7 June 2011

Ibrahimovic & The Underground Man

Author's Note: Contains 1 spoiler re: Black Swan.

It is a point worth making: football players are not just performances and skill sets. They cannot be seen to be abstract bodies as if there were no more to them than what can be reduced to their mechanics on the pitch. Rather, players are characters. They have personalities which imbue their actions with meanings beyond the bare phenomena with which we are confronted. Furthermore, these players as characters are imbedded in narratives that can be developed over the length of their careers. When considering players, then, we cannot disregard the narratives that contribute to the shaping of our opinions of them. One of the most compelling narratives in recent years traces the respective stories of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In order to understand these players, how they differ and relate, it is useful to consider the literary authors in whose works they might be suited. In doing so we will gain a better insight on what makes their characters so compelling.

Messi and Ronaldo, in this respect, need to be considered in tandem. Whist both of these players are exceptional on the pitch, it is Messi who receives greater praise, whilst Ronaldo is perpetually in his shadow. I would suggest that this is not due to any discernable difference in their respective abilities, but rather due to their characters and what they symbolise. Messi plays for Barcelona, a team widely perceived to represent many of the things that are good in the football. He was also brought through the youth team rather than being an expensive signing. His style of play makes football look fun and easy; his is an excellence predicated on spontaneity and joy. Ronaldo, on the other hand, has played for Manchester United and Real Madrid, teams predominantly identifiable with domestic domination and, thereby, relentless winning. His status as the most expensive transfer of all time relates him to the perceived fiscal vulgarity in the modern game. His game is built around the hunger to win, around powering through to achieve statistical exceptionality. Even if one were to consider their respective appearances, Messi is diminutive and scruffy looking, whilst Ronaldo is an imposing and vain figure. If there is something organic about Messi, there is something mechanic about Ronaldo. It could be seen as the contrast between the natural and the industrial.

The close association of Messi with perfection, with being inherently good, leads me to suggest that the author who could best write him would be Dante. If Messi is perfect then how can we do anything but love him. Messi, insofar as he is the best, could be understood in the terms of Dante’s ontology (heavily metaphysical and drawing deep from a Helleno-Christian heritage) as ‘the love that moves the sun and all the other stars’. He is the perfect form of football that allows the very possibility of football, that towards which all manifested forms of football tend towards, the limit that allows for content. Ronaldo, on the other hand, is characterised entirely by the desire to win, to be the best at all costs. In this sense we could see parallels with Darren Aranovsky’s films that deal with sportspeople: The Wrestler and Black Swan. In both of these films the protagonists’ dedication to their art reaches a symbolic apotheosis coinciding with a transcendental moment of sporting achievement, the forfeit for this being their very life. Ronaldo needs a moment such as this – a moment that can be understood as a moment of coincidence with the idea of perfect football. It is a painful irony, then, that his career should be developing at the same time as Messi’s. Messi is that which Ronaldo wants to be – the fullness that he desires to attain – but cannot reach. As such Messi is a traumatic object for Ronaldo. In this sense, perhaps the perfect author for Ronaldo would be Melville, who, in Moby Dick, gave an epic account of the obsessive pursuit. Messi, then, is the good that is fully realised. Ronaldo desires this good and will eternally pursue it, but can never arrive at it, since it is not a matter of distance that separates him and his goal. His degree of removal is qualitative, not quantitative. Relating back to Dante’s ontology, we could characterise this dichotomy in terms of negative theology. Messi is the cataphatic, the embarrassing surplus of discourse; Ronaldo is the apophatic, endless denial and falling short.

Camp Nou-menal (sic)

Ibrahimovic fits into this narrative in a quirkier way. He, like Ronaldo, has fallen short of the good that he pursues, represented here by Messi. Unlike Ronaldo, however, Ibrahimovic declines to participate in the chase. As a world-class talent he will never be anything less than one of the best players of his generation, but he wants to operate in line with his own rules. It strikes me that an author who has produced similar characters to this is Dostoevsky. Ibrahimovic is not dissimilar to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Like the Underground Man he is not unaware of what is good, but neither does he feel compelled to follow this good. He willingly turns away from it. The key here is that the Underground Man knows that living in such a state, refusing grace, will not lead to his happiness. It is here that the Underground Man differs the existentialist heroes of Sartre or Camus, for whom the result of their disengagement is more ambiguous. Rather it is a consciously torturous existence, yet one pursued for the sake of a perceived (autonomous) freedom.[1] Ibrahimovic, similarly, refuses to engage in the futile pursuit of Messi. In doing so he will never get the recognition that he so deserves and craves, but this is a price that he is willing to pay. As with the role of Ivan’s devil in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Kamamazov, the effect here is that the diabolic (here an eternal hermeneutic of deferred truth) drives the narrative. Ibra’s story is propelled forwards by a negation of goods and a refusal to accept the hierarchy of goods as ordered by Messi. Similar to Ivan in Book 5 Chapter 4, he wants to ‘return his entry ticket’ to a world that he cannot accept. He is a complex character: a hero of sorts, but an ultimately tragic one who may ultimately come to be read in terms of foolishness and regret.

Ibra against the truth?

Of course the roles that Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic inhabit within the above narratives are merely symbolic. Yet whilst we should not take them too seriously, I do believe that they impart a certain truth of the natures of these three men and what makes them such compelling figures in the modern game. So why might one prefer Ibrahimovic to Messi and Ronaldo? Perhaps in the same way that one might prefer Dostoevsky to Dante. Perhaps because he is better written.

[1] See Williams, Rowan (2008) Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, London, Continuum.

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