After Steven Gerrard retired from playing, there was a gush of tributes from around the football world that might have embarrassed Diego Maradona or Pele.
Some of the biggest names in the game rushed to laud the 36-year-old. Even clubs got in on the act, with teams from Barcelona to Stoke City tweeting their praise. Few players have ended their careers in such a maelstrom of hype.
Much of it was deserved. Teammates from Liverpool and England expressed their admiration through social media. Opponents delivered their verdict on a rival whose explosiveness and ability made Gerrard a danger whenever he stepped onto the pitch. The eulogies, though, swamped any critical assessment of the former Liverpool captain’s career. He was undoubtedly one of the finest players of his generation, but Barca’s Arda Turan tweeting “thank you for everything you’ve done” adds to no one’s understanding of the particular genius shown by the man from Huyton.
How good was Gerrard? He bears comparison with any player in Liverpool’s history. At Anfield there is no question that he acquired the legendary status that so many were quick to attach to him when he hung up his boots. For a generation of fans, though, he will be defined not by his game-changing impact on the pitch but by the tsunami of plaudits that marked his retirement.
He is not the first player to undergo this process, one that is partly driven by social media. Take Paul Scholes. Five years ago, the Manchester United midfielder announced his retirement: he made a comeback the next season and played for another year. Samir Nasri led the tributes. In the course of one tweet, the French midfielder upped the ante on Scholes from “great player,” which few would deny, to the more arguable “world class player.” Nasri closed the tweet by declaring Scholes was “the English Zizou.”
In less than 140 characters, Nasri elevated the Englishman to the status of Zinedine Zidane. Even Scholes’ biggest fans might blanch at comparison to a man whose goals won the 1998 World Cup final and who led France to victory in Euro 2000, as well as scoring the winner in the Champions League final two years later when Real Madrid beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1.
Zidane was FIFA world player of the year three times, and any side he played in was built around him. Scholes was never the best player in any United team he was part of over his 20-year career. Not once. He was a fine and effective performer but some way short of the exalted company in which he has been placed.
The wave of hype that followed Scholes into retirement seemingly caused history to be rewritten. The midfielder won 66 caps for his country, a poor return compared with his Old Trafford team-mate David Beckham’s 115 international appearances in the same period.
The debate over England’s disappointing performances in the 2000s has also been reframed in recent years. Now, some contend that if the team had been built around Scholes during that decade, they could have gone further in tournaments — a notion that would have been laughed out of Wembley at the time. The 42-year-old’s reputation as a player has grown exponentially with every day of retirement. How good will Gerrard’s become after a couple of years of sitting on the sidelines?
Frank Lampard will be next to give up playing, and he’ll experience similar social media acclaim to Gerrard. Much of it will be justified, but as with his Liverpool counterpart, some of the praise will be overblown. For years to come, some fans will argue the relative merits of the pair by referencing the post-retirement eulogies rather than looking at the realities of the midfielders’ careers.
When players are lionized by other figures in football — former professionals, managers, opponents — the knee-jerk reaction is to give the acclaim credence. But it can be a dangerous thing to do.
Take Zidane’s views on midfielders. In 2009, the French great spoke about Gerrard. “Is he the best in the world?” Zidane wondered before answering the question. “He might not get the attention of Messi and Ronaldo, but yes, I think he just might be.” Flattery comes in no more extreme form.
Two years later, Zizou took a different tack. “Scholes,” he said definitively on hearing of the United man’s retirement, “is undoubtedly the best midfielder of his generation.”
The post-retirement veneration of players can be misleading. Men like Gerrard and Scholes are good enough to be judged on their careers, not the overwrought adoration that characterized their departure from the game.
It will only get worse, too. By the time Messi retires, it probably won’t be Maradona and Pele who will be considered his peer group. The way things are going, he’ll be pitched somewhere between Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein for his contribution to human history.
Don’t believe the hype.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.