Hero: noun (person) – a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great. Cambridge English Dictionary.
Fernando Torres was tellingly substituted in the 58th minute of tonight’s local derby between Portugal and Spain after failing once again to re-capture the goal-scoring brilliance that makes him such a prized asset for his club side whilst Cristiano Ronaldo, rightfully and sadly in equal measure, is on his way home. He will be joining a litany of heralded casualties that have failed to live up to the hype that has been heavily bestowed upon them prior to the first kick of a ball in South Africa. The question that comes foremost to the mind is, why have the game’s supposed ‘big names’ so miserably failed to produce the mesmeric magic that so many had hoped they would?
The reasons may vary, from the fatigue of gruelling domestic seasons taking their toll to the failure of a team to measure up to the ‘special’ players’ unique talents. I believe the problems run deeper than such surface assessments and point to a depressingly 21st century perception of the definition of what greatness ultimately means.
How is heroism truly defined? What makes one footballer live longer in the cherished memory than another? Many of the players that have resonated with me in World Cups, have been relatively inconspicuous before the event that has truly defined their essence. In actuality, their elevation to the status of the hero has not only been forged in the spontaneous, fleeting moments of their brilliance but also cemented in the retrospective replaying and fond recollections with which we remember them. David Platt’s last gasp volley against Belgium in 1990. Roger Milla’s robbing of Columbian goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, and his ensuing corner flag shimmy in the same tournament. Yordan Letchkov’s receding pate diving to stun the defending champions, Germany, in 1994. All examples of heroes materialising from obscurity who grabbed their moments exquisitely and have thus become forever associated with a time and a place. If you also consider the winners of the Golden Boot, despite some notable exceptions to the rule, they are usually won by players who have not been globally recognised as ‘superstars’. Some have gone on to flourish with their new-found status (Gary Lineker), others have disappeared into the obscurity from whence they came (Toto Schilaci) but in their moments they shone and inspired all around them. Unlikely heroes some of them may have been, but all totally organic and free of any pre-conceived idea of who is deigned to be deserving of our admiration and adulation.
The sports agents and their armies of marketing machines have airbrushed the game with ruthless omissions of the fabulous idiosyncrasies and blemishes that make this game so enduringly beautiful. We are bombarded with images of metrosexual demigods sporting the latest crop of fashions from the boutiques of the world’s fashion-houses, dating the most desirable of models and living lifestyles beyond our everyday imaginings. For the average child watching the games in living rooms across the globe, they are the essence of what it is to be a hero in our media-driven, celebrity-obsessed 21st century culture. In many respects, we were all in awe of the game’s publicised leading lights at the tender ages of ten or twelve. There is nothing wrong with that because the young are always required to find role models with which to gain inspiration and aspire to. My hero was Paul Gascoigne. I worshipped him with such a passion, ignorant of the dormant self-destructions that would ultimately turn him into the tragic figure that I have come to see him as with the passing of time. However, being paraded as a hero does not necessarily make you one and it is telling that this World Cup, whilst enthralling us with players of stupefying technical skill and ability has not yet produced a moment from a player that will be talked about in the years to come.
Whilst the recriminations for England’s demise continue to rage, it has emerged that the squad had been living a virtually monastic lifestyle, insulated from the media and prohibited from any kind of contact with people not associated with it. Meanwhile, it has been widely reported that the Ghanaians, based at a hotel a few miles up the road, have been mingling with other guests and openly signing autographs for the young kids who turn up to see them. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who will be more favourably remembered by the children of South Africa when those ubiquitous playground kickabouts get underway. The modern footballer has become detached from the realities of the world in which he inhabits and consequently is perhaps unable to measure his true capabilities and frailties when massaged and flattered by attendant publicists, spin doctors and sycophants. Of course, the blame cannot be heaped onto these young men’s shoulders entirely but when their thoughts and actions are so meticulously managed and scrutinised by an omniscient media machine, it cannot come as such a surprise when they fail to reach those unattainable heights in which they are invariably held up to.
The death of the true individual (see individuals-united), perhaps occurred in that final, violent act that took place on a balmy Berlin evening four years ago. Zinedine Zidane’s act of shocking self-destruction to Marco Materazzi’s chest has been dissected and debated from the very first moment we all saw it. Moralists and social commentators have discussed at great length the ramifications ‘that’ headbutt has had on the game ever since; on the game, his reputation and on the impressionable young. However, in all its horrifying beauty, it demonstrates how this greatest of players was able to transcend the pressures and expectations heaped upon his shoulders. In the closing deed of his career, Zidane was alone, (despite the world’s watching eyes), on a field with an opponent questioning his very essence of being. In that one moment, all thoughts of sponsorships and contracts evaporated and Zidane was exposed as a human being with all its attendant flaws. Despite it, and maybe a little because of it, he has his place in the roll-call of greats.
While by no means advocating violence, I am hoping that something as truly iconic will happen at this World Cup. As the sponsors rotate their pitchside hoardings and the players emptily assert their image rights through elaborate body tattoos and orange-tinged Nike boots, the world awaits the unprepossessing, unloved, unknown hero who will seize his moment in our hearts and minds. He’s out there. Somewhere. He just doesn’t know it yet. And neither do we.
Tuesday 29th June
Paraguay 0 – Japan 0 (5-3 on pens)
Spain 1 – Portugal 0