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.
It might not be obvious every time we watch a game of soccer, but there’s a tacit contract between players and observers of the sport. In it, we the viewer expect nothing less than maximum effort, maximum fun, and we can never see that soccer is not the be-all and end-all for our heroes. Blood, sweat, tears, and none of the complaining that comes from living a more ordinary life.
In exchange, our offering is simple. Love. Worship. Respect.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t always play out that way. Zlatan Ibrahimović, a fine (albeit streaky) striker is forever haunted by those boo-boys who accuse him of playing at half-speed, emerging in the game’s rich narrative at moments when it suits—and benefits—him most. His Milan teammate Robinho endures similar criticism for being a player notoriously inconsistent with his rich gifts, a man capable of incandescent skill or supreme laziness in every moment.
What about Dimitar Berbatov? We see snapshots of him smoking cigarettes—even enjoying them—and this image haunts us every time the prodigious Bulgarian dogs it at half-pace after a long ball we know he’ll never reach.
We can’t argue that their love for the game is anything but total, just that they’re concerned with more than their 90 minutes of work every weekend.
Others, like Craig Bellamy, confound in different ways. He, like perennial Italian grouch Antonio Cassano, seems hell-bent on compromising his own abundant skills by never cowing to the established order of the game, never willing to submit to personalities other than their own.
Nary a day passes without either player gnawing openly on the hands that feed; though it makes for entertainment of the highest order, it leaves us feeling empty and abused, as if that effort would be better aimed at practicing free-kicks, or stamina drills, or some other facet of their game.
Bellamy’s talked himself out of lofty perches with his antics. Don’t sing karaoke with me? Enjoy this golf club to the legs, and I’ll enjoy yet another transfer for reasons beyond on-pitch form. Send me on loan to Scotland? I’ll send you drunk texts mocking an FA Cup semi-final defeat that will guarantee I never play for that team again. Hit a Manchester United fan during a heated derby, and have that overshadow a sublime brace in a seven-goal thriller. Bad-mouth the beleaguered, scarf-wearing new boss, and find yourself dumped in Cardiff. Only you tell us you always wanted to be there.
(An anecdote I heard via backroom staff at Norwich City illuminates the fact that Craig’s always been this way: as a teenage trainee with the Canaries, he’d abuse his travel expenses by picking up used train and bus tickets and handing them in as his own to claim a refund. An adolescent prank, but the first signs that Bellamy wasn’t entirely concerned about carving himself a soccer legacy.)
Antonio Cassano’s living a similar sleepless dream on the continent: after becoming only the second Italian player ever to represent Real Madrid, he quickly argued his way out of town by jawing with Fabio Capello. Despite wanting to “walk all the way” back to Roma—where he could repair a damaged relationship with Francesco Totti—he ended up much further north with Sampdoria.
Real president Ramón Calderón called Cassano’s state of mind “unsustainable”, a sentiment shared by Sampdoria’s president (and Antonio’s current boss) Riccardo Garrone. In Serie A, it’s more of the same: arguments, bickering, and a suicidal tendency to speak his mind, capped by his autobiography in which Antonio regaled us all with his extra-curriculars: sex, more sex, and plates piled high with pastries.
And then you get Benoît Assou-Ekotto. When he says that soccer’s a “good, good job” and that it’s not his passion, we get even more angry. His honesty becomes a weapon with which we bludgeon him after every error, every misstep, every miscalculation on the field of battle. Any mistake is tracked back to the fact that he’s not in love with being a soccer player, though we overlook Jamie Carragher’s World Cup slip-ups because he’s a lifelong devotee of the sport.
It’s not just soccer, either; Randy Moss, easily one of the three best wide receivers ever to grace the NFL, has always been under extra scrutiny for not conforming to expectations, crippled by a throwaway quote nearly a decade old noting that “when I want to play, I’ll play.”
Why is any of this our concern? Why does our perception of anything less than maximum effort manifest itself in irrational distrust of certain majestic players? Why can’t we simply enjoy what they do offer instead of focusing all our ire on that fiber they seem to lack?
I suspect the answer’s rooted in our reluctance to examine ourselves too closely—imagine the panic we’d feel if anyone at work noticed our sluggish days and felt compelled to comment—but really, I think it has more to do with our valuation of talent, and the absurd premium we place on using it to the fullest.
As much as we’d love the game of soccer to be a transcendent force hovering above our silly little lives, it’s as much as job as that held by any ditch-digger, any taxi driver, any dishwasher, or any office peon mindlessly pushing pencils around a bland cubicle workspace.
We’re never likely to push ourselves to the very limits each and every day, yet it’s hard for us to conceive that those highly-paid heroes we worship weekly could do anything less than their maximum. Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs never take days off? Think that Warren Buffett struggles through a 24/7 work-life at 80 years old?
Our imagination finds them all immune to mundane pursuits like love, death, and taxes, except when we greedily consume each and every sordid tabloid word of their misgivings like a Christmas dinner of the mind.
In reality, neither extreme is tenable. Those who fail to give themselves to the sport are quickly scrubbed from its annals—Francis Jeffers, Nicky Summerbee—while those too quick to succumb to its seduction end up perishing in very different ways. Paul Gascoigne, the most creative English player in history, admitted to the Guardian that his constant fixation on soccer is “why I began drinking—it took my mind off football”.
He suffers to this day, both from giving entirely to the sport and from the crushing weight of those critics who insisted he never did; Ian Woolridge, frenzied penman at the Daily Mail, thought of the plastic boob-sporting prankster as “a fat, ill-mannered Geordie who has urinated a glorious God-given talent against numerous walls.” Perspective truly is everything.
(It bears noting that George Best did the same thing but a solid decade earlier, yet found universal pity)
What of Garrincha, a man who lived to excess every day, so much so that he left an overcrowded brood to fend for themselves in the wake of his destructive behavior, every bit as bamboozled as any defender that dared to face his bow-legged brilliance up close?
Ultimately, the players who do surrender to the sport as we’d like often end up more broken, more bruised, and deeper in despair than those who maintain a sense of perspective. When our teams lose, we feel extreme pain, and we want that from the players. In our rush to worship, we overlook that the game’s stressors go far deeper than the cuts, scrapes, and broken limbs of any rendezvous with Karl Henry in a crowded midfield.
Let’s never forget what brought us to the game in the first place: the roar of the crowd, the breathless wonder of playing witness to a Ronaldinho stepover, and the orgiastic release of a 94th minute winner. When it’s over, we get to walk away and pick up life where we left it until the call of the game lures us back the following weekend. We should extend that same courtesy to our idols.
James Tyler is is a managing editor by trade, spending his free time editing Unprofessional Foul and serving as a freelance soccer researcher extraordinaire. His childhood dream was to take a penalty against Lev Yashin, but nowadays, he’d settle for a pint with Steve McManaman.
by James Tyler · November 17, 2010