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Godly or God-awful?

Undressing the subtle temptress of the Legends Charity match

Watching a load of out-of-shape old men play a game of football at half-pace is frustrating and glorious in equal measure

It’s time we addressed a few difficult home truths about Legends matches.

On the surface, another chance to see some of the game’s greatest ever players grace the pitch seems like a wholesome way to spend an evening.

But the reality can often be a interpreted as a depressing exercise.

Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Edgar Davids gather over a free-kick at the Nou Camp in 2017

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Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Edgar Davids gather over a free-kick at the Nou Camp in 2017

Legends matches mean rolling substitutions, losing track of the scoreline, tight hamstrings, multiple Mexican waves, soft free-kicks, Google searches and Wikipedia profiles.

We should not forget the primary function of Legends matches, raising money for charity, but sometimes the actuality of watching a bunch of old, often out-of-shape men play out 90 minutes at half-pace is difficult to ignore.

But if you immerse yourself a little deeper, Legends games are actually one of the most satisfying entities in football.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of sitting in the Press Box at the Camp Nou. Barcelona Legends were playing Man United Legends in a game sponsored by global streaming service Deezer who enlisted me to curate the pre-match playlist.

I will forever claim that I played ten songs for 50,000 people at the Nou Camp and nobody can tell me otherwise.

That moment you realise your son is now a better player than you

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That moment you realise your son is now a better player than you

The team sheets boasted esteemed names such as Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Patrick Kluivert, Dwight Yorke, Karel Poborsky and Edgar Davids. Also present were the likes of Raimond van der Gouw, Russell Beardsmore and Quique Estebaranz.

Any football fan knows that the term ‘legend’ is used loosely at times.

The first ten minutes were leisurely – except for Edgar Davids and Ji-Sung Park, who motor up and down the wing in a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner style battle.

Ronaldinho refused to play a pass unless he was looking in the opposite direction, Rivaldo attempts to chip Van der Gouw from well inside his own half, and Ludovic Giuly strays offside twice in the space of 45 seconds.

The game’s first chance falls to the Frenchman but his cushion from Ronaldinho’s pass floats just over the bar. And then he’s immediately subbed off with 12 minutes on the clock, not to be seen again until the post-match mixer.

 

But here’s the thing, you don’t watch Legends matches for new football, you watch them to be reminded of classic football in a profound way.

12 minutes of Giuly is enough because in that time the mind wonders to his goals in the 2006 Champions League semi-final and final. And that’s the Giuly we love.

All you need is miniscule vestiges of talent, minute clues as evidence of the powers that once blessed these players.

Every time the ball is played into Ronaldinho’s feet the half-full stadium (which is a decent turnout considering the Nou Camp’s gigantic capacity) take a collective in-take of breath.

But it’s not because the crowd actually expect anything of true substance, just a nutmeg here and dink over the top there will do, it’s because they are reminded of all that has come before courtesy of the great Brazilian’s boots.

The biggest cheer of the day comes when he condemns poor Jesper Blomqvist to the ultimate humiliation of a stylistic nutmeg. The half-Cruyff turn, half-drag back instantly forces the Swedish winger into a second retirement.

This is satisfying not just because it’s an thing of aesthetic beauty on its own but because it’s a callback to every nutmeg Ronaldinho has ever orchestrated, and there’s been a few.

One legend rose up above the rest… Kevin Pilkington

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One legend rose up above the rest… Kevin Pilkington

Around twenty minutes in I realised that Davids and Gaizka Mendieta were only ever loan players for Barcelona but such matches are not for pendants.

You couldn’t get a more stirring nostalgic sight than Davids glaring at the referee through his orange glasses, arguing that his late scythe was not a foul in the slightest.

A couple of Mendieta’s cross-field balls are criminally underhit but again, who cares, they conjure up memories of him slaying giants in the Champions League as Valencia’s heartbeat and that’s priceless.

After half an hour a quick drinks break is widely applauded.

Legends games remind me of England vs (insert lowly European nation here) fixtures at Wembley, in that packs of schoolchildren tend to lead the chants. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, you just wouldn’t get it any other Barcelona v United game.

These two played at double the pace to everyone else

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These two played at double the pace to everyone else

I have neglected to inform you about Man United’s goals.

The scoreline is often irrelevant in Legends games but there’s no doubt Blomqvist would have treasured a goal at the Nou Camp; he finished with aplomb after a slow-motion goalline clearance denied his original effort.

Full marks to Poborsky for trying to poach the goal from his team-mate, unfortunately his weathered reflexes denied him a David Nugent-esque tap-in.

The Czech winger did get on the scoresheet in the second half, his side-footed finish fooling Kevin Pilkington (veteran of six league appearances for United between 1992-1998) courtesy of a deflection after the inexhaustible engine of Park had done the work in the build-up.

If you haven’t seen Poborsky in a few years then you would barely recognise him. The long wavy hair has been sheared and his facial hair would see him settle in comfortably in Dalston’s edgier cafes.

Dwight Yorke’s smile is a shining beacon of joy

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Dwight Yorke’s smile is a shining beacon of joy

Dwight Yorke scored United’s third and final goal, a genuinely impressive strike from outside the box that twanged off the post, the hallmark of pleasing finish.

Frederic Dehu gave the home crowd something to cheer in the 90th minute with a simple finish from close range, though few fans will remember much about his handful of games for Barca in the 1999-2000 season.

Ronaldinho is presented with the Deezer Legend of the Match award (despite his team’s 3-1 defeat) as voted for by the journalists in the Press Box – personally I went for Ji-Sung Park but that’s because I’m an objective robot void of human emotion.

We have no doubt he placed this award alongside his Ballon d’Or

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We have no doubt he placed this award alongside his Ballon d’Or

One of the most common phrases among those in the stadium must surely have been, “Doesn’t he look old now?”

The protruding bellies, retreating hairlines and wrinkled faces make these former gods considerably more human.

To know that even the likes of Ronaldinho and Rivaldo must succumb to the debt of time is both sobering and comforting; at least in one respect we are their equals.

And this realisation makes you treasure the memories that little bit more, and that is the truly great function of Legends matches.

If it transports me back through two decades of glorious memories, then give me fat old men hyperventilating through the last 20 minutes any day.

Simply glorious

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Simply glorious

Sign up for global audio streaming service Deezer here.

Tickets for the return leg at Old Trafford can be found here.

Information on the Manchester United Foundation can be found here.


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