The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
He looks, anyway, most of the time, something run-of-the-mill or only a very little above it, with his scowling sudden lurches for the ball and his dropping back to hunt for it in midfield. In the middle of the pitch he’s too determined, too intent on the one bright place where he wants to put the ball, not to lose possession to the first defender who tricks him with an angle or a hint of finesse. He plays higher to the ground than you’d expect, straight up and down or with only a vague tilt rather than in that bulldog state of shouldering through the furrows that his body and face seem to suggest. He needs open space to play in and moves to it, sometimes even if the space is harmless or too far back. So he can be thwarted and shielded, and if he’s kept that way, lured out of place and harassed, he can become anonymous, letting the game flow on around him while he waits in some incommunicable pocket for it to match his tempo and come back into step.
But he’s fast—much faster than you’d think from a picture. There was never anyone who looked as slow as he does, with his stoutness and his cross-grained sailor stubble, who moved so plainly in the realm of milliseconds. Inspiration is his secret capacity and however he is off the pitch, on it he bursts into dangerousness by his access to extremes. Keep him calm, restrict him to a usual span of contentment or frustration, and you might be able to negate him; let him approach rage or joy and he’ll let loose moments that could knock the stadium down. You’ll see him bump the ball forward, almost clumsily, then drag it, past his man, to one side, then watch it go blazing off that foot like a new combination of a wrecking ball and lightning. At such moments he can undo himself, too. He can act like a thug in a temper, but only in the way that some geniuses break glass; that proximity to wildness that makes the great thing possible is also behind the petulance, or the violence, or the contempt.
And what we see in him now is just this hint of the devil in the angel: it’s in his blunt boy’s face, changing from choirboy smile to the famous contortions of fury so fast that he seems to be melded together out of a Hummel figurine and something from Hieronymus Bosch; and it’s in the style and two-sidedness of his play. No peak of success and no depth of calamity seems impossible for him now, though neither his volatility nor how to exploit it will be a mystery to his manager and that will work in his behalf. Whatever you think of his club, for the moment he is one of the players who matter, one of the ones who mean something; and whether he wars productively with himself and is brilliant for many years, or sees his talent dissipate in brutality or peace, or transcends himself with intelligence, at the moment what he means is a question. And the question is mesmerizing by itself.
by Brian Phillips · October 30, 2007