Image via Napoli Today.
Image via Napoli Today.
I recall seeing a post-match interview with Paul Scholes two or three years ago, after he had reached some or other round-number milestone. He didn’t seem too keen; he looked like he was doing the interview as a favour. Seeing him was mildly shocking, and it took a while to realise why: I didn’t recognise his voice. He had done TV interviews in the previous fifteen years or so of his career, and I’m sure I must have seen at least one of them. But in general he had always kept a low profile, deciding that being one of the greatest midfielders of his generation was enough to be getting on with. Consequently, there were parts of him beyond the reach of even the obsessed. How strange that hearing this titan’s voice should have been a novelty when I could identify Robbie Savage’s in less time than it takes for a flung remote control to hit the TV screen.
I was reminded of this when Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton kicked the winning point in stoppage time of last year’s All-Ireland Gaelic football final against Kerry. It was a free kick, about 50 yards from goal, and he hit it as truly as anyone as anyone has hit a football. Cluxton is fiercely protective of his privacy. In his profile on the Dublin GAA website, he says that the best piece of advice he’s ever received is “Don’t talk to the media”. Sure enough, when the whistle blew, he celebrated briefly with his colleagues, commiserated with some of his opponents, and headed straight to the changing room. The man whose action had just won the biggest prize in Irish sport for arguably the biggest team in Irish sport departed the scene without a word to us: no platitudes, no poetry, no nothing. As the players did the media rounds in subsequent weeks and months, Cluxton was invisible. Well, almost invisible: he did make one brief and awkward telly appearance on behalf of a charity, in which the only question he was asked was on how he kept himself to himself in the wake of the All-Ireland. And he gave a short quote for a book on Dublin’s triumph; the very fact that he had done so was news. Other than that, nothing: he even shuns endorsement deals, a big call for an amateur (he teaches for a living).
Athletes of this kind are, funnily enough, fascinating. It seems contradictory that someone who spends so long on a stage should appear not to need the audience one bit. They have no desire to reach out to us; if their practising their sport isn’t enough for you, they’re not going to make a fuss trying to attract your attention. More than that: They do everything they can to limit our ability to see them in any context but a purely sporting one. They don’t play hard-to-get. They play staying-the-hell-away.
Sport is entertainment, a feast laid on for our delectation. But a large part of its allure is the notion that it’s happening despite our presence as much as because of it—that it’s happening because it in some way has to happen, like the ocean that “Does not mean to be listened to.” The likes of Scholes and Cluxton embody the idea that a game can be a story all by itself, its characters defined by what they do between the first whistle and the last. The field is a mythological furnace, and in its heat, all backstory is just fuel anyway. In the end, all a player has is what he does. It’s the hardest of currencies.
What a player does is (in theory) simple and objective enough that it’s easy to grasp. But once we get to know what they do, there follows the compulsion to know what they are, and this is altogether swampier territory. It’s customary today (it’s probably always been customary) to bemoan the lack of “characters” in sports: larger-than-life figures who serve as human beacons amidst a pantheon of pickled gods. Even Lionel Messi gets it in the neck for being somewhat less than Maradonaesque in his private life, even while he’s being more than Maradonaesque on the pitch. But there’s a clue in that phrase, “larger-than-life.” After all, there’s nothing larger than life except fame. Fame is knowledge mediated through a gap too deep to be forded, and too wide to see more than outlines and exaggerated features from across the way. The greater the fame, the greater the space, and the greater the chance of the signal being garbled.
The soccer world is currently in a tizzy over Mario Balotelli. Eric Freeman has hereabouts chronicled Balotelli’s escapades and the reaction to them. What emerges more and more is how polarised that reaction has been. On the one hand, there are those who talk of him in the kind of stern, admonitory tones usually reserved for gossipping about other people’s kids. On the other, there are those who see him as ever more heroic with each new episode. As Eric has argued, a comprehension of the Balotelli entire seems to be in short supply. Everyone seems to agree that he’s a law unto himself. One side pigeonholes him as someone destined to do for the teams brave enough to employ him what Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did for Chicago. The other side pigeonholes him as the man who can’t be pigeonholed. When addressing the idea of Balotelli maturing, Noel Gallagher spoke for many when he told Balotelli, "there’s some things we don’t want you to mature about." We love Balotelli as we love anybody that famous: to the extent that can own them. We take from them the parts we want; with Balotelli, we take the bad boy or the random anecdote generator.
"Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst," wrote Borges. Whether Balotelli’s fame ever reaches a critical mass of incomprehension—or, frankly, whether the man himself cares one way or another—can’t yet be known. The paradox is that the more you get to know a person’s fame, the less likely you are to get to know the actual person shrouded in it. The corollary is something that Scholes and Cluxton—“anti-characters”, we might call them—seem to understand intuitively: that the best way for a famous person to transmit their humanity is to keep it to themselves. The more tenaciously they keep their private lives private and their hinterlands securely hinter, the more we can imagine them as whole people, because there’s less of them out there to misunderstand.