“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player; That struts and frets his hour upon the stage; And then is heard no more. It is a tale; Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; Signifying nothing.” Macbeth: Act V, Scene V
Perhaps no quote can better sum up just how fleeting life is than that penned so eloquently by the incomparable William Shakespeare hundreds of years ago. That his work has had the greatest impact on the English language above all others, there can be no doubt, and like a true master of his trade, his perfect summations manage to carry themselves effortlessly across generations, from century to century.
The brevity of anyone’s time on earth is something we all know too well and yet we often continue to let endless hours slip away in the clutches of procrastination, spend far too much time debating with people online and while away the minutes, sometimes doing, well, absolutely nothing.
It’s a universal truth we can probably all recognise as being guilty of. Indeed, there can be little denying just how widespread the willingness to watch the sand shift from one half of the hourglass to the next truly is.
Getting back to that intriguing quote from the Bard, then, and how it relates to faded footballers – a certain breed who fall by the wayside for one reason or another – it’s easy to see why the stars who shoot away from a fulfilling career of constant highs and confetti-sprinkled celebrations are guilty of wasting their natural flair, talent and irradient individuality; they strut and fret their time upon the bright green turf, often failing to hit the heights they’ve been tipped to.
Of course, it’s not always as straightforward as an unwilling diva throwing everything away on a whim, but those occurrences do happen. Sometimes, outside influences invade, horrific injuries crop up or psychological blockades are planted to bar the way to greatness. There’s a myriad of reasons behind the unfulfilled potential of so many professionals who fall by the wayside, but one thing that always remains constant is the fascination the public have with charting that lapse, combing through it for interesting nuggets and attempting to get to the bottom of it all.
Simply put, there are far too many spotlights on the famous sporting faces of our time. We know too much about them – and not enough, all at the same time. With the volume of dissection, analysis and opinion as high as it’s arguably ever been, there will always be unsightly reveals, we’ll often get a glimpse of the underbelly of an otherwise glamorous and positive sporting arena, and there will always be a certain percentage of stars who inevitably fall by the wayside.
The truth of it is, many are only waiting for that to happen.
Longform Football Editor-in-Chief and writer Vlad Bogos feels that people are infatuated with these faded stars because of what they once represented. In his opinion, we feel a strong connection with them because their fall reinforces nostalgic feelings. Essentially, their admirers see themselves in the famous faces who experience more than merely a bump on the football highway: “When you play football at the highest level, it’s never just a simple job. It’s a career and more – you become an icon,” Bogos opines.
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Read | The fleeting but eternal brilliance of George Best
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“Kids project their future selves in your shadow, doing the dribbles you do, bending their free-kicks the way you do. Wayne Rooney is not just Wayne Rooney, he’s every kid from the blue side of Merseyside who ever wanted to play football and also every kid who ever supported Manchester United. Of course, Rooney is not a faded footballer or, at least as a United fan, I hope so.
“It is brutal to acknowledge that, no matter how gifted you are and how the world is rolled up at your feet, things might go wrong,” he argues.
That recognition of a part of oneself in one’s heroes is surely an integral cornerstone in the edifices constructed in people’s minds about faded footballers; it’s easy to empathise with them but it’s also a little too easy to forget that for every hero of the game who becomes a consistent superstar there’s a counteracting, stinging reality behind every guy who doesn’t – or does but can’t sustain it.
We might not want to associate ourselves with them, but they are part and parcel of the game, too.
Adam Labno, who is one of the key experts behind an intriguing documentary that focuses on Premier League-era faded footballers, tells me that while there are straightforward reasons behind people’s interest in these characters, it’s perhaps the mystery of their respective flops that fuels a lot of it: “I think that there is a certain level of nostalgia surrounding a lot of the players that we cover with many of the people who are interested in the stories having grown up with these footballers – giving a ‘where are they now’ element kind of curiosity.
“I also believe that as football fans we believe in some way that if we had the same talent and ability then we wouldn’t spurn such a gift in the same way as many of the cases – yet without really ever understanding the true experience of their world.”
When George Best retired aged just 27 in 1974, it was a sad day for anyone who had ever seen him play, watched him grow as a performer or had the privilege to play alongside his silky showmanship. Although he returned to the game not long after hanging up his boots, it’s fair to say that he was never the same player as he wound up playing for money more than love with stints in the original NASL and elsewhere sullying his otherwise prestigious resumé.
The day he initially exited the grass-laden stage was the day he stepped down from the podium of brilliance and although he would continue to produce flickers of joy and is always sure to be recalled as one of the greats of all time, his on and off-field meltdown was perhaps the first high-profile example of a faded footballer.
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Read | Freddy Adu: in consideration of the human being
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Where he had once been a giant of the game who had conquered Europe with Manchester United and incanted his jinking, dancing style of dark magic dribbling on many a defender down the years, he was all of a sudden a crumpled smatter of misused potential, lying prone beside the shadow of his better days.
Best’s demise reminds us all just how fleeting any superstar footballer’s powers can really be.
Having been spotted as a precocious teenager in Northern Ireland, Best was a real diamond in the rough from the get-go. Brought on board after impressing in such a brief period of time under the watchful eye of scout Bob Bishop, he was allowed to glow away from the intrusive glare of the media as he enjoyed an under-the-radar period of development in the underage ranks. It was this innocent part of a young boy’s rapid rise to success that smoothly segued into the golden child prologue of his story.
Trophies followed, as did the adulation of the global game, and he quickly became a hero to countless aspiring footballers and admirers. But it was perhaps, strangely, the fact that he flitted away from this in a whirlwind of self-directed angst that he really became a true icon of the game. His talents were the obvious draw but had he continued in the same vein for the rest of his career, people probably would have gotten bored. It’s reasonable to suggest, then, that Best and footballers of his ilk that get knocked down as well as managing to climb high encapsulate the melodrama and reality that football is all about.
People like change, hate stagnation and love a good story – that’s part of the reason faded soccer players are so beguiling.
Whether it’s that we empathise deeper with these otherworldly figures when they appear more human and more flawed than normal or simply because we are infatuated by the volcanic, drama-filled events of a successful career being turned upside-down in the blink of an eye, it’s obvious we can’t resist the engrossing story of a fall from grace.
That the likes of ‘El Beatle’s’ increased humanity at the point of self-sabotage ticks a certain box in our subconscious seems accurate. Whether or not we like to admit it is another story.
Held up in the highest regard by so many, it’s feasible that the reality of his disastrous spiral from magician footballer and global sex symbol to boozed up has-been who sold out to travel the world as a tourist for the latter years of his career makes many feel a bit better about themselves.
It’s unlikely anybody cheered for joy at the stark transformation of the ever-likable charmer but aside from the self-imposed obvious riches-to-rags nature of it all, his capitulation certainly resonates with many for selfish reasons today as strongly as it did originally. In other words, there’s more than a splash of schadenfreude to it all.
It’s the little victories, too, that seem to brighten up the otherwise unfortunate series of events which pockmark the journeys of our fallen idols. We can’t help but cheer for them when things do go their way either.
The career which perhaps best sums up this notion is the one and only Freddy Adu.
The way he shrunk from global phenomenon destined to save the spirit and body of soccer across the 52 states of North America to hopeless journeyman doing adverts for extra cash in between temporary contracts here and there is perhaps the most well-known sketch of how quickly, and horribly, things can change for the airbrushed athletes who might otherwise seem to have everything together – and yet more still going for them.
Many felt a pang of disappointment when news filtered through, too regularly, that the teenager had failed to cut it on this stage and that. There was a connect between the ordinary football fan and this symbolic striker – they might have been on opposite ends of the spectrum but many of the fans who got excited about him as an upcoming sensation drafted so young were equally as dejected when he faltered.
However, documentarian Adam Labno feels that while their struggles reveal their humanity, it’s always going to be difficult to totally relate to their downfalls: “I think to have seen these superstars on a pedestal and watch them knocked off does remind us that they are just human beings,” he tells me.
“But despite this I still don’t think we are able to sympathise with them, causing that void – although a different kind at this stage – to still exist. The idea of the documentary is to show more of the life of the footballers and the uglier side of the game, in the hope we can shrink the void and create, not necessarily sympathy for them but more empathy and understanding.”
That there is a level of understanding for a certain amount of waylaid footballers, there can be little doubt, and yet there is still so much that remains misconstrued and so many of their stories that become misinterpreted.
Getting back to Adu, there have been moments in his career which have raised a smile even amidst all the fanfare and conjecture. After all, he’s still a professional and has never given up on forcing an opening for himself in the game, and that’s something plenty have found admirable and courageous as he’s bounced from team to obscure outfit, back to the NASL again. His resilience is something many can relate to and it’s part of what keeps his chronicle relevant to this day, albeit in the form of a nostalgic whisper.
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Read | Adriano: football’s monumental ‘what if’ tale
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It’s a story we’re all familiar with even if we have no direct personal ties to him or haven’t lost anything from his collision with disappointment. Much like the dusty books on our shelves that go unread for years at a time, we might not know the characters that inhabit them, but we feel for them, empathise with their struggles and bemoan their pain. Most of the time, at least.
Adu was the bright and shining light that was supposed to illuminate the entire football scene in the States but he wound up being suffocated by too much hype, lofty ambitions from those around him and a lack of a clear roadmap for anything beyond the short route to superstardom as his burning talent became extinguished as rapidly as it had been lit. Now, only the trail of smoke from his bit-part roles from one continent to the next remains but, as has been mentioned widely across numerous platforms, his legacy can still be much more than that – there is plenty for the powers that be in America, and elsewhere, to learn from his tale of woe.
His chapter in this particular story, much like most faded footballers, is a cautionary one that really needs to be heeded far and wide across the footballing community. If not, then there will be countless more celebrated youngsters touted as the next big thing who will get swallowed by obscurity as their dreams of making it become devoured by supposed guardians and advisors simply looking to make a quick buck. The truth is that these rising stars are often used maliciously as names and faces for a marketing strategy that goes too far beyond a toothy grin and a catchy slogan but actually disenchants the unwitting pawns and causes a horrible rot in the game that needs more than simply time to heal.
As quickly as they’re touted as wonderkids with the power to climb the towering pinnacles of the sport, their failures see them harshly branded as ‘blunderkids’ foolish enough buy into the hype foisted upon them. In short, it’s just a really sad side of the game where reputations are seemingly bought and sold on a whim by those without the heart to invest more than cold money into the game.
Adu might be one of the most well-known tales but there are so many other guys like him who get ripped off and fooled every month by promises that can’t be kept and dreams that won’t ever come true.
There are countless other tales of stars who burn up before their time – Best and Adu are far from the only ones. So many names disappear from our newspaper headlines and don’t even make it to our attentions every passing month. Adrian Mutu, David Bentley, Robinho, Anderson, Sonny Pike, Francis Jeffers, Nicklas Bendtner, Adriano and so many more – the list is as long as our disappointment is fresh every time they crop up.
Like pages tossed into a smouldering hearth, the words of their stories, told mostly by people outside their circle of confidence, get quickly consumed but easily forgotten and burned by the flames fanned by somebody else.
Of course, they can wind up singeing themselves, too. With so much money in the game today, footballers are celebrities as well as role models but first and foremost they are professionals and football is their job – sometimes it’s simply a case of getting fed up with their vocation and falling out of love with the game, which is something Adam Labno identifies with: “One thing I do think we over-estimate is the players level of love for the game. As hard as it is for us as fans to understand, the reality is there are a lot of players out there who despite their incredible talent for the game, do not necessarily share a love for it,” he tells me.
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Read | Robinho: the legend we waited in vain for
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“With the many luxuries and distractions available I think this lack of passion for the game provides them with an unsustainable level of motivation to remain at the highest level.”
Whether they fizzle out in the evanescent bubble of a Pyrrhic victory or slowly but surely drift away from the current of greatness, it makes little difference to the end product of wasted potential.
Despite the increased technological, statistical and medicinal developments in the world of football which has helped to make the game more enthralling, more detailed and more constant than ever before, it has never been, and never will be, a precise science. The stars who burn out in an inglorious blaze possess all the skill, built-in brilliance and cultivated finesse to become perfect heroes but despite all the supporting signs, somehow fall short of it all.
With so much sensationalism accompanying the bolt-from-the-blue performances that aspiring legends intermittently produce, it’s easy to see why so many of them are destined to fail. Surrounded by the force of so much expectation, they often get crushed beneath it.
On the other hand, the innate romanticism of football often begs for these sort of players to garner so much attention – and the fact that so many fans live vicariously through them doesn’t help matters either. It’s a paradoxical catharsis. The sheer fact that most people project their hopes and dreams onto somebody they’ve never met might seem ridiculous, but we all do it from time to time.
In the end, it’s clear there are so many variants at play here and while there are no catch-all explanations for why some footballers shrink from brilliance at various points in their careers, the one constant across the board is that they captivate us at a level that extends far beyond the confines of the pitch.
Once striking and remarkable, these stars eke out room for themselves on the overcrowded wall plastered with the graffiti tags of so many otherworldly talents, and while some of them last long enough near the top to leave a colourful mark that lasts forever, others live to see their offerings dull with time.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90