Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain
― Sylvia Plath, 'Black Rook in Rainy Weather'
It's the force of habit:On the surface, the praise for Lionel Messi during his current extraordinary run has been pure. Astonishing — astonished — praise has followed his every deed. Not for a generation has there been such a rush to consider someone alongside the pantheon of great players past; to name a planet after him; to dress him in armour, plonk him on a horse, dip him in bronze and place him halfway between La Masia and Camp Nou, beside a stall selling miniature bronze-coloured plastic replica hims. Scienticians are rushing to prove by July that he is, in fact, a physical constant.
If it moves, then you fuck it
If it doesn't move, you stab it
― Elvis Costello, 'Suit of Lights'
But as with the man who swears he was beamed up onto an alien craft and shown The Secret yet can't quite remember what it is, there's an anxiety behind some of this. Messi's progress has not been charted merely in reference to the heavens, but also to the mortals beneath — and one walking potential Brylcreem fire in particular. The joy deriving from Messi has certainly been genuine, but it has been infected by the seemingly irresistible temptation to use him as an implement with which to bring Cristiano Ronaldo to heel. There is a sense of relief at the emerging consensus which renders consideration irrelevant and which pushes aside the dread thought of Ronaldo being acknowledged as primus inter pares. Ronaldo's flaws show up nicely under Messi's divine light, and in turn make the light appear to shine more brightly. Messi is great, in part, because he is not Ronaldo.
A similar sentiment was apparent, if more implicitly, in the recent crowning of Wayne Rooney as King of the Empire. Again, the acclaim for Rooney was sincere but overreaching. Here was a player who was not only great, but also the right sort. There was a time when Ronaldo was held to be the gleaming, violent, snorting avatar of the Futurist vision of football brought to you by Barclays ("A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath" — Henry Winter). "He can head the ball," they squealed. "He's the complete footballer!" The reaction to Ronaldo's departure from Manchester United was instructive. It was an elastic snap back to the comfortable worship of the right sort. When Rooney was deemed to be beyond question "streets ahead" of any other player (Thommo's words — the Rooney-is-better-than-Messi part, at least — were merely a caricature of a briefly common belief), it was also a rejection of Ronaldo: see, United didn't need him after all. (United's decline this season is no coincidence.) Here in the Premier League — not in Spain, not in Madrid — here in God's own cartel was the world's greatest player. "He can head the ball and he can track back," they squawked. "He's the complete footballer!" The argument about which is the bestest league in the universe evereverever (which is bereft of the awareness that a football match takes place between two teams, not leagues) quickly finds its level at dick-swinging quasi-nationalism.
True, Messi's rise to the top of the pile — let us pause here and reflect on the transience of this position and the part amnesia can play in its bestowal — must by definition be measured against the status of the pretenders. But with Ronaldo, there are other things at play. He reveals a veritable fault zone.
The flounce of the footballer thwarted by the incompetence of referees and the inconsiderateness of colleagues is part of football's entertainment (whether one thinks of it that way or not). The comedy of such moments comes from the distance between the player's estimation of his own importance and our awareness of his true worth; it's classic material. Flounciness is a signature Ronaldo move, of course, and he would seem to be a prime candidate for risibility. Consider, for instance, perhaps the defining image of Real Madrid's season (barring any strangeness this weekend), in the dregs of the tie against Lyon in the Champions League: Ronaldo on his knees, his face a picture of sincere incredulity at Gonzalo Higuaín's decision not to pass His Crissiness the ball. This was a joy to the neutral. And I mean neutral — not an anti-madridista revelling in the abrupt cancellation of Pérez's triumphal parade in May, but one simply savouring one of a season's many resolutions being represented so vividly, so ludicrously. It's opera for people who don't get opera (like me and our Jamie). Again, whether one thinks of him this way or not, it's the ever-present possibility of this type of thing which makes Ronaldo so engaging.
Sort of. The problem with such a reading of Ronaldo is that it depends on a faulty and wishful assumption. This is not someone with ideas above his station being sharply reminded that he's not all that. Thing is, Ronaldo pretty much is all that. What makes watching Ronaldo so thrilling is that one moment he'll be standing hands-on-hips in a how-dare-you-ignore-my-presence sort of way, and the next he'll fashion a fully-operational lunar rocket from twine, bog roll tubes and glitter glue, after which he'll be forced to choke back tears provoked by an offside call. He is frequently laughable, but, in honesty, it's nervous laughter, or laughter over-compensating for its nervousness by being a tad too loud. It's laughter fronting for the knowledge that he will almost certainly fuck you up in a bit.
But then, Ronaldo failed to fuck Lyon up. We are invited to juxtapose with this failure his supposed immodesty and lack of humility, and then laugh ourselves silly, or at least cluck admonishingly, at how he and and his team got dashed against the rocks. This may have some validity on the level of the club and its democratically unelected leader; this team has been constructed with a superpower's sense of manifest destiny. Ronaldo himself seems to possess enough of the stuff to wipe out entire aboriginal tribes just by running his hand through his hair. It's not just that he believes in his own greatness — it's that he wants us to know he believes in it.
It's just not cricket. Ostentatious confidence seems to disrupt, not to say subvert, the natural order of sport. The dynamic, surely, is for the athlete to submit themselves for examination and dutifully await the results. A belief that you esteem yourself― actually, scratch that. To display a belief that you esteem yourself is to pre-empt the process, to blow a raspberry in its face, to invite retribution. It is to insult the examiners: the result and the spectator. Isn't it?
We suffer from an error in perspective. Such is the power of what we see that we unwittingly give prominence to our own perception of it; we are convinced that we watch sport simultaneously with its happening. But we are in a philosophically luxurious position: we actually experience the game on a kind of satellite delay. The game is presented to us as a fait accompli, as a set of data to be assessed years from now, next week, a second later. To us it is, in effect, inevitable — something like destiny. The spectator lives the game as a perpetual past, but the athlete lives it as a perpetual present. Our entry point is the telling of the story, which has already been written by someone else. The athlete's entry point is a vast nothing, a void where "destiny" is an advertising slogan for indulgence-pedlars and perfumers. It is they who must forge the reality we end up, however we may try not to, taking for granted. We feel engrossed, as if we are undergoing the full tumult, but we are really at one remove from the white-hot centre. That one remove makes all the difference.
The weigh-in for the first Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fight — well, technically the only Clay-Liston fight, pre-name-change — reads like a great piece of theatre. (One assumes that the edit job on this piece of film is deficient, because it fails to live up to the retelling; that, or the retelling has been embroidered.) Staged on the morning of the fight, it became the occasion for an extraordinary display of seeming manic insanity from Clay. From David Remnick's King of the World:
Clay lunged at Liston. Bundini grabbed the belt of his robe and Faversham, Robinson and Dundee held him back. Robinson tried to shove Clay against a wall, and Clay shoved back, shouting, "I am a great performer! I am a great performer!" [...]That morning has gone down in Ali lore as an example of his unique genius, a masterfully controlled assault in the mental battle with the fearsome Liston:
"Hey, sucker!" Clay yelled up at him [Liston]. "You're a chump! You been tricked, chump!"
Liston looked down at Clay with a slight, fatherly smile.
"Don't let anybody know," he said. "Don't tell the world."
"You're too ugly!" Clay shouted. "You are a bear! I'm going to whup you so baaad. You're a chump, a chump, a chump..." Clay's voice was shrill, his eyes were bugging out, and he was lunging around like a mental patient.
"Ali whispered in my ear, 'Hold me back,' and then he winked at me," Mort Shamnick, the Sports Illustrated writer, said. "Ali had the capacity of self-hypnosis or self-induced hysteria and he'd work himself up to this crazy pitch."But what if this isn't the full truth? What if this was genuine fear, at least partially? Not to say that it was not also a calculated effort to screw with Liston's head, but might it not have also been born of the dawning reality of this momentous day? Might he not have been stricken with terror, yet blessed with the wit to turn this to his benefit, and in doing so deflect any potential attention away from his nerves? His pulse was running at more than twice its normal rate, and his blood pressure was almost off the chart. Then again, perhaps I'm reading too much into it — these symptoms returned to normal barely an hour later. We do know, though, that Ali felt the significance of the fight that day: that for all the declarations of his greatness that were so irksome to so many at the time, he was starkly aware of the fact that all that really mattered were Liston and the fight — the fight. Said his doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, "He was very nervous, you could see it. [...] He was just a kid, and that night he had no idea if he could really do what he had been saying he could do all along". He faced the void.
The seductive notion is to infer from braggadocio a lack of humility, and from subsequent defeat the appearance of that Grabowskian supersub Nemesis. Such an idea would be to overlook the fact that no sportsperson achieves anything meaningful without a fundamental humility. It's the humility to recognise that you start each match along with everyone else at zero, that you always have to prove yourself all over again, that flights of angels will sing thee nowhere. Ali said he was the greatest, but he knew he had to show it. His boasts are now utterly comfortable because they happened an age ago; they are part of an oft-told story where we all know who the good guy is. When it happens here and now, as with Ronaldo, it's more disquieting. (There was plenty of disquiet over Ali too, and it was far, far more profound, of course.)
What's odd about the questioning of Ronaldo's humility is that he really ought not to be so readily accused. Focus on his diva-like qualities and you miss his diligence. He's a self-improver who practically invented his own method of free-taking. His play is not that of someone who thinks he's owed anything for being him. In fact, an over-eagerness to succeed is becoming a trademark: see last year's Champions League final or, more especially, the recent game against Barcelona. It's a tendency which could make his team soar or lead it down dead ends. Or to put his more profitable excursions in moral terms, one may draw an analogy with Kobe Bryant's 81-point game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 and the contrasting responses to it, as related in Free Darko's Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac: it was either a "virtuosic display of skill" or it revealed Bryant to be a "statistical glutton". One could elect to see it with a sympathy in no measure soft-headed, and ponder on the wending and inefficient transition between talent and application, and on the volatility of insecurity. It's easier to gerrymander a character, to compartmentalise and be done with it. Ronaldo's pouting, his comportment, his bouts of selfishness, a propensity for falling over which is almost Rooneyesque, the fact that him screwing Serena van der Woodson would seem completely plausible (that clip will never stop being funny), his stepovers (did not the Devil himself tempt Our Lord in the desert with some continental cleverness?), his hair, his clothes, the sports car from whose remains he stepped unblemished: these are, or may be perceived to be, affronts to modesty, not to humility. Modesty is a matter of taste, not cosmic comeuppance. A lack of modesty may, unchecked, curdle into complacency. It may equally be the germ of healthy confidence. But modesty and humility are fundamentally different. To believe otherwise is to engage in a narrative fallacy. It is to resort to a dilute new-agey karma: a godless curse, an impotent revenge fantasy.
(Modesty can be more ostentatious than immodesty, by the way.)
Greatness is a rare thing. Sometimes it doesn't seem that way; at any given time, there is a smattering of the stuff somewhere, so we can get a constant supply if we pick carefully. In its apparent abundance, it can be easy to overlook; in fact, it's curious how strong the impulse to actively do so can be. Innocuous flamboyance still has the power to perturb in football, to incite a defence of a cover version of wholesomeness. The surest, maybe even purest, connection we have with the players is through their deeds on the field. It's through where their actions fit on the scale from failure to success. Goals and stats and pots and pans are not exactly mathematics (and Ronaldo is no sporting equivalent to Andrew Wiles, it must be said), but they are the nearest things we have to an objective assessment. There is a certain truth and beauty to them and to the manner at which they are arrived, and attempts to sidestep them — likening Ronaldo to a Playstation footballer, calling his Brazilian namesake the "real Ronaldo" — can come off as somewhat desperate. (Besides, watching the Brazilian Ronaldo at his peak was really like watching someone play FIFA at beginner's difficulty level.) Ronaldo is in a position to stand by this truth and dismiss us all at our one remove as nothing more than auld biddys gossiping in the post office queue.
And yet. Let's go back to Lionel Messi. Messi is the new, improved model of The World's Little Brother — Lester to Michael Owen's Bart. He is clean and germ-free; to borrow Richard Whittall's description, "he leaves no lingering aura". There is nothing remotely unsettling about him. So he retains a kind of purity. He reflects what we want football to be, and when we flatter Messi for his angelic play, we are also flattering ourselves for having the good taste to flatter him.
Ronaldo plays big. With everything he does on the ball and everything he does off it, with every move and every gesture and every faux-weary shake of the head, he projects ever outwards. He plays to row Z; he fills the lens; he tries to communicate directly to the International Space Station without all that radio wave bother. More than almost any player, he commands our attention — whatever kind of attention that may be. He's trying to connect with us, or at least with something beyond the field of play. He kind of wants us to like him. But something gets garbled in transmission. While there has never been a crisis of confidence in our relationship with Messi, our relationship with Ronaldo has been in nothing but a state of crisis. This isn't a simple case of misunderstood genius. It's as if the part of him that wishes to win our favour operates in some kind of autistic state. Or to put it another way, it's as if he's trying to chat up a girl that he really fancies by telling her that that spot on her nose makes her look like a clown, hah hah hah!, before pressing it whilst making honking noises and not getting why he's just had his face slapped.
It's a funny thing, all this. The realm of the player is inherently separate from that of the spectator. We experience sport in a necessarily mediated way. This is obvious when we're watching it on television, say, but it is equally true when we're watching it in the flesh. The mediation is in the distance between us and the spectacle — the physical distance, but more especially the philosophical distance, that satellite delay. Ours is a realm of fuzziness, subjectivity and interpretation, and we reach inwards towards the field of play to draw from it what we will. Of course we do — our very status as spectators is wholly contingent on the existence of the game; the game is the centre of our particular solar system. And the existence of the game is wholly contingent on the players. Players are sport's one indispensable group. They create everything the rest of us feed off; without them, there is no "rest of us". So central are they, so strong are the forces of opposition and chance they spend their working lives trying to overcome, that one would imagine them to be consumed by it, to be wrapped up tightly enough in the stark certainty they generate at the hub of the universe that they would derive all the validation they needed from it.
What is fascinating about Ronaldo is not that he so patently does not conform to this — it's that he's merely an outsized, malformed version of the norm. All but a negligible number of players in any sport that garners any attention reach to some degree outwards; they look beyond the field to us for some kind of additional validation. It needn't be a full on man-of-the-people shtick, or a rolling declaration of tribal loyalty (how unconvincing Steven Gerrard is in that role); and its articulation can sometimes be pale and platitudinous. But how often does a player score a goal and content himself with a shared celebration with his colleagues? And how often does a goal celebration involve some form of ackowledgement of the cheering, peripheral thousands? So obvious is this reaching out that when a player seems to be shut off from observing eyes and totally immersed in the game — think Pete Sampras or Tim Duncan — it is shocking. Our interpretation of the game is so dependent on players revealing something of their inner selves to us in the course of their play that when no such revelation is forthcoming, it leaves us bereft; we compensate by projecting images of clockwork regularity onto them because that is all we see of them, not because that is all they are.
One wonders whether this looking outwards is a distraction, an adulteration of the purity of the sporting pursuit brought about by the very presence of outside attention. Do, say, the world's greatest orienteerers crave affirmation from complete strangers? But maybe they just don't realise they do; maybe it's a latent craving that would only be awoken once Sky or ESPN started promoting the sport properly, dammit. It's more likely that this desire points to bigger, stranger things than sport only being winning and losing, ritualised conflict with no hope of a peace treaty. That the players feel a pull from our realm of fuzziness, subjectivity and interpretation suggests that there really is something to it. Sport is a medium for self-expression, individual and collective, witting and unwitting. Sometimes the only thing a player's play is expressing is "yes, boss", but that's still something. When that expression is witnessed by non-participants, sport becomes theatre — a living, breathing, open-ended production. And taken all in all, sport is a society, with its own mores, morality, codes of behaviour written and unwritten, tastes, trends, fears and dreams; and the society has sub-societies and sub-sub-societies, and varying and conflicting ideas as to what the society is and what it should be; and so its characteristics mutate and shift, if often tectonically. Yet the constant in all this, the star that gives it light and life and dominates its sky, is the scoreboard. All of our aspirations for sport we wish — we need — to see reflected in it. But the scoreboard has no conscience. When we think about sport, we are, most often, trying to reconcile ourselves to this law.