I recently watched “Wrath of the Titans,” a big-budget Hollywood production with a promising ensemble cast but a poorly executed plot. I fell asleep halfway through the film because its dullness level was unbearable. But before I turned my seat in the cinema into a makeshift bed, I noticed that Zeus (played by Liam Neeson) said that the gods only exist due to the prayers whispered by humans and without them, the gods would lose their immortality.
So I thought, if football, like many people say, is a modern-day religion, aren’t the players the gods? Like the ancient Greek gods, football gods are elevated by the praise and attention given to them by devoted fans. The attention and exposure turns into money which, fills the pool the football gods bathe themselves in. Without the fans, who are the fundamental element in turning football into a global business, the players are simply a group of people who happen to have a talent for passing a ball around before netting the round leather object behind a goalkeeper.
As an avid football fan who follows the game religiously regardless of which teams are playing, I dreamed of meeting international football superstars when I was little. David Beckham topped my list, followed by Ryan Giggs and the rest of the Manchester United squad. I also fancied Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer — they were not too bad either. Those are the names I really wanted meet, but I wouldn’t have minded meeting any other international football player. These players are meant to be gods. There are big gods, small gods, but to the fans, they’re still gods.
I haven’t met any player from my wish list, but I have met some global football stars and, intriguingly, I wasn’t really impressed by the experience. I met Andy Cole a couple of years ago when he visited Jakarta as part of a Manchester United global campaign. I joined the fans who were queuing for his signature and because I’m not an autograph-hunter, I quickly grabbed a leaflet to be signed.
Then I stood before him, the player whose deadly partnership with Dwight Yorke at Manchester United I cherished in the treble season. I didn’t feel any electric shock as I thought would happen if I met my footballing heroes. I felt numb.
I asked him, “What was your boyhood club?”
Cole seemed stunned by the question but rapidly answered, “Manchester United, of course. I’ve been a United fan all my life.”
Having grown up in Nottingham, that’s obviously the kind of answer you would have expected from him
Cole was kind of tickled by my inquiry and as I walked off the stage, he asked me, “Why?”
“Just asking,” I answered with a smile on my lips.
I met Cole’s former partner, Dwight Yorke last month when he and another ex-United player, Gordon McQueen, graced Jakarta with their presence. I hurried myself to the venue where the two would greet the fans and put ink on their club merchandise. The chance of talking to McQueen excited me until I realized that wasn’t possible. I wanted to ask about his experience of playing for Leeds United during the 1970s glory days and how he would compare Don Revie with Sir Alex Ferguson, but the event only allowed the former players to answer questions that had been pre-approved by a committee.
It was kind of a disappointment, although I can understand that as a global business brand, the club has an image and interest to be protected. What I realized was these footballers, the very godlike entities on the pitch, are not that impressive off the pitch. Yes, they have done marvels in the past, but when you meet them in person, you’ll struggle to find anything special about these guys.
I had a chance to meet Fabio Cannavaro, Robert Pires and Marco Materazzi when they came to town to play in an indoor football exhibition and as Cannavaro strolled past, I glanced at his hands, the same hands that lifted the World Cup in 2006. The fans were cheering his name and taking photos but the former Italian captain didn’t utter a single word. At that moment, he lost his persona, which I don’t think was due to the fact that he didn’t respond to the crowd, but because he was not in the place where he looked the best: The pitch.
When they’re not on the pitch, the Coles and the Cannavaros are like Zeus who is off Mount Olympus and without his lightning bolts. They’re paid a ridiculous amount of money to run around and kick a ball.
They’re gods on the pitch but surprisingly they look human off it, especially when they don’t receive the currency of a deity: praise and adulation.