Beneath the sustained communal triumphs and disasters of football lies something else entirely. Simon Fallaha explores the inherent individualism and egotism in “The Beautiful Game”
Let’s start with a roleplay.
You’re a centre-forward who has become accustomed to starting under a certain manager. But, most recently, things have gone awry for you.
At a time when the manager, and fans, really needed you to deliver the goods, you missed some “gilt-edged” chances in a 0-0 draw.
Despite this, you believe, quite rightly, that the dropped points weren’t entirely your fault.
You think you played as well as everyone else, and deserve a chance to put it right in the next game.
Unfortunately, you have “one of those days” at the next training session.
You miss chance after chance in training. The manager, visibly unhappy, switches you for your understudy.
The understudy, delighted to be given a chance himself, scores goal after goal, putting you to shame.
It goes without saying that the understudy and first-choice roles, as far as forwards are concerned, have been reversed by the time the next match comes around.
This is too much for you. You emotionally confront the manager about your omission.
The manager does not take kindly to being challenged. And you pay the price, remaining second choice under the manager as long as your former understudy is available for selection.
❈ ❈ ❈
How do we react to this, as fans?
Some, even most, are not inclined to be sympathetic. Especially if the manager is a hugely popular figure and the team are enjoying success as a unit, as was the case in this situation, adapted from real-life.
They will think that the centre-forward would have been better off to man up, keep schtum and deal with being benched. But how would we feel if suddenly demoted in our jobs?
Imagine your whole life having a point leading up to a certain time because a manager, or if you’re freelance, a client, depends on you, and then circumstance unexpectedly intervenes to reduce your privileges or remove them from you entirely.
The reality of football is that a player is expected to put on the appropriate face for the sake of public unity. It is common for a dropped footballer, for example, to appear as sad as everyone else after a defeat while smiling on the inside because his own chances of a recall are enhanced.
Here, the frequently promoted and celebrated myth of the team ethic trumping everything else is thoroughly debunked – it is the pursuit of personal success and greatness that drives football. That’s football’s beauty and its beast – passionate entertainment and painful egotism at once.
What we see, or what we choose to see, is all there is. If a player can’t make the transition from a small club, where he felt loved, to a better-paid but more demanding role at a bigger club, we tend not to see his personal struggles. We only see a player not succeeding like we hoped he would.
Or, in the case of Albert Adomah, not succeeding in the manner in which we wanted him to succeed. How often has an individual surrendered, or curtailed, his individuality for what, we are told, is the good of the team? Because he is not considered a big enough name or suitable enough player to lead or inspire the attack himself, he is given a clearly defined role which can be upgraded when the right time and the right player comes along.
Some would have advised him to be “professional”, to grin and bear it while Adama Traore gradually found his touch. But he had other ideas. Many will not settle for being a “commodity” just because “it is what it is” at bigger clubs, such is the value of a player enjoying his craft as well as admiring his graft. With that in mind, Adomah’s departure may have been messy, but it is understandable.
How easy it was, and I’m entirely guilty of this, for the long-distance analyst to laud the aspects of Adomah’s improving team play under Aitor Karanka, hailing the intelligent off-the-ball movement, all around commitment, organisational skills and accuracy of the passing.
How much more difficult it was for the paying fan and the player himself to have the entertainment siphoned away for the sake of professionalism.
It’s like, to another degree, comparing Romario to Andres Iniesta for their national teams. You may admire the latter’s dedication and subtly intuitive passing, but you’d have willingly paid to watch more of the former, despite his renowned laziness in training.
That is what separates the admiration of the analyst from the desires of the fan – head versus heart, rational objectivity versus emotional subjectivity. It’s what makes many a fan forum, or comments section, so interesting – multiple points of view from a series of individuals divided by opinion but united by wanting the best for their team.
The ugly side of individualism is something else entirely. Thanks to The Secret Footballer, I’ve read of instances where a manager was so much of a control freak that he wouldn’t even let the club chef cook with salt anymore. Or of a selfish captain who betrayed the rest of the squad when the club didn’t want to negotiate their bonuses, getting fully kitted out for the team photo while every other player boycotted it.
It seemed that his big moment was more important than the well being of the squad itself. They never forgave him, and as TSF said, “this lack of leadership contributed to a very tough time for the team on the pitch”.
In football, we may all want the same thing. That is to say, the best for our club and country. But we all want them in different ways. For managers regarded as cult heroes, selfishness is a common trait. If said manager resigns, or changes tactics during a game or a season, he is, in a way, admitting a weakness, because if the team’s fortunes improve, questions about why he didn’t quit or change earlier arise. It may well make him happier to stand by methods that work most of the time, so that he can be proved right and hailed as the architect of triumph. This, of course, is damaging for him. It raises insecurity and neediness. The desire to be reassured of his greatness is more important than anything. Not good.
Most seek self-assurance, not critical dissections or self-examination. And that rings true for players also. We all know that the dressing room wasn’t really a happy place to be even after the wins began to flow again at the end of 2015-16. But we needed to make it out to be, so as not to create a public veil of a mutiny not quite quelled.
❈ ❈ ❈
I started with a roleplay, so I’ll finish with one, adapted from a real-life situation and the writings of The Secret Footballer. It’s an example of how toxic the consequences of selfishness in football can be.
You are the manager. A successful manager, at that.
Not everyone agrees with your methods. Not everyone likes your manner. But, in bringing consistent success to a club starved of it for years, you have rightly earned something representing cult status in the area.
Things, however, have fallen off the rails in recent weeks. After being in control of your destiny for so long, a combination of rigid tactics and executive meddling, including the arrival of a player who doesn’t fit in with your plans, has broken the momentum of the collective you created.
Where you once seemed invincible, you are now vulnerable, and this has affected the confidence of yourself and the team. Nonetheless, you do enough to stay in touch with your end-of-season goal.
At least until it all comes to a head in an away match you are favoured to win, and dominate, but end up undeservedly losing.
An achievement that once looked a mere formality is now out of your hands.
On the surface, your lips are sealed. But inside, petulant anger is bubbling and boiling, waiting to explode in the dressing room.
There, you lay into forward-thinking players who failed to convert their chances and defenders whose positional play let you down.
You’re giving them one of the worst messages imaginable: it’s not my fault. It can’t be. If all of you had done the jobs that your huge wage packets paid you to do, we’d still be in control of our destiny.
One player is brave enough to pipe up and suggest that the strategy ought to be a bit more flexible.
Except you’re too proud to admit that you’re wrong.
So you spit your dummy out. You throw a giant wobbly. And you give the players another awful message: if that’s how you all feel, and none of you want to stand by the man who worked so hard to build the foundations for the success you’re enjoying, then I’m out of here. If all of you think managing a team is so easy, why don’t you try it?
Everyone can see you ranting childishly. But that’s what you want them to see. What you’re implying, as TSF puts it, is that “you care so much that you don’t care anymore”.
You storm out of the dressing room and find a hotel room for the night while the shell-shocked players travel back on the team coach, without you.
This wasn’t what you had in mind. You wanted the player who spoke to come running after you and tell you that he’s sorry. That it wasn’t really your fault, and that he shouldn’t have undermined your authority.
But it didn’t happen. And, as a result, you get more than a little paranoid. Your thoughts are no longer about the club, but about what the players, the staff and most importantly the chairman must now be thinking about you. The nature of the event ensures a sleepless night.
The next morning you return to the wife and kids. But the devastation, confusion and betrayal that everyone at the club who isn’t you must be feeling still isn’t a priority. Instead, you desperately wait for someone to call or text with an apology, telling you that they understood the pressure you were under. It doesn’t come.
Not for a few days anyway. By that stage, the panic, depression and frustration subside and the chairman chooses to pay a visit.
He convinces you that you must return to the training ground, and lead the team again, as we’ve all still got an important goal to reach. It doesn’t take a minute for you to shake his hand enthusiastically and tell him you’ll be right there, first thing in the morning.
Tellingly, he hasn’t apologised to you, nor has he said anything about the players feeling remorseful. All he’s said is that he wants you back.
But back at the training ground, that’s the last thing on your mind as you set out on your new mission: to remind everyone at the club of how important you are and to lead the team to their ultimate goal.
It doesn’t matter if the players are still talking about your temper tantrum, because you’re too focused on proving that if they’d kept quiet, rode the storm of your critique and accepted that wobbles happen at all clubs anyway, or something like that, all would be well.
Except things are still not well.
The team are ignoring you when they should be listening to you.
And why is this? Because, rightly, they still feel very hurt by the manner in which you deserted them after the unjust defeat. You expected apologies from them, but they’ve never heard an apology from you. Now, suddenly, you need them again? They won’t be your lackeys.
That’s their message. That becoming part of the club again must be earned. Before the previous game, for all the ups and downs, they had come to accept you as one of them. Now they can’t rely on you anymore. Your selfishness has been painfully exposed. Not understood as the momentary overreaction of a troubled soul under pressure, but as the explosive rant of someone who found that he wasn’t going to have things all his own way after all. A guy who wanted respect from everyone but respected no one.
In the direct aftermath, you do absolutely everything to make amends. The team start winning games again, you work extra hard in the office and when training, and you’re ultra nice to people and staff. You and the team achieve your ultimate goal for the season – but no one congratulates you or applauds your “recovery”, because what you’ve done since the dreaded dummy spit is everything that was expected of you as a professional anyway.
That is arguably the boundary and the price of the selfishness inherent in football.