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James Lawton: Is it possible to manufacture a Messi?


MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his first goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 27, 2011 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his first goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 27, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Alex Livesey

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates after scoring his first goal during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on April 27, 2011 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

There we were running away with the idea that Lionel Messi belonged to a different species while English football was lapsing into still another stone age.

Didn't we know that if Messi did indeed receive certain gifts in the cradle, including the not inconsiderable one of natural born genius, none of them are beyond the reach of some really good coaching?

Who said this? A coach, of course, but before sending for the men in the white coats we should give Alf Galustian, a former Wimbledon player, his due.

His admirers include Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho – he may be the only subject on which they agree in their entire lives – and the Premier League have just appointed him their skills adviser. Tony Pulis of Stoke City is also a fan and anxious to have him work on something more refined than the long throw.

However, this doesn't mean necessarily that the white coat brigade should be stood down. For this is what Galustian declares: "Messi is a one-off. But I'm certain everything he does can be taught."

At the very least it is a stimulating point of discussion. So much so, indeed, that if he was still alive Jimmy Murphy, the man who did so much to groom the Busby Babes more than 50 years ago, who so revered the late Duncan Edwards and devoted so much of his spare time to cultivating the talents of the young Bobby Charlton, would now be surely bombarded with demands for his reaction.

This is because Murphy, like Galustian, was a fanatic believer in the value of repetitive work on football skill. He would have his proteges – who many sound judges believe might have inspired England's first World Cup triumph but for the Munich air crash of 1958 – work endlessly on developing their technique and attacking points of weakness. However, he was emphatic that coaches could do everything except create genius.

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He was once asked: "What would you say to George Best?" After the briefest pause, he replied: "Ask him if he's got a brother."

Yet if there is a core absurdity in Galustian's claim that a Messi can indeed be manufactured, much of what this singularly committed man has to say is surely beneficially directed at an English game which made such a woefully inadequate case for itself in the weekend European Championship qualifier against Switzerland.

Galustian is a disciple of Wiel Coerver, coach of the 1974 Uefa Cup winners Feyenoord, but perhaps more significantly is remembered and respected for his passionate belief that it was disastrous to have seven and eight-year-olds labouring, competitively, on full-scale pitches.

This philosophy was a key factor in the development of a stream of outstanding Dutch players, something quite out of proportion to the nation's small population and modest football background. Now, nearly 40 years on, such thinking buzzes around English football. Gareth Southgate, FA head of elite development, talks of the need for enlightenment in the crucial matter of developing skills and ball-orientated practice and this week the Premier League votes on something described as the Elite Players Performance Plan.

This is all very exciting, of course, but you still have to wonder when the other shoe will drop, which is to ask when the Premier League will address the immediate problem of supplying a sufficient degree of encouragement for those native-born youngsters attached to the top clubs, those who spend most of their time watching expensive foreign imports performing for the first-teams.

No one can question the importance of developing the skills of young English players in a way that is routine in Europe. Still less of an argument is Galustian's assertion that Messi is a working example for any aspiring young player. He says: "Messi is the maestro and I think coaches can use this wonderful icon to excite young players to do long and consistent practice that is essential to acquire such super skills.

"Messi does it naturally but he is our teacher; we can break down and teach his movements through repetition. His genius is knowing not only how to make his wonderful actions but when and where – yet this knowledge will come as young players play more small-sided games, encouraged not to fear failure."

The trouble is that you cannot teach players not to fear failure and if we doubt this we need only ask Wenger. What you can do is provide an environment where a young player can breathe and develop his skills and be subject to the exhilaration, something you can see in stretches of beaten- down ground in the shanty towns of Rio and Buenos Aires.

You can hope that the ambition to be great catches fire, as it did for Pele and Maradona in such a way they were able to play first-division football in their mid-teens.

What is needed most, of course, is not a culture of coaching which attempts a Dr Frankenstein creation of the football monster talent – "You'll never make a Gerson in a football clinic," said an old guard Brazilian after the brilliant World Cup triumph of 1970 – but an environment which is quick to recognise and encourage extraordinary ability.

When Murphy was running the serial FA Youth Cup winning team which had the phenomenal Edwards at its heart, he became concerned that the star had become too dominant – and at the cost of the expression of some of his team-mates. So, before a difficult tie, the guru said that, by way of a change, whenever a player gained possession of the ball he should not automatically pass it to Edwards. "Spread it around, boys," said Murphy.

The team came back to the dressing room 2-1 down at half- time. "Forget what I said about spreading it around," said the coach, "give the fucking ball to Duncan."

As you would do, you have to guess for as long as football is played, to the kind of player who will always be born rather than made.

Hiddink can deliver something beyond price – respect

Maybe the most outlandish possibility amid the debris of another football season is that Roman Abramovich might baulk at the idea of paying the Turkish football association around £4m for the release of Guus Hiddink.

Can there ever have been a better football bargain? Not when you consider the accumulated cost of all the severances and the humiliations imposed on some notable football men since Claudio Ranieri was shown the door.

A more likely restraint was always going to be the certainty that Hiddink would return to Stamford Bridge on his own terms, that he would impose the values he has taken to so many corners of the football world. They include such basics as respect, not least for his own position and dignity.

For a few extra roubles, Chelsea will get a renewed understanding of what it is to be a serious football club.

Will Nadal trump Federer record? He has the spirit

Rafa Nadal's defeat of Roger Federer for his sixth French Open title, and his 10th Grand Slam success, was never going to match the surreal splendour of the Wimbledon final of 2008.

The result was the same but the supply of drama, not to say exquisite play and tension, was inevitably diminished. However, at a time when big-time sport is so besieged by questions of style and attitude, it was indeed still another glory.

There will always be debates about the greatest sportsmen of all time and, of course, they can never be resolved with anything like certainty. However, tennis – which might so easily have been overwhelmed by the forces of extreme wealth and celebrity – has reason to be grateful for having two contenders at the same time.

What price Nadal overhauling Federer's pinnacle of 16 Grand Slam titles? At 25, and with 10 already in his muscular grasp, they have to be quite short. Odds-on, though, is the fact that the challenge will be met with a continuously inspiring spirit.