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Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Death of Personality

November 12th 2012 was a great day. In the North London derby, my beloved Arsenal came from a goal down to beat our lousy neighbours 5-2 for the second year in a row in that fixture. You know what made it more amazing? Emmanuel Adebayor, the sometimes talented but over exuberant forward who used to be one of us had been the one to open the scoring. But then, like all things Adebayor related, it wouldn’t last. He made a rash tackle on the latest jewel in our crown, the miniscule Spaniard Santi Cazorla. In no time, we were all over them like a rash, taking the lead and extending it. To make it a more beautiful sight, two of the men responsible for bringing us joy over the years whilst simultaneously causing hell for Tottenham, Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell were sat in the stands applauding the present crop. Later that night, as I settled to watch Match of the Day, I discovered that Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany would be making an appearance analysing the weekend’s games. Great move, I thought considering the common criticism of Match of the Day as being the enclave of an old boy’s network in desperate need of a shakedown. Kompany is smarter than the average footballer. He has one university degree earned in his younger years whilst in his native, Belgium. A newspaper report last year suggests he is currently taking a Business Administration course at Manchester Business School. Judging by his Twitter persona, he does not struggle in articulating himself well. Something made more impressive considering English is not his first language. By the end of the show, the general feeling was one of disappointment. He was overly diplomatic. He ran away from saying anything that could class as constructive criticism preferring to make his analyses through rose tinted spectacles.  To have me longing for Mark Lawrenson and Alan Shearer surely highlights how dire a performance he put in.  

In hindsight, one cannot blame him. Perceived criticism would have caused an outrage with one having to think back to when Danny Murphy, then Fulham’s skipper complained about certain managers (referring to the likes of Tony Pulis, Mick McCarthy and Sam Allardyce) getting their players too fired up leading to the spate of bad tackles. The managers criticized were infuriated. Football, like all closed industries is not very tolerant of those who rock the boat.  However, that is not the crux of my theses. 

Simon Kuper is one of my favourite sports writers. Kuper, of Dutch descent (And we all know the Dutch are the premier football tactics culture) writes for the Financial Times. His profiling style is second to none and this influenced my decision to purchase his book ‘The Football Men’; a collection of his articles on numerous football personalities (pretty much anyone who’s anyone) including some favourites of mine amongst who include Dennis Bergkamp, Clarence Seedorf, Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Arsene Wenger. Reading the introduction of the book, he writes about footballers specializing in what he calls “sweet nothings” which I would effectively call nothing particularly interesting or enlightening disguised in buzz words that would be more in place at a Fortune 100 company’s annual general meeting. He references Jamie Carragher’s definition in his autobiography, ‘Carra’ describing them as being the “robotic, characterless ideal modern coaches’ want”. This underlines the growing influence of the corporate world on football. Nowadays, most interviews conducted with footballers tend to be extremely tedious and boring. I could make a list of specialists in this regard (Theo Walcott, Thomas Vermaelen, Michael Owen and David Beckham amongst others have doctorates in the art of ‘sweet nothings’). Players with the slightest sense of personality who would tell things as they are tend to find themselves persecuted by being taken off media duties.

Mario Balotelli being the classic example. Whilst in England, Balotelli was the source of countless tabloid headlines. There was the incident of him setting his house on fire, the morning of the Manchester derby. During that derby, he would score and celebrate by revealing an under shirt with the message “Why always me?” responding to the fascination with him from the press. There were numerous unverified incidents attributed to him that highlighted his eccentricities which would later turn out to be false. Eventually, it is believed his club got weary of his antics with the argument being that had he had been indulged by his mentor and compatriot, City manager Roberto Mancini for so long and was yet to justify it. In January, Balotelli returned to Italy to join AC Milan.  

It is a very sensible argument to suggest that this is a by product of the thirst embodied by the tabloid press who love to feed on the most immaterial of things. The media are a very powerful tool with the power to shape public discourse. Glenn Hoddle was forced to resign as England Manager for expressing a dodgy piece of personal opinion. On a simplistic level, what happened to being judged on results? 

The cult of “Personality” is dead and this is not something exclusive to just football to use Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London as an example. Boris is viewed affectionately for his bumbling buffoon act. He is hugely interesting when compared to other politicians and this is exemplified by David Cameron remarking when Boris got stuck on a zipwire during the Olympics that "If any other politician anywhere in the world was stuck on a zip-wire it would be a disaster. For Boris, it's an absolute triumph.” Boris tops popularity polls but is still not trusted by the party establishment. Being unpredictable does not wash with those at the helm of affairs. For one, those with strong personalities are not marketable. Corporate bodies want people they can control and tend to stay away from those with the slightest form of unpredictability. And it is for this reason, that young athletes and entertainers are exposed to media training activities from the get go. 

To an extent, this is also an extension of the awarding process in the football climate. Take the Football Writers Player of the Year for instance. The criteria insists upon “precept and example” thus highlighting the moralization of an award that is supposed to be handed to the best player that football season, regardless of how much of an example they are to young kids growing up watching the sport.  Clauses like that deprive those footballers born of the laddish subculture and tend to favour those with Boy’s Scout credentials. As Paul Hayward propagated a few weeks back, it’s convenient that Suarez earned no votes because of the biting incident but Gareth Bale, a serial diver perceived as a “nice guy” was found befitting. It is for reasons like these; footballers have evolved to corporate men.  

 The Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo debate is one for the ages. Ronaldo is the ugly Prince to Messi’s pure Kingship. Why’s this? Ronaldo is perceived as being pompous whilst Messi on the other hand is terribly shy and boring. Ronaldo is the one with gelled hair who takes pictures with Rihanna and is spotted at your typical celebrity havens and has a child with an unknown woman whilst Messi is seen as being the “humble” and gentle family man whose voice is not even recognizable to the most avid of football fans. A very credible journalist tells of a story last year when Ronaldo’s management displeased at his lack of success on the awards front made moves to step up their press management by having him cut out the theatrics to his game and being less controversial in the hope that it would allow him a fairer run when players voted for him. It’s not been particularly successful but it does underline how we are wont to persecute those who with personality. 

The final nail in the shift towards corporate culture would be the fan’s experience. A couple of weeks back, there were complaints that the Champions League final staged at Wembley had effectively been transformed to a corporate event with majority of the tickets being set aside for sponsoring companies thus ensuring that real fans are priced out from witnessing the spectacle whilst the more passionate would have to pay large if they wanted to get their hands on the heavily inflated tickets available. This is a complaint that is growingly thrown at football clubs. The Emirates Stadium, an architectural phenom is decried for being a “library” an allusion to the awfully quiet atmosphere that pervades that arena. Roy Keane in one of his more famous rants complained about the Old Trafford crowd over what he viewed as an unbefitting atmosphere saying “they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going out on the pitch”. It captures one reason why I have fallen out of love with it to an extent. Arsenal not being particularly great these days probably plays a very big role in this but every time I watch ESPN Classic and watch Patrick Vieira and Roy Keane grapple at each other, I long for the excitement that made my football formative years so exciting.  Now it’s no more than an exercise in corporate relations than the extremely competitive sport it should be.


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