way that football may once again prioritizes the development of talents, and not the formation of players who are nothing else than parts of a system? What does it take for us to finally go back to producing stars in large quantities? How long will we continue not to appreciate, but to consume football as if the game of the week was just another insipid and generic Disney movie? Why do we persist in making these mistakes, if deep down, we all want to see new stars creating spectacles?

Because at the end of the day, people like to see Haaland’s 50 goals in the Premier League, but how many wouldn’t exchange those 50 for 10 special goals from Mbappé, Vinícius Júnior or any other generational talent? At the end of the day, children who watch football will go to sleep dreaming about Cristiano Ronaldo’s bicycle goal against Vecchia Signora, about Messi’s goal floating through all of Athletic Bilbao’s defenders, or will they dream about any random player breaking a record with one-touch goals?

Nothing can be more frustrating for a fan of good players than seeing their talents being wasted in systems that don’t care about their characteristics. But even so, talent always thrives, it persists in winning. It is the talent who excites, not the numbers. And on the biggest of the stages, the World Cup, this difference becomes clear like a blue sky. Even in post-Guardiola football. In 2014, Ozil, Kroos, Lahm. In 2018, Griezmann, Pogba, Mbappé. In 2022, Messi, Di Maria, Enzo… At the end of it all, what remains is the overwhelming indifference of talent when facing the numbers. Are we going to pay attention and listen to what stories the field tells us and enjoy the game, or are we going to continue consuming football as if it were the last canned food of the week?

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