The Tuesday Portrait: William Gallas
by Brian Phillips · October 1, 2008
I realize that this isn’t the obvious word, but there’s something ethereal about him. Arguing that he’s “a smart, strong player with an unfortunate temperamental streak” misses the point completely, since there’s every reason to think that his temperamental streak is also the raw fuel of his will. It’s the same vicious sense of persecution and roaring ego at work when he drives in a header as when he leaves Chelsea in a duchess-worthy huff.
Whatever leadership qualities he brings to the Arsenal captaincy, they’ve
always included and encouraged the possibility of a breakdown like the one he had at Birmingham City last year: the aggravated need to stand apart, the proud refusal to submit to the unity of a team. Traits capable of fostering a commanding presence, but equally capable of collapsing into the insecurity that gave rise to them in the first place. Which, to return to my original point, has to do in Gallas’s case with ethereality. He’s like ethereality’s fight-or-flight reflex.
The problem, in Gallas’s case, is that the fragile, soulful glimmer that you can just about see flickering on the margin of his scowl has been frightened for so long and as a result so completely subordinated to its own defenses that it barely exists as a meaningful personality and instead operates in his mind like a vulnerable spot that’s always about to be touched. It’s always at risk of being found out by the eyes that are always on him, with the result that the rest of his character is constantly clenched around it. And the lip-jutting, nostril-flexing, thunder-eyed repertoire of bellows and fits and strange grins is always a shiver away.
Being “temperamental” can mean a lot of things in sports, one of which is that a player exists in a posture of criticism toward the assumptions that surround him, but without, for one reason or another, being able to articulate the substance of the critique. This is often the condition of intelligent players on whom the culture of the game wears abrasively; and because these players often express their contempt for the culture of the game by exhibiting worse behavior toward it than the bad behavior it already encourages, they frequently become popular symbols of the systemic excesses they started out by despising.
That may not be a redemptive irony; but there’s a half-stunted thoughtfulness in some of Gallas’s most self-congratulatory outbursts—the scandalous move to Arsenal, for instance, which only brought to the surface the logic implicit in nearly all football business—that makes it possible to admire something in the deep background of the decision even while deploring the decision itself. Attacking Nani is almost a defense of the honor of football even as it’s simultaneously a blatant betrayal of it.
What makes him great, even if he’s loathsome, is that at the risk of self-immolating he throws himself harder and harder at the things that provoke him and threaten him. If he’s burning with the sense of being looked at, he demands a bigger crowd; if the pressure of even being on the team is knotting him up inside, he demands to be made captain. The particualr quality of hubris in that need has nothing to do with the quest for glory and everything to do with the fundamental act of defiance. He defends like it’s grand opera, and he sings like he’s terrified you’ll score.
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