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.

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I Fought the Angels

“I hate all those weathermen who tell you that rain is bad weather. There’s no such thing as bad weather—just the wrong clothing.” — Billy Connolly

Hang On to Your Ego

Sport is heightened life. It is a grand parody of our need to see order and patterns in the universe, to grade its constituent parts. We go to great lengths and devise innumerable ways—points, goals, centuries, PER, VORP, votes—to class participants and determine one superior to another. In a sense, it’s a convenient fiction: better, perhaps, to believe that a result reveals some incontrovertible truth than to chalk it up to an accident of history, to a decision once upon a time that a game should last ninety minutes, not eighty, or that the goalposts should be precisely eight yards apart, not twenty-three feet. Better to attribute a defeat to corrupt refereeing than to chance.

With this comes a belief in the correctness of particular attributes. Thus is experience often prized. Pace, strength and “passion”, whatever that is, are totems of the Premier League. In 2004, when the world was briefly José’s, it was fashionable to state that a good manager was one who took decisive and evident action, such as making substitutions before an hour had elapsed.

But these qualities are neutral. They are not possessed of any innate positivity (or negativity). Experience can dull instinct. Pace is useless if it sends you in the wrong direction, strength if you can’t get close enough to your enemy to apply it, “passion” if you end up with an opponent’s kneecap skewered on your studs and a three-match ban. A decisive, early substitution can be just as bad as a late one.

This matter is especially pertinent now, as a swarm of the gleeful rushes to see who can be the first to push Cristiano Ronaldo over the white cliffs of Dover. I was going to say that the vast coverage afforded Ronaldo’s impending transfer to Real Madrid was reminiscent of that accompanying the death of some great personage. But that wouldn’t be completely accurate—even tools turn into top blokes after death, after all. It’s had a finality to it, alright: that of the judgement of a contemptible soul.

His crime is egotism. He is a wonderfully gifted player, the argument goes; why does he have to be so selfish? “Football is a team game,” admonishes the Telegraph‘s Kevin Garside. Which, of course, it is, except when it isn’t. Football is a team game is a half-truth, and therefore a half-lie. It takes something complicated and tries to reduce it to a memorable and digestible credo. Where the ultimate beauty in soccer resides is in the tension between teamwork and individualism. If it were merely an individual game, it would still be 1865. But if it were merely a team game, it would be indistinguishable from a military drill. Discipline is essential, but where football sparks into conflagration is when someone forgets it. It’s when someone, consciously or unconsciously, decides to abandon the strictures and see what he can do about destroying the other team’s. To do this is, at least in part, selfish. The reward is an outsized dollop of personal glory; the risk is that you get chewed up by the machine and leave your team in a perilous position.

The point is that this is needed. You can get so far as unit, as a tightly-rehearsed band; but sometimes, dammit, you need a soloist to take things to a higher plane. The key is to ensure that this looseness is properly incorporated into the team: less Trout Mask Replica, more “Marquee Moon”.

In other words, selfishness is what you make of it. It is not bad—not inherently, and not unless you let it or want it to be. To map the selflessness-selfishness, teamwork-individuality and humility-arrogance spectra onto a good-bad one is to try and mangle them into a form they have no business taking. For all the claims that the sale of Ronaldo is the QED on Alex Ferguson’s genius, his real achievement was realising how to use Ronaldo effectively—to have the sheer nerve to, against a strong current of received wisdom, hitch United’s wagon to this particular star and watch it go. Between the pair of them, they made Ronaldo’s egotism work in the most devastating way. They showed that it could be used for good, just like pace and strength and experience.

Listening to the Rain

’Twas ever thus, but somehow Ronaldo gets it in the neck where others have avoided it. Johann “Two Stripes” Cruyff got his daddy-in-law to take him to Barcelona when he lost the Ajax captaincy. But he’s Dutch, therefore his arrogance and selfishness are sexy, therefore he gets a free pass. Zinedine Zidane was an OG—Original Galáctico—someone not above taking the Pérez euro. Where Ronaldo’s fouls late in the Champions League final were deemed petulant acts of spoiled bratitude, Zidane was aloof and mysterious—the type you’d make an art film about—so his violent episodes have been excused, even incorporated into the idea of his genius (he even gets sent off in the movie). Dennis Bergkamp would never have scored one of the greatest World Cup goals, against Argentina in 1998, had his stamp on Siniša Mihajlović in the previous round been spotted. But he is Dutch, and mysterious, and aloof, and has probably had a film made about him in an alternative universe not so far removed from our own.

Northern Europe has long been fascinated by the Mediterranean, and this is especially so for the weather-beaten, melancholy-at-heart islands off the continent’s northwestern shore. Southern Europe is eternally exotic: the object of disgust, desire, fear, admiration, envy, revulsion. It is a complex phenomenon, which says as much about the observer as the observed.

Let’s take as an example a former custodian of United’s no. 7 shirt. Eric Cantona was the Good Latin: stubbly of face; handsome, in a bulbous-nosed sort of way; extravagant, in an economical sort of way; superficially indifferent to his audience; given to responding to those who would trespass against his sense of Ericness by going mano a mano (well, pied à poitrine); oh, and dead philosophical (read: silent, non-smiling, French).

Ronaldo is the Bad Latin: devious; more likely to try to gain an advantage by deceiving the officials than by an honest, hearty elbow to someone’s temple; has almost certainly had his bikini line done; extravagant, in an extravagant sort of way; excessively thin-skinned; responds to someone trespassing his sense of Crissyness by pouting or weeping openly. He is this close to being a stock gay South American toyboy in a crap sitcom.

Cantona is and was admired. Even the criticism of him betrayed a sense of men wanting to be him. Cantona spelled danger—exciting danger. In truth, it was a safe danger—that is precisely why it was exciting and not scary. His presence was shocking because it was new and unexpected. It was as thrilling as a boyband to an adolescent girl in the first flush of lust, and about as threatening. He was the sixth member of Take That. Meet Eric: the Moody One.

Ronaldo may look like a Lithuanian R&B superstar whose hit, “I Love You Kissy Kissy Baby”, you couldn’t go ten minutes without hearing in Dnipropetrovsk last summer, but he is dangerous. He threatens the established notions of what a footballer in Britain should be. His masculinity is effeminate—unabashedly, unapologetically, provocatively; and what’s more, he is very, very good at what he does—unabashedly, unapologetically, provocatively. As Rod Liddle notes in the Sunday Times (in criticising Ronaldo), it is for his “decided continental-ness”, his “un-Britishness”, that he is reviled. It is not because Crissyness is absolutely wrong; it is because he fails to conform to a specified type. It is because he falls outside a standard set by years of reverence, because he declines to kneel before a statue whose foot has been buffed to a shine by decades of worshippers rubbing it for good fortune. It is an environment in which it is perfectly reasonable for someone—a professional writer, no less—to assert that:

…when he [Ronaldo, obviously] winked at the Portugal bench after Wayne Rooney had been sent off in the 2006 World Cup, it was as if we had looked through a window into his soul

—and, even after three years and gallons of cold blood, believe it to be true (British football writers could have taught that Jesus bloke some tricks about making a feast from scant ingredients) and fail to acknowledge that the thing Ronaldo was accused of—the thing he didn’t do—would have been the expression of a universal quality that manifests itself in many different kinds of people. Ronaldo’s problem, if it can be so described, is that not that he is selfish or deceitful or arrogant: it is that he is the wrong kind of selfish and deceitful and arrogant. It is that he can all too easily be cast as the villain. It’s a reading as honest as the whiteboard in Vince McMahon’s office.

You Are Everyone in Your Dreams

A motif of the would-be gravediggers has been regret. We are asked to lament that someone capable of such astounding feats should present such an unappetising personality. Perhaps there is some merit to this. Perhaps it would be better if he shed his Crissyness. Perhaps it would be better if he grimaced less and smiled more, if he cut out the diving, if he got a crew cut, drove a used Cortina, stopped sleeping with the type of woman beloved of nervous, Lynx-drenched thirteen-year-old boys. Perhaps then, he would be a more productive member of society and we could be more secure in our enjoyment of what we see.

Perhaps. Either way, the idea is flawed. It is based on the fallacy that the player can be separated from the person—that the two should be separated. Complaining about those bits of Ronaldo’s personality that displease you and holding them up as incontestable grounds for despising him is like moving to the countryside for the scenery and complaining to the farmer next door about the smell. It is the qualities for which Ronaldo is loathed that have been at the core of what he has achieved—the stuff for which some of the grandest praise has been offered. When you admire him for bamboozling an opponent by sleight of foot, you are admiring his vanity—his tan and six-pack. When you curse him for appearing as much on the front page (and INSIDE: PAGES 4,5,7,8,9) as the back, you curse him for having a go from forty yards against Porto. When you celebrate the magic that gave United the power of flight these past few years, you celebrate the drive which took him to Madrid. Ronaldo is what Ronaldo is, just like every player is what he is—the sum of himself, no subtractions.

(Incidentally, when you praise the outstanding management which has made United the greatest English club of their time, you praise the management which effectively sold Ronaldo a year ago and kept shtum until last week, prolonging the saga of the deal that always was.)

And this is the most frustrating aspect of the consensus that has built up about Ronaldo—that it tells only part of the story. His peacockery cannot be viewed by itself; it is not its own reason. There is a massive sense of insecurity at the root of all he does. It’s as if his every act is an effort to prove himself to someone—anyone, perhaps. One does not need to see him play to appreciate this—anyone who turns his hair into an Exxon Valdez recreation is, it is safe to say, trying to prove something. But take a look at the first ten minutes of the Champions League final, in which he, almost maniacally, tried to shape the outcome of the game to his will. It was as if he had taken the pre-match talk of Ronaldo vs. Messi—Who’s the Greatest? to heart, and set about trying to answer the question with a flame-thrower. He seems frighteningly sensitive to having an audience. He plays as if he’s watching himself on the television; he projects himself in a way that would be desperately hammy if it weren’t so substantial. Lionel Messi plays like a romantic, as if divinely guided, with no seam between thought and expression. Ronaldo is the machine laid bare, the mystery shown to be made of working parts. For all the sharpness and quickness of his trickery, and for all that he is, at best, unplayable, he displays an unnerving lack of spontaneity. He plays like a computer game footballer whose animations are extraordinary and entirely pre-rendered.

The tragedy—or potentially tragic flaw—of the great individual footballer is that he can’t do it all alone. Individual disciplines such as tennis or running embody a kind of dynamic purity: one person pitting their wits against another (and possibly others, depending on the sport). What intrigues about football is its dynamic clash; to return to a theme, football is a team game played by individuals. Ronaldo has left a manager who understands this and who deftly applies this understanding, to play for a team where…well, where God alone knows what awaits. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to guess that Real are investing in a belief that if you bombard your opposition with enough individual brilliance, they will succumb. How this turns out will make Real compelling viewing. What role Ronaldo plays in the scenario will make him especially compelling viewing; but then, he usually is.

The thundering tedium of restatement after restatement of Ronaldo’s undesirable traits as if they alone count does a disservice to the breadth of sport. Its participants are not pantomime characters; its lines are fuzzy, its angles oblique. It’s not about having a “type” against which prospective heroes can be measured and discarded; sport isn’t there to churn out people you wouldn’t mind your sister marrying, or to validate your worldview. If it is a quest for perfection, then it is doomed to failure. It is all about the imperfections; it is the flaws that make it interesting. Otherwise, it’s just a grumpy letter to the editor about a split infinitive.

Fredorrarci writes about football at Sport Is a TV Show.

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I Fought the Angels

by Fredorrarci · June 18, 2009

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