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.
For a whole year he was my favorite player in football. I loved his hesitations and would make comparisons to Thelonious Monk while he gathered himself over the ball and hovered over it, probingly, like a hummingbird, knowing exactly when to dart. Untouched by the smallest worry over anyone else’s intention, for mentally he was always ten seconds in the future and patient because so quick, he would count beats, drag the ball aside as if it were a remote control for moving the defender, then lean suddenly and sling it past him, laying out the centerback with a well-meaning, almost floral display of contempt. The furthest thing from his mind was the thought of causing hard feelings. If he left you on the ground it was simply in the enjoyment of his own exquisiteness.
There was a Fredric March- or Cary Grant-like quality about him, too, of simultaneously making the joke and being above the joke, in some way trivializing what was serious in him by going over so wholly into pure delicacy and excess, in some other way using it like a filter to reveal a kind of actual perfection. He was like the violins in Mozart, commanding through happiness. And he was commanding, too, proving it never more than in the moment after a goal, when, in the instant when most players give themselves up to abandon, he would remember everything that had happened and turn to whatever other player had contributed, not wildly but with a surveying impressiveness, and point as if to say, you and I are feeling about this what I mean for us to be feeling about this. Sometimes he would do that to the crowd itself. And they would be.
It was his shivering angle, the way he came in like a cutting blade of heraldry, all the colors floating on the pitch somehow instrumental and supplementary to the authority of his own, that made his lightness so thrilling. He wasted nothing and, shoulders high like a vulture’s or like the mounds in the shaman’s cloak, would score unspectacularly when he could, some principle of conservation making him glide from despising friction. He was too fine for it, and like lightning he overturned the hierarchy that makes brawn and earthiness stronger than jovial air.
Nevertheless there was some final wickedness missing in him, some necessary murderous underlayer that means having threatened the world with a thunderbolt you will err on the side of releasing it. There was a sense, desperately subtle but increasingly the main thing, that he had to be talked into his destructions, not out of them. That having achieved everything he wanted in life he thought he would be loved for it and would remain unquestionable forever, rather than being subject to whatever interrogations it was the world’s pleasure to throw at him. And somehow, a disappointment crept into his game that seemed a loss of illusions as much as abilities.
At Barcelona, you can see him playing up to it, trying to hustle and bounce his way back into that keenness of sheer grace. Which, of course, can probably never be recaptured. Having done that once—slanting on the ball, tiptoeing on it, soft-footing to the side in his kit and bright colors—and looked away from it, all he can play for now is a repetition, when at his best he was sharp enough to play for a continuance.
by Brian Phillips · January 6, 2009