WHEN Borussia Dortmund beat Seville in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 clash in February, Erling Haaland’s performance offered further proof of his brilliance, when his two goals took him up to 18 goals in his first 13 Champions League matches.
In the second leg, Haaland became the quickest player to score 20 Champions League goals when another two strikes ensured Dortmund’s progress to the quarter-finals.
Haaland is a goal-machine with a lust for tormenting defenders and goalkeepers but the Norwegian gave some insight into his mindset when speaking with reporters after that first game against Seville.
“I love the Champions League,” said Haaland. “But when I saw Mbappé score the hat-trick yesterday I got free motivation, so thanks to him.”
The previous evening, Kylian Mbappé had netted a hat-trick for PSG in the Nou Camp against Barcelona. In that Champions League week in February where both Barcelona and Juventus were comprehensively outplayed and beaten, with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo having minimal impact, the subsequent debate was dominated by who will define the next decade of elite football.
And it looks as if Haaland will rival Mbappé for the title of Messi and Ronaldo’s heir.
Comparing the numbers of all four players since the start of the 2019/20 season, when Haaland broke through as an elite player at Red Bull Salzburg, the case study isn’t exactly equal because Messi and Ronaldo are in the late autumn/early winter of their careers, while both are in poor Barcelona and Juventus sides.
Haaland and Mbappé though, have exploded out of the blocks; it took Ronaldo 56 games and Messi 40 matches to reach that mark of 20 Champions League goals. When Mbappé scored again in PSG’s recent second leg against Barcelona, he became the youngest player to reach 25 goals in the competition.
Ronaldo hadn’t even scored a Champions League goal before his 21st birthday, while Messi only had eight before reaching that landmark.
They’ve set the standard ever since though; Ronaldo and Messi have scored the most goals in Champions League history by some distance with 134 and 119 respectively – Robert Lewandowski is the closest challenger on 73.
In sport, longevity determines greatness and Haaland and Mbappé have a while to go yet before they can be truly compared with Messi and Ronaldo.
Another difficulty with trying to anoint Haaland and Mbappé as their successors is that no two players have dominated the world’s most popular sport at the same time as Messi and Ronaldo have over the last two decades; they have shared 11 of the last 12 Ballon D’Or’s.
Their careers aren’t done yet but, in a totally different context, some huge GAA names will depart the inter-county stage in the coming years. And, similar to the one currently raging in world soccer, much of the ensuing debate will focus on who are the next young guns to replace them? In so many ways, that talk is irrelevant in an amateur sport when many players only find their way, and their true form, when their lives, and their predicament, allows for them to really flourish.
Looking at the last 10 Hurler-of-the-Year winners provides an interesting case study. All of the names are Hall-of-Fame hurlers or players with that potential; Michael Fennelly, Henry Shefflin, Tony Kelly, Richie Hogan, TJ Reid, Austin Gleeson, Joe Canning, Cian Lynch, Seamus Callanan, Gearoid Hegarty.
Kelly, Hogan, Gleeson, Canning and Lynch were gifted underage proteges, but the other five weren’t; Reid was an excellent underage player but he was so frustrated early in his senior career that he considered walking away from Kilkenny in 2012.
The march to the top is never linear but some players are destined to transcend their sport. Two of the game’s current superstars – Canning and David Clifford – were two of the greatest minors to ever play hurling and football. In their first two years playing inter-county senior in 2008-‘09 and 2018-19 respectively, they were nailed-on All-Stars, winning Young Player-of-the-Year in that debut season.
Canning’s inter-county career though, oscillated afterwards for a handful of seasons before he firmly cemented his greatness. Clifford was only in his third season in 2020, in which he only played one match, but that defeat to Cork last November underlined just how difficult it can be to match the massive expectation constantly expected from marquee amateur GAA players.
Clifford was almost punished for Kerry failing to beat Cork, with many critics claiming he shouldn’t have received an All-Star nomination.
Clifford was wayward with some of his shooting that evening but he still scored three points from play, while Kerry would have won the game if a Clifford second-half rocket hadn’t hammered off the crossbar.
Clifford hit 2-18 from play during the league but it is becoming harder for marquee players to be as influential as they can be, or their teams often need them to be, with football and hurling now so tactically designed to limit that threat, especially around goalscoring.
On the other hand, that has always been the case for the top players. In the new Netflix film on Pelé, soccer’s first global superstar spoke about the hardest challenge he faced after first announcing his greatness in the 1958 World Cup at just 17. Pelé was injured during the 1962 and 1966 tournaments, effectively being kicked out of the 1966 finals. Before that World Cup in England, Pelé said that the game had become ‘ugly’, as opponents were trying anything to stop him.
As Haaland and Mbappé continue that chase towards the kind of immortal status few players are afforded, overcoming the multitude of challenges on and off the pitch, over the long span of their projected careers, will ultimately determine just how great that status really is by the time they’re finished.