When the gods want to punish you, the saying goes, they answer your prayers — and the Gods of Football have, of late, been especially punitive. Looking to draw a soft penalty to finish off the clásico and the league along with it? Why, here’s three! (You take one, and your archrival will take the other two.) Praying that your club president will finally come to his senses and ship that mean ol’ coach back to the miserable island from which he came? Presto! (What are you sulking about? You’re still captain!) Ever daydream that one day you would be the Zamora-winning first-string keeper between the posts of a world-class team? Done and done! (No, I mean done. Right now, mid-match, of a derby, with a Champions tie in two days. No sweat, right? You’re at least pumped for another Copa final!)
I’m inclined to think that the Gods of Football, at least those who preside over La Liga, are of the Greco-Roman pantheon. For one thing, I have it on good authority of the History Channel that the divinities of other cultures are not mythological deities but extraterrestrials who beamed to Earth eons ago to share some of their intellectual property with us (e.g., blueprints for the Temple of Angkor Wat, or how to make a really cool crop circle with little more than a scythe and a dream.) And the northern European variety, the Valhallians and Nibelungs and such, well, frankly they intimidate me. We’ll wait to see how Champions plays out before we deal with them again.
No, I’m pretty sure we in La Liga are dealing with your Mediterranean-garden variety gods and goddesses. They don’t care about how you eat or dress or feel about your kid’s best friend’s new young stepmother. They’re content to sit back and watch the show like the rest of us, only from the best vantage point ever … that is, until one of them gets a bee in their bonnet and then you have what is called a “problem.” Kind of like when Mom gets into one of her moods. You’re pretty sure you haven’t done anything wrong, but it’s best to stay out of her way until Dad gets home.
Sometimes the gods decide they’ve had enough of each other and would like nothing more than to spend some quality time with you. They can be hard to spot, if you don’t know what you’re looking for. If you are an archaeologist, you might think that a god resembles a reality-tv “Housewife,” lounging about in spa wear with an ambrosia smoothie complaining about her husband chasing young girls in the form of a farm animal. If you are a Hollywood director, you might believe that the denizens of Olympus shop at a mall outlet called something like “S ‘n’ M!”, where they grab unisexy leather harnesses and micro-minis right off the rack (as gods, they’re sample size.) But if you are a soccer fan, you know that the Gods of Football walk among us disguised as Steve Urkel from “Family Matters”: short pants, long socks, and a left-breast pocket brimming with writing utensils. He’s been there the whole time, but you hardly notice him … until he points at you and your universe turns inside out.
Now, a lot of Greco-Roman gods played favorites, usually against each other, for reasons beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Maybe it’s a big laugh riot on Mount Olympus to say “Make it rain!” and then turn your pitch to sodden mush, or to explode a big volcano just as your team is about to fly over Iceland for a very important match. Other times, they pick some poor sap and say, “I want that one!” as if you were a puppy in a pet shop window instead of a world-class winger with a golden foot and glossy hair.
For example, if your name is Lionel Messi and you play for FC Barcelona, then you are Odysseus and your story is The Odyssey (trust me, I already did the BuzzFeed quiz for you.) Odysseus is king of the world (well, o.k., Ithaca) and, like you, is trying to get back to where he once belonged, with his wife and young son. There’s a bit of political upset back at the home field, which may or may not motivate his team’s drive to get to where they need to be. Odysseus is famous for being quick on his feet, such as when he has to figure out how to dribble past so many Sirens clutching at him, and he can nutmeg ya in the blink of a Cyclop’s eye. This has won him the admiration of Zeus’ daughter Athena, who is the goddess of philosophy and, like most smart girls, alternately makes her Dad proud of how much she has achieved or gives him a headache for going on about how independent she is. But Athena is a standoffish gal, and leaves Odysseus pretty much to his own devices. This has drawbacks, such as when he lollygags around Circe’s island after she turns his entourage into a litter of piglets long enough to make you wonder how bad he really wants it.
If you are Cristiano Ronaldo and you play for Real Madrid, your hero is Aeneas and your story is The Aeneid. Odysseus is a guy with a god on his side, but Aeneas really is a god — or a demigod, anyway. His mother is Aphrodite, so he’s probably good-looking (if the tendency of his ex-girlfriends to throw themselves on flaming pyres is any clue), but you don’t hear much about his dad. Eventually, Aeneas arrives on a strange peninsula dotted with attractive villas and hand-pressed olive oil, where he will found a great European capital under the protection of the goddess Ceres (you might know her as Cibeles.) Aeneas is a mama’s boy; like Odysseus, he’s done well enough for himself in the Trojan Wars, but whenever he gets into trouble Mom sends him an invisible cloak and he moves about unsuspected until the last minute. It’s kind of like when you wander about pretty much invisible for an hour or so and everyone on the other team gets their hopes up only to see — tah dah! — a free kick granted only a few yards from the penalty area and — bingo! — we get to watch you prance around the stadium announcing that you are, in fact, present. However, even though Aphrodite is more hands-on than Athena, she tends to get wrapped up in her latest relationship so it’s risky to depend upon her much.
If you are Diego Costa and you play for Atlético de Madrid, your hero is Achilles and your story is The Iliad. Your name means something like “anguish,” which is a feeling familiar to Atleti fans, and you are famous for your colorful armor, which archaeologists have never found but there’s no reason to think it doesn’t resemble a mattress. Unfortunately, you don’t have any kind of special guy-goddess relationship. In fact, you spend so much time with your buddies, like Patroclus, that your mom worries that you’ll ever have a girlfriend that isn’t some kind of set up like that chit Briseis. But what you have, and what your fans love about you, is heart. Heart and muscle. Well, mostly muscle. Achilles is a “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” kinda dude, and there are times, like when he drags poor Hector around the fields or stomps on Dani Alves up and down the left side, when he seems to be kickin’ ass just for the heck of it. So far, Plan A is working. But look out, because sometimes Achilles gets into a mood and disappears into his tent for the afternoon, such as in previous city derbies when Barcelona really could have used a hand keeping the merengues behind them in the League standings.
And where does that leave us fans and spectators? We’re the chorus, I suppose. Kingless, godless souls who pray that their match is the comedy offering of the evening and that the tragedies are played out in other theaters. Who like to sing a little ditty from time to time, and with a penchant for stating the obvious.