2 November 2011

Why Goals Aren't Overrated (But Javier Hernandez Is)

Players have positions. Over a century of crooked evolution has done nothing to dispute this. Certain positions have died, but the nominative principle remains. Indeed, it is so strong, that the most innovative players (Beckenbauer, Hidegkuti, and other sepia wonders) are awarded precisely their own positions, so that their revolutions might later be domesticated into the grey and essential world of categorisation. It is pointless to pretend that we can watch and appreciate football external to this gently shifting landscape of labels; labels that derive from those imaginary positions that make up formations (and Zonal Marking’s homepage), the places where each team’s players stand rooted semantically, if not literally, to the pitch.

Some players have the fortune and the misfortune to embody a position more totally than others. They smell of their position, of the very particular chemical needed to preserve the specimen. The catalogue of these archetypal players, if collated, would be the grand project of football classification, its Natural History Museum, or else a work of overarching and bizarre structural anthropology. When positions are this potently embodied, then we are dealing with the very foundations of the game, practically mythical, and we would do well to urge caution.

Exhibition A: Last of the Inside Lefts

Myths cast long psychological shadows, and the intimidation that can be achieved by the astute deployment of archetypes should never be underestimated. Perhaps no department of our Natural History Museum is as unnerving to the visitor as that which houses the archetypal, the indivisible goal-poachers. Lacking the liquid biceps and sideways swerve of a Van Persie, or the powerful idiosyncrasies of the crab-walking, childlike Ibrahimovic, these specimens are almost entirely defined by their dourness. No distinguishing features abound here, only slight physiological mishaps and unprepossessing haircuts. Yet how disturbing these men, under the blank museum lights! All they do is score goals: an act that is blank, apolitical, even acultural, and thus dangerous. Two examples should suffice. Gerd Müller’s first coach, the Yugoslavian funnybone Zlatko Cajkovski, quite rightly gave him the sobriquet ‘kleines dickes Müller’ – short fat Müller (even Cajkovski’s grammatically incorrect German seems apt for this stumpy, uneven little player). This small, hairy alcoholic was deceptively underwhelming that he would seem to enact a disappearing act on the field for long, precious minutes at a time. And then, from three or four yards, he would score, score, and score some more. Short fat Müller sacked arguably the greatest international team of all time when his odd body curled itself around an uninviting cross to make the scoreline West Germany 2 – 1 Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup Final; he nestles amongst a leper’s handful of the greatest strikers of all time, regardless of subspecies. And what of his modern, Mediterranean counterpart, Filippo Inzaghi? That lank hair, grey expression, offside gait and arrogantly devoid gaze he wears like an old cloak, beneath which he hides a dagger. Do we honestly think that the Fergusons, Guardiolas, and Mourinhos of this world are not afraid to see him standing on the touchline? They would be foolish not to be. This is precisely the point with archetypal players: they provoke justified fear, since they embody their singular role to the extent of near infallibility. We should fear the dour and the lumpen when they have scoring statistics like these.

We should not fear Javier Hernandez. At most, he should provoke faint annoyance, or the kind of half-amused pity that surfaces when we see a three-legged cat, or the fatigued motions of a water buffalo poisoned by ever-circling Komodo Dragons. He wants to have it all, to throw off the accumulative cultural weight of myth and boundary, whilst still being commended for the primitivism of his achievements. He is an anthropological short circuit. Hernandez is a goal-poacher, for sure: he is certainly no great passer of the ball, or crosser, or tackler, or trickster; he is quite fast and knocks it in from a few yards out. A valuable player, undoubtedly. But dour, that he will not consent to.

The Small Fat Pea’s chosen persona, rather, is one of ‘infectious enthusiasm’, ‘love of the game’; he is, we are told, a joyful player. He loved playing in the Mexican league but it’s even more exciting to play for a big team in a big league, and he’s so happy to play for Manchester United (look, he’s kissing the badge!), and if God lets him he’ll score loads and loads of goals against other big teams, and Wigan, and oh look it’s gone in off his pancreas wow wheeeeeeeeeeeeee. Javier is confused. His young and excitable self clearly loves football in the way a child loves the game; and yet his by-now-athletically-mature body is incapable of performing almost all the actions involved in an actual professional game. Thus he is become archetypal, adept at one alone. But the child-self protests (with a degree of petulance), and continues to enact that fabled infectiousness, apparently to the delight of fans who are perhaps guilty of indulging their own inner (footballing) child in their celebrations of his latest shoulder-dropping exploits.[1]

Perhaps the Pea’s anti-archetypal, anti-mythical quest for permanent joy is indicative of the globalisation and totalisation of the game. Permanent joy in the face of draining 1-0 away wins at Everton is of course an illusion, and yet the whole point of ‘infectious enthusiasm’ (indeed, all epidemics), is that they cannot be allowed to flicker; and this is particularly true when this enthusiasm is being used to market a product such as sport, whose unpredictability and fluctuating quality go against the solid principles of profiteering. The market resolves everything, even archetypes, into a two-dimensional version of itself, meaningless but valuable, and it allows Mr. Hernandez to accessorise his grim footballing job with cheeky Hispanic grins and endearing piety. In the same way, then, that the globalisation of football has meant the destruction of clubs’ regional identities and fan cultures, so it has removed something of the semantic coherence even of positions. Soon we may find ourselves living in a world not of trequartistas and left-backs, but simply of ‘top, top players’ – a world, coincidentally, where Jamie Redknapp would feel quite at home.[2]

Nobel Pea Prize

No doubt the perfectly accurate and scientifically justified observations above will be countered with claims as to PeaBot’s brilliant record as a player regardless of some pretentious nonsense about the superstructure of football’s mythical archetypes. Well, sure. And yet, let us not forget those moments when the Diminutive Vegetable’s limitations have been ruthlessly exposed, his enthusiasm shown to be a shield against the essentialised nature of his career, and I have been proven gloriously right. The Champions’ League Final of last season was a remarkable game, which played out like a series of rhetorical points being quite beautifully made. As Brian Phillips noted at the time, it is very rare indeed for a team to win as Barcelona did that night, entirely in their own way, with no aid from above or below, purely as an expression of the superiority of their performance of a reading of the game. In a sense, Barcelona are doing the market’s homogenising job on themselves, reducing their game to a series of rigid principles, and thus nihilistically maintaining an identity in the face of external pressure simply to exist in a frictionless, marketable manner. This is not a promising modus vivandi, but that night it clicked into a seamless performance. It is also rare for one player to be so completely at odds with the endeavours of the match around him as Mini Sprout was that day. He did nothing, except stand offside. For once, his childish sense of entitlement (to both goals and fun fun fun) wasn’t catered for, and instead he got to see what can happen when a team is fully at ease with its own identity and naturalist classification. Do people honestly think that Dimitar Berbatov would not have been more effective? Note: ‘effective’ is not the same as ‘enthusiastic’. Are we really so caught up in the hysterical merry-go-round of ‘infectious enthusiasm’ that we cannot accept that a languid, intelligent player, who is at peace with his languidness and intelligence and the impact these can have, would not have fared better on that strange, ideological evening?

[1] Young Master Pea’s structural deficiencies have short-wired the discourse of commentators, too. Caught up in the notion that this is joyful football, yet unable to square that with the dour actions Pea actually performs, we are told in breathless terms how skilfully he has ‘dropped his shoulder’, ‘stuck his leg out’, ‘folded his rectum’, and so forth.
[2] If this sounds rather unjustifiably dystopian, then I will say in my defence that I tried for ages to think of a ‘funny angle’ on the Señorita, but simply couldn’t: the little shit just isn’t funny.

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