Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Individual Greatness Always Needs Teamwork

By Shane Thomas

In the past few months, we've seen two sporting stories that will be forever engraved onto the memory of all those who witnessed it. LeBron James for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal. Victories that have enshrined both men as all-time of all-time; encased in glory forever.

Correctly or otherwise, this is how the story will be told when we walk down the path of future anecdotes. And it got me thinking on the way tales often attain a greater simplicity and romance over time. A look at the moments that validated the legend of some of sport's most revered names reveal that while we like to focus on the lead actor at the centre of the Hollywood fairytale, there's a supporting cast also deserving of praise.

Ronaldo is probably the most glaring - and definitely the most recent - example. While the trophy he lifted and medal he was adorned with in Paris last weekend is by no means fraudulent, this isn't a narrative of the great CR7 taking his nation of Portugal, and dragging them to their first major trophy.

For a man who seems to define his professional worth through his individual exploits, this was nowhere near Ronaldo's finest tournament. He was - in my opinion unfairly - castigated for not taking a penalty in Portugal's shoot-out defeat to Spain in the semi-finals of the Euros 4 years ago, waiting to take the final penalty in an ostensible act of hubris[1]. But without Ronaldo, Portugal wouldn't have got near the semis.

Take the case of Steve Redgrave. Redgrave is in the conversation for the greatest athlete to come from Britain[2], and the greatest athlete to ever compete at an Olympics. But when he made his bid for a historic 5th gold medal in consecutive Games, aged 38, he was no longer the titan of previous years. The man who reputedly once whispered to rowing partner, Matthew Pinsent "let's crush some dreams", was now battling against the affliction of diabetes, and the adversary of time.

Now in a four man team, instead of a pair. Redgrave strained every remaining sinew to get one final token of glory, but unlike previous Olympics, he was no longer able to be the lead man. Without James Cracknell, Tim Foster, and especially the mighty Pinsent, the British crew would never have pipped the Italian quartet to win gold, and turn Redgrave from a legendary athlete into a sui generis one.

Another example from the world of football is Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. ESPN even made a 30 for 30 documentary about it, underscoring the story that this was a World Cup Diego won single-handed[3]. And if you were looking for an instance of an individual shining above a collective, Maradona in Mexico is probably the closest one can find. 

But lest we forget, in the final against (West) Germany, Maradona was closely marshalled, as is to be expected when one is the world's finest player. And while his influence on that match wasn't insignificant, assisting the winning goal, he wasn't on the scoresheet despite Argentina scoring three times.

Even LeBron in that epic Game 7 shouldn't be painted as a one-man win. Yes, he was rightly awarded MVP of those NBA Finals. Yes, Cleveland's stunning triumph was founded on his indomitable play, And yes, that block. But the addendum that should never be forgotten from that game is what happened next.

After LeBron's superlative defensive intervention, the scores were still tied at 89-89. Thanks to a shrewd play that got Kyrie Irving up against Steph Curry, Irving hit an outstanding three pointer that was a gut punch to the Golden State Warriors. Without it, "LeBlock" becomes little more than highlight reel fodder, only to be recalled by those who make the recollection of sports stats their business. LeBron put the Warriors on the floor, but it was Kyrie who stuck the dagger in to finish them off.

The moral of this story is best discerned by the words of Indian cricketer (and now India's captain) Virat Kohli in the aftermath of the 2011 Cricket World Cup final. Going into the match, the spotlight was on the incomparable Sachin Tendulkar, a legend of the sport - and possibly the greatest athlete I've ever been privileged to watch in the flesh.

The final against Sri Lanka took place in Tendulkar's home city of Mumbai, with a febrile and expectant crowd demanding nothing less than an Indian victory, with Sachin at the centre. Tendulkar had top scored with 85 in the semi-final defeat of Pakistan, so the stage was set for him to show the best of himself, and win the trophy that was deeply coveted by his country. The one that had eluded him for so long.

But Tendulkar was removed early on by Lasith Malinga. Their icon, their hero, their talisman; out. The crowd were almost deathly silent, the funereal response almost fitting for a moment in which India's hopes were assumed to have been buried.

However, in one of the most scintillating displays of sporting assertiveness ever seen, Indian captain, M.S. Dhoni took it upon himself to dissect Sri Lanka's bowling attack, and hit the winning runs, sending the crowd - and the country - into rapture. Despite his disappointing individual display, Tendulkar was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates, as they did a victory lap of the field. When asked about this, Kohli's reply was as judicious as a Sachin cover-drive; "Sachin Tendulkar has carried Indian cricket on his shoulders for 21 years. So it was fitting that we carried him on our shoulders after this win."

This isn't to dilute from the achievements of the aforementioned athletes. There are plenty of occasions when a special performer has to forge a solo mission to win a contest for their team. But often it doesn't occur on their own, despite what the annals of sporting fable would have us believe. Every great singular sportsperson needed to lean on others for their legend to last. Even John and Paul needed a little help from their friends.

[1] - Ronaldo was due to take Portugal's 5th penalty, but Spain had already eliminated them before his turn came around.

[2] - Or should we just save time and call it "England and Wales" from now on?

[3] - No pun intended. Well, maybe a little.

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1 comment:

  1. Well done those teams who took advantage of the opportunity. And portuguese. I looked online on this match - was good.