This is the era of the individual triumphing over the team; each player is a brand in his own right, individual awards like the Ballon D’Or have us debating the merits of each individual for hours, while the Messi v Ronaldo rivalry, not to mention their scoring over the last five years, makes comparisons impossible to ignore.
Each player has his own issue with playing for his country, and it usually comes down to one thing: how can he replicate his club form playing for his country? When Messi struggled to do it for years at Argentina, he was blamed for not caring enough about his national team, and ‘the shirt’.
The truth was that Argentina played a different system, with players not only less suited to getting the best out of Messi, but also ones who had not trained with him at La Masia since he was 14. It was only when Alejandro Sabella took over in 2011 that his scoring rate came anywhere close to matching his Barcelona numbers.
There is far more at play in Messi’s current relationship with the Albiceleste: some fans have turned against him because he did not ‘do a Maradona’ in Brazil; the pressure of the captaincy is an additional burden; injuries, off-field distractions and a poor trophy return at Camp Nou have made 2014 a tough year for him.
In Portugal, the story is simpler: Ronaldo appears just too good for his team-mates, and there is only so much one man can do for his team. He showed that in Portugal’s dramatic World Cup play-off win over Sweden, with a hat-trick in a 3-2 win that sealed his team’s place in Brazil.
When the tournament came around, he was only half-fit but a half-fit Ronaldo was deemed better than a fully-fit Eder or Silvestre Varela, and he duly completed every game (and scored the winner in game three against Ghana).
The Bale story with Wales is perhaps the most positive: the Real Madrid flyer is part of a generation of talent that first got going under Gary Speed and is unbeaten in European qualifying and closing in on an appearance at France 2016.
Bale played as a number nine against Belgium, but dropped back to help in midfield whenever he could. “We can’t have one player on the pitch who does not pull his weight and Bale epitomised that,” said coach Chris Coleman after the goalless draw in Belgium.
The table below goes a small way to answering that key question, and despite its small sample size, allows us to see just how much international teams rely on their star players.
Bale, for example, has been involved in (goals or assists) 46 per cent of Wales’s goals in the last 26 competitive matches he has played in. Messi was involved in 36 per cent and Wayne Rooney, 32 per cent.
In fact, Rooney’s numbers stand out. In the week that the England captain won cap number 100, amid speculation of whether he was great, good or merely average for his country, the numbers tell another story: England win 65 per cent of competitive matches with Rooney playing, and only 50 per cent without.
That drop-off is more significant than for any other player, with his closest rival, surprisingly,Germany’s Thomas Muller, nearly 13 per cent.
Portugal’s win percentage actually improves when Ronaldo is not in the side – from 56 per cent to 60 per cent – but that increase is not as marked as Belgium where Eden Hazard is concerned. There is a huge 18 per cent swing with the Chelsea winger – with the Red Devils’ record better without him in the side.
That draw with Wales led to more gnashing of teeth for Belgium, who are ranked fourth in the world and frustrated that Hazard cannot match his Chelsea performances while wearing the Belgium shirt.
“I have not seen it [the same level] yet!” Hazard told Sport/Foot. “Maybe for a few games but not regularly. It annoys me. Why can I play super at Chelsea and not for Belgium? My matches are honest and I don’t want people to think I come to the national team as a waster.”
The magazine wondered the same thing. In an article entitled, ‘Why Hazard is better for Chelsea than the Red Devils’, William Gautier pointed out that for Belgium, “his Oscar is Kevin de Bruyne”.
That causes some problems: both players have their club side built around them, and the task is to find a balance between the most successful dribbler in Europe (Hazard averages 5.1 per game) and one of the highest chance-creators (De Bruyne averages 3.8 per game).
Before Belgium’s World Cup game against Argentina, coach Marc Wilmots summed up his dilemma succinctly: “Messi?” he said. “Well, I have Hazard and De Bruyne.”
“He is our Messi,” said Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas of Hazard. “He is our link between defence and attack.” But for Belgium it’s a different story.
This cult of individual took root at the World Cup; Messi inspired Argentina to the final, Arjen Robben was the talisman for Holland and Neymar so symbolic for Brazil that his injury was treated was the cue for an outbreak of nationwide mourning.
“Belgium,” wrote Gautier, “still does not know whether to play for Eden Hazard or not”.
And yet the example of Costa Rica – who reached the quarter-final after topping a group containing England, Italy and Uruguay – as well as teams like Atletico Madrid, Southampton and Marseille, shows that with smart coaching and a collective spirit, success is achievable.
Or as one candidate on BBC show The Apprentice put it: “There is no ‘i’ in team, but there are five in individual brilliance.”