Two completely unrelated things that happened on the same day reminded us of the essential, human quality of the millionaires in short pants that we follow so avidly.
Gerard Pique gave a press conference on Thursday, a glorious thing even if the cynic in you notes the timing as it relates to the player’s latest venture. Culers found it almost universally wonderful because he said all of the things the proper culers feel, how he always wants Real Madrid to lose, and watched the Juventus Champions League match wearing a Buffon shirt. He added that if people don’t like him and what he is, too bad. What he said, essentially, is “I gotta be me.”
Meanwhile, a very talented writer, Thore Haugstad, wrote a piece on Dimitar Berbatov, a gent whom I have humorously nicknamed “The Continental.” It’s an absolute delight of a read that is worth every second of your time. In it, Berbatov talks about the things that motivate him, his approaches to playing the game. When a teammate was screaming for a pass, Berbatov played a perfect ball to him and later said, “I know where you are. You don’t have to shout.” He talks of wanting to score beautiful goals, to make the art that he also makes when he puts brush to canvas. And as with Pique, what Berbatov said, is, “I gotta be me.”
We demand much from our players … talent, the ability to handle pressure, selflessness, everything except for humanity. And when they do evince that essential quality, we seem almost stunned. The game isn’t what it used to be, not from a cranky old man, black boots worldview but rather from a feeling of sameness that can, at times, be distressing. Pitches are lovely and manicured, the boots are brightly colored, space-age fabrications. Sweating players seem odd, and only a certain kind of individuality is approved. Score a flamboyant goal and do a cool dance, okay, but don’t perform a flick on the pitch that shows up an opponent. As the game gets increasingly sterile and homogeneous, so do the players as a very natural consequence. We crave the pretext of honesty more than actual honesty, as players are almost that last sliver of royalty for so many.
Think about the last truly interesting player presser. Most of them are a man with slicked-back hair, saying the right things about the right people at the right times, sitting in front of a background festooned with the right sponsors in the exact right proportions. He sips from the bottle of approved libation, that is set down in the right spot, so that it is always in the video frame. It’s all so … right.
Humanity intrudes into that realm like a bear at a formal dinner party, demanding our attention even as we don’t quite know what to do with it. When Dani Alves had the presser that laid his beating heart bare, we discussed his motives, his spot on the team and his future, we did almost everything except celebrate the wonderful humanity of a player sitting down in front of a microphone and, in effect, being a human being. You want a better wage, and more respect from your boss? So does Alves. Supporters feel rivalries. If you are a Barça supporter, you want Real Madrid to lose all the time, every match. You want them to get caught by every light in traffic, to have the hot water heater break in their locker room, to have gophers invade the Bernabeu pitch. Everything bad that can happen, culers want it to happen. And their supporters feel the same way about Barça. Bring on your worst, fate, and let’s do this.
But players are professionals, plying their trade in a game that increasingly seems to want to winnow out humanity. The true characters are dwindling, the seemingly larger-than-life people who make you cheer and shake your head at the same time. Witness this press conference exchange, excerpted from the Berbatov piece:
“That is what I want to score; beautiful goals, and create beautiful chances for my team-mates. The things that every player will tell you if they ask you that question.”
Reporter: “But not every player does say that. Not every player says they want to do beautiful things.”
Berbatov: “Every player is different, probably. You are not going to see me puffing around the pitch.”
Reporter: “That is not your way?”
The honesty is complete, so complete it’s almost stunning. The game measures meters that a player runs. The people in the stands want to see a sweat-soaked shirt as a tangible sign of effort. When Thierry Henry was at Barça, his detractors always said that he didn’t sweat for the shirt. So for Berbatov to admit that, well, he wasn’t really interested in those tangible manifestations of effort is in many ways as beautiful as a goal or a painting. Because like Pique copping to being culer to the core, to being one of us in that most sublime way that makes us wish ill for our rivals, The Continental is human in an inhuman world.
Lionel Messi is in a lot of ways the most perfect example of the modern footballer. He goes about his task with a deadpan expression. He rarely speaks, for what is there to say? On the pitch he scores PlayStation goals in a game that waits with bated breath the latest iteration of Football Manager. He is, at times, like a goal-scoring robot. When the child rumors began, it was almost like, “Messi has … sex?” When he headbutted, then grabbed the throat of that Roma defender, I almost cheered at that very real sign of humanity. Messi loses his shit just like the rest of us. Yes!
Pique hates his rivals. Berbatov doesn’t really want to work any harder than he has to as he strives to create beauty. Humanity is wonderful, even more so when it shoves its way into the game we all adore. Even more than Pique saying what culers everywhere feel, it’s pretty safe to speculate that so much of the post-presser gushing was in many ways, relief and empathy, unfettered joy that in a sanitized world that has almost beaten us down psychologically, this dude is one of us. And that’s beautiful.