Harry Kane and the Power of Individual Achievement
The record had, it turned out, been playing on Harry Kane’s mind. Players always insist that they are oblivious to these things, that they regard them as little more than statistical ephemera. Ordinarily, it is only once the achievement is banked and the challenge met that they will admit to the blindingly obvious.
Kane has spent a considerable portion of this bisected, staccato season waiting and wondering. He had the air of a player counting down, rather than up. Every goal he scored for Tottenham was not added to his tally for the campaign, but subtracted from a historical deficit.
Nobody had ever scored more goals for Spurs than Jimmy Greaves, the slick, ruthless striker who was the star of the club’s golden team of the 1960s. His mark — a total of 266 — stood for more than half a century. Nobody, in recent years, had looked close to breaking it: not Vincent Janssen, not Steffen Iversen, not Chris Armstrong.
And then along came Kane, a homegrown striker, a boyhood fan, an England captain. He started the season on 248 goals, a vast majority of them in the Premier League, 18 behind Greaves, 19 from sole possession of the record. The presumption was that Kane would break it, sooner rather than later. By the time everything ground to a halt for the World Cup, the gap was gossamer thin: five more to equal it, six to surpass it.
Kane drew level on a Monday night, against Fulham, and then finally had his moment last Sunday. It was fitting, really: not, as he said, because he scored the goal that secured his place in history against Manchester City, “one of the best teams in the world,” but because he did so with an archetypal Kane goal — a sudden sliver of space, a single touch, an unerring finish.
Soccer does not, it has to be said, give these moments quite as much pomp as other sports. The N.B.A. not only had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in attendance when LeBron James broke his scoring record this week, it allowed the game — between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder — to be paused for a brief ceremony. Kane merely got his name flashed up on Tottenham’s big screen. “Congratulations Harry,” it read.
Still, that was enough for Kane. “It is surreal,” he said afterward. “There’s been so much talk about it, and I wanted to get it done as soon as possible. It’s a special feeling. I couldn’t have asked for more. Jimmy was one of the best strikers to ever play the game, so to even be mentioned in his company is amazing. To go above him is a dream come true.”
The next record in Kane’s sights is, arguably, even more significant. That strike against City last Sunday made Kane only the third player in history to score 200 goals in the Premier League. He should, with a fair wind, rank as the second highest scorer the competition has seen by the time spring rolls around; Wayne Rooney is only a little ahead of him, now, on 208.
He will have to wait a little longer to overtake the current scoreboard leader. Alan Shearer scored the last of his Premier League goals in April 2006, a penalty in an emphatic Newcastle win against Sunderland. He picked up an injury a few minutes later that ended up costing him the final few outings of his valedictory tour.
Shearer has never regretted that he might have added to his tally; that he signed off by scoring against his team’s fiercest rivals has always struck him as the perfect conclusion. And besides, 260 goals — excluding the 23 he scored before the Premier League was branded into existence — was not a bad total, all in all.
Oddly, for all that he achieved, it never really felt as if Rooney would catch Shearer. Kane, from this point, really should do it. He is still only 29. Convention would suggest that, as long as he avoids major injuries, he has another four years before he is considered an elder statesman. At his current clip, he may have reeled in Shearer by the end of the season after next.
It may well be the case, then, that in Kane the Premier League is watching the greatest scorer in its history. Whether that matters or not, though, seems to depend on who you ask.
There is a school of thought, one that has been given considerable voice over the past week, that Kane would trade in not only his status as Tottenham’s record goal-scorer but the chance to surpass Shearer for a single medal to place on his shelf at home: a Premier League title, a Champions League, an F.A. Cup, the other one.
This is, of course, how soccer thinks. It is unabashedly, resolutely a collective sport, one that does not revere individual achievement as much as, say, baseball or football. There is a reason that it did not occur to anyone at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last Sunday to do anything other than flash Kane’s name up on the screen, as if it were his birthday, just as there is a reason that many are uncomfortable with the idea of a player actively identifying winning a Ballon d’Or as an ambition.
The trophies handed out at the end of the season, and the medals gathered by the end of a career, are seen as the only true gauge of attainment; what a player might achieve individually is always secondary to what success it produces, a means rather than an end. It is in the team that glory lies.
It is an admirable philosophy, one to which all those actively involved in the game subscribe almost universally, but it is one that undersells the significance, the status, perhaps subconsciously afforded to the rarest, most precious individual watermarks. Glory, it is fair to say, comes in many forms.
Shearer is an apposite example. He did, of course, win a Premier League title; just the one, with Blackburn Rovers in 1995. That is not, though, how he is remembered, as a “mere” English champion. Nobody much under the age of 35 would remember that Blackburn team; a whole generation has been born and raised since he scored that final goal against Sunderland.
Instead, Shearer is revered now for his status as the Premier League’s leading goal-scorer. It is, after all, something only he can claim, the one thing that Shearer has that, for two decades, nobody else has possessed. It has carried his name through history in a way that winning the league could not. It is his glory, and it is his glory alone.
That is what Kane has at his fingertips: not just a fleeting statistical quirk but a piece of history that is all his, something that will endure long after his career has finished. He would, doubtless, prefer it to be accompanied by something more tangible, a piece of silver and gold, something that can be mounted and framed and admired, a triumph shared with his teammates, with his family, with his fellow Tottenham fans.
But to have scored more goals for Tottenham than anyone, to be the player with the most goals in the Premier League: These are no mere trifles. They ensure Kane’s name will echo, resonant and proud, long after he has slipped into the past. And that, in many ways, is the ultimate form of glory.
Think, for a minute, of all the work that went into convincing Cristiano Ronaldo to sign for Al Nassr, the Saudi club where the Portuguese forward is seeing out his (sporting) dotage. The flights. The meetings. The pitching. And all of that just to get in the room with the 38-year-old Ronaldo, to take yet more flights, to hold yet more meetings, to do yet more pitching.
And all of that is without mentioning the cost: the salary that scrapes $213 million-a-season, according to some reports; the suite at the Four Seasons in Riyadh where he and his family have set up home; the invitation to Paris St.-Germain to play an unwieldy and vaguely nonsensical exhibition game.
It was, of course, worth it in the end: Ronaldo has brought so much attention to Al Nassr, to the Saudi Pro League, to Saudi Arabian sports in general that all of those involved in making the deal happen doubtless regard it as a runaway success.
Using sports as a tool of soft power, though, is a funny thing. This weekend, one of Al Nassr’s domestic rivals, Al Hilal, will become the first Saudi team (and only the third Asian team) to compete in the final of the Club World Cup, having beaten the South American champion, Flamengo, in the semifinal. Many of its players will be familiar; Al Hilal provided the bedrock of the Saudi team that beat Argentina in the World Cup a couple of months ago.
In the space of three months, then, Salem Al-Dawsari, Saleh Al-Shehri and the rest have twice proved that the most effective way of using soccer to win hearts and minds, to exert influence, to enter the global consciousness is simply to be good at it.
The victory over Argentina, for example, did far more to embed Saudi Arabia in the soccer world than buying Newcastle United or hosting the Italian Super Cup ever could, thanks to the traveling army of raucous Saudi fans. Likewise, the sight of Al Hilal facing off against Real Madrid will do more to promote the Saudi Pro League than a hundred clips of Ronaldo scoring penalties for Al Nassr.
Both moments, after all, confer one thing on Saudi as a soccer — and perhaps a sporting — nation that none of those expensive purchases ever could: They grant the country’s players, teams and league legitimacy, authenticity, in front of a global audience. It must be galling, too, that it does not cost nearly as much to put together.
Marsching On Together
Farewell, then, to Jesse Marsch, the Wisconsin native who leaves after 11 months as Leeds United manager neither mourned nor missed. His dismissal, after a run of seven Premier League games without a win, felt unpleasant but unavoidable: That is, ultimately, just how soccer works.
That, certainly, is how it felt to the club’s fans. They had not turned on Marsch because they had taken against him, particularly; there was a sense, broadly, that they could see what he was trying to do. It just had not worked. Marsch can take a sort of curious pride in the fact that there has been no great pleasure in his demise.
Quite where Leeds goes from here is not clear: The club has failed in its pursuit of at least two possible replacements, Raúl González and Andoni Iraola, and faces a struggle to persuade a third, the Dutchman Arne Slot, to leave title-chasing Feyenoord in the middle of the season.
Whoever takes the role will, at least, have a competitive squad to mold, not least in the American midfield — Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie — that Marsch had only just completed. This Leeds team is good enough to avoid relegation; that it is involved at all is testament to how competitive the middle and lower rungs of the Premier League are this season.
For Marsch, the future seems a little more clear-cut. He has a résumé better than any American coach of his generation: experience in the Premier League and the Bundesliga with Leeds and RB Leipzig, a taste of the Champions League with Red Bull Salzburg. He would, in other words, be an ideal candidate for any high-profile national team jobs that happen to come available.
It’s All in the Timing
Quietly, without wishing to cause a stir, the Premier League uploaded a statement to its website Monday morning. It was nothing major, no cause for alarm, just the most popular soccer league on the planet accusing its serial champion, its great modern superpower, of spending more than a decade breaking the league’s financial rules. All of Manchester City’s success, the Premier League was suggesting, might one day require an asterisk.
Three days later, a very different kind of story broke, one that was designed to be as loud and eye-catching as possible. A consortium of unnamed Qatari investors, it was reported, were close to submitting a bid for Manchester United, the club they regard as the “crown jewel” of global soccer.
There was not, it has to be said, a great deal of detail beyond that. It is not clear who the potential owners are — other than that they are not, apparently, in any way linked to the Qatari state, in case you were wondering — or even how likely the prospective bid is to be accepted. United’s current owners have instructed Raine, the investment bank, to find a buyer. A mystery suitor from a nation thought to be awash with cash going vaguely public is, one would imagine, not a terrible thing for either.
Given the timing, though, it was curious to read what the mystery group had planned for the club. They might sound like bromides — talking to fans about the redevelopment of Old Trafford, wanting their prospective takeover to be “for the good of the community,” intending to hand Erik ten Hag, United’s manager, a vast amount of money to play with in the transfer market — but they have, remember, been let slip by someone, somewhere along the line.
Manchester United does not need an infusion of money to make splashy, expensive signings. It handed Ajax $100 million for Antony less than six months ago. What it has long required, if anything, is a more cogent internal structure and a more streamlined, more effective scouting department. (The club has, in fairness, made considerable progress on this recently.)
But that is not exactly a compelling argument to get fans onside, and so those with designs on buying the club did what potential investors always do: promise to spend vast sums of money on new players, tell the fans what you presume they want to hear.
There is no reason to believe, of course, that they would do that by taking the same approach as City is alleged to have taken. Given the proximity of the two events, though, it was hard not to wonder if soccer would be better off if spending money was not regarded as the calling card of a desirable owner, if it was not such a reflex, if it was not the first thing anyone promised.