How often do you hear the term ‘natural talent’ wheeled out to describe the latest young footballer to have caught the eye? Comments to the tune of ‘you can’t teach that’ or ‘he’s been born with those gifts? Indeed, when we’re running the rule over a player, no one cares for what’s going on inside their head, what sort of temperament they behold or what walk from life they once game from.
But while you can’t execute a delicate piece of skill or score a 30-yard screamer with your synapses, what’s going on in your head is just as important as what’s going on with your feet. And as history has shown us, no matter what the caliber of footballing gifts, even the true greats of the game have been plagued by a series of mental flaws.
Although what cultivates a flawed genius? Does the goldfish bowl that is the world of football simply do more to expose these flaws, or is it actually creating them? From Gascoigne to Best and Maradona to Zidane, what are the causes behind a flawed footballing genius?
All human beings make mistakes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a builder, doctor, fireman or politician, everyone is liable to hit the rocks at some point or do something a bit silly. If you’re a professional footballer however, you’re not going to find much sympathy.
Expect to have your every flaw allocated the privilege of a front page splash on the front of the tabloid newspaper, but don’t think the buck stops with a one off expose. Indeed, Paul Gascoigne might have fairly taken the flack for his dentist chair stunt in 1996, but lynching him for a poorly timed knees-up is one thing.
The tabloids’ crusade of hounding however, offered him almost zero amounts of privacy, put his personal struggles up in lights and amounted to little more than a cheap media feeding-frenzy. It served to do little else than simply fuel his decline. Gazza might be the poster boy for this, but he wasn’t the first and he certainly isn’t the last, either.
The stage was all but set in 1998 for a certain Zinedine Zidane to carve his name into the annals of history when the World Cup was staged in his home country, But although he eventually fulfilled the prophecy, the wheels very nearly came off in the group stage, when he received a two-match ban for his stamp on Saudia Arabia’s Fuad Amin.
And there was something very simple, yet wonderfully fitiing in his response when he eventually faced the press.
“My nervousness and my conduct were due principally to the pressure I have been under. I will learn,” the Frenchman said.
Because ultimately, Zidane never did learn. His stamp on Amin was merely a precursor for a series of unsavoury incidents on the biggest stages of them all. A five-match ban for a head-butt in a Champions League game as well as that strike on Marco Materazzi, later on within his career. Regardless of his truly unique ability with the ball at his feet, Zidane was never able to consistently keep his temperament under control.
From Cantona to Cassano, Keane to Di Canio or even Rooney to Ibrahimovic, no amount of natural talent can nurture one’s ability to suppress their intrinsic ability to cope with both pressure and control their aggressiveness.
“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered,” George Best.
The whirlpool of fame, money and the associated travails are often shrugged off as an attachment more in fitting with that of a celebrity than that of a footballer. But footballers are celebrities. And since the days of Best and beyond, the trappings of fame haven’t been any different.
Handing young men, many of which have come from very little indeed, a mind blowing pay packet that can afford them more than what they’d ever dreamed of, will always have its undoubted pitfalls. In today’s world, that can often happen from an age as tender as 18. What do people think is going to happen?
While some are able to hack it, there will always be the extroverts, the ones born with a nose for a good time and a bank balance to back it up. The circles that come with beholding some riches, along with the leeches and the hangers-on, aren’t necessarily interested in how well you’ll play on a Saturday, either.
Being an exceptional footballer, tennis player, golfer or any sportsman, doesn’t necessarily define who you are as a person. Just because you have the raw ability to play football at the highest level, you’re not guaranteed to have the characteristics to cope with every aspect of it.
Footballers are quite rightly derided in some sections of the public for earning immoral amounts of money for ‘kicking a ball about for 90 minutes.’ While that is true in some respects, that’s not really quite where the job ends, is it?
The interest, the adulation, the love and the hate from fans and the media alike, is simply unrelenting. The pressure to perform week in week out and the ramifications that come with it, don’t simply come and go after an hour and a half on a Saturday. The intrusion into your personal life – occasionally stretching to that of your family’s aswell – is part and parcel of life at the top. For all their financial wealth, many of the real geniuses of the game aren’t afforded a life that comes anywhere near representing that of normality.
And ultimately who are we to decide whether players can or cannot cope with the other side of the beautiful game? All of us have weaknesses, no matter how trivial or potentially troublesome they may be. Whether you’re a bit wasteful with your money, you have a temper you can’t always control or you’re simply sometimes a little impressionable, most of can afford to manage our issues in an environment of our own choosing. If you’re a professional footballer, that simply isn’t always the case.