When I was 12 years old, I made a discovery that changed my trajectory as a player: the website Youtube. Suddenly I had access to a world of football outside of the two Chicago Spanish-language channels. So I poured over clips of Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Dennis Bergkamp and Ronaldinho, among others. I learned the finer techniques of passing, shooting and dribbling through these players, but there was one aspect that stayed with me more than anything else – the swagger that my heroes brought to the field.
As much as I loved the Chicago Fire live at Soldier Field, or Omar Bravo and Adolfo Bautista banging in the goals for Guadalajara on Channel 44, nothing could compete with the pure arrogance of a player like Eric Cantona, conveniently packaged into a four-minute segment for repeat processing.
Like Jay Gatz’s proverbial Dan Cody, it was my escape from the Axe-scented halls of middle school into the world that I longed to enter. So what that I didn’t have a cell phone, and every girl that I liked was at least four inches taller than me; YouTube was going to be my gateway to greatness.
Naturally, like every almost teenager, one skill stood above the rest in terms of prestige – the rainbow flick. I watched Jay-Jay Okocha’s trick against Arsenal for weeks, memorising every motion. Finally, after countless hours of practice, I felt comfortable enough to try the skill in a match. The poor left back never knew what hit him.
We ended up scoring from the move and, for a moment, I transcended suburbia, my metaphoric collar briefly raised in defiance of orthodoxy. That is until my coach angrily substituted me and said that if I were to ever try that move again, I wouldn’t have a spot in his team. To him, the flick was disrespectful to the opposition, and thus a negative reflection of him as a coach.
Naturally, I was confused. I was always told that dribbling was a massive part of how football was played. Why were moves like scissors, Cruyff turns and Zidane roulettes considered proper, while an equally useful skill like the rainbow was disrespectful? More importantly, we just scored in a tight game. Why on earth would that reflect poorly on him? I spent weeks visualising how I was going to succeed, and my hard work finally paid off.
It was my first encounter with the confusing, if not completely ludicrous, rules towards flair and imagination that still exist in the game. About a year ago, the reserve side of South African club Kaizer Chiefs went viral for a stylish sequence of play at the end of their match against Platinum Stars. Passing the ball around confidently, the Chiefs’ players threw in a series of nice touches, extravagant dribbles and a few odd yet entertaining feints. For many fans like myself, it reminded us of what we first enjoyed about the sport, and piqued our interest in a local style on the periphery of the world’s game.
Naturally, others were less than impressed, best summed up by a CBS article that stated: “Respect is a huge part of the game, and this had none of it by the Kaizer Chiefs for their opponents.” But looking past the buzzwords of respect, character and equally vague terms better suited to Disney sports movies than reality, why did this passage of play infuriate so many?
To me, it looked like players enjoying their time on the field, backed by a coach and group of fans that appreciated their performance. Not only that, the Chiefs successfully wasted a few minutes of time in a match they were winning 4-2. This wasn’t a mockery of the opposition; it was effective, entertaining football.
Platinum Stars were well within their rights to attempt the same sequence of play as Kaizer Chiefs. But they didn’t, because they needed two goals and weren’t good enough to win the ball from a team of dancing footballers. Essentially, critics were angry with the Chiefs for being better on the day, and justifiably basking in it. This principle is at the heart of feigning anger towards skilled players and teams.
The highest profile example of this ridiculous train of thought is the constant criticism towards Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar. Although he often plays as if he’s from another world, Neymar’s not that different from other 26-year old footballers. He’s 1.75m tall, 68kg, and has the same number of feet as the average person. There’s nothing physically endemic to the Brazilian that gives him an inherent advantage over his compatriots.
He’s just better. Maybe he worked harder. Maybe it’s natural ability. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two, probably skewed towards the former. Yet, when we watch the PSG star, he consistently humiliates the opposition to the point that other fans and managers often encourage players to injure Neymar because he’s so skilled. They actually take offence.
As my 12-year-old self felt at the time, every player has access to learn and perfect the tricks used to beat defenders. If the move works, why do we feel the need to draw some imaginary line protecting an opponent who has the exact same opportunity to master these same skills? Instead of trying to legislate these ridiculous unwritten rules about skill, it’s time to rid the game of them. The only real disrespect shown is to the athlete who worked to develop and savour their ability, only to have it labelled frivolous, extravagant or arrogant.
Football is supposed to be fun. Do we seriously believe it’s in our best interests as fans to hide behind monotonous rhetoric and take offence at those who enjoy the game to the fullest? Can we not enjoy the rare moments of skill, or are we simply content to let our anger towards showboating operate as a subtle proxy of how we actually feel – inadequate in that maybe we weren’t the ones talented enough to make it to the top.
By Ryan Huettel @ryanhuettel2